Email Marketing Best Practice

Email Marketing Article
20 mins

Here is everything I know about email marketing (well a fair bit of it anyway) in one blog post.

If ever a marketing discipline was misunderstood, misused, and yes, abused, email marketing is it. When you send an email you have a unique opportunity to talk to your customers or potential customers on a one-on-one basis- a hugely valuable prospect but also a daunting task, especially if you’re not sending one email but thousands at the click of a button…

Figure 1 D’oh!

Here’s what we’re going to cover in this report:

  • Data capture & list management
  • Copywriting
  • Designing for email
  • Personalisation
  • Tracking & measurement
  • Testing
  • Email marketing FAQ

Data capture & list management

Key takeaways from this section:

  • Make sure you have permission to email
  • Only collect data you’re going to use
  • Keep your data fresh and encourage recipients to unsubscribe

You really can’t benefit from any of the advice in the rest of this report if you don’t have an email list to start off with so that’s as good a place as any to start.

I’m not going to veer off into the field of list building too much here as it’s a subject in its own right but I’ll assume that you probably already have a list, however small, of customers, prospects, associates etc whom you want to email. Before you dive in and start sending out your first emails you’ll want to be sure you’ve got permission to email the people on your list. Really you need the expressed permission (known as “opt-in”) of that person. Often when I’ve worked on email campaigns in large organisations with legacy data its not entirely clear if you have that permission or not, especially if some time has passed between the person being added to the list and you starting to email them. Where there’s doubt the best route to take is to request recipients re-subscribe or confirm their opt-in status in some way before you hit them with a campaign.

Data collection

There’s a huge number of places where you can collect email list data besides that data which you‘ve already got from customers and so forth. The simplest is the humble email newsletter signup…

Figure 2 Email newsletter subscription on


But you can also think about collecting emails with:

  • Competitions & giveaways
  • Downloads
  • Forums & communities
  • Searches
  • Saved information (i.e. save this search)

Figure 3 Saved search alerts on

The key with this sort of data capture is to not get carried away with the information you try to collect from people. Data capture forms on websites almost always interrupt a users session so you need to:

  • Make signing up as fast as possible, ideally only requiring an email address
  • Make the benefits of subscribing apparent and compelling do this nicely when you search for an insurance quote:

When it comes to deciding what data you’re going to try and collect it pays to think ahead and have a clear idea in your mind of what you’re planning on doing with that data. Epic forms like the one below may give you a bunch of juicy data to add to your CRM but you’re also opening yourself up to a huge amount of bogus entries. So unless you really want to phone hundreds of people called Micky mouse, I wouldn’t even bother asking for the data, and certainly wouldn’t require it.

Think of any data a website visitor chooses to give you as a privilege and don’t try and take too much.

Double Opt In

Whenever you collect data for your email list online you need to take extra care to ensure you have explicit permission to email. Most companies now use what’s known as “double opt-in”, where the user has to confirm they want to be added to the list both at the point they enter their details and again by clicking a confirmation link in an email sent to the address they entered. Many email service providers will also require their clients to use double opt-in.

Its generally accepted that ecommerce businesses who sign up customers to mailings at the point of sale don’t seek double opt-in- for example Ebay and Amazon never seek double opt-in and they bombard past customers with a huge amount of email.

List quality

I’m a big advocate of list quality over quantity especially in a B2B environment. Filling up busy people’s work email inboxes with daily newsletters is not the way to build valuable long-term business relationships or improve your online reputation.  Therefore I would always;

  • Tell the recipient how often you plan to email them and why
  • Seek double opt-in to ensure the recipient is serious about receiving your content
  • Remind people how and why they signed up in every email you send and telling them how they can unsubscribe
  • Make unsubscribing very easy
  • Regularly audit recipient engagement (open rates, click through) and challenging passive recipients to re-subscribe

This may all sound like best practice mumbo-jumbo but actually companies who do this stuff and actively limit the size of their email lists enjoy much better response and conversion rates from their email activity and are able to make better judgments when it comes to testing and segmentation, as we’ll discuss later.

