In the days following Steve Jobs' death, I found myself thinking, oddly enough, about Apple's TV commercials, especially "Lemmings," in which briefcase-toting office workers march off a cliff until one man lifts his blindfold and sees what's happening.
Many marketers run their email programs like lemmings, because they copy a competitor's or peer's new practice without doing proper due diligence first.
As a result, an effective email design might evolve into a mishmash of uncoordinated additions that obscure the email's main purpose, like the call to action.
"Lemmingism" In Action
Several years ago, a well-known marketing publisher began adding the newsletter name to the front of the subject line: (From Name) "Publisher Name" (Subject Line) [Newsletter Name] "Newsletter content."
I don't remember why, but I think the rationale was that some older email clients showed the sender's email address instead of the friendly "from" name in the inbox. This added an additional level of branding and helped differentiate among their multiple newsletters.
Thereafter, many other publishers and marketers began adding brand names or newsletter titles to the subject line. This might or might not have been the right practice; other from name/subject line combinations might work better for your company.
Other trends followed, such as putting "add to address book," "view Web version" and "view mobile" links at the top of the email. Now it seems like everyone is adding "preheader" text at the top of the email message or scattering social network icons like breadcrumbs.
How many marketers simply adopted these practices without thinking through the options and benefits?
Measure Your Lemming Likelihood
Many or all of these practices might make sense to address specific subscriber challenges or increase email results. But you should ask yourself some tough questions before you simply bolt on a new element in your emails.
1. Why would we want to do this?
Does preheader text really drive more clicks or conversions? Why can't an email be wider than 550 to 600 pixels?
Don't simply accept that a suggestion from another marketer or a consultant is the way to go. Question everything, including what I've written here.
2. Does this problem affect us?
Practices will emerge that solve valid but specific challenges. A few years ago, some email marketers began adding an unsubscribe link at the top of their emails.
While this practice was not widely adopted, many marketers started asking if they needed to do this as well.
In most cases, an unsubscribe link at the top of your email is unnecessary unless you experience higher-than-acceptable abuse complaints overall or with specific ISPs. This practice can reduce spam complaints for some emailers, but for others it might simply take up valuable pre-header real estate.
3. Will this change benefit a significant percentage of our subscribers or just a small minority?
B2B marketers have struggled to design HTML emails that render well in Lotus Notes. One helpful practice common in B2B email – adding anchor links to teaser headlines that take the reader right to the content – apparently doesn't work well in Lotus Notes. So, many marketers or publishers did not include them.
This might make sense f you estimate 20% of your subscribers use Lotus Notes, but perhaps not if only about 5% do.
4. Can we find a better way?
Years ago the trend to add a "View Web Version" link to the top of emails became common practice in response to ISP and Web clients that blocked images by default.
While this is a logical and harmless practice, the better solution might be to design emails to render well without images. Another variation is to hyperlink the call-to-action copy to your website version.
5. Can we support this change? What will happen if we don't?
If you have a lot of BlackBerry users, then a "View Mobile Version" link might make sense.
But before you dive in, consider how easily your team can create and host mobile versions of your emails. Does your CMS system easily support it? Do you believe your production team simply doesn't have the time?
You could rationalize not adding a mobile version link and content given BlackBerry's declining market share and a more HTML-friendly email client on newer models/operating systems.
'Think Different' in Email
My point here is not to denigrate email innovation or any of the aforementioned practices. Rather, question them. Understand what problems these emerging practices fix, how they fit into your email workflow and what not changing might cost you.
Don't change your email program just because a competitor did or because the smartest people in the industry say you should.
Until next time, take it up a notch!