Stop the Madness -- More Email Practices That Deserve To Die

I'm mad as hell! And I'm not gonna take it any more!

Okay, I exaggerate. If every email marketing program was a "10," what would we columnists have to write about?

I've always sung this refrain: "Email marketing is easy to do - but hard to do well." But now, I've changed my tune a bit. Email marketing is not hard to do well. It just requires hard work to do it right.

Knowing how to do it right is easier now, too. We in the email industry have our own set of generally accepted best practices (GABP), formed by our own mistakes, triumphs and experience based on what works best for senders, ISPs and end recipients.

What makes me tear at my graying and thinning hair lately is all the companies who still violate these GABPs. No, they aren't laws, but they are a bit like teaching your children to say "please" and "thank you" (hold the Barney jokes). They are simply the right thing to do.



Read through my initial list of 10 infractions of "GABPs," and see how your program rates.

1. Making it difficult to unsubscribe. Commit these concepts to memory: spam-complaint button, CAN-SPAM Act, consumer control, common sense. Now, repeat after me: "Unsubscribes are a good thing!" Again, with feeling! When you camouflage your unsubscribe link in tiny type or behind euphemisms, you don't get better sales or higher ROI. Instead, recipients will click the spam button so frequently that ISPs block your emails. Make it easy to unsubscribe, but also make it easy to give your subscribers alternatives to do what they really want, like changing format, frequency, email address or interests.

2. No "welcome" message and/or waiting weeks to send the first message. Many marketers are missing the boat on such basic concepts: 60% don't send a "welcome" email, according to a recent Return Path study, and 35% sent no emails in the first 30 days after opting in, according to a Silverpop study of large retailers' email practices.

While no hard numbers exist, I estimate that retailers without a welcome program and/or who wait 30 days or longer to send the first email may be reaping only half of their potential ROI.

3. Overmailing. This is typically the number one or two reason people hit the spam-complaint button or unsubscribe. Stop, please! There is no "magic" number of times to send in a week or month. As I outlined in my earlier column "What's the Best Frequency? Who Cares," your subscribers and your program goals ultimately determine your optimum frequency.

4. Using a large single image as the core of your email. Not only does this create a horrendous rendering problem with recipients who use preview panes, have images blocked, or both, it can also get your email blocked or filtered to junk folders by ISPs such as Hotmail.

5. Not using alt tags. You didn't know that an alt tag is the HMTL code that describes an image and displays (some of the time) when the email client/ISP blocks the image? Now you do. So, get with your email designer and copywriter to create descriptive tags for each image.

6. Relying on graphical links. Guess what? If recipients can't see the image-based link, then they won't click on it, either. Use text links, especially for navigation and key calls to action, and create HTML buttons that render even when the email client blocks the corresponding image buttons.

7. Not having a preference center. If you don't make it super-easy for subscribers to change their email address, frequency, format and profile/preferences, then you are just list-churn roadkill.

8. Not designing for the preview pane. More than a quarter of consumer users and half of all business users read email in a preview pane. Ignore that reality, and you will feel the "pain" of a lower ROI.

9. Using a person's name in the "from" line. You can do this if your name is Martha Stewart, Seth Godin or Guy Kawasaki. But Mary Smith, marketing director? Nope. Tell me the email is from "Company A" and I'll be more likely to recognize and read the email.

10. Hiding email registration. How are people supposed to sign up for your emails if they don't even know you send them? And one measly registration form field buried at the bottom of your homepage won't create a stampede. Sell potential subscribers at every possible turn, with an invitation that spotlights your email benefits, on every page of your Web site.

I could go on, but I'm out of room. I'll save the conversation for a future column on best practices that might be controversial and not universally agreed upon.

Two last thoughts for today: On one hand, you should jump with glee when your competitor's email program stinks up the joint. On the other, your jaw should tighten out of anger and frustration. Email is a global village. Marketers who do stupid things mess it up for everyone.

Forward this column to someone who is behind the times. And, I'd love to hear your thoughts below on other "generally accepted best practices" I may have left out, or if you disagree on any that I've outlined.

Until next time, take it up a notch.

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