Email marketing is a dinosaur among digital marketing strategies.
There’s a reason email has outlasted social platforms, remained strong after an era of bad practices, and won’t be killed by the latest messaging app.
In this guide, I’m going to go over 30 actionable email marketing best practices that will help you drive traffic and boost conversions from your subscriber list in 2020–and beyond.
Drive more conversions and a higher ROI with these email marketing best practices for 2020.
99% of consumers check their inbox every day, while 59% of recipients say emails influence their buying decisions. It also is 40x more effective than Facebook and Twitter for customer acquisition. The stats in the email’s favor are nearly endless.
1. Have an Opt-In Process
Regulations like the GDPR and the CCPA require companies to obtain explicit consent before adding them to a list. While a single opt-in is all you technically need, a double opt-in is a better bet.
Why? Well, a quick way to lose customers is to bombard them with unwanted emails.
Make sure everyone on your list actually wants to be there by having a clear opt-in process.
Here’s one from Social Media Today
That doesn’t mean everyone who downloads your free ebook or signs up for a webinar should be automatically added to the list.
Be clear about what they get when they sign up–think special offers, weekly newsletters, etc., then have them confirm they’re on board by clicking a link in a confirmation email
2. Make it Easy to Opt-Out
People opt-out for all kinds of reasons, don’t take it personally. If they want to leave, make it easy, otherwise, they may end up reporting you as spam or complaining about you on social media. Both are bad.
3. Email with Purpose
Every company is different, but generally speaking, most companies with a successful email strategy include the following elements:
- Double opt-in confirmation.
- Welcome email.
- Brand announcements.
- Abandoned cart reminders.
- Order & shipping confirmations.
- Survey request.
As a baseline, you’ll want to develop a template for each of these email types, allowing you to maintain consistency while saving time.
Hey, you don’t want to design a new template every time there’s an email on your calendar.
From there, you can add new designs to support specialized campaigns.
The most important thing to think about here is, every message you send must be tied to a clear purpose.
- New subscriber -> confirm the opt-in.
- Shipped order -> send a notification
- New content -> send a newsletter subscribers interested in the topics you’ve covered
You get the idea. There’s no “just saying hi” in email marketing.
4. Create Drip Campaigns
5. Define the Metrics that Matter
Email marketing campaigns are generally measured by a few core metrics:
- Open rates: Percentage of subscribers who opened the email.
- Click rates: Percentage of openers who clicked an image, link, or button.
- Conversion rates: Percentage of openers that completed the desired action.
- Response rates: Percentage of openers who replied back to your email.
- Unsubscribe rates: Percentage of subscribers who unsubscribed after receiving an email.
While each of these metrics offers valuable insights, some are more effective than others for measuring specific goals.
A few examples:
- Using a newsletter to drive blog readership? Focus on driving clicks.
- Important service update? Aim for the opens.
- Running a flash sale? It’s all about those conversions.
Additionally, you’ll want to find out what a “good” rate is based on who you’re emailing and what you’re emailing about.
A few factors to consider:
- Industry: Metrics vary considerably based on industry, as well as whether you’re a B2B or B2C brand.
- Audience Size: Large campaigns typically get more opens and clicks based on sheer numbers. While campaigns aimed at niche segments might not yield a ton of clicks, done right, they’re likely to be more effective for driving engagement/action based on relevance.
- Content-Type: Novelty plays a role, here. Campaigns built around new releases or exciting announcements get more action than the humble newsletter. That said, really great newsletters can develop a loyal following if you continue to provide valuable information.
Here’s Campaign Monitor’s 2020 breakdown by industry to give you a sense of what to aim for:
6. Write Headlines that Make Users Want to Click
Subject lines top the list when it comes to email marketing best practices.
Most people struggle to keep up with the essential emails in their inbox, much less the communications they receive from brands.
The subject line is your chance to cut through the noise with something compelling enough to warrant an open.
Nailing the subject line requires some practice, time, and a lot of testing.
However, here are some general things that can help you create an effective hook:
- Use the recipient’s name.
- Use action verbs.
- Keep it short–between 30-50 characters is a good target.
- A well-placed, relevant emoji.
- A crystal clear value prop.
- Snappy, on-brand copy.
And now, a few things to avoid:
- Click-bait-y hooks that don’t match the email content.
- WRITING IN ALL CAPS.
- Spammy keywords (urgent, buy now, win, free)
- Random or excessive emoji use.
Your goal here is to get the right people to open your email so that they receive relevant information.
There’s WAY more to cover on subject lines. If you’re looking for a detailed list of best practices, I recommend heading here for more info.
7. Nail Down Your Timing
Timing is everything.
Though the optimal send time will vary by business and industry, as a rule of thumb Tuesday is the best day of the week to send an email (according to 10 email marketing studies).
Interestingly, a recent study by Kissmetrics found that work or financial emails tended to do best right after lunch when recipients were more “in the zone,” while holiday or vacation-related emails did best after work hours.
