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17 Best-Practice Tips for Improving Your Email Marketing

05.22.2019 | Andrea Pratt

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Email gets a bad rap, and I don’t think it should.

Hear me out.

I hate getting unsolicited email as much as the next guy. Just like everyone else, I’m annoyed by the tsunami of promotional emails that threatens to drown me every time I open my inbox. I’ve dealt with my fair share of life insurance-, energy drink-, and, inexplicably, Viagra-related spam. I’ve been (briefly) freaked out plenty of times by nefarious emails from parties claiming to represent PayPal (“Your account may have been hacked! Log in now! No, not by opening a browser page, through the not-at-all suspicious link in this email!”) or even UPS (“You, person who hasn’t shipped a package through UPS in years, have an outstanding bill of exactly $25,000!”).

But as far as I’m concerned, email marketing doesn’t deserve the disdain that it gets. It’s not all spam!

Did you know that email is still the most effective marketing tactic? ROI of 4,000% (a return of $40 for every $1 spent) is not unheard of. On average, email performs better than print, SEO, social media, internet display ads, direct mail, content marketing, the inflatable tube man out on the corner, and pretty much every other marketing initiative. Email is chock full of potential.

But, we can all agree, it’s not without its issues. So who’s at fault?

Why, emailers, of course! And it’s not just spammers and Nigerian princes. It’s marketing and salespeople, too.

At some point, many moons ago, best practice was getting one’s marketing message in front of as many eyeballs as possible. Even if the owners of those eyeballs didn’t expressly give you their email address. Even if they may not have been the least bit interested in what you were selling.

But, thankfully, times are changing. People are getting wise to the fact that the “spray and pray” approach doesn’t cut it anymore. Educated marketers know that we’re wasting our time and money if we’re not targeting a specific audience or audience segment each time we share a message.
If we think of an email inbox as a private place that we need to be invited into, like a home, then we’re doing it right. Don’t break and enter. Even though “email breaking and entering” is still common and legal in the U.S., that doesn’t mean it will always be. It’s already illegal in the European Union (under GDPR, which requires proof of subscriber opt-in).

Who knows when or if the U.S. or other countries will adopt GDPR-like laws, but why not prepare as if they might? Because here’s the thing: making sure subscribers are opted-in and that they actually want to receive your emails will only benefit you.

If you break and enter (send unsolicited emails) enough times, pretty soon you’ll get in trouble. What does that look like? Your email sender reputation will take a dive. An email sender reputation is a score that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) assigns to an organization that sends email.1 That reputation can directly affect email deliverability, to the point that your messages will be sent directly to spam or rejected entirely if it falls below a certain threshold. Send too much spam, and you could even be put in email jail (get blacklisted by organizations like Spamhause).

Send too much spam and, in the end, you won’t be able to reach anyone through email. Better to get it right from the start.

I don’t want to claim that we’re faultless at 2 Fish Company. We’ve certainly made a few email mistakes. And even when we follow best practices, that doesn’t mean we never, ever annoy people. But we’ve learned some tricks (more accurately: strategies that can be time-consuming, labor-intensive, or just not as instantly gratifying as doing things the easy way) along the way that help improve email performance and sender reputation. Here are some of them.

1. Can that Spam.

We’ll start with an easy-peasy one to start. Follow CAN-SPAM.

We’re sure you’ve heard of CAN-SPAM before and follow it to the letter (right? right?).

On the off chance that you do not, adhering to it is the first step in following email best practices. Also, I mean, it’s the law.

CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing) was passed in 2003.

The act “establishes the rules for commercial email and commercial messages, gives recipients the right to have a business stop emailing them, and outlines the penalties incurred for those who violate the law.”

Each separate email that violates the law is subject to fines of tens of thousands of dollars. Each separate email.

Main requirements of CAN-SPAM include:
• Don’t use deceptive subject lines.
• Identify the message as an ad.
• Tell recipients how to opt out of messages from you and make the process easy.
• Honor opt-out requests promptly.

For more information, check out “CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Businesses” from the Federal Trade Commission.

Here’s the disclaimer that we are not lawyers and our blog cannot be construed as legal advice.

2. Don’t Look Spammy

Following CAN-SPAM is a good first step in following best practices, but it’s pretty much the bare minimum.

