Email Marketing Best Practices: Cheat Sheet
(This advanced blog summarizes real growth insights Demand Curve has acquired from running marketing for hundreds of companies.)
Email marketing best practices
Email marketing can be your highest performing marketing channel. But how do you make emails that convert recipients into customers?
We’ve found that making subject lines descriptive rather than vague and salesy can increase open rates of email marketing campaigns by 60%. And we’ve discovered that stripping your design-heavy email into a text-only email can double click-through rates.
Follow this cheat sheet to learn many more marketing tips to optimize every aspect of your email marketing strategy.
Half your email list will decide whether or not to open your email based solely on how the subject line feels for them. So it’s worth your time to test what actually works.
The biggest mistake email marketers make with their subject lines is making them sound clickbaity. This gets people to open emails in the short-term, but it associates your brand with spammy practices and eventually hurts your email open rates in the long-term.
Instead, email subject lines should be concise, simple, and self-descriptive.
- A new email subscriber signs up for your product/service: "What you need to know."
- When a free trial period is ending: "Trial expired. Here's a one-time 20% coupon."
- When someone hasn't redeemed a coupon: "Your 20% discount expires today."
- For an abandoned cart: "Almost done. Finish checkout."
It’s worth A/B testing your subject lines to see how significant variations can result in higher open and conversion rates.
For example, you can A/B test using emojis in your subject lines to make them stand out in someone’s inbox. Try to make them relevant to the copy you’re using in your subject, like:
You can also test writing your subject lines in lowercase. It makes the email feel like it was sent from a friend instead of Marketing From A Company Selling You Things, typically resulting in higher open rates.
Most marketing emails are too busy. They’re overloaded with graphics and look like magazines. This makes readers feel like they’re being advertised to. And it causes them to throw those emails into their junk folder.
The key to great email design is simplicity. The more emails look like they were sent by a friend, the more likely they’ll be read.
The exception? If you’re an e-commerce company selling products with visual appeal. Then using heavy graphics in your emails is often appropriate. Just be sure that your emails are optimized for mobile devices, so the graphics are correctly formatted on a reader’s iPhone.
If you’re using HTML formatting and rich media content in your emails, ensure that the design augments the message you’re getting across. Don’t stuff your emails with graphics if those graphics aren’t necessary. It increases the likelihood that they won’t get past your email subscribers’ spam filter.
This is why, when appropriate, you should consider sending your emails as plain-text. Your emails are more likely to get through. And because they won’t look like marketing emails, they’re more likely to get read as well.
Email services like Gmail display the first 100 characters from your email next to your subject line:
This is called pre-header text. It can be what tips recipients in favor of actually opening your email.
Make it highly descriptive — just like your subject line. The intention is to increase the reader’s curiosity by teasing what’s inside.
For a welcome email, you can follow this formula:
“How to take your first picture.”
How to [verb] your first [product output].
If you're sending a coupon email, consider this formula:
“This coupon saves you $15 on a 4k camera.”
This coupon saves you [$ amount] on [product].
Pro tip: When reviewing your emails, send yourself a test and assess your subject line and pre-header in context next to each other. Make sure one flows into the next.
This is the first thing your recipient reads when they open your email. It usually consists of two parts:
- Header and subheader copy
- An image that conveys the value of your product (optional)
Your header should tell recipients exactly what you’re announcing. It should explain why they should care about this email.
If your recipient is quickly flipping through their emails, this section may be the only part of your email that they read. Do not waste this with fluffy marketing speak. Be specific.
Effective header text should answer the question in every reader’s mind: “Is this email relevant to me?”
- “Send your first email campaign today.” from Squarespace
- “Meet email templates in Spark.” from Spark
- “Draw anything with Pen Tool.” from UXpin
Don’t forget. They’re actively looking for reasons to delete email messages in their inbox without reading them.
Content that converts
The key to high-converting email content is delivering on the value that you’ve promised in your subject line, pre-header text, and header text. How you do that depends on your type of business.
Stop. Gut check that the value you’re delivering is focused on the customer and not on your own business. Soliciting Product Hunt upvotes is more for you than it is for them. Your emails should add value in the form of information or deals to your audience.
For e-commerce companies selling physical goods, make product images the center of your body. Like this:
Remember, the goal is to communicate the value of your email as effectively as possible. In this case, a photo of a lampshade does that far better than email copy describing one.