Use these findings as guidelines, and remember the only way to know for sure what works best for your business is to test and test again.
8. Always Offer Something Valuable
While every email should have a goal, that goal doesn’t always need to center around selling.
This example from CoSchedule offers some actionable tips for social media marketers without actively trying to convince them to make a purchase:
Further down the page, they highlight a few more resources collected from other websites.
The lesson here? Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and consider what information they’d find most useful.
Don’t worry about driving traffic elsewhere. Linking to credible content helps build trust and gives the recipient the sense that you care about delivering good information to your readers.
9. Optimize for Mobile
More than half of all emails are read via smartphone, so it’s in your best interest to design your email based on how people view your content.
The inbox preview includes three main components:
- From Name. If you’re a brand use “Name + company.” Consultants/freelancers/entrepreneurs use “First Name + Last Name”
- Subject. Again, make the value prop clear and compelling.
- Preheader. Use the preheader to reinforce the subject line.
Inside the email, these best practices will set you up for a better viewing experience:
- Emails should have a maximum width of 480px.
- Use a larger font to improve readability.
- Because some email clients block images, be sure to use alt text to provide the viewer with more context.
- CTA buttons should be wide enough to accommodate thumbs.
- Make sure you’re sending users to a mobile-optimized landing page.
10. Drive Traffic to Downloads
11. Make CTAs Clear and Direct
Your CTA should tell readers exactly what to do next, leaving no room for interpretation.
Here, it helps to consider why you’re sending this email in the first place.
In this example, Evernote invites recipients to their beta program with a compelling headline: “See the Future of Evernote,” then finishes off with the clear directive, “Join the Beta.”
12. Say “Thank You”
13. Throw in Something Special
14. Use Dynamic Content to Personalize
Subscribers expect more from brands than an email that starts with “Dear Customer” or promotes an irrelevant offer. The challenge is, brands don’t exactly have the time to type a personal note to every subscriber on their list.
Dynamic content gets around this problem by allowing you to automatically display different content to different users. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, dynamic content is a type of web content that changes based on predefined criteria–user preferences, demographics, actions, location, etc.
Content is generated when the user opens an email based on what data you have available at that time, allowing marketers to deliver a more engaging inbox experience without spending additional time creating personal messages.
To set it up, you’ll need to use a marketing automation platform. But, generally, you’ll develop a different message for each variation in your target segment, then set the criteria that determine who gets what, which may include any of the following:
- Purchasing behavior
- Past interactions
- Browsing history
Here’s an example from Nordstrom, which promotes a different image based on location–think winter in California vs. New York.
15. Share User Stats
Sending personalized insights is a great way to place the user at the center of the story.
You might send users personalized reports, or something like what Grammarly does here, with its weekly writing update. While these metrics don’t really represent anything tangible, the report speaks to our desire to learn about ourselves and our collective love of infographics.
16. Social Proof
Whether it’s Yelp reviews, testimonials, or star ratings, social proof instantly builds trust among consumers. So if you can combine it with your email efforts, your emails will be that much more successful.
Tell them how many subscribers you have or what your TripAdvisor rating is. Include a snippet from a glowing review, include client logos, or highlight a case study.
With any of the above in your emails, you’ll increase your credibility in your reader’s eyes, making them quicker to trust your brand.
17. Use Autoresponders to Engage New Subscribers
Autoresponders are automated emails that are triggered by a specific action–an abandoned cart, a download, a purchase, and so on. They’re also a great way to ensure that new opt-ins stay engaged.
For example, you might set up your system so that every opt-in confirmation triggers a welcome message, and from there, another message a day later, then in five days, and again a week later to show off your features, different parts of the website, and other things they might want to know.
18. Keep an Eye on Delivery & Deliverability
Believe it or not, email delivery and email deliverability are two different (but related) terms. For more on this subject, Litmus does a comprehensive deep dive you may want to check out.
Here are the basics:
- Delivery. Delivery is measured as the percentage of emails delivered out of the total that was sent. It doesn’t guarantee the recipient received the message, rather that it was received by the email provider–which might send it to the main inbox, spam, or not send it at all. Often, this is out of your hands.
- Deliverability. This refers to where your content lands in the inbox when the subscriber does receive the message. Content quality, frequency, relevance, domain issues, reputation all factor into your deliverability rate–elements that are within your control.
Both are critical to campaign success as they determine whether or not subscribers receive your email.
19. Avoid Using ‘No-Reply’ in the Sender’s Email Address
CAN-SPAM regulations aren’t exactly new. The legislation has been in place for years now and while most brands are on board with opt-in and opt-out practices, many brands still use “firstname.lastname@example.org” in their marketing materials–which also violates the rule.
No reply messages can prevent users from contacting you or unsubscribing–actions that CAN-SPAM protects.
Beyond what the rules dictate, using a real person’s name in your email communications goes a long way in humanizing your brand.