Content & Copywriting for email

I really believe that words are the most important part of a successful email- too many marketers spend too much time obsessing over design, layout and things which on the whole have marginal rewards like delivery time, yet the actual content of the email and the copywriting doesn’t get the care and attention it deserves.

This doesn’t mean you have to send a plain text email (although in some cases that might work better) but you should craft the content of every message you send to make sure it is interesting and giving something back to the reader, else they won’t waste their time reading your next message.

I’ve worked with a number of large organisations who work to strict self imposed delivery schedules. The problem with committing to something like a monthly newsletter is you have to find something newsworthy to send out every month- sometimes there just isn’t anything to say!

If possible I prefer to adopt a more flexible schedule, using the email medium only when you have something worth saying (and of course sticking to the maximum mailing frequency which your mailing list opted in to). However if this isn’t an option plan your editorial calendar well in advance and don’t fall into the trap of “we need 3 news stories because we have 3 boxes to fill in our HTML newsletter template”- start with the content and build the design around it.

Email copywriting best practice

When it comes to actually writing copy for your emails there is some well established best practice you should aim to follow:

  • Keep it short- don’t use 100 words to say what you could say in 10
  • Headings are useful for breaking up copy and communicating key information- avoid teasers, make your headings useful
  • Limit paragraphs to no more than a couple of sentences each- 3 at the most. Big chunks of text look daunting and will put readers off.
  • Lists are a great way to communicate complex ideas or benefits simply in an email
  • Place your links inline in the text of your email. Don’t rely on recipients clicking buttons or images.

HTML email design

HTML email design is hated by most web designers. The email medium is more restrictive than designing for the web and getting even simple designs to work across different email and webmail clients can cause untold headaches. The key to success in HTML email design is simplicity. I cannot stress enough that the vast majority of recipients are far more interested in the content than they are in the design so your design should be used to present content in its best light and make it as easy to digest as possible- never fit content into design- the content comes first. Anyway ranting over!

The biggest difference between web and email is the limitation on screen size. Even with the big monitors most people use these days you still can’t safely design an HTML email to much more than 600 pixels wide or 400 pixels high without causing recipients to scroll, depending on their viewing pane settings.

What that means is you need to:

  • Ensure your key message is very high in the email design
  • Limit the size of headers/ banner images at the top of email designs
  • Ideally keep your most important content and headlines to the left of the design so reduce the possibility of losing them off the right hand side of the viewing pane

Figure 4 A nice simple header which encorporates the key message of the email

Because of the varied level of support for CSS in email clients, use of image blocking and because your recipients might be reading your email on a mobile device with limited HTML rendering capabilities you should keep layouts as simple as possible (I recommend no more than 2 columns) and limit the use of images to decorative content as far as possible. Failing this ensure that any content which is inside an image is repeated within the text of the email. Campaign monitors blog have some great resources for email design that I always point designers to.

Before you hit the send button on any campaign make sure you’ve tested your design in a reasonable sample of email clients (Outlook, Apple Mail, Lotus Notes for B2B) and webmail services (take a sample of your email list and look for the common one’s being used- probably hotmail, gmail and Yahoo). Litmus have a great (paid) email preview tool which makes this job easier. With complex designs you may need to compromise and accept that your layout will not be pixel perfect in every single email client- instead concentrate on making sure your content is readable (with images on or off) and that your key messages and links are coming across in the email.

Personalisation & Segmentation

Personalisation is another wide email subject (and one which again can’t be covered entirely in this article) and it goes far beyond what most people think tend to think of which is stuff like:

Hi Daniel


Hi [*FirstName*] if you mess up your merge tags!

Depending on the amount of data you have on your list you can personalize virtually every part of an email from delivery time through to content and design. Amazon use this approach to a point which borders on stalking:

Because Amazon track previous customers everytime they return to their site they can look at products which you’ve browsed but not brought and ping out an email the next week to remind you that you might want to buy it. Clever stuff indeed, but smaller businesses can also make better use of personalisation and segmentation in their campaigns. Here’s a few tips:

Basic personalisation

Actual I still think using a name in your emails is a good idea. You might want to test whether you get better open rates using Dear/ Hi or Firstname/ Mr Surname.

You can also try using the name personalisation in other parts of your message like the subject field.

