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E-mail marketing: 13 tips from experience

03/06/2013 | Matthew Robins

E-mail marketing

At Webreality we’ve seen a startling increase in the use of e-mail marketing by our clients in the first half of 2013.

This is no doubt part of the wider trend of businesses looking for ever more cost-effective marketing techniques.

But e-mail marketing also continues to grow in popularity because of the near-ubiquity of mobile e-mail devices.  

E-mail marketing, done well, has the hugely valuable virtue of being permission-based: the people you are e-mailing are going to be happy to hear from you, as long as you’ve previously gained their consent and are sending them content that is relevant and valuable to them. They are normally far more likely to convert to paying customers than someone who hears your advert on local radio.

The two most important words in that last paragraph were “done well”.

Think about how much “spam” you receive in your mail box. Now think about how many e-mails you receive from brands you like, and how few of them get your full attention.

“Done well” is the difference between getting the attention of your recipients, and e-mail oblivion.

Here are some tips derived from our years of experience supporting our clients with their e-mail marketing campaigns.

1. Know what you’re trying to achieve

Usually, your e-mail marketing objective will involve making additional sales. But think about the variety of possible objectives within that overall goal:

  • Getting additional traffic to your website
  • Getting more calls to your phone line
  • Getting people to reply to your email to start a sales dialogue
  • Getting people to buy with a click straight from the email itself
  • Getting past customers to buy again
  • Getting sign-ups for a sales event
  • Getting customers who abandoned their basket on your website to come back and complete their purchase
  • Getting a referral from a past customer to a new one...  

Each of these objectives calls for a different approach to design, text content, subject line, list segmentation and follow-up analysis.

You’ll have the best chance of success if you start with absolute clarity about what you want from each campaign and them optimise the campaign to the objective.

2. Include obvious links in your text

In most cases, it pays to make sure that your marketing e-mail contains obvious links to content wherever you want your recipients to find it. 

There are two reasons for this:

  • It’s natural behaviour for e-mail recipients to scan the text content of an e-mail very quickly to determine what it’s about and what it’s asking them to do. Hyperlinks denote action - they induce people to respond to your message. No links, less likelihood of action.
  • They make your e-mail more measurable. “How many people clicked through?” is an easily measured and valuable performance metric.

3. Make your text brief and easy to scan

Related to the previous tip, and relevant to every e-mail, even when a link isn’t possible or desirable.

If your recipient has opened your email, they are particularly precious to you. According to MailChimp data, the average open rate will vary from under 20% for daily deal sites (where the subject line is everything) to almost 49% for e-mails from religious organisations, whose opted-in recipients can be assumed to be highly engaged with them!

So in the best case you can expect fewer than half of your recipients to open your messages, and, typically, around a quarter. 

So once they’re in your e-mail and reading, make it as easy as possible for them to work out what it’s all about.

Use short paragraphs, use bullets, use bold to highlight key words, and remember that links help recipients to determine how to respond.

4. Encourage people to reply

It’s too easy to think of e-mail marketing exclusively as a broadcast medium. But we’re used to using e-mail for two-way communication. So don’t send from a “no-reply” e-mail address - treat every response as an opportunity to make a sale or impress with service. 

5. Don’t over-do the images

Many people who get your e-mail won’t see the images that you’ve carefully designed in. They’re just not as important as the text content, so put your efforts into making sure that the text content works as well as possible in all contexts. 

6. Get the subject line right

Writing effective subject lines is an art form in its own right. Just think for a moment about how often you delete an email without even opening it, all because the subject line didn’t draw you in. 

There’s too much to say about subject lines here, so I thought I’d refer you to this excellent blog post by Optify

One thing I would add here is that if you only split test one aspect of your intended e-mailing, please test your e-mailing with two different subject line versions on a sub-set of your total list before doing the final send with the one that gets the best open rate.  

7. Make it easy to unsubscribe

This piece of advice is often met with furrowed brows - why would you want to help your recipients to leave your list?

The reality is that an unsubscribe is a gift. You don’t want unwilling recipients. If they flag your mail as “junk” or “spam” it adds to the total number of such records against your sender reputation. 

In the worst case scenario, you might hear from them through your local data protection authority if you don’t play by the rules.

So include an easily identifiable, easily understandable link to unsubscribe in every e-mail, and make the process as easy as possible to use.

8. Segment!

The ease of mass access offered by e-mail marketing can also be its biggest disadvantage.

The chances of a particular mailing being relevant to everyone on your list at exactly the same moment are vanishingly slim.

When it comes to maximising the value of your list, use all of the data at your disposal to break it down into groups of recipients, or “segments”, with common interests or characteristics.  

What you’re trying to do is find the perfect balance between the convenience of mass e-mail and the ultimate relevance of the personal one-to-one message.

It will pay off.  

9. Look after your list data 

If you don’t prune your list to remove the undeliverables, your sender reputation will potentially be affected by a higher than normal of undeliverable addresses in your total list.

10. Optimise your emails for mobile

Research by Litmus in 2012 showed that e-mail opens on mobile devices comprised 43% of all e-mail opens, and that is a growing trend.

It’s therefore vital to make sure that the marketing e-mails you send will be presented on mobile devices exactly as you want them to be seen. Make sure your designer understands the importance of this, and how it’s done.

11. Always send a text-based alternative version

This is a mandatory requirement, related to the last tip.

It’s always tempting to get carried away with the design aspects of your message, but many recipients will only wish to or be able to view text.

It’s great to have a beautifully-designed HTML e-mail, optimised for mobile devices, but a text-only version sent in parallel is essential. 

12. Pay attention to spam tips

If your e-mail marketing software has a “spam tips” or “spam measurement” function, use it!

It’s very hard to second guess the kind of content features that ISPs and firewalls will regard as “spammy”.

The more inadvertent transgressions you make, the more damage you do to your sender reputation. 

13. Test, test and test again

It’s always nerve-wracking hitting the big SEND button!

There’s only one reliable way to reduce the risk and reduce the nerves - test what you send, before you send it. 

First, test internally for technical quality.

Test in both of the major e-mail clients and their versions (that’s Microsoft Outlook and Apple Mail), major webmail products on different screen sizes, and the top mobile e-mail software products. 

Keep a testing checklist and use it.

Next, test the quality of your content.

Have a small list of colleagues, friends, family, friendly customers, and test send everything to them before you go live. Their additional eyes will spot things you miss.

Ideally, your last testing phase will be to split test different versions of your message on small samples of your total list to determine which gives the best results. 

You need to test different features for different metrics (eg subject lines for open rate, button colours for click-through rates, etc) and remember only to test one variable at a time. 

Split testing is probably the single most valuable investment in quality that you can make in your e-mail marketing campaign.