To actually reduce your chance of being seen as spam by ISPs and email clients, and consequently being blocked or having all of your mail go to junk folders, there are lots of steps to take.

First off, don’t send from a free webmail address, and be sure to authenticate your sending domain.

Also, avoid certain words and terms that just scream “spam!”, like “you have been selected,” “long distance phone offer,” and “cures baldness,” to name a few. Here’s a comprehensive list of common spam-filter triggering terms.

Excessive capitalization, overuse of punctuation (like the exclamation mark or dollar sign), poor spelling, frequent variations in text color and size, and strange spacing can also have a negative impact.

3. Keep It Simple

Using rich media content (we’re mainly talking about video here), large images, and embedded forms in your emails or attaching files to them can spell trouble for deliverability. As the popular saying goes, “Keep your emails simple, stupid.”

4. Optimize Your HTML Emails

If you like your emails to be more designed and branded (versus plain-text emails), by all means, use HTML emails. To keep them out of the spam folder, make sure you:
Keep the code simple. If you’re using a template from an email provider, you’re probably good.
Keep your image-to-text ratio low. While visuals can be a great element to include in emails, don’t use too many, and definitely don’t send image-only emails.
Optimize your images for email. Compress those photos!
Optimize for mobile. Is it easy to read and interact with your emails on a mobile device?

5. Or, Maybe, Don’t Use Them At All

Plain text emails are having a renaissance lately. Many people are touting their value now that HTML emails have become the norm. Plain text is simpler and potentially more digestible, there’s less of a chance that something will go wrong and not appear as it’s supposed to in an inbox, they tend to be less likely to have deliverability issues, and they may even set you apart from your audience.

HubSpot found that HTML emails had a 25% lower open rate than plain-text emails. But that might not be the case for everybody! A/B test HTML emails against plain-text emails across a few campaigns to see what your audience thinks.

Hint: Always take the time to create and optimize plain-text versions of your HTML emails, If you utilize an email marketing tool that makes this easy.

6. A/B Test Everything

That leads us into the practice of A/B testing everything. Subject lines? A/B test. Headlines? A/B test. Content? A/B test. CTAs? A/B test. I think you get the idea!

Maybe I’ve gotten ahead of myself. First, here’s what you need to know about A/B testing: it’s a randomized experiment in which two or more variants are compared to determine which is more successful in achieving a set goal.

In practice, for instance, with email subject lines, the email list is segmented randomly. Half gets subject line Version A, and half gets subject line Version B. Whichever version results in more email opens is declared the winner.

You can test with more than two versions. Maybe you need to A/B/C/D test a CTA.

The point of A/B testing is not to do it once, get your result, and only leverage that data. It’s to get a good idea and then keep testing. Maybe a funny subject line didn’t perform as well as a serious one with your audience. Perhaps you should now test the serious subject line against a question-based subject line. You have to keep asking, “How could we get even better results?”

7. Try Switching up the Cadence & Timing

Another element to test is email cadence. How often you send emails can have a significant impact on performance.

Remember: quality over quantity. “More” does not mean better performance. It could even mean much, much worse performance. Only email when you have something important to say, rather than trying to fill a schedule.

If you have a low open rate, try reducing cadence and providing more value in the emails you do send.

If you only send one super-long email newsletter per month, consider splitting it into a bunch of shorter emails.

When you send email can also affect performance. For a while, the best practice was to send emails right away in the morning. That way, they’d be the first thing people saw in their inbox when they got into the office. But then everybody decided to send their emails early in the morning, so there was no longer any advantage! We’ve actually had some success sending our emails at 8 p.m.

So, make an informed guess about when your audience might open their emails, then test a few other options. Once you’ve found a good time, great. But keep testing, and mix it up once and a while.

8. Provide Value

The Golden Rule of email, and all marketing communications, really, is to provide value to your audience. Why should they care about anything that you have to say unless it’s valuable to them?

And that doesn’t mean every email has to have a 10% off promo code. Maybe it’s an article about the latest happenings in your industry, maybe it’s an e-book with useful tips (like our e-book “10 Tips On How to Market Your New Business Online”), maybe it’s just helpful information about a product you bought or might be interested in.

If you provide value, your email performance will improve, and your sender reputation will as well. Subscriber engagement actually plays a huge role in deliverability. One important reason why your emails might end up in spam is that no one opens them. This signals that you’re a bad emailer, and tells email service providers that your messages are junk and should be treated as such.