Keep your content in a format that makes it easy to scan. Make images large enough to register, but not so big that they distract from core content. The less effort it takes for a user to move from one section to the next, the more likely they are to do so.
For SaaS businesses, images aren’t usually the best way to deliver on the value of your email because seeing inside a dashboard is only so interesting. But you can use them to complement the copy you want to draw attention to.
Don’t bury your readers in a mountain of text. Keep paragraphs no more than a few sentences and space them out in a scannable layout.
Call to action (CTA)
Use call to action buttons to help your action items stand out from the rest of the email’s copy:
The most common mistake made with CTA copy is making it sound vague and salesy, e.g., “Improve yourself!”. Instead, use your CTA to describe the benefit readers receive from clicking the button:
- “See it in action“ instead of “Learn more.”
- “Begin designing” instead of “Visit site.”
- “Browse winter jackets” instead of “Shop now.”
- “Tell your friends” instead of “Share to social media.”
Recipients are skimming emails and aren’t paying close attention. So write something that can catch their eye with specific next steps.
Pro tip: If you use text links for your CTAs, make sure they’re on their own line. They’ll stand out more and will be more likely to be clicked by people quickly skimming the email.
Use as few CTA’s as are necessary. Point users in the exact directions you want them to follow. Multiple CTAs can be distracting and create ambiguity in your emails.
Some of the best marketing emails end with expressing your company’s willingness to provide support. For example, you could say, “Need help getting started? Just reply to this email, and our team is here to help. We respond quickly."
Every footer should give a reader the option to unsubscribe in one click or link to a simple unsubscribe form. Without that option, people will unsubscribe by marking your email as spam. This could get you blacklisted and hurt the future deliverability of your emails.
It’s also against the law to not provide the ability to unsubscribe from your communications.
We go over advanced email marketing strategies in Demand Curve's Growth Training.
Optimal time to send emails
Typically, late-morning around 10am in the recipient’s time zone is the best time to send emails.
But the better way to approach send times is to personalize it to the recipient. Email marketing tools like Mailchimp provide Send Time Optimization to automatically send your email at the time your recipient is most likely to open it.
If your emails aren’t relevant to the person receiving them, they’ll unsubscribe.
Use segmentation to divide your email list up based on characteristics such as demographics and their past engagement with your site. For example, don’t send men announcements about your new women’s apparel.
Not all email subscribers behave the same way. An email to someone who opted-in to your email list after they purchased won’t necessarily want the same emails as someone who opted-in from a blog post.
For example, send a series of Instapot recipes to people who opt-in from your Instapot guide blog post. Or, for another type of user, send a coupon for a travel-sized version of the skincare lotion someone just bought from you.
When providing coupons, use dynamically generated codes like (XXX-YYY-ZZZ) instead of static, vanity codes like SAVE10. Single-use, unique codes feel exclusive and convert higher than static ones. They’re also less likely to be publicly shared on coupon code websites.
Marketing emails have a high likelihood of landing in your recipients’ spam folder.
The biggest factor that determines your deliverability is your reputation as a sender. Here’s what determines that reputation:
- Health of your sending infrastructure: Are the IPs that your emails are sent from viewed favorably by ISPs? Or have people reported emails coming from your IPs as spam?
- Positive signals: How often do recipients open, click, forward, and reply to your emails? The more positive signals, the better your reputation. How long you’ve been receiving positive signals matters too.
- Negative signals: If your emails hard bounce, get complaints, or are deleted without reading, these are considered negative signals. These hurt your reputation and thus your deliverability. Your complaint rate should be under .02% — or 1 complaint for every 5000 emails.
Use Google Postmaster Tools to see your reputation through the eyes of Gmail. You can also use it to prove ownership of your domain and troubleshoot deliverability issues
How do you get your emails into inboxes reliably?
Use double opt-in
After people agree to give you their email for marketing purposes, send them another email confirming their consent. All email marketing tools have this as an option.
That way, the people getting your emails definitely want them. So they’re more likely to open your emails and less likely to report you as spam.
This is now required in Europe due to GDPR. The US will enact privacy regulation requiring double opt-in as well.
Don’t wait for users ignoring your emails to manually unsubscribe. Instead, proactively purge subscribers from your list who haven’t opened your messages after a certain period of time. Do this so you’re sending fewer emails to people sending negative signals. This boosts your reputation and improves the open rates among people who really do want your mailings.
To learn more advanced email marketing techniques, check out Demand Curve’s Growth Training.