When Advice Goes Stale: Outdated Best Practices?

I do a lot of travel for work, where I often get the chance to discuss email marketing best practices with experts from other areas of digital marketing who have some level of responsibility to email marketing as a discipline. Often, what strikes me is the "best practices" and recommendations that are being made to clients. During a recent speaking opportunity, I got some pretty funny questions from attendees that I am obviously compelled to share.

Here is an example of some of the dialogue -- enjoy! And feel free to chime in or ask questions of your own. I'm here all week! 

The conversation started innocently enough. We were discussing the pieces of an email that need to be reviewed prior to hitting the send button.  So, the obvious and initial direction was the more obvious points: proofreading and editing. While email is certainly a less formal communication channel, it's still a reflection of your brand -- and nothing says "I don't pay attention to what I am doing" more than erroneous typos, spelling and grammar errors. And go beyond Spell Check, which doesn't catch everything.



Next, we moved to link functionality, rendering and design. Here are some of my favorite questions (defined as those that made me scratch my head and wonder why some of this advice is still being doled out): 

Attendee:         I've noticed that a lot of email communications are getting shorter, with less copy. Why is that? When you have all this room to really explain your offer or promotion, why not use the space? 

Me:         Email isn't really read -- it is scanned. You have about three seconds to get someone's attention, and another five to seven seconds to truly convey your message. That needs to be done with effective headlines, bullets and calls-to-action. Less is more.

Attendee:         I was told to not include more than 68 characters per line within my email communications. Why is that?

Me:         Wait, what? 68 characters per line? While it is true that most email applications will render 68 characters or less within the body of the email, I wouldn't use it as a copywriting rule of thumb. Keep your copy concise -- write for the scanner, not the reader. Avoid large blocks of text -- never more than four lines of copy appearing together. It can be daunting for the recipient,  depending on the type of message.

Attendee:         I was told to avoid words like "free" "call" "lose" "money" or "opportunity" in my subject line so that I am not placed in the bulk folder. Is this something I really need to worry about?

Me:         If you had asked me that question five years ago, I would have said "yes" and handed you a document of common spam trigger words. Realistically, today, trigger words like that aren't as much of a concern. For legitimate email marketers, the elements that drive inbox placement have more to do with spam complaints, bounces and a recipient's engagement with your email communication. It is about your reputation as a sender, not the words that appear in your subject line.

Attendee:         Why can I only have 35 characters in my subject line? 

Me:         Subject lines are subjective, and response is unique to an individual at any given moment in time. Recipients want the subject line to be engaging, to grab their attention and to pull them into the message. Do it in 35 characters or 135 characters - as long as it gets the job done. If you have nothing compelling to say, it doesn't matter if you said it in 35 characters.

Subject lines should always be tested, in real time, for impact on a specific message at a single moment in time. You don't always have to include your company name at the front of the subject line or even include an offer. You may be surprised what works and what doesn't -- and how that varies from one day to the next.

What do you think? Is there advice you are getting from experts that may not be sitting well? Feel free to post your thoughts. I'm happy to provide any insight I can!  

3 comments about "When Advice Goes Stale: Outdated Best Practices?".
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  1. Sue Coore from High Impact Presentations, September 15, 2011 at 1:43 p.m.

    Great article. It is amazing how much old information is stored in our brains and for some odd reason, we think it's as correct today as it was 2 or 5 years ago! (This reminds me of a woman who thinks her hairstyle from a long time ago still is in style!) My original Power Sales Writing book (pub in 2003 and written in 2002) has a ton of this outdated advice!! Thankfully, the Second Edition was released last Friday and it beautifully aligns with your tips here.
    Sue Hershkowitz-Coore
    Author: Power Sales Writing: Second Edition & How to Say it To Sell It!

  2. Susan Fantle from The Copy Works, September 15, 2011 at 2:05 p.m.

    Below are the two disclaimers I put on all the email copy I write for clients. The reason for limiting the line length from left to right is due to the fact that lines that are long from left to write are difficult for a person to read. Their eyes lose their place trying to track a long line from left to right. This is a best practice that will not change due to the fact that it's a physical thing.

    The second about subject line length is pretty clear.

    My philosophy is that following these rules is not cast in concrete but why not do everything possible to enhance the readability of the message. Thanks for this post. Susan

    SUBJECT LINE: Because both email broadcast software and email clients often truncate subject lines – or limit their visibility – we recommend limiting subject line length to 40 characters including spaces. Longer subject lines can work if the meaning is still clear after truncation.

    LINE LENGTH: To maximize readability of text emails, line length of this email has been limited to 70 characters and spaces with a hard break at the end of each line.

  3. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, September 16, 2011 at 2:12 p.m.

    Having watched internet communications evolve for the past twenty years, much "common sense" is in fact a temporary band-aid. Remember the "rule" that the period at the end of a sentence should be followed by two spaces, and a comma followed by only one? Wrong, the AP Stylebook indicates you only need one.

    Another piece of conventional wisdom is that people prefer rougher video to more professionally-produced content. That may have been true in the past, but if you look at what is trending now, there is a much higher level of quality as teenagers now have the same technical chops we'd expect of a Hollywood post-production studio a decade ago. The reality is that your email will always be judged against the "average" email experience.

    In my opinion, every business should beware of best practices and know how to use A/B analysis. It is the easiest and best way to test reactions, right now. You can use A/B testing for copy, for landing pages, for email, for search, even for telephone calls. Technology has made it incredibly cheap and free in many cases. Once you know what people like, you can take those insights and apply them to what your top competitors are doing. It's a great way to tell you what direction you and your competitors are moving in relative to each other.

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