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Email marketing myths: five best practices that are really misconceptions

#Email, #MarketingAutomation

It may seem like one of the older forms of digital marketing communications, but email marketing is an incredibly dynamic space. It’s come a long way from the spray-and-pray, email-blast approach of five years ago to our sophisticated, highly targeted marketing-automation campaigns. With the rate of change, it can be hard for marketers to keep up with the trends and—even more importantly—to separate mere fleeting trends from enduring, hard-won wisdom. Let’s face it, in such a rapidly evolving industry, today’s “best practices” often transform into tomorrow’s misconceptions almost overnight, as our understanding becomes more nuanced and better grounded in experimentation and experience.

In this post, I’d like to address some of the misplaced best practices. And a confession here: I abided by many of these practices myself. That’s why I advocate for the one enduring best practice that won’t be undermined: TESTING. Every audience, every business and every campaign objective is different. So it’s important to test your email marketing initiatives to establish your own best practices and avoid embracing dogma.

Myth #1: Shorter subject lines get better results

Recent studies—two of which are nicely summarized by Adestra and by MailChimp—have shown that subject line length has little impact on open rates. In some cases, a short, crisp subject line works, while in others, a good subject line takes more words.

The key is making every word count and clearly identifying to the recipient the “What’s In It For Me” (WIIFM). Relevance and clarity trump character counts. As a general principle, I still push for shorter subject lines in an effort to make every word count. But short does not equal success.

Now, having said that, it does appear that certain words have better drawing power than others, for instance “free,” “act now,” etc. Consider that the word “free” in the subject line increases open rates by an astounding 10%, according to research reported by Sidekick. But, of course, such words should only be used where they are relevant.

Myth #2: The higher the frequency, the higher the unsubscribes

A common discussion point in email marketing is whether we need to be careful that we don’t send TOO many emails, risking unsubscribes from the mailing list or spam complaints. This generally leads to marketers having a rule of thumb of limiting email frequency to once or twice a month.

It makes sense, right? You don’t want to wear out your welcome. But Hubspot conducted a survey that contradicted the conventional wisdom. In the study, summarized here by MarketingProfs, unsubscribes actually decreased when the frequency increased to four or five times per month.

Of course, a caveat is important here. Unsubscribes will almost certainly rise if you’re sending emails that do not provide value to the audience. If every touch point is providing value, then frequency is less of a concern. Ideally, you should also have a mechanism in your subscriber preference center that allows subscribers to choose the frequency of contact—enhancing the customer experience.

Myth #3: The fold

For some reason the notion of “the fold” persists. It’s a hangover from a time when newspapers were sold folded in half. The fold mattered then because articles on the top half of the front page—above the fold—were read more often. But applying that notion to the digital realm doesn’t work, despite the common belief that the whole message must appear on one screen—above the digital fold created by the bottom of the screen.

In an age when most email is read on mobile devices, the idea of a fold just isn’t meaningful. The website shows just how treacherous designing around “a fold” can be. People are used to scrolling now in the mobile age.

Instead, we need to create email content that is compelling and encourages scrolling, with an eye on design priorities and flow, and interactivity that takes into account mobile needs, such as large buttons better suited to fingers, not cursors.

Myth #4: The best time to send emails is in the morning, usually during weekdays

On midweek mornings, as people are getting to work, the first thing they do is check their inboxes. So it makes sense that that’s the best time to send emails to them. To the contrary, though, recent studies have shown higher open rates in the evening and on weekends.

People’s mobile devices are always on these days. Professionals usually have a work smartphone and will check emails throughout the day. Perhaps what’s happening is that subscribers are prioritizing their email during weekdays, placing higher priority on emails from colleagues and superiors, while marketing emails are being ignored until later (or getting deleted). Emails sent in the evening and on weekends are bypassing the daily clutter and rising to the top of the inbox.

Myth #5: SPAM words

Spam filters are far more sophisticated than they were just a few years ago. There was a time when specific words triggered spam filters. Today, filters operate largely based on content, and the biggest spam-filter factor is reputation. The more spam complaints a sender or email generates, the more likely it is to trigger a spam filter. If you’re a trusted source with a good reputation, only 1 in 2000 customers is likely to mark your email as spam, according to this blog post from labnet.

One positive side effect of this change is that words like “free,” which have a powerful ability to improve open rates (see Myth #1), are now less likely to trigger spam filters. But it’s important to note that there’s conflicting information on whether or not certain words—including free—still activate some filters. The fact that Sidekick reports that including the word free in the subject line improves open rates by double digits suggests that it certainly isn’t the four-letter word it used to be.

Were there any surprises for you on this list of email myths? Do you have any of your own to share? If so, you can connect with me by email at I’d love to hear and discuss them.