14 Little Known Email Marketing Best Practices

Because it is one of the more effective and affordable marketing channels, most marketers have used email marketing at least once in their lives. Many of those marketers were excited if they achieved a 10% open rate and a 3% click-through rate.

Note: If your email marketing tool reports a 10% open rate you know that it’s a conservative measure (reported lower than it actually is), because many email recipients may not load images when they open an email. That prevents you from knowing for sure that they’ve opened your email. Click-through rate reporting is generally accurate though.

There is a lot of advice out there on how to get more email opens and a higher click-through rate. You’ll receive advice such as make your email 600 pixels wide, keep the call-to-action above the fold, and use buttons. While this is some good advice, it’s very commonplace and not very helpful advice since everyone is using it.

Instead, this guide is focused on getting you 14 hard hitting, rarely used, email marketing best practices that will set you apart as a wizard marketer – not just another “email guy.”

I’m not going to lie to you: some of the below email marketing best practices are easy to implement, but most are more difficult and will take some time. That said, these best practices are well worth the effort.

  1. Gain trust with costumer testimonial proof
  2. Leverage a government agency’s brand power
  3. Use exclusive, personalized coupon codes
  4. Include highly visible PURLs
  5. Get more clicks with a reply-to format solicitation
  6. Solicit feedback
  7. Keep it simple
  8. Gamify for more clicks
  9. Overwhelm readers with “specific value”
  10. Queue up interest with a question
  11. Embed animated GIFs in your email
  12. Build a journey between subject line, email and website
  13. Most of the time you shouldn’t personalize the subject line
  14. Polarize your recipients

Also important to note, is that while these are best practices for most organizations, depending on your industry, products and target market, these may need to be altered to fit your needs.

Be sure to test these against what you’re currently seeing.

Keep testing. Keep iterating.

1. Gain trust with costumer testimonial proof

If you have a good product or service, you’re going to have some customer advocates. Advocates are one of your biggest assets, especially when it comes to marketing. They’re already excited about your product and want to tell others: so, let them know you value their advocacy by using them!

With the hundreds of competing brand impressions your potential customers experience every day, you need a way to reduce anxiety and gain trust among your prospects. Inserting customer testimonials in an email is an excellent way to reduce anxiety and gain the trust you need to gain the sale.

In the below email you can see that Freshbooks used a quote from a customer advocate to get more conversions on their payroll product.

inserting testimonials in emails

2. Leverage a government agency’s brand power

Even if your company is huge and has a powerful brand like Apple or Nike, your customers still have options. Instead of buying an Apple Macbook Air, they could instead purchase a Dell XPS laptop. No matter the strength of your brand, you can further rise above the competitive noise with the support of another strong brand.

Many smaller companies don’t have the benefit of calling up Apple and asking for an endorsement they can include in an email. However, every small company pays taxes and license fees to their government. Most world governments allow for their “works” to be used without copyright. This includes the US government.

The only exception you need to be aware of is when using logos of US government agencies in a way that would infer endorsement. You can’t put the logo of the US Department of Treasury on your website to imply endorsement. Here’s a helpful article that explains more.

That said, if you can find a way to “partner” with the US Government then you can use their logo in an email and get a great click-through rate and high email engagements. See the first use case below for how a client of mine pulled this off.

Use Cases:

  • US Department of TreasuryOne client of mine received a “request for comment” from a government organization, concerning some new regulations that were being drafted for their industry. The client wanted to help shape the regulation and so they were going to reach out to customers to ask for input. The email they wanted to send out was boring and lacked a trust factor that would garner engagement. I worked with the client, and their in-house counsel, to put together an email that referenced the US government agency with messaging similar to this: We are doing a survey to help provide data to the US Department of Treasury about…. The click-through rate was 18% and of those that landed on the survey page 70% of them completed the full survey. Because of the outstanding performance on that email my client is testing additional emails with elements such as the government agency logo in the email body (with carefully worded language to communicate that there is no endorsement), mentioning the agency in the subject line, etc.
  • If the US government has an infographic you would like to use to increase your credibility feel free to use as many and as often as you want, without asking for permission.
  • If an employee of the US government took a picture you’d like to use, go for it! Just be sure it wasn’t a contractor or other group that is claiming copyright on it. If you look around on the page where the image is in use it should notify you if there is an outside party copyright on the image.

