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Email Marketing "Best" Practices: A Modern Framework

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
12 October 2011

I recently wrote some posts on the Silverpop blog and Google+ posing the question, “Are best practices dead?” Much of the feedback I received was mixed, of course, but some people suggested that what we need is new terminology or, by extension, a different framework.

My take? Perhaps it’s better to look at “best practices” in terms of categories, such as those that apply to almost everyone, those that depend on the maturity of your email program or use of email—and those that should be avoided at all cost.

Following, then, is my version of a "Modern Best Practices Framework," a map of five types of email practices and some examples and observations for each category.

These are practices that the vast majority consider foundational to industry vitality and the success of individual email marketing programs. While there are sometimes edge cases, they are the exception and not the rule:

  • Permission: In email marketing, permission is the foundation of a successful program, the first step in separating marketing messages from spam. While the common industry refrain "relevance trumps permission" is absolutely correct, it’s difficult to achieve high inbox delivery rates and ROI without permission.
  • Transparent opt-in process: Subscribers must understand that they are being subscribed and to what.
  • Easy to unsubscribe/honoring unsubscribes: In most countries, making it easy to opt out of emails is the law.
  • Removing/suppressing abuse complaints and hard bounces immediately and never sending emails to those recipients again: If you don't employ these practices, your subsequent emails may not be delivered.
  • Not using deceptive techniques: Against the law in many countries, deception can also cause damage to your brand.
  • Email authentication: Authenticating your emails with DKIM and SenderID is becoming critical to increasing the likelihood that ISPs will deliver your emails.

These practices aren't considered "must dos," but they’re highly recommended for increasing customer engagement and conversions:

  • Clear, recognized “From” names: Unrecognizable or confusing "From” names will get lost in the inbox. (More on “From” names.)
  • Welcome emails: Delivering an immediate welcome email after a new opt-in can increase engagement and conversions earlier than no welcome email or series.
  • Segmentation and personalization: Targeting subscribers based on their demographics, interests and behaviors is not a "must," but this approach generates many times the ROI of non-targeted emails.
  • Designing emails for preview panes and multiple devices: Using single large images without background HTML, for example, will render as a large blank in emails and could greatly reduce click-throughs and conversions.
  • Use of preference centers during opt-in and throughout the relationship: Preference centers provide data and self-reported information that can be used for providing more relevant emails to subscribers. (More on preference centers.)
  • List hygiene: Poor list hygiene will cause deliverability problems.
  • Testing everything: Testing is critical to determining which practices, content, offers, etc. deliver increased performance for your program.
  • Defining and identifying inactive subscribers: Identifying disengaged subscribers enables you to segment your database, potentially removing or targeting inactives for reactivation and reducing possible deliverability problems.
  • Incorporating "administrative" links (Unsubscribe, Update Preferences, Change Email, Contact Us, Subscribe, Forward to a Friend, etc.) within every email—typically in the footer area. Including these links in the same location in every email makes it easy for subscribers to take action.

More sophisticated email marketers are deploying these practices to help take their programs to higher levels:

  • Multi-email welcome series (or better yet, onboarding programs): These typically deliver significantly greater results than single welcome emails. (More on welcome emails.)
  • Designing emails for touch: Touch screens are becoming ubiquitous. Designing for the "finger as mouse" will soon not be optional.
  • Offering the subscriber alternatives during the opt-out process: These typically include email change of address, frequency options, channel preferences, snooze and more and can retain a sizable percentage of subscribers who were considering leaving your list.
  • Focus early on inactives: Waiting to attempt to reactivate unengaged subscribers after six, nine, 12 months or more is too late. Activate new subscribers who never become active from the beginning of the relationship.
  • Target openers who haven't converted: Segment subscribers who’ve opened your emails but not taken the desired action and place them in a unique messaging track.
  • Integrate with social networks: Use email to promote your social network content and grow followers, and use your social networks to promote your email opt-ins. (More on social marketing.)
  • Distribute emails based on individual recipient engagement history or time zones: Whether manual or automated, this approach can have a dramatic impact on engagement and conversion rates.
  • Implement behavioral-based triggered programs such as browse and cart abandonment: These behavior-based programs are often the single-highest generators of revenue from email.

These are practices for which the answer really is, “It depends”:

  • Using pre-checked opt-in boxes instead of unchecked: Pre-checked boxes provide a higher number of subscribers but often lower engagement versus unchecked boxes.
  • Employing double opt-in: Required by law in some countries, double opt-in may also be appropriate for aggressive acquisition practices that might lead to higher abuse complaint rates.
  • Resending to non-openers: Used sparingly, carefully and respectfully, resends can boost email results, but misusing this approach can sour recipients on your email program and lead to increased unsubscribes. (More on resending to non-openers.)
  • Adding first-name personalization to subject lines: When combined with a message driven by recipient behaviors and/or containing highly relevant dynamic content, this subject-line tactic can increase engagement and help your email stand out in the inbox. But if the message is otherwise generic, this token attempt at personalization can reek of spam and may not improve response rates. (More on subject lines.)
  • Placing the unsubscribe link at the top of emails: Prominent (up top) placement is a good idea when deliverabilty issues exist or deliverability risk is high (e.g. emailing to a large list that hasn’t been mailed to recently or frequently), but if deliverability is good, less prominent (bottom) is fine.

Although there may be rare exceptions, in general these practices should be avoided:

  • Sending emails as if they’re forwarded as an FYI: A growing trend among many B2B marketers, this approach is likely to become ineffective overtime.
  • Sending fake "mistake” emails (often with goofy test subject lines): Although these can boost short-term open rates, they’re deceptive and can negatively impact your brand.
  • Rotating IPs: A deliverability trick that most ISPs catch on to quickly.
  • Sending an opt-out confirmation message. While well-intentioned, this practice can lead to increased spam complaints. (The exception to this rule is if you utilize a "reply-to" email opt-out process.)
  • Broadcast messages with attachments. These may be mistaken as spam—link to a landing page housing this content instead.

Given the history of email marketing, it’s likely that the debate over what constitutes a “best practice” will continue to rage on. But by starting to look at practices in terms of the categories outlined above—and approaching them accordingly—marketers can improve their email campaigns, increase engagement and boost revenue.

Let us know your thoughts. Did we develop the right categories and do we have practices listed in the right buckets? Also, did we miss any obvious practices?


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