So if you can encourage your audience to open your emails, by giving them value as well as following other tips in this blog post, more of your messages will end up in their inbox.

Easier said than done, right? We know. And that’s why it’s so crucial to…

9. Know Your Audience

Really know them.

Know what their goals are. What their hopes and dreams are. What their fears are.

It’s not as creepy as it sounds.

It’s as easy as putting together customer personas. Customer personas (AKA buyer or marketing personas) are semi-fictional, generalized representations of your ideal customers based on your real experience with customers and market research.

Personas help us get to know the ideal customer we’re trying to attract and relate to them. Solid buyer persona(s) help with targeting, content creation, and anything related to customer acquisition and retention. The more detailed they are, the better.

I’ll be the first to admit that I used to think customer personas were kind of silly. What’s changed? I’ve seen how they can actually impact targeting and content strategy.

To create a customer persona, you need to identify demographic (gender, age, income, location, job) and psychographic (interests, pain points, values, personality) attributes, based on your knowledge of your current customers (and by making informed guesses). Maybe you need a few customer personas to cover different segments of your target audience. Hubspot has a great guide on creating customer personas.

When you know your audience, you’ll know how to talk to them and provide them with valuable content in email and all other communication mediums.

10. Personalize

Part of providing value to your email audience is knowing that one size does not fit all.

Sending the same message to every single one of your email subscribers will not give you the results that sending personalized emails will.

By personalization, I do not mean just putting the recipient’s name in the email.

Modern email is about knowing your audience, which we covered. If you send emails that have nothing to do with an audience member, they may start to feel distanced from your company, or they may even tune you out.

Instead, you should know what each audience member might be interested in.

Large organizations have sophisticated processes for segmenting audience members based on interests and preferences.

A straightforward way to segment your subscribers is by using your customer personas. You could also create a simple email preference center, which asks subscribers to identify which topics they’re interested in hearing about.

Personalizing emails will improve your relationship with subscribers, nurture them along the buyer’s journey, and, ultimately, lead to more conversions.

11. Set up Triggered Emails

Another effective way to personalize email is to set up autoresponders. Autoresponders are very powerful tools that allows you to reach customers exactly where they are in the buyer’s journey.

Heads up: You will need some sort of marketing automation software in order to leverage them. Here at 2 Fish Co., we use SharpSpring for our own business and with most of our clients. But there are other players such as Hubspot, and Mailchimp is even getting into the automation game.

Autoresponder emails are triggered by actions that your subscribers or customers take. Have you ever ordered a product and immediately gotten an order confirmation email? That’s a good example of an autoresponder.

You could trigger an email that sends information about related products when a customer views a particular product on your site. Or you could set up a “welcome” email that automatically sends to every new subscriber. Or you could even send a reminder when they forget a product in their online shopping cart. The list goes on.

12. Think in Terms of Lead Nurturing

Personalization is an effective lead nurturing tactic, which leads us to the point that you should really be thinking of your email in terms of lead nurturing and the buyer’s journey.

What’s your objective for email? If you’re sending the same email to everyone on your list, it’s probably just to get your message out there. That may have been effective in the past, when there was less competition for your target customers’ eyeballs, but now you’ve got to break through the noise. You’ve got to meet them where they are. You’ve got to provide them with information that they actually want. You can’t afford to annoy them with irrelevant information.

That might sound very discouraging. I’ve felt that discouragement, believe me. The thing is, email is poised to be more effective than ever. Think of all the powerful technology that allows us to get to know our audience and send them the information they’re looking for.

So think of emailing in terms of campaigns, complete with landing pages, instead of one-offs. Think in terms of personalization. Think in terms of value. Then you’ll start to see the results you’d been hoping for.

13. Rethink Your Idea of Success

You also may have to rethink your idea of email success.

The world is noisier than ever, and that extends to our email inboxes. Remember that a “good” open rate may only be 30%, and that a “good” click rate may only be 2%. In your industry, those rates may be even lower.

I also want to stress that you shouldn’t be afraid of unsubscribes. They don’t signal that you failed. (Well, unless you sent five emails a day with the same message or something.) They signal that someone isn’t interested in what your company has to offer.

That might make you feel bummed, like it’s your fault that you couldn’t get them to be interested in your offer. But if you’ve done your part by personalizing and providing value, an unsubscribe doesn’t mean that you failed.

