Questioning Some Email Marketing Conventional Wisdom


In life, we all use conventional wisdom (CW) on a regular basis. We come across it in every facet of our lives.

“If the stove gas burner doesn’t light the first time, wait a few seconds for the gas to dissipate before trying again.”

“Kids should do homework every night.”

“It’s harder to find a new customer than retain an existing one.”

We often use these bits of wisdom as a shortcut when making decisions. They help narrow down our options or give us some initial direction. That makes conventional wisdom pretty useful in preventing us from getting bogged down in over-analyzing everything. 

However, relying too much on conventional wisdom can lead to a lack of innovation and even outright mistakes. Over time, conventional wisdom has a habit of becoming inaccurate, either because it becomes out-of-date or possibly ignores better options that might be harder to accomplish. Once upon a time, it was conventional wisdom that the earth was flat or that cigarettes had no adverse impacts on our health. So, it’s pretty clear that an overreliance on it can become a bad habit.

As email marketers, we have 40+ years of collected conventional wisdom and best practices to help guide us in creating successful campaigns. But, what if some of that wisdom is actually holding us back from innovating or simply testing the boundaries of the channel? What if these shortcuts are keeping us from real success?

Let’s look at 5 pieces of email marketing conventional wisdom that it might be time to question before using it as a definitive guide to your decision making.

1. Email marketing delivers an ROI of 42x... or 36x... or 90x

Every email marketer has seen at least one benchmark for email marketing campaign ROI over the years (and probably several). The one that seems to come up most often these days is 36x or $36 for every $1 spent. The first ROI benchmark that I remember seeing years ago came from the DMA at 42x. This number was still being quoted by the DMA as recently as 2019. More recently, I’ve seen a 90x return number quoted from one company. So, conventional wisdom would say that one of these numbers should be your baseline for measuring the success of any email campaign.

Of course, experienced email marketers all know that the ROI on each individual email campaign varies dramatically based on a huge number of factors, starting with whether the campaign is actually focused on driving a direct purchase or not. But, even in the case of a campaign designed to directly lead to a sale, ROI will vary based on all of the factors that impact any marketing or sales campaign’s performance. So, while this bit of conventional wisdom may help convince people of the value and potential of email marketing, using it as a true benchmark for any of your individual campaigns or your overall email marketing program may be less than ideal.

2. Email messages should be short and to the point

This is marketing conventional wisdom in general. Keep your message short and to the point. Your recipients are busy, and you only have their attention for a short time, so you need to get to the point in the few seconds they might be skimming your email message. This sounds logical, until you look at the performance of long-form email messages in certain verticals. Emails promoting informational products have a history of being extremely long - as in scrolling seemingly forever to get through the intro pitch, a bunch of happy customer testimonials, a special extra offer if you buy today, and eventually the closing pitch.

Based on conventional wisdom, these long-form sales emails should perform miserably. But in reality, it’s the opposite. For certain verticals, the long-form email is the regular performance champion, hands down. So, once again, this conventional wisdom may hold up when applied to some email programs, but for others, the opposite is true. Before you write off longer emails, it makes sense to consider (and test) whether your audience might actually be more engaged and responsive to more extensive email content.

3. Never send too many emails to your subscribers in too short a time

This best practice feels pretty much on the money. I mean who wants to receive 24 emails a day from any anyone, let alone a sender that wants to sell you something or get you to donate money? And yet… During the 2020 presidential election, one campaign that shall remain nameless did exactly that. The campaign effectively sent one email per hour to its mailing list for a 24-hour period. Did they suffer from a huge barrage of unsubscribes, complaints, or subscriber backlash? Apparently not in this case.

While I still wouldn’t push my luck on sending 24 emails a day to almost any email list, this outlier proves that if your recipients are highly engaged, there might not be a tangible limit on how often you can send an email to their inbox. The key is to know if your audience is this fervent in their interest. You don’t want to get this one wrong.

4. The worst day to send an email campaign is…

Over the years, I’ve heard that Monday is the worst day… or Friday… or over the weekend. Maybe the fact that the day isn’t consistent should be a good indicator that this bit of conventional wisdom is due for reevaluation. Most experienced email marketers are probably used to answering questions about topics like the best day/time to send a campaign with ‘it depends...’

Finding the best day to send your campaigns should never rely solely on conventional wisdom. I know many email marketers who have found that a Monday, Friday, or any day of the week seems to work best for their campaigns. The only reason they discovered that the so-called ‘bad’ days to send an email happens to be their best performing day is that they were willing to go against conventional wisdom to find out. So, instead of accepting the conventional wisdom on the optimal day to send your campaigns, test it on your program and determine the best day for you emails.

5. Unsubscribes are the worst response you can receive from your campaigns

Ask most email marketers what their least favorite campaign metric is and I would bet a good percentage of them will pick ‘Unsubscribes’. Spam complaints are probably also near the top of the list. Basically, any negative response is seen as, well… negative. It makes sense as these metrics aren’t driving conversions or sales. But, when we put a label like ‘worst’ on something, we also have a tendency to not want to look at it very closely. That’s where this bit of conventional wisdom can lead to a mistake.

When recipients unsubscribe from your email program, they are sending a very clear message that the content isn’t engaging or valuable to them. This is an important signal that marketers should not ignore. If a certain segment of your audience is unsubscribing at a higher-than-normal rale, this sends a clear message that if you want to continue emailing this group, you need to modify content to better meet their needs. This is extremely valuable feedback that can lead to much more effective and higher performing campaigns in the future, but only if you stop thinking of them as negative.

Maybe the biggest lesson is that developing a long-term successful email marketing program requires being aware of conventional wisdom, but also knowing when to test against it.

peter jan rijpkema Lc9dnhXXmAE unsplash smallerPhoto by Peter Jan Rijpkema on Unsplash