Resources:

3. Use exclusive, personalized coupon codes

As the email marketing best practices 12 and 13 indicate below, it’s important that any personalizations you tease with in a subject line carry through to the email copy. Thankfully, almost all email sending programs make it very easy to personalize content with dynamic content insertion.

Whether you’re using a $5/month tool like MailChimp, or a more advanced $1,000/month tool like Hubspot, the tool you’re using likely has an easy method to insert personalization. See the resources below for more information on the basics of email personalization.

One of the most successful email marketing best practices I’ve seen is personalizing coupon codes for eCommerce sites. For example, if a subject line says “Bonus gift just for Ben Beck” and then in the email there is a large, bold, black font, personalized coupon code that reads “BENBECKGIFT” it’s very likely Ben is going to click through to the website to see what this is all about.

The most popular eCommerce platforms allow you to generate coupon codes in bulk and thereby you can upload the coupon codes to your email sending program and use them in a marketing campaign. I’ve included links below to Prestashop, Magento and WooCommerce since they’re the three most used eCommerce platforms.

Resources:

4. Include highly visible PURLs

General email marketing best practices say that you shouldn’t put raw links into an email body. These best practices say that you should use visual buttons, or an HTML link vs using a raw link: http://promarketing.academy.  Most of the time, this is a best practice.

Here is a case when that is not an email marketing best practice: when using PURLs (personalized urls) to get higher email click-through rates. PURLs are urls, or website addresses, that are personalized for the email recipient.

A great example of PURLs used in marketing is when I built a direct mail campaign for a client, and instead of putting their standard website address on the mailer, I put PURLs on the mailer.

For example, instead of having a call to action to “visit www.pbs.org for more information” we used a call to action such as “see why we need your help at www.pbs.org/go/Barrack-Samuelson.” Using PURLs in this direct mail piece increased leads from the campaign by 225% over their early attempts at direct mail.

This same technique can be used in email marketing. Instead of putting a button to “download the file” you can put in a personalized call to action such as “visit www.pbs.org/go/Barrack-Samuelson to get started.” While buttons do a good job of calling attention to the call to action, if you put the PURL in big, bold text it’ll not only catch attention but also build some intrigue and get more clicks.

If you use PURLs it’s important to remember to also personalize the landing page – or else the site visitor will be more likely to bounce off. See email marketing best practices 12 and 13 below for more clarification on this point.

5. Get more clicks with a reply-to format solicitation

Getting attention on the subject line, and maintaining that attention for people that have opened an email, is key to getting engagement and click-throughs on your emails. One of the best ways to do this is with a solid “reply-to” formatted email. While you may not have recognized it, you’ve likely received one of these emails before. One company I helped set this up for experienced an 8x increase in call-to-action engagements. While I wrote about this in detail as one of the best ways to increase email click-through rates here is a quick summary as well:

Someone receives an email that is sent out by an automated source. Several days later a real person reaches out and encourages the individual to complete the action in the first email. This second touch uses the “reply to” format which makes the subject line have “RE: …” at the frontend of it. Even if it’s coming from another person or another email address as the first one, this will solicit interest and gets a higher open rate.

Increase Email CTR

If you swing it correctly, like we’ve done in the example here for “Stark Industries” you’ll see that there is personalization all over the email. It’s really easy to do too – you just need some email software like Mailchimp, Hubspot, Marketo or CampaignMonitor that allows you to use smart tokens for personalized content. See tip #3 above for some more info on how to use personalized content. Of all the little known email marketing best practices, this is by far my favorite.

6. Solicit feedback

Most people have some brand affinities – and creating an affinity for your customers is important to getting email engagement as well as having advocates that’ll tell their friends about your product or service. This tip, of soliciting feedback, will help create advocates and increase love of your brand.

