Three Urban Legends Of Email Marketing

Over the years, as I've spoken at conferences and on Webinars, met with clients and chatted with colleagues in the email industry, I've heard several myths and misunderstandings repeated so often that they've achieved status as urban legends in our industry.

So, in this column, I will reveal my three favorite email marketing urban legends. Why "urban legends?" Like alligators in the New York sewer system, they start out as rumors that nobody can trace to the source, or had a toehold in reality once -- but get blown way out of proportion through repeated retelling, misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

1. Email software automatically sends mobile devices the text part of a multipart message.  

This legend springs up because many people don't understand either how a multipart message works or how smart phones currently render email.  

Most ESPs and email marketing software send your message as a multipart/alternative, which means that it sends both a plain text and HTML version within the same message (assuming you created both). The receiving email client or reading device presents the version it is able to render or version selected if the email client allows the user to set a preference.

So, unless your subscriber specifically chooses the text format upon opting in, he will most likely receive both parts of the multipart message.

However, almost all smart phones today do in fact accept the HTML version. Most just make a mess of it. For example, all current BlackBerry models will render the HTML part of a multipart message, but the RIM operating system strips out the HTML code and then presents the text portion of the HTML and full HTML links and image URLs. As Morgan Stewart outlined in an earlier column (, RIM is expected to rectify this in the coming months.

Palm devices do not render images or multiple columns and only some colors. Similar to RIM, the Symbian platform (used on Nokia devices among others) strips out HTML code and presents the plain text from the HTML message. On the other hand, the iPhone and Windows Mobile 6 render the full HTML format, with Windows Mobile having images off by default.

So because the text version won't magically appear on a subscriber's mobile device, you must design your HTML messages to render as well as possible in both the PC and mobile environments. Among other things, replace images and administrative copy from the top of your emails with your calls to action and key branding in plain text.

2. Using "free" in your subject line will get your email blocked.

ISPs and any companies that use SpamAssassin or similar rules-based filtering algorithms typically assess a fraction of a point for using "free" in the subject line. In fact, looking at the tests applied in SpamAssassin 3.2 , I don't see a current test for "free."

The previous 3.1 version does assign 0.286 point if your subject line begins with "free." But with most filters not blocking messages unless your test score reaches about 4.0 points, you should have little problem getting your message delivered to most recipients when using this popular word.

Don't believe me? Look at your personal email inbox. My own shows "free" in subject lines from major brands such as Target, Lands' End, Crutchfield and Tiffany. These companies use the word because it is powerful, it works and I'm guessing they have tested it frequently against other words. But, even if your message does end up in some junk folders, the increased response and conversion will typically more than make up the difference.

That being said, there are exceptions, of course. Don't spell the word in upper case or use an exclamation point with it. These examples will likely penalize you more points with many filters and might even get your email filtered to the junk folder from default settings in some email clients.

A second exception: those pesky network administrators (who tend to dislike marketing messages in general and HTML email in particular) or individual users who set up their own content filters to block email with content they dislike.

3. {Insert day here) is the best day to send email.

Fortunately, I don't hear this too much anymore. But a few years ago, it seemed like every three months a new study came out naming yet another day as the "best" day to send.

This magic best emailing day doesn't exist, as David Baker outlined in a recent column ( Every email program has its own quirks and characteristics. For example, a few years ago I tested virtually every day of the week for a motorcycle accessories site and found that Sunday-morning mailings continuously generated the highest revenue. After the fact, it seemed to make sense, understanding motorcycle riders' habits.

In reality, as David pointed out, the "best" day varies not only by business but by segments within your database. But the right day and time can make a difference in your results.

We have a retail client who did an A/B split - mailing to the control group at the same time they do every week; and then the test group received the message based on the time of their last open. Total revenue generated from the test group was 52% greater than the control group and average value per order was 47%  higher.

What's your email marketing urban legend? Please share it below.

Until next time: Take it up a notch.    



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