The email marketing industry is blessed with an active community that shares advice and tips freely and is very welcoming to new practitioners. You can find tons of free information on blogs and social media sites -- but not all that information is up-to-date and completely accurate. Sometimes it's completely wrong. Occasionally I even see unsound advice from some of the experts that I revere and look to for guidance.
But perhaps I'm the one who has it wrong. Lord knows I've said some silly things myself. So I thought I would bring to light some of the questionable advice I've heard recently.
"Free" is a four-letter word. I continue to hear experts say that you can avoid being marked as spam by avoiding words like "free," "order," "congratulations" and "prices"; not using all caps; and staying away from punctuation like dollar signs and exclamation marks. They say these are especially dangerous to use in subject lines.
This advice is a relic of the early to mid-2000s when content scoring was much more prevalent. Now sender reputation and engagement metrics are key. "Content is not a main reputation factor," Return Path said recently.
But this advice also fails the smell test: Just look in your personal inbox any morning and you'll see emails that break these "rules." Probably about a third of the retail emails I receive contain the word "free" in the subject line -- and during the holiday season when ISPs are getting slammed, the percentage is even higher. Heck, last week I got an email from Sierra Trading Post with the subject line "EXTRA 20% OFF & FREE SHIPPING + EXTRA 20-25% OFF Apparel Blowout!" If that doesn't set off a spam filter, then nothing will.
No open, no value. Another expert claimed that an unopened email has zero value. While every marketer wants their emails opened, there's still value when they go unopened since a subscriber likely saw who it was from. The brand impression from the friendly marketer has value on its own. Plus, there's also value in the subject line's call-to-action, even if it's not enough to entice an open. For instance, a subject line about summer apparel might serve as a general reminder for the subscriber to stop by their local store to refresh their summer gear.
Also consider looking at your subject lines from the perspective of your subscriber trying to manage their inbox. A well-written subject line can help subscribers determine whether opening a particular email is worth their time. Groupon's subject lines are a great example of this. They tell you the name of the brand or type of service the deal is for right in the subject line, so if you're not interested in that brand or service you can delete the email right there. A good subject line respects subscribers' time, making subscribers less likely to tune you out and more likely to stay subscribed.
Is the value of an unopened email soft and difficult to measure? Yes. But that doesn't mean that there's no value.
Don't fear dead addresses. Inactive subscribers have become a bit of a hot topic lately, mainly because of ISPs changing their filters to take into consideration engagement metrics. While this is a fairly new consideration, the danger of spam traps and honey pots is very old news. So I was floored to hear one expert say that there is no documented financial downside to emailing dead addresses.
I can think of a half-dozen major brands that have had major deliverability issues because of dirty lists -- and deliverability is not an area that I pay much attention to. For instance, 1-800-Flowers.com recently came to Spamhaus's attention for mailing to old addresses, some of which hadn't responded in more than five years. 1-800-Flowers was able to remove that block - and I'm sure they did so because of the financial impact the block was having on their program.
If you have an old dirty list full of inactives and don't see the financial downside, it's because you're not measuring the right things or you have poor visibility into your deliverability metrics.
Relevance trumps permission. A little while back there was a discussion about whether relevance or permission was more important, with some experts seemingly bending over backward to argue for those rare instances where emails would be so relevant that consumers wouldn't care that they didn't sign up to receive the emails.
My thinking is in line with that of Laura Atkins of Word to the Wise, who responded on her blog: "Sure, really good marketers can probably collect, purchase, beg, borrow and steal enough information to know that their unsolicited email is relevant. My experience suggests that most marketers aren't that good. They don't segment their permission-based lists to send relevant mail. They're certainly not going to segment their non-permission based lists to send relevant mail."
Even if consumers didn't routinely junk emails from unknown senders and brands they didn't give permission to, it also seems much more likely that you'd be able to collect the data necessary to create relevant emails from someone who has opted in than from someone who hasn't.
So that's my take on these issues, but again perhaps I'm off base. Please let me know if I'm out of the loop.