This is super easy to do. So simple, that everyone should be doing it – a lot. You simply ask for feedback. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices pumping:

  1. If a prospect is still top of funnel and hasn’t engaged with sales yet, send them valuable content that will truly make their lives or jobs better. After you do that, be sure to ask for their feedback. Because they’re still top of funnel and not sold on your brand yet, keep it super simple. The below example is a great and very simple request for feedback.
  2. If it is a prospect that has engaged with sales for at least a few minutes, it is likely they’d take some time to complete a survey for you. Put together a survey asking them for ideas on product development, what pain points they have in their position, or simply asking how their interaction went with the sales person.
  3. If a new customer has just made a purchase, it will make sense to them (and be worthwhile to you) to ask for feedback on the purchase process, what they think of your product, or to garner information about what else they might purchase to help resolve their problem.
  4. If you have a customer that has just made a repeat purchase, you should ask them to share with a friend or review your product/company. They’ll likely review you if you make it easy, or they may even refer a friend. Asking them to take these actions is another way of becoming more intimate with them and in the long run, soliciting their feedback.

Email to Solicit Feedback

7. Keep it simple

Unfortunately, being concise isn’t rewarded. In school, you’re taught to write a page 6 pages long. In SEO marketing, you’re taught that posts need to be 300 to 500 words in length.

The above email does well for Just Eat, in large part because of how simple it is. In working with sales people in many organizations, I’ve noticed that they almost always want to include all the features, benefits, details and whiz bang they can fit into the email. These mile long emails perform very poorly.

Thankfully, you know better than that. As a genius marketer, you’ve been around the block and know that simplicity is important to getting engagement on emails. Here are a few tips and resources that will help you on your way to keeping emails simple:

  • People don’t need much background information. Instead, give a strong tease that clearly communicates the value they’ll get from you. Encourage them to click through. Have a little more info on your landing page. Then more on the thank you page. Then more from the sales person. See where I’m going here? Little by little…
  • Use your subject line. Instead of a summary of the email, include the actual question: Can you meet Tuesday?
  • Focus on five sentences. Guy Kawasaki has some great tips here, but you’ll want to jump down to number 9 where he explains how to make short emails – ones that come in under five sentences.
  • And here’s a great tool that you can use to commit to five sentence emails.

8. Gamify for more clicks

In our fast paced world, smart phones are ringing or dinging regularly. At an average of 63.5 smartphone notifications a day, your prospective customers are likely sick and tired of all the interruptions. And do you blame them?

Digital noise is pervasive, and you need to have ways that your emails can stand out above the noise. One of the best ways to do this is gamification.

Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.
Badgeville Gamification Wiki

How does gamification fit into email marketing best practices? If you have a newsletter — one of the most common forms for email marketing — then you already know that your recipient has some affinity or appreciation for your brand. They’re getting your email because at one point or another they were interested in what you had to say. So, gamify up on their affinity to turn them into a brand advocate.

To create an advocate you generally need to offer them one of the following: special savings, recognition or a sense of altruism. Gamification gives you methods to leverage your brand and create advocates through each of these three offers.

Gamification for Offering Special Savings

Savings offers are the most widely used marketing tools. They are some of the most effective too. However, if you’ve been able to maintain a strong brand it’s likely you don’t do a lot of coupons, for fear that it’ll set unrealistic pricing expectations for your customers. Having your customers earn special pricing offers through engaging with one of the below suggested implementations in your email campaigns can maintain your brand distinguishability while also creating advocates that are more likely to open and click through emails.

Gamification for Prospect or Customer Recognition

Many customers like to be recognized for knowledge about your product or for actually purchasing and using your product. Recognizing your customers that click through emails with badges or special statuses can help them feel like a VIP. They’ll be more likely to click through future emails and become a true advocate of your brand, especially if you utilize idea #3 below.