20. Use Alt Text
Alt-text isn’t just an SEO thing. It’s an important part of making your emails more accessible. Many email providers block images and GIFs.
Sometimes the HTML doesn’t render. In either case, alt text provides some insurance that readers get the message. Without this detail, recipients will see blank spaces in place of beautiful product shots and action-oriented buttons.
21. Take Segmenting Seriously
As with all things digital marketing, emails tend to perform better when they’re relevant to the reader. We’ve come a long way from the uniform blasts of the early 2000s, finding that crafting messages based on group characteristics will deliver better results.
You might segment your emails based on:
- Purchase History
- How they interact with your content
The list is endless, but the more you cater to your subscribers’ preferences, the better those clicks and conversion rates will look.
22. Do NOT Purchase Lists
This should go without saying, but now that we have the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) to worry about, it’s worth mentioning again: never, ever buy email lists.
For one, they can compromise your campaign metrics. You want your data to reflect your audience’s actions and preferences. When you buy contact information, you’re targeting people you don’t know anything about. This prevents you from learning about your audience and refining the strategy based on previous interactions, which will likely result in poor performance.
Email lists can contain inactive or incorrect email addresses, which can increase bounces. If this happens enough times, email service providers may begin to automatically label your emails as spam or prevent delivery altogether.
Finally, purchasing lists violates the GDPR and CCPA which require businesses to obtain consent before sending any messages.
23. Make the Preview Count
According to research from GetResponse, spending some time optimizing your preview text can pay off. The report found that brands that make this a focus receive 22% more clicks, on average, across industries.
The example from Later utilizes emojis to capture readers’ attention.
24. Practice Good (List) Hygiene
Cleaning or scrubbing your email list refers to the process of removing bounced emails, inactive subscribers, or invalid emails from your lists, which can:
- Increase engagement rates.
- Improve your sending reputation.
- Prevent your brand from landing on a blacklist.
Even users that consistently ignore your messages (yet haven’t officially unsubscribed) signal to the ISP that you’re sending unwanted mail. Take some time every couple of months to remove inactive addresses from your list–it’ll help you avoid some potential headaches down the road.
25. Maintain Brand Consistency
Think omnichannel and make sure every email you send aligns with other channels. In other words, it should fit in seamlessly with your website content, socials, and paid ad content.
Clicking through from an email to your website should be a fluid experience so they know exactly how and where they can take the next step.
At an even more basic level, you don’t want your subscribers to open an email and have no clue who it’s from.
Below is a recent example from Norton, the email newsletter, followed by the landing page content. Both pages use the same graphic and headline, which tells me I’m in the right place–a basic way to meet customer expectations.
26. A/B test different subject lines and calls to action.
Remember how we mentioned defining your goals and metrics earlier? The benefit of doing this is before you set up your campaign is, it allows you to track your performance against your objective.
This will help you catch misalignment between goals and messaging–think a high number of clicks, but few conversions on a promotional campaign.
Or, you might find that your last email resulted in a ton of subscribers–which could suggest your messaging didn’t square with brand perceptions or was irrelevant to your audience.
Running A/B tests can help you get to the bottom of any issues or improve your performance by testing two versions of the same email. Group A receives the original, while Group B gets a variation with a different CTA or subject line to see which elements factor into your audience’s decision to take action.
27. Encourage email replies
Email was designed for two-way communication. While asking people to reply might not net you many messages in return, it offers a couple of benefits: A: it provides your customers with an easy way to get in touch–something “email@example.com” can’t offer. B: you might receive valuable feedback.
28. Reinforce Your Message With Images
Using images in your email marketing campaigns is an effective tool for getting your audience to feel an emotional connection with your idea or product.
Outdoor rental company, Arrive does this well, stirring up a sense of nostalgia with children playing in the grass barefoot–you can’t see their faces, so this is an effective tool for transporting adult readers back to those early summer memories.
29. Review your Landing Pages
After you’ve crafted segment-specific campaigns, optimized the copy, subject lines, and CTAs, and perfected the design, you’ll want to make sure recipients land on a page that matches what they saw in the email.
- Landing pages should be designed around the same goal as the email.
- The offer and CTA should be aligned in both locations.
- Avoid directing users to your homepage, as it makes it difficult for visitors to take action. Send them directly to the product/content/download offered in the email.
Maintaining that email-landing page connection will help you build trust and
30. Check Your Work
Finally, don’t send anything until you’ve double, triple checked your work. Check the following elements to make sure recipients get the version you want them to receive:
- The copy is clean, error-free, and on-brand.
- Images render properly.
- Links send users to the right page.
- Formatting and design elements work on mobile and desktop.
- HTML and plain text both look good.
In 2020, email marketing has evolved from the early days, yet in many ways, best practices remain the same–though technology continues driving improvements.
The main takeaways: focus on relevance, value, and your reason for reaching out. From there–optimize, test, and start it all over again.