Say What?! Bad Advice From Email Experts

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, 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.

10 comments about "Say What?! Bad Advice From Email Experts ".
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  1. Chris Marriott from StrongMail, May 24, 2011 at 12:29 p.m.

    Hi Chad: Excellent article. In fact I made the exact same point about subject lines in one of my recent columns at iMedia Connection: I do disagree with your point about mailing to dead addresses. I agree that a dead address should be removed, but if you agree with your comment about subject lines, then you have to re-think inactives, as some of them may be doing exactly what you and I suspect they are doing. So they key is determining the difference between dead (hard bounce) and inactive. Tracking purchases back to unopened emails is one solution to this.

  2. Chad White from Litmus, May 24, 2011 at 1:05 p.m.

    Chris, inactives are definitely tricky. But regardless of the true status of every apparently inactive subscriber, ISPs are still looking at that activity and if half of your subscribers haven't opened or clicked in a year, then you're risking your deliverability. Addresssing actives can be complex, but it boils down to the fact that the ability to reach your engaged subscribers is more important than continuing to reach every possible secretly minimally engaged subscriber.

  3. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC, May 24, 2011 at 2:16 p.m.

    Thank you for an extremely insightful and valuable article.

  4. Chris Marriott from StrongMail, May 24, 2011 at 7:51 p.m.

    Chad, your are correct about the risk of inactive subscribers, but if marketers did a better job of attribution, they could show that many in-actives are actually acting on the email. It's like a billboard... no one would ever place a billboard if the measurement was who called the 1-800 number on the billboard.

  5. Neil Schwartzman from CAUCE, May 25, 2011 at 8:42 a.m.

    Chad great piece. What about bounce processing as a first step to culling inactive addresses? It would shock you to see how many high profile mailers of major brands on ESPs and not, do a piss-poor job of removing completely dead addresses with 550 responses for years.

    They get their just deserts, with blocks, and trap hits, and so on (the current BCP for re-cycling domains is to issue NX or 550 for a year, then it is fair game).

    Of course, part of the dead and inactive issue comes from list purchase or "rental", when a dimbulm is sold on the idea of steriods for their list growth instead of a natural increase.

    Happily, Canada's Anti-spam Law will render that illegal, and VERY expensive for mailers in North America by January 2012.

  6. Chad White from Litmus, May 25, 2011 at 9:49 a.m.

    Neil, I wouldn't even consider bounce processing as part of managing inactives. Bounce management is way more fundamental than that. There's a lot of handwringing over the most effective way to handle inactives, whereas bounce management is pretty black and white as I understand it.

  7. Todd Wilson from Salesforce , May 25, 2011 at 2:30 p.m.

    Great article - I've heard a lot of these myself. Thanks.

  8. Rita from FreshAddress, Inc., May 25, 2011 at 5:21 p.m.

    Chad, interesting collection of bad advice...And you certainly would not want to message any known bounces as that would truly be bad advice from anyone. Here's a solution to one's recently bouncing and inactive email addresses - Email Change of Address is a patented solution which matches to volunteered email address updates. Although only an appropriate solution if you have had a previous relationship with this customer, donor, advocate, constituent, one requesting a catalog etc, these updates are made certainly valuable. One would would want to stay connected to recipients who failed to inform you they changed their email address.

  9. Paul Garland from, Inc., May 26, 2011 at 10:18 a.m.

    Great points, Chad. As for the questionable advice of “Don’t fear dead addresses,” you’re right that these are more costly than ever. Not only are you wasting money sending emails to accounts people are no longer reading but ISPs are now starting to watch engagement metrics (e.g. opens and click-throughs) to determine whether or not to block your future campaigns. And, worst of all, as you mentioned, dead addresses from closed domains make up the majority of the spam traps used by companies like Spamhaus and the like.

    So pull inactives and bounces from your file and use an ECOA (Email Change of Address) service to help you reconnect with these lost customers. It is much easier to re-engage with an old customer than it is to secure a new one. And given how many people change their email addresses on an annual basis, you can’t afford not to try to reconnect with them.

  10. Chad White from Litmus, May 27, 2011 at 10:29 a.m.

    Would anyone else from FreshAddress like to promote your Email Change of Address service? I'm personally not a fan of ECOA and consider it a violation of permission.

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