Gamification for Building Advocacy through Altruism

Altruism is a great way to build brand advocates. Many consumers do think about charitable giving, and many actually give. The average annual household charitable donation in America is $2900 (source). Giving people a way to earn points for engaging with emails, and then using those points to convert to donations for charity, will help your brand truly stand out from your competitors. In addition, all those donations will be made in both your customers and your name. There may be some tax benefits there but even more importantly, you’ll be creating an advocate in that customer for years to come.

A few ideas of how you can use gamification in your emails:

  1. Upon new customer or prospect signup the welcome email can include a gamification element; invite them to share with a friend to get secret VIP access to a new area of the site.
  2. For anyone who signs up for your newsletter, send them a thank you email with an invitation to learn about your newsletter and then take a quiz for a free t-shirt. Upon click-through take them to a page that highlights the different elements of your newsletter, showcases some of the content they could expect to find, and review the ways they will be able to easily share your content. Then take them to a short and easy quiz that allows them to prove that they’ve looked through the content on the previous page. The quiz could also collect another demographic point or two for your future data and marketing needs. Upon completing the quick quiz, take them to an order form for a free t-shirt. See resources below for a great t-shirt printer.
  3. If a prospect or customer engages with your email (clicks through, shares, etc) you can give them certain VIP status and then reach out directly for a customer success type story. Then offer to highlight them in a future email and on your website. As they see others featured and linked to from your emails, they’ll want to give you feedback and participate in your customer success stories. Advocates will be lining up to participate.

Resources:

  • If you’d like to offer a free t-shirt from idea #2 above, you can use Printfection for handling the shirt printing and fulfillment. Their cost for printing, fulfillment and shipping is around $15 a shirt. If you were to do it yourself you can get it down to around $8 or $9 a shirt, but you have to do all the work, hold the inventory, etc.
  • The email game: while it’s not an example of gamification of email marketing, it is an example of what you’re up against – people are participating in games to clear out their email box, and this particular game encourages them to do so quickly. That means your emails need to be more effective than ever.

9. Overwhelm readers with “specific value”

The goal of your email likely matches that of your overall company, to sell more products. However, asking prospects in every email to “buy now” is the quickest and most surefire way to get them to “buy never.” Instead, focus your email marketing efforts on creating specific value in every email. Your email is competing with dozens of other emails each day that are pushing a hard sell mentality, and so it’s important to the success of your email marketing that you have distinct and specific value propositions as a driving focus of your emails.

Here are a few ideas you can use to create specific value in your emails:

  1. Analysis or Research: provide insight and and research that is interesting to your email recipient and that is focused on deep coverage (lots of meat to your topics covered). This should be the kind of email people are willing and able to read on Sunday mornings when they’ve got more time. As such, consider sending these kinds of emails on Sunday mornings.
  2. Rockstar Generation: create excellent content that is focused on making your email recipients look like rockstars to their bosses. Give them free templates, resources and other highly valuable offerings that they can copy and claim as their own. If you can make them look good, they’ll keep coming back to you.
  3. Discovery: The goal of these emails is to help your prospects discover new things about your company, products and the industry in which you operate. These shouldn’t be all salesy, though if the recipient is engaging with these emails then it’s likely they’re lower down the sales funnel and more approachable with sales in mind.
  4. Education Orientation: These emails are focused around creating educational content that sets you apart as an expert in that subject matter, which hopefully ties back into what you’re selling.
  5. Aggregation: These emails are the hardest to do correctly. The idea is that you’re not producing a lot (if any) content on your own and that you’re instead watching for the best content that your readers will find valuable, and then aggregating it into one source for your readers. This is hard to do correctly because it can be done very easily if you’re lazy, but with no strong results.
  6. Inside Track: This email format is one in which you’re producing content that is VIP oriented, and targeted towards those that are current brand advocates or that you could see becoming advocates. It’s important to help them understand that the content is just for them, not publicly available, and sets them apart from everyone else.
  7. In the Know: These emails have the purpose of providing information that only you have. It’s purpose is to give your readers the inside-scoop and allow them to be the first to know and most able to share and gossip with friends.

