Best practices for email, as for all digital channels, change on the regular. It can be hard to keep up, and an approach that once may have been considered “the norm” can quickly become taboo. As we head into 2021, make sure these email marketing mistakes aren’t hurting your performance.
11 Common Email Marketing Mistakes
1. Sending Just to Send
There was a time when it was fashionable to have a set email schedule. We always made sure to send emails on certain days of the week to keep our messaging in front of our audience. Now we know that’s not necessarily effective.
As holds true for all marketing communications, if your email doesn’t provide a value of some sort (helpful information, educational content, promos), it’s working against you instead of for you. Before sending an email, ask yourself if your audience will care what it says. If not, if you’re just filling a schedule, don’t send it.
45% of respondents to Adobe’s 2018 consumer email survey said the business emailing practice most likely to trigger them to unsubscribe was “sending emails too often.” There’s no quantification of “too often”; you’ll have to figure out your customers’ preferences yourself. But “too often” can reflect emails that aren’t valuable and are thus useless and annoying. In the same survey, respondents’ top wish (37%) was for emails to be less promotional and more informational.
Sending just to send can cause your subscribers to unsubscribe fast. And it can also damage your company’s sender reputation. Subscriber engagement impacts email deliverability. If no one is opening your emails, that tells email service providers that your messages are valueless. They’ll soon go directly to the junk folder. When you send emails your subscribers want to open, you’ll see better deliverability, email performance, and overall marketing performance. It worked for Red Wings Shoes; the company decreased email sends by 11% and focused on personalization, resulting in a 40% increase in email-attributed sales.
None of this means you can’t strive for a certain number of emails per week or month. You can still test and see what cadence works best for your audience. But if you fall back on sending just to send, re-evaluate your email strategy.
2. Failing to Personalize
In that Adobe email survey mentioned above, respondents’ second-highest wish was for emails to be more personalized (27%). This goes back to the value discussion. Can you know your audience members well enough to provide the right information at the right time?
Effective personalization depends on a few things: knowing your audience and their needs in each stage of the buyer’s journey (hint, hint: You need personas!) AND a system that helps you track their behavior. That tracking system could be as simple as a spreadsheet if you’re a small business working with a small number of prospects, or it could be an enterprise-level marketing automation platform.
Whether you’re tracking it yourself or software is tracking it for you, you’ll need organized lists of email contacts to which you can send personalized content. Have a list of new subscribers so you can send a welcome email or series. Have lists of people who have shown interest in specific products so you can send relevant product information. Have a list of purchasers so you can follow up with thank yous, requests for a review, and ongoing support. The number and type of lists you have, how many personalized emails you send, and the degree of automation depends on your business, offerings, and capacity.
Failing to personalize and, instead, sending the same messages to everyone on your list is “spraying and praying.” Take the time to customize email content. Personalization works. Experian found that the transaction rate and revenue per email were six times higher for personalized emails. In the case of flash sale site Doggyloot, email personalization resulted in up to 750% higher click-through-rate (CTR) and better sales.
3. Automating Too Much (Or Not Enough)
While on the topic of personalization, we should address email automation. It can be an extremely effective way to personalize, but it can be overdone.
For B2B, emails from an actual human are imperative in the sales cycle. We know you know that, but we still feel like we have to say it. The issue we tend to see more is the underutilization of automation. Automation can be very helpful and well-received by prospects and customers. It’s downright expected to immediately receive a “welcome” email when one subscribes to a list or a “thank you, we’re processing your order” email after purchase. Or you can automate sends of valuable information based on the buyer’s journey stage.
Epsilon found that triggered email open rates were 76% higher than “business-as-usual” email open rates and triggered email CTR was more than double.
Of course, automation doesn’t replace personal touch at key stages of the journey. Think critically about where you need to step in and talk one-to-one (which, of course, depends on the scale of your business, how involved a purchase of your product is, etc.) and where you can provide value through well-timed automation.
4. Not Telling Your Subscribers What to Do
If you’re sending an email for a reason (which you should be; see Mistake #1), make it known. In general, have one clear call-to-action (CTA) in your email.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of encouraging several actions in each email. Read this piece, visit this page, watch this video . . . Don’t overwhelm the reader with too many options.
Whirlpool was able to increase its clickthrough rate by 42% in one email just by using a single, focused CTA.
5. Going Overboard
There’s no “ideal length” for an email. Some companies do well with very brief messages, while others go for longer-form. It all depends on your offering and industry, your goal for the specific email, and your audience’s preferences. This is why testing is a crucial component of email marketing. Be sure to have some data to back up your choices.
Our general recommendation regarding email length is to avoid going overboard. Say what you need to say in your email and no more. This might mean your email is one hundred words, or it might mean it’s one thousand (though we don’t usually recommend attempting the latter unless you’re Ann Handley).
Our approach to email length is to view email as a short-form touchpoint. Our emails are designed as a conversation starter or to drive people to our website and blog, where we do more of the talking. Since emails are often viewed on mobile, we don’t want to overwhelm our readers. Hammock took a similar approach and simplified its email newsletter. Doing so increased opens by 48%!
What is your goal? How succinct can your email be and still help you achieve it?
6. Keeping Control
We know, we know. When you get an email address, you want to hold onto it. But we have to learn to relinquish control when it comes to our subscribers.
