Not all Email Best Practices are Equal…nor are all of them best practices
Because email marketers are under resourced, busy people – and often new to the profession or have nobody to show them the ropes – they look to "best practices" as silver bullets that will fix their problems or keep them on the right side the law
Coupled with our history of being associated with spam, it's easy to see why marketers are so focused on following best practices. They use it as a solution to a common problem. The solution becomes a trend, and before you know it, it's promoted to a best practice.
However, I see too many marketers rushing to implement best practices without questioning whether something is truly a best practice, a trend or a bad habit that has evolved into a rule.
We're so eager to do the right thing with our email, to learn from more experienced hands in the industry, that we change what we're doing without questioning whether a certain best practice serves our interests – and our customers' interests – or somebody else's.
The 3-question litmus test for best practices
Not all best practices are equal. Many aren't even "best" practices! How can you tell the difference? Here's what I do: I ask four questions about every "best" strategy, tactic and practice:
- How did this tactic become a best practice?
- Do the conditions that created it still exist?
- Will implementing this best practice help me achieve my business objectives and my customer’s objectives or hinder them?
4 kinds of 'best practices'
Based on my experiences and what I've seen in working with clients and throughout the email industry, I’ve identified four categories of best practices:
Best practice No. 1: An archaic best practice, once important but now irrelevant
I've been around long enough in email (18 years, precisely) to have witnessed the evolution of DOI (double opt-in) into a best practice.
DOI began as a method introduced by ISP’s, to prioritize legitimate email marketing. It predates today's stringent permission-based email laws and dates from the days when ISPs required a commercial email sender to use DOI to get its emails whitelisted for better delivery to the inbox.
Thus was born a best practice: You had to adopt DOI if you wanted to get your emails delivered.
But today, ISPs use more reliable methods, such as authentication and sender IP reputation, to identify legitimate senders. Most countries around the world have enacted stringent opt-in legislation mandating permission for commercial email (major exceptions being the United States and India). Deliverability is no longer the crisis in these countries that it was 10 to 15 years ago.
We've also found that DOI can cost marketers up to 60% of their potential subscribers, hampering database size, confusing subscribers and hurting revenue. And, we can use technology to validate and verify email addresses right at opt-in.
Some email service providers, such as Mailchimp, require DOI for its users. But if you have the option to choose from single, double or confirmed, don't go with DOI just because someone told you it’s a best practice.
Instead, choose the one that helps your business achieve its objectives and serve your customers' interests as well.
Best practice No. 2: The "everybody else does it" best practice
As Chris Goward writes in his book, You Should Test That!, best practice recommendations often don't consider a brand's unique business environment, goals and target audience. We assume instead that someone uses a certain tactic because it works or is a best practice. These assumptions can inadvertently turn that untested idea into a best practice.
Take short subject lines. AOL, at one time a leading ISP, truncated subject lines longer than 60 characters in its email client. Rather than lose valuable information, brands simply wrote shorter subject lines. Presto! Short subject lines became a best practice.
AOL lost ground to email services that didn't truncate subject lines, but the best practice lived on, bolstered by studies claiming that short subject lines delivered better results via higher open rates. However, longer subject rates were shown to correlate with higher conversions.
But the short-subject-line best practice still hasn't died. It was resurrected as a best practice once mobile email became dominant because many mobile devices truncate subject lines in their default email clients.
It might be logical to write shorter subject lines so the inbox doesn't lop off crucial information – but that doesn't mean it's right for your email program.
Using the open rate as your KPI is fine if your objective is to reach as many people as possible. But, if your objective is to gain conversions, don’t stop at the open rate. Test it. Test short, generic subject lines against, longer, specific subject lines to see which help you to achieve your objectives. You may be surprised.
Best practice No 3: The self-serving best practice
Email marketing has five main influences on success:
- The ISP
- The email client
- The ESP or service provider
- The brand
- The recipient
Some best practices evolved to serve the brand, some to serve the subscriber or the ISP. But some were created to solve a service provider's needs without considering what's best for the brand or the recipient.
The best practice that dictates deleting inactive customers or subscribers is one of these. It grew out of an ESP study that linked high spam complaint rates to inactive subscribers. The solution? Don't send to your sleepers. Get rid of them instead.
This best practice serves the ESP's need to keep its IP reputation high but can hurt a brand's reach and revenue. It's harsh and premature to boot.
Marketers have many solutions available to them to win back lapsed customers without deleting their records after just a few months. Also, we know that inactive email customers might still buy from you even if they don't open your emails.
Chucking them off your list without checking their activity in other channels wastes the money you spent to acquire them and cuts off a revenue source. Set up a win-back program instead and begin tracking and communicating with potential lapsing customers early.
Study your data to identify which inactives still engage with your brand, whether on your website, offline or in other channels. Just seeing your email in the inbox can be enough to compel a customer to act (that's the "nudge effect" of email).
Factor in your buying cycle, too. With a long buying cycle, you’re bound to have some dormant customers who are simply waiting until the time is right. If you’re not in their inbox when that time comes, then they might go to your competitor.
Again, test to see whether most of your spam complaints come from inactives or from other subscriber classifications. Does your spam complaint rate hurt your deliverability? If not, don't follow this best practice just because someone told you it's way to go.
Best practice No. 4: A best practice that will benefit everyone, based upon irrefutable fact
Even with all the bad advice floating around in the email universe, there are many that we know are safe to call "best" practices.
Here's my short list of best practice’s that should apply to everyone, regardless of their objectives, audience, products, sector etc.:
- Testing (whether A/B split tests, multivariate or other protocols)
- Using domain authentication
- Removing hard-bouncing and other undeliverable addresses from your database immediately.
- Seeking permission first even if your country's email laws don't require it.
(Satisfy my curiosity. What's on your list? Let me know in the comments.)
Over to you
The next time someone – even me! – presents an idea to you as a certified and guaranteed best practice, take it for what it is: an idea that you should think about and test if you think it might solve a problem for your business, your email program and your customers.
There are no silver bullets, no magic fixes, no shortcuts in email. All we have are ideas that, once tested and refined, can become best practices for our own brands.
Great article Kath! I've been doing email marketing when it was best practice to send only text messages since HTML took too long to load. Things certainly change over time and you have to keep on top of it. I like the break out you did of the various interest being served. I think once a year marketers should pause to consider all the previous assumptions and ask "is this still true.." before they continue simply due to inertia.