To truly overwhelm your readers with the value you’re offering, it’s important to know what format your email will be in. Choose one of the above seven formats and build your email around that format. Stay true to the format. Use it to offer value, value, value.

10. Queue up interest with a question

Many email marketers are already using questions in their subject line, and this is a great start! Litmus has done extensive research on email open rates and have found that phrasing a subject as a question helps garner more opens:

Asking questions in a subject line

Simply asking a question to get more email opens is only half the battle though. Next thing is to capture their attention in your email and keep it long enough for them to be hooked on what you’re offering so that they either remember the brand touch at a later date (when they’re ready to buy) or click through right away.

It’s important that at the top of your email you give the reader some idea and level of trust in you, that you’re going to either answer the question in the email or give them some way to further evaluate the question and any potential interest it might invoke.

After you capture their attention in the email, it’s important that you give them a potential avenue to gain further information or scratch that itch of curiosity a little further. Have a call-to-action that builds on the question and encourages them to click through to your site for more information.

11. Embed animated GIFs in your email

Assuming you’ve put together a strong subject line and your email recipient is reading your email, the next important thing to do is capture their attention immediately so that they’ll view enough of your email to pique interest, click-through the email, and then engage on the landing page.

One of the best ways to do this, and a hot new email marketing best practice at that, is to embed an animated gif in your email.

In this example, Sprout Social does a great job of gaining attention, showing some of the basic functionality of their product, and truly earning the download:

sprout social animated gif

In this example, Photojojo has kept it super simple, but created an email image that catches attention:

photojojo-animated-gif

Resources:

  • Hubspot has an excellent guide on creating GIFs for email. LINK. They don’t do a good job at illustrating what limits you should be aware of with email animated gifs though – primarily that images need to be kept to a smaller file size than normal animated gifs. 125kb to 250kb is best practice. If you can go smaller, go for it, though you’re going to be hard pressed to get a good quality animated gif below 125kb.
  • Here is an excellent guide on creating animated GIFs in Photoshop. It is more Photoshop tip-centric than the Hubspot article.
  • Many people can’t afford Photoshop, or simply don’t want to learn such a complex tool. For you, there is GIMP. It’s a Photoshop competitor that is free. It still comes with great functionality and is a true competitor to Photoshop, but it’s free price tag does mean it’s not as robust as Photoshop. If you’d like to try GIMP you can download it here, and then follow this tutorial on how to create an animated GIF in GIMP.

12. Build a journey between subject line, email and website

In helping a client optimize their newsletter to garner more opens and click-throughs, my audit of their past newsletters raised the curtain on one of the main constraints holding their newsletter back: they were often gaining interest on a subject line and then placing the article that corresponded to that subject line well below the fold of the email. The problem was that people were opening their email expecting to find something relating to the subject line and then upon first glance of the email, they didn’t find what they were looking for so they hit delete or archive.

Since finding this problem in their newsletter, I’ve been watching other organization’s newsletters to evaluate how pervasive the problem is. It looks like about 1/3 of newsletters suffer from this problem.

How big of a problem is it, and how can it be overcome?

To determine true causation around the problem, I set up an A/B test with my client. Because they have a large newsletter subscriber base (just a little over 100k) it would take only a few emails to gather statistically significant results. If the difference was large enough after the first send, there could be significance and we could declare a winner.

We had them set up a newsletter per their common practice, where they placed the subject referenced content below the fold. We then cloned the email and made the clone a version where the subject line referenced content was the leading story. We sent these two versions out 50/50 at random. We saw an immediate lift in click-through rates from the cloned version that aligned the subject line story in the header of the email – 6.4% open rate vs 4.8%. This 33% lift, with the number of opens they had garnered, led to immediate statistical significance.

