Email marketing is almost as old as digital marketing itself, but far from being outdated it’s still considered – as reported by Salesforce this year – by 73% of marketers to be a core part of their business. Part of this popularity may be down to the apparent simplicity of sending an email, but in fact the process of having your message land safely in a recipient’s inbox is more complex than many might imagine. What’s more is that this complexity begins to increase dramatically once you consider the many variables associated with distributing emails and newsletters simultaneously to large groups.

One benefit of email marketing and its expert practitioners being relatively long in the tooth, however, is that there is plenty of useful data to help inform the approach taken when rolling out a new campaign. A few simple initial steps – including sending emails from a dedicated IP address, keeping track of your Sender Score (which functions similarly to a credit score but here it’s email providers and spam filters rather than money lenders considering how trustworthy you are), and designing emails that are easy to read on mobiles and tablets as well as laptops – will stand you in good stead before getting down to the nuts and bolts of optimising details like subject lines and send frequency.

Just like a newspaper headline, your subject line will more often than not be the first thing the reader sees and will therefore play a key role in winning their continued attention. Unlike headlines however, ‘clickbait’ style subject lines that have proven popular among some online publishers in recent years – “You won’t believe this shocking secret…” etcetera – have been proven an ineffective ploy when it comes to email subject lines: a 2015 Return Path study of more than 9 million messages sent by prominent global brands showed corresponding decreases in read rates when phrases like “Secret of…” and words like “shocking” were used in subject lines. Instead, email marketers would be advised to make their subject lines as engaging and personal as possible; if an email has arrived in your inbox, you would like to believe that it is there because of its direct personal relevance to you, rather than on the off chance that “you’ll never believe what happened next.”

The same study also found that subject line character length isn’t as important as popularly thought. In fact, those between 91 and 100 characters in length – which might be thought of as being a little on the long side – produced a corresponding 15.1% read rate and were among the best performing in the survey. The more commonly-used length of 40-49 characters came out with one of the lowest average read rates in the sample, meanwhile. What this tells us is that there is no real ‘golden mean’ when it comes to subject lines, and that email marketers should be constantly testing and adapting their subject lines rather than relying on established ideas of best practice.

It goes without saying, though, that even the most perfectly crafted email with an optimised subject line and a trustworthy Sender Score backing it up is less likely to be read if it arrives at the wrong time. There’s a case to be made for how many emails you’re sending too, and thus how often your brand is appearing in a recipient’s inbox. Monitoring the effects of when and how often you distribute emails can be just as important for boosting results as the content of the messages themselves.

Additionally, many people will have more than one email address – and will treat their various inboxes differently. Primary email addresses typically make up only around a quarter of a mailing list, but generate 5/6 of responses. Subscribers are more likely to provide a primary address (as opposed to an old or less-used secondary account) if they trust your brand, so email marketers need to consider approaches to help ensure that this happens. Trust can be a fragile thing, however, and subscribers will be quick to turn if they feel that it has been abused – thus it’s perhaps unsurprising that, as well as the most positive responses, the most complaints also come from recipients’ primary addresses.

Ultimately, the most important thing to do is track the results of each campaign and to segment your recipient list based on subscriber engagement accordingly. Learning about your subscriber activities, and adapting your approach in line with this, will help you make smarter, more informed decisions and deliver a more positive experience for your customers.


By Guy Hanson, Senior Director Professional Services at Return Path

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