This can look a bit “tacky” but it is attention grabbing- use with caution.

Segmentation by past purchase

You don’t need to be Amazon to personalise your emails by customer groups. If you’ve got past purchase history data for your customer list you can easily create segments by the types of products they’re likely to be interested in. For example a travel agent could segment by past destinations and send offers for similar destinations…

“Daniel, how did you enjoy Lanzarote last year?  This year why not try Tenerife…”

Delivery preferences

One technique to increase signups to your email list is to allow recipients to specify how often you can email them, what format of email they want to receive (HTML or plain text) or the types of email they want (newsletters, offers, third party promotions etc).

Landing page personalisation

One of the most powerful techniques I’ve seen for improving landing page performance is using personalisation variables passed from an email to a landing page. This is actually quite simple to implement and you can do some really interesting personalisation with it. For example if you had the following data:

Name: Daniel Rowles

Company name: Target Internet

Past purchases: HP ink cartridges

You could use a url like:

Then your landing page could read:


Target Internet could save 20% on your ink cartridge costs for 2011 by taking advantage of our multi-buy discount on HP Ink Cartridges to find out how much you could save enter the number of cartridges you expect to buy this year below…

Personalisation like that on a web page gets a much better response than in an email and is a great tool for improving conversion rates of email campaign landing pages.

Tracking, Measurement & Analytics

One of the huge advantages of email marketing is you can use tracking and analytics to monitor, in often finite detail, what happens to your email after you press send. Compare this to the offline equivalent of a direct mail campaign and the benefits are clear. But its also easy to get lost in data and obsess over metrics which can paint a misleading story.

Conversion is the goal

When it comes to any sort of online marketing metrics I believe the only KPI ‘s worth setting are those which are based around conversion. Whatever email service provider you choose for your campaign they’ll no doubt supply you with a pretty reporting dashboard with delivery rates, open rates and click through rates. This stuff is good to know but when email marketers tell me they’re targeted on the open rates of their campaigns alarm bells ring.

With every email you send you should be aiming to get recipients to do something. That might be to buy something, enter a competition, give you some extra data, complete a survey or download a whitepaper. If you don’t have a clear action which you want recipients to complete then you have to question why you’re sending the email in the first place.

While email campaigns like newsletters may serve a brand building purpose ultimately you’re probably still trying to sell something in the long run so ensure that your campaigns have an opportunity for interaction which, even if you’re not “going for the sale” with every email you send you, will give an indication of whether you’re getting closer to the sale.

Its these conversion goals which should be the primary metric you measure and use as a guide to how successful your emails are.


You’ll need to get to grips with tracking your email campaigns with your web analytics package in order to really see what’s going on with your email campaigns as its what happens after visitors click through from the email which matters.

This is pretty simple with most web analytics programs and involves adding custom tracking parameters to links in your email campaigns which will allow you to segment your traffic and analyse traffic and conversion rates from the email campaign. As usual this is easiest with Google Analytics using the url builder tool or many of the major ESP’s like Mailchimp offer automatic Google Analytics link tagging but it’s a similar process for other packages like Webtrends and Omniture.


Testing is absolutely essential if you’re going to get the most out of your email marketing. Best practice is all well and good but you’re only really going to find out what presses your audiences buttons (and more importantly what makes them press buttons in your email messages!) by testing things out and measuring the response.

In my conversion rate optimisation post I went through some of the basics of landing page split testing but I also suggested that you should only be looking at split testing as a last resort once other parts of the CRO process have been ticked off. With email the reverse is true, no matter how big or small your list start planning your tests right at the outset of your email campaign and make sure you allow enough budget for additional design and copywriting work to produce different versions of your messages for testing.

Much of the best practice advice for testing landing pages also applies to email so you should:

Make sure your tests are significantly different i.e. send one message first thing in the morning and the other early evening, rather than testing the difference between sending at 1 and 2 pm.

Test one set of variables at a time (unless you really know what you’re doing)

Here are some variants you might want to test:

Scheduling: delivery time or day

Format: Plain text or HTML

Length: Long vs short text

Promotion: If you’re incentivising recipients to click through in some way try varying the promotion or the way its worded i.e. 2 for 1 or 50% off.