With this client’s newsletter, where they were simply aggregating past blog posts for the last few weeks, didn’t have any problems tying the content click-through to relevant content on the website. For emails with offers or other marketing material, it’s important to follow the following three rules religiously:

  1. Use an engaging subject line and test your subject line regularly.
  2. Ensure the tease offered up in the subject line correlates to an offer or article immediately present at the top of your email.
  3. Any messaging or imagery used in the email should also be used on the landing page. If you don’t do this, your site visitor will have one expectation in mind and get something else. You’ll see high bounce rates and shorter on page times.

13. Most of the time you shouldn’t personalize the subject line

This email marketing best practice has likely raised an alarm in your mind. Personalization is always better, right?

In some cases, no.

This Adestra study on subject lines shows that personalizing a subject line helps lift open rate by 22%, though it decreases click-through rate by about the same margin. Why is that? Because all too often marketers customize the subject line and don’t go on to personalize the email.

Much like the email marketing best practice #12 above, if you give your email recipient an expectation in the subject line then you need to deliver in the email copy as well as the landing page. Otherwise, it comes across as a bait-and-switch. 

This example email correctly uses personalization in the email copy. If “Linda” received an email with her name in the subject line and then the below email with this personalization she’s more likely to think that the retailer knows her and has created a custom offer. When she clicks through, it’s important to have personalization on the landing page too.

email personalization first name in image

This example is from the king of online retail, Amazon. Because they have so much data on their customers they’ve not only personalized the email subject line with a product relevant to the recipient, but also used his name in the email and then a direct link to a product they’re confident he’ll enjoy. The result? A more likely click-through and purchase.

Email personalization around smart data

14. Polarize your recipients

The last (but not least) email marketing best practice is to not be afraid to polarize your recipients. A mistake many marketers make is to try and please everyone. Instead of realizing that they have a specific target audience that is buying their product, they think in absolutes such as “this product is so good everyone should buy it.”

The biggest problem with this approach is that business owners tend to gravitate to the middle. Instead of taking a stand on any issues, instead of creating marketing that really resonates with their target audience, they create messaging that just feels blah. It doesn’t resonate with anyone.

If you want to be seen as an expert, a leader in your space, a product worth buying, you need to create marketing that may polarize audiences both for good and bad.

Seth Godin popularized the term Tribe with his book about leadership in business. The term tribe is one that is important for you to internalize when creating emails. From Seth’s book: A tribe is any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea.

When writing a subject line, email copy or copy for a landing page, it’s imperative that you keep your tribe in mind. Your tribe has unique characteristics and usually some interesting quirks as well. Create copy that plays to those quirks, especially if it’s content that is going to polarize an audience.

I had a friend in college who came to my apartment super excited about a domain he just purchased. He purchased a domain on auction for $20,000. I was dumbfounded. He and I were both starving college students. How could he make such a risk?

My friend had only budding knowledge and experience in the topic that his new domain name would target. He put up a simple blog on the domain name and started writing posts. He was careful to make sure the posts took a distinct stand. And then he’d poke the bear. He’d reach out to industry experts that he knew would have differing opinions and let them know he had just written a blog post. He started to have dozens of industry professionals reading his blog and commenting.

His comment threads grew in length, and he polarized a lot of people as they argued back and forth.

The end result was that he had a few angry souls who refused to read his blog. He had a ton more people that found his blog interesting and kept coming back, even when they didn’t necessarily agree with him.

And the end result for my friend was that he sold the domain name for north of $300,000 a few years later. He also got some impressive shares in the company that acquired the domain name, as well as the CEO title for that company. Even though he still was relatively new to the industry, the company he sold the domain to saw him as an expert and hired him to help sell their company.

So, polarize your audience with email content and you’ll get more opens and clicks.

Author: Ben

Ben loves working at the intersection of technology and marketing. From his early youth selling discount candy from his locker to building his own SMS marketing tool that he sold to the State of Utah he has learned the value of entrepreneurial thinking and smarter marketing. Despite his near addiction to tech and marketing, he also loves to get away from it all and spend time in the mountains hiking, rock-climbing and off-roading. Ben and his wife live in Lehi, Utah with their two boys.

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