Last Updated: 22 Apr 2010

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Author: dordal

Email Marketing Best Practices - April 2010

This is a list of best practices for doing HTML email marketing. It is focused mainly on overall strategy; there are separate articles on email content best practices and email design/layout best practices. If you're the guy actually building the emails, you'll also want to look at Creating HTML Email - Tips & Tricks.

This information is current as of April 2010.

General Tips

  • Build A Template. Rule #1: Build an email template for your organization. This may seem obvious, but I can't tell you how many people don't do it. In terms of effort, doing an HTML email is a bit like designing a mini website: you have to go through a few rounds of creative, build out some messaging, program everything, and then test it in a million email clients. If you're planning to send more than one email (and who isn't?), you should build out an email template that has places for text content, pictures, etc. That way, you only need to come up with the content, and then do a very quick program/test round before sending. You don't need to start from scratch every time.
  • Use an Email Service Provider (ESP). You may be interested in creating your own mailing software and/or setting up a package on your server, such as oemPro. Don't. I'd strongly recommend that you use an 'email service provider', which is a company that specializes in sending and tracking your emails. They're a dime a dozen now, and they handle all of the mass-sending, reporting and deliverability management for you. MailChimp is one of today's hot providers, although there are many others.
  • Worry about Deliverability. One of the big reasons to use an ESP is that they handle 'deliverability' for you. Deliverability is the ability for your emails to make it through the spam filters, corporate gateways, and other roadblocks and actually land in your customer's inboxes. Big ESPs typically have an entire team dedicated to deliverability; they constantly monitor blacklists, get their mail servers added to whitelists, and keep in close contact with large ISPs. It's a big job, and it is much easier to pay a few hundred a month to let somebody else manage this for you.
  • Test Extensively. Email development is a mess. Now that IE6 is (almost) gone, standards compliant web development is starting to come into its own, but email development is still a decade behind. The world actually took a step backwards recently, when Microsoft decided to use the MS Word HTML rendering engine, instead of Internet Explorer, to render HTML emails in Outlook 2007. You'll need to test your emails extensively before you send them, in a variety of different clients. I like using Litmus to do this. You send a message to one address, and it automatically loads it in several clients and lets you view screenshots.
  • Start thinking about mobile. Mobile email is becoming increasingly prevalent; as of March 2010 the numbers I've seen thrown around say about 10% of email in the USA is checked on a smartphone type device (iPhone, Android, etc.). I'm still looking for hard data, but one way or another it is clear that you should consider mobile in your email strategy.

A/B Testing

One of the great things about email, and the Internet in general, is that you can test extensively. With email, A/B testing is easy, particularly if you have a large list.

  • The key to proper A/B testing is controlling variables. You can't use Design A on your newsletter today, and Design B next week, and expect a valid A/B test. If Design B did better, was it because it is truly better? Or is it because the contents in the second week were more interesting? Or because you sent Design A during the middle of the Super Bowl, and nobody was on the computer? You MUST do true split testing: send Design A to half your list, and Design B to the other half. Keep the content exactly the same, and do the send at exactly the same time. Fortunately, most email providers make this sort of A/B testing pretty easy.
  • If you're sending emails to a large volume of people (>100K), you should consider doing an pre-test. Make two versions of the email, send one to the first 5K people and the other to the second 5K, and track how both do. Send the one that does better to the other 90K. Obviously, you can get more sophisticated than this if you want.
  • If you don't have a large list of people, you can perform a test over multiple sends. For example, I once tested whether prefixing the subject line with 'Hey, NAME!' would increase open rates. My list was less than 5,000 people, and I was sending once a week. Each week, I'd randomly remix the list, and send half with the prefix, and half without. It took several weeks, but I was eventually able to determine that the prefix increased open rates by about 18%.
  • Try to establish rules & best practices that you can always follow. The 'Hey, NAME!' I mentioned above is an example of that: now that I know it is better, I'll always use it. Establishing rules like this for your list can be hard, but if it increases your open rates or click rates it can be very beneficial.

Types of Email

There are several different types of email you can send.

  • Newsletter/Announcement: These are the classic marketing emails: messages with news from the company, things that you want people to know about, and the like. While it's still possible to do marketing emails well, this type of message has one of the lowest ROI, simply due to the fact that people have trained themselves to ignore them. They're somewhat like the 'junk mail' of email… not quite spam, but not always very relevant.
  • Transactional Emails: If your customers do any kind of transactions with you, the transactional emails (e.g. 'Welcome to ACME.com', 'Thanks for your order!') can be a great place to market. People are much more likely to open and read them, since they contain timely, relevant information.
  • Triggered Emails: One of today's hot topics is doing 'triggered' emails: emails sent based on some action that a logged in customer takes (or in some cases doesn't take) on a website. For example:
    • If a customer abandons his shopping cart without checking out, you might send an email an hour later inviting him to complete his purchase.
    • If you notice a customer hasn't logged into a site in a while, you might send him an invite to come back.
    • If a customer signs up for your service but isn't using it, you might email him to check how they like it or if they are having any problems.
    • If your customer is looking at some specific content on a website (say ski trips to Utah), you might send an email the next day with a special invitation (10% off your next ski trip to Utah if you book in 24 hours).

Getting Permission

If you're doing email marketing, it is absolutely critical to make sure you actually have permission to email your users.

  • Make sure your users know they're opting-in. There's a number of different ways to do this:
    • Have them signup online (by entering their email address), and then send them a confirmation email to let them know they've been added to the list.
    • You may want to do a double opt-in, which means you opt-in via the website and send them a 'click to confirm your email address' message.
    • You can present a very clear checkbox during your order/checkout process that says 'I'd like to receive news & special offers'. You can default it to checked if you want, but don't hide it.
    • One technique I've seen used presents a Yes/No radio button with neither option checked by default. If the user tries to checkout without selecting either option, the validation routine forces him to select one or the other.
  • Setup a subscription management center, or 'preference center' that allows the user to control his or her email preferences. Typically this requires a login, but the user can then manage which types of email she wants to subscribe to, as well as options like mobile preferences.
  • Be sure to give your users a 'one-click unsubscribe' which allows them to unsubscribe without logging in (since they may not remember their password).

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