Landing page: Send click-throughs to different landing pages and analyse which converts the best

Basic email testing is actually very easy to do with virtually all email service providers. If you have a large list you should start with a pre-test where you take a sample of 10% of your list and send different versions of the email to half of the sample to the other half. Whichever message gets the best response (usually measured by conversion rate) will be sent to the remaining 90% of the list. You can literally pre-test every single email you send, although this is quite resource intensive so if you’re sending a regular campaign, like a newsletter you might opt instead to pre-test just the first time you send and then test other variables on an ongoing basis on future emails.

Email marketing FAQ

What is the average open rate/ click through rate for an email marketing campaign?

Let me preface this question by saying this is rarely a good question to be asking nr should it ever be used for KPI setting (you can’t base a KPI on someone else’s data). However Mailchimp publish a quite comprehensive study of email marketing benchmark metrics by industry. Personally I would usually expect to see an open rate in excess of 20% and a click through rate in excess of 5%. A CTR of 5% is slightly higher then the averages in most industries but if you discount the number of emails which get sent out without active links or at least without a strong call to action and if you’re following best practice and asking people to click I’d want to see 5% most of the time.

Which Email Marketing Service providers do I recommend?

There are probably hundreds of companies offering email services these days so I can’t list them all and have only personally tested a small sample. I’m personally a big fan of Mailchimp (as you can probably tell from the multiple references in this post) but I’ve also used Pure360, Constant Contact, Aweber, Sign-Up to and numerous other enterprise solutions which are going to be out of the  reach of most readers here. Each of these have good and bad points but on the whole the functionality of each is much the same and they all get the job done. I would suggest short-listing a few providers which price up favorably based on the size of your list and the frequency you want to send and setting up a free trial or tour of their system and see which you find the most intuitive.

How often should I email my list?

It should go without saying that you shouldn’t email more often than you indicated you would when recipients opted into your list but beyond that if you haven’t set any boundaries I would say email as often as you have something to say and use open rates, click through rates, conversion rates and, to a lesser extent, unsubscribe rates as an indication of the frequency at which you’re trying your recipients patience.

What is the best day to send my email newsletter?

No short answer here again I’m afraid, its something you have to test for yourself and apply some common sense to. Ideally you want to get to the top of your recipients inbox when they’re not too busy to stop, read and take action so you might be able to draw some conclusions from that (for example media buyers might be very busy on Fridays while for creative agencies Friday’s tend to be a wind-down). For most lists and particularly B2B I’d avoid mailing at weekends as you risk your message getting swept away in the Monday morning inbox clear out.

Ultimately though you need to test this as every list will be different and any research into this question is basically flawed. You should also consider the possibility that actually there is no optimal day to send you email and don’t be surprised if this is all your testing confirms.

What’s the best time of day to send my email?

11:36AM. Just kidding! As above really there’s no right or wrong time to send an email its just something you need to test for yourself on your own list. On all the campaigns I’ve ever worked on the only thing I can say for sure is the optimal delivery time is different for every single list (or else as in many cases the delivery time doesn’t appear to make a blind bit of difference to the response rate).

As far as general trends go I usually find B2C emails where you’re sending to a lot of @hotmail and @yahoo addresses are better sent late afternoon or early evening and B2B stuff is better sent during normal working hours. I would start with this as a guideline and test it from there.

Should my email newsletter signup checkbox be checked or unchecked by default?

This is a big grey area and one which of often questioned. Some ESP’s will demand that opting in to a list is a positive action for example you have to check a box to opt-in as apposed to the opting in passively by failing to check a box, as with the example below.

Then there’s the even more confusing option of a checked box indicating an opt-in but the check box being prefilled, as in the slightly clumsy Flowers Direct example below:

or comet

My personal view on this is to opt-in to something you need to perform an action i.e. check a box. Yes paper forms do this all the time. Yes most big retailers use examples like those above to try and increase their list size. But that doesn’t mean they’re right. This is a grey area in the law at the moment but to protect yourself in future and to maximize your list quality, rather than its size, I would err on the side of caution and ask for a genuine opt-in, starting with an unchecked box- like Campaign monitor:



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