Unsubscribes simply mean that someone is not interested in what you have to offer. Not everyone is going to want to take advantage of your product or service, and that’s okay. You’d rather have someone unsubscribe than sit on your email list, negatively impacting your open rates. Good riddance, I say!

Of course, if you have a consistently high percentage of unsubscribes, then you need to rethink what you’re doing.

Set realistic goals, and keep striving to improve, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Email is a powerful tool, but it can take time to see the results, and metrics like unsubscribe rate don’t always accurately report performance.

14. Keep Building Your Lists!

Okay, so you know that you can expect some unsubscribes. In fact, you can expect your email list to degrade by about 20% annually.

That means that you should always be trying to build up your email list.

One strategy that could work is running social media ads that offer a giveaway entry in exchange for submitting an email address. You’ve got to be careful to make the prize specific to your audience, though, or you could end up with a lot of entries from people who are only interested in a $100 Amazon gift card—not your company.

Another tactic is to leverage content marketing. Create high-value content, like e-books or guides, and then make it accessible to those who enter their email address. This is a better way to gain more qualified leads.

HubSpot’s got a great guide on building your email list, but keep in mind that it takes effort. Email can be a pretty hard sell in this day and age, which goes back to making sure you offer your audience value—a good reason why they should trust you with their email address.

15. Double Opt-In Subscribers

Once you get your hands on an email address, you may feel like you want to guard it with your life (and give it no chance to escape).

But, for all of the reasons we’ve discussed, it shouldn’t work like that.

You want an email list full of subscribers who really want to be there.

So you’ve got to make sure each and every one does, or show them the door (*politely*).

You can do this by double opting-in subscribers.

Double opt-in works like this: When a contact fills out a form, they receive an opt-in confirmation email, and they click “confirm” to verify that they actually, for sure, 100% do want to be on your email list.

Single opt-in is the more traditional method: a contact fills out a form and their information is saved.

With double opt-in, you know the email address is valid and monitored. You know that the person wants to hear from you.

Hint: You should also ask your subscribers to add your email address or domain to their safe sender lists.

16. Keep Your List Clean

Even if all of your subscribers are double opted-in, you still need to regularly clean your email list.

Email accounts go dormant all of the time. An old email address can result in a “hard bounce.” A hard bounce is a permanent reason why email can’t be delivered to an address. They can also be caused by a domain name that doesn’t exist, or by an email server blocking delivery. If lots of your emails hard bounce, it will harm your email sender reputation.

If you use a good email marketing service, email addresses that result in hard bounces will be automatically removed, but if not, you need to watch for them closely and remove the offending addresses automatically.

Practicing good list hygiene also involves removing from your the list the email addresses of people who don’t regularly engage. If they’re not engaging, they’re just pulling down your performance. We use NeverBounce to help us verify emails and clean our lists.

Always keep an eye on your email delivery rates and act fast if you see issues.

17. Don’t Buy Lists

My last point is simple: Don’t buy email lists!

Just don’t. It might seem like an easy way to gain some emails, but purchased lists are more trouble than they’re worth.

Purchased lists often harbor spam traps or honeypots. ISPs and spam-tracking services use these to catch spammers. Basically, most spam traps are dormant email accounts or closed domains. Since a dormant email account obviously can’t opt-in to email, it’s pretty easy to catch (and blacklist) spammers this way.

But, you say, I can get around that! I’ll use a list-cleaning service to clean up my purchased list before I send email to it. Brilliant, right?

Not so much. You still just have a list of the email addresses of people who don’t know you but do know that they didn’t opt-in to hearing from you. Why would they want to open your email, and what’s stopping them from sending you immediately to the junk folder?

It’s against the policies of reputable email marketing or marketing automation software to use purchased lists, so you shouldn’t plan on using them anyways if you leverage software like HubSpot or SharpSpring.

Remember: bulk unsolicited email is spam. Bulk unsolicited email is spam. Bulk unsolicited email is spam.

Email marketing still has a loooong way to go to get back into the public’s good graces. Since you wound up on this page, made it to the end of this post, and (hopefully) intend to put some of these tips into action, you’re already on your way to helping it get there. If you have any unanswered questions about email best practices, feel free to email us with the topics you’d like us to cover on our blog next!


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