We all know that you must have an “unsubscribe” option in your email, or else you’re breaking the law. But you should also allow your subscribers to set the rules of engagement through an email preference center. Tailoring your email marketing to your subscribers’ needs helps you hang onto them and keep them happy by personalizing your messaging to their content and cadence preferences. 69% of consumers in a survey by Alliance Data said they want control over email frequency, and 63% want control over content. (Side note: Don’t worry or feel bad about unsubscribes. As long as you’re sending value and allowing subscribers to choose their level of engagement, people who unsubscribe simply don’t want or need what you’re offering.)
Think of the email inbox as a private place you need to be invited into, like a home. Don’t break and enter. Let the homeowner decide when you can come over, and they’ll feel much more positively toward you.
This brings us to the topic of opting in. You should make sure contacts double opt-in, and don’t ever email anyone who has not expressly asked you to. That means no buying lists!
7. Buying Lists
For some reason, people still buy email lists. It doesn’t work—and it can cause a lot of trouble.
Purchased lists are full of the email addresses of people who know they have not opted into your emails. How likely are they to open them when you’ve essentially broken into their house? What’s to stop them from sending you right to the junk folder or reporting you as spam?
Purchased lists also often harbor spam traps or honeypots. These are used by ISPs and spam-tracking services to catch spammers. Remember, “spam” is defined as “unsolicited bulk email,” so anyone who sends a mass message to a purchased list is a spammer. Don’t do it!
We’ll share a firsthand experience with purchased lists here. One of our clients, unbeknownst to us, purchased a list of 20,000 contacts. When they turned the list over to us, we immediately ran it through the list-cleansing service NeverBounce. The results? Less than twenty-five percent of the email addresses on the list were identified as “valid.” Imagine the damage that could have been done to that client’s sender reputation if an email had been sent to the whole list. (Side note: If you are using a marketing automation software, it’s probably against their policy to send mail to purchased contacts through their service.)
Building up a list of qualified emails is hard work. Buying a list isn’t a short cut.
8. Never Cleaning Your Lists
While we’re on the topic of lists, make sure to keep ‘em clean. Having a “dirty” list (with outdated or unengaged contacts) can negatively impact your sender status and email deliverability.
Regularly run your lists through a list-cleansing service like NeverBounce to identify contacts you should remove. Also, periodically remove unengaged contacts. You can try a re-engagement campaign first, but don’t hang onto unengaged contacts for the sake of it. If they’re not engaging now, they probably never will.
HubSpot saw improved performance for their marketing blog emails when they unsubscribed over 250,000 contacts and started sending fewer emails. “If you think we didn’t have anxiety about unsubscribing 45% of our list, you’re dead wrong,” they said. “But once we got over the sticker shock, we realized there wasn’t really anything to be worried about. After all, 550,000 subscribers are nothing but a vanity metric if 250,000 of those people aren’t actually engaging with your content.”
9. Being Obnoxious with Cold Emails
Boy, do all of us marketers have mixed feelings about cold emails. We get that cold emails aren’t going away anytime soon and that, in the right circumstances, they can be effective. So, we’re not going to say, “stop cold emailing.” We are going to say, “stop it with the obnoxious cold email practices.”
When we say, “cold emailing,” we mean sending an unsolicited email to a recipient who has no prior contact with you. And when we say, “obnoxious practices,” we mean things like, but not limited to:
- Pretending there was a previous engagement when there actually wasn’t (e.g., a subject line like “Following up on our meeting” when there was, in fact, no meeting)
- Addressing someone by the wrong name or too informally
- Trying to be funny or gimmicky to keep attention (just say what you need to say)
- Not having an unsubscribe option, or trying to hide it (e.g., with light-colored text)
- Obviously using a copy-pasted script or not personalizing your message
- Continuing to send cold email after cold email when the recipient has shown no interest
First of all, we’re sure you’ve never done any of these things. Second of all, yes, these are all things we regularly observe in cold emails sent to us. No, we did not pursue the offers.
What to do instead? Ryan O’Hara of LeadIQ gives a great overview of his email strategy (based on research and personalization—no gimmicks) that resulted in a 48% reply rate for his cold emails.
10. Ignoring the Importance of Testing
This one may be a no-brainer, but we can’t leave it out. Test new email formats, lengths, styles (e.g., plain text vs. HTML), CTAs, and more through A/B testing to see what works best with your audience. Rely on actual outcomes instead of just hunches, like the team behind Barack Obama’s email fundraising did. They performed extensive A/B testing of many email elements, even finding one subject line that outperformed 17 other variants and helped raise more than $2.6 million in a single email.
And while we’re on the subject of testing, make sure you send email tests to your team before you send an email to your list. It’s easy to miss spelling and punctuation errors, especially if you’re proofing your own work, so get several pairs of eyes on your content before sending it. Also have reviewers check the functionality of your email, like links and formatting. You never know what they might catch!
11. Not Setting Goals
We still see organizations who email with the vague objectives of “increasing opens” or “getting more clicks.” While these are worthwhile achievements, they must be put into goal format. If you don’t have clear, specific, actionable goals for your email strategy, how will you know it’s working or improving? What will you measure? How will you prove success (or the need for strategy pivots)?
Remember that email should be viewed as part of your greater marketing ecosystem. Determine how you can use email in tandem with other channels to achieve your organizational goals. Set specific email goals and track your progress so you’re not sending just to send.