Email Marketing Best Practices

It’s 2013 and email marketing is alive and well in the online marketing sphere. Most businesses find it to be an effective component of the overall online marketing strategy. Exact Target, in discussing consumers’ preferred direct marketing channel has called email “the number one direct channel in terms of daily use and consumer preference for both personal and marketing communications,” saying 77% of consumers prefer to receive permission-based marketing communications through email.

In 2005, I joined the FedEx marketing department and was heavily involved in their email marketing for several years. FedEx has email marketing best practices well integrated into their processes and ingrained in their corporate culture. The management and my co-workers at FedEx would never have dreamed of doing anything other than permission-based email marketing because no email campaign was worth potentially offending a customer, losing their business, and hurting the company reputation. In recent years I haven’t been as heavily involved in email marketing, but I do it enough and consult (internally and externally) on best practices for email marketing that I thought it worth while to document the following email marketing tips.

Top 10 Email Marketing Best Practices:

  1. Only Email People Who Have Given You Their Permission
  2. Only Email People with Content They Have Requested
  3. Have an Online Email Subscription Center
  4. Send Emails When Your Audience Will Read Them
  5. Send the Email from a Recognizable Source
  6. Use Accurate and Compelling Subject Lines
  7. Honor All Unsubscribe Requests in a Timely Manner
  8. Keep Your Email List Clean
  9. Build Your Email List At Every Opportunity
  10. Have a Clear Call to Action in the Email

1. Only Email People Who Have Given You Their Permission

FedEx email subscription center

First and foremost of my email marketing tips is to always practice permission-based email marketing. This does not mean you can email anyone you want for any reason until they opt out of your list. This means you should only send messages to people who have opted in and requested to receive them. Unsolicited emails wore out their welcome long ago. As one writer put it, permission-based email marketing “has become standard practice for legitimate email marketers because it is a key component for optimizing deliverability, return on investment and recipient trust.” (see bluesite.lyris.com, Permission Email Marketing: Permission is Not Optional).

2. Only Email People with Content They Have Requested

The second major principle of email marketing is related to the first: only send emails relevant to the type of content the person has requested. When you collect email addresses, whether through the Web, paper forms, or otherwise, it should be clearly communicated what type of content the end user will be emailed about: product updates, promotions, contests, newsletters, etc. Be vigilant about only sending your customers emails concerning the type of things they have requested.

3. Have an Online Email Subscription Center

An email subscription center is a page on your website where new people can provide their email address and give you their permission to send them emails. This could be an independent section of your site or it could be a section of a user’s profile. If your company only sends out one kind of email, this could be simply one check box on the user profile page. To the right is a screen shot of the FedEx E-mail Subscription Center, which, if you’re a large company like FedEx, with numerous types of email alerts, can be quite detailed.

4. Send Emails When Your Audience Will Read Them

(Warning, the next sentence is a candidate for the obvious statement of the year.) If you send your emails at a time when your audience is more likely to read email, your email has a greater likelihood of being read. If your target audience is business professionals, and you send your email over the weekend, it is likely to end up at the bottom of a pile of other emails and may never be opened or read. Business to business emails, have shown to have the best open rates on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. According to iContact Best Practices for Email Marketers, personal or consumer targeted emails have the best open rates “between 5pm and 8pm Tuesday through Thursday or between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.”

5. Send the Email from a Recognizable Source

Many people will only look at the the From line in the email before deciding whether or not to read it. The From name for your messages should either be your company name or the name of a recognizable person at your company (could be the president of your company, or the candidate’s name on a political-type email, etc.). You’ll also want the from email address to be intelligible and memorable, i.e. something@yourcompany.com.

6. Use Accurate and Compelling Subject Lines

Compelling subject lines are a must have if you want your email opened and read. Subject lines should also accurate describe the contents of the email; deceptive subject lines are deceptive, will hurt your company in the long run, and in some cases may be against the law.  If you have the opportunity, it’s always good to test potential subject lines on a small group to see which gets the best open rate before sending the email out to all recipients. Do not use all caps, multiple exclamation points, or excessive dollar signs in subject line or body text because doing this will likely trigger SPAM filters. Some words and phrases like “Free” “Act Now” “Cash Bonus” “Please Read” and “While Supplies Last” also have been known to cause SPAM filters to block emails.

7. Honor All Unsubscribe Requests in a Timely Manner

Not only is it good business to to provide and quickly honor unsubscribe requests, but it is the law. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 requires that each email message you send contain a visible and operable unsubscribe feature.  At a minimum, the unsubscribe mechanism should be either to send a reply email message or to visit a single page on the Internet. This doesn’t mean that you can’t also encourage recipients to visit your email subscription center. The law also requires that opt-out requests be honored within 10 days, but the sooner the better in my view. At FedEx we occasionally got unsubscribe requests via phone or even via snail mail, but regardless, we opted those people out immediately.

8. Keep Your Email List Clean

Keeping your list clean means taking steps to ensure the email addresses you have are accurate. At FedEx, we kept our email lists very clean and we averaged open rates over 90%. An un-scrubbed email list, on the other hand, can be much worse. You don’t want to think you are emailing 1,000 people, when due to bad data, you actually only have 500 good email addresses.

The undelivered, or bounced, emails generally fall into two categories: hard bounce, and soft bounce. A hard bounce back indicates that the email address is invalid. A soft bounce-back typically is an indication that the recipient inbox is full, or is caused by some temporary situation. It is best to have rules in place such as removing bounced email addresses. A hard bounce back is generally grounds for immediate removal, while you may want to wait for 5 or 10 soft bounces before removing an email address.

Keeping your email list clean also means taking steps up front to ensure the email address is correctly formatted. Electronically this is usually done with scripts that make sure the address has an “@” symbol and such. Looking for and correcting common misspellings (“hitmail.com” instead of “hotmail.com”) is also a good practice.

9. Build Your Email List At Every Opportunity

Typical email address churn can be 20% to 30% a year, which means if you don’t continually build your list, it could be cut in half in two years’ time. Numerous opportunities exist, online and offline, to build you email list. If you have a retail location, have an email sign up form at the point of sale. At conferences or events, bring a paper signup form or have a laptop opened to your Email Subscription Center for interested parties. Prominently promote your newsletter signup form on your company website. Include a link to your Email Subscription Center in all of your emails and encourage users to update their information if it ever changes. Run a promotion each year offering the chance of a prize to people who visit your Email Subscription Center and update their information. These steps will build your email list and also help keep it clean.

10. Have a Clear Call to Action in the Email

Last, but certainly not least, is to have a clear call-to-action in every email you send. The email will, ultimately, only be successful if it effective in getting users to do what you want them to do (i.e. achieving the business objective of the email campaign). You must be able to convert browsers into buyers, or whatever the call-to-action may be, and you will do this by focusing on goals, measuring, and improving.

Designing a good email is a lot like designing a good landing page on the Internet. Think about why you are sending the email. What business objective does it support? Even if it is just a newsletter meant to be read, what action do you hope visitors will take after reading it? Perhaps your call to action is to get readers to visit your online store, or watch a video, or request a catalog. Whatever that call to action is, be sure to measure it. Most email marketing platforms have built in tracking features, but you can also do this with a web analytics solution such as Google Analytics.