This should probably be a white paper and not a blog post, considering the amount of content below — but that’ll have to happen at a later date.
In the number of years I’ve worked in content marketing, I’ve createdmore emails than I can count — be it for small nurture campaigns or global demand generation campaigns. I know that there are a lot of considerations and details that go into writing good emails, so I decided to create a guide to help out all the email marketers out there.
These best practices can help optimize the performance of your emails, from open rates to click-through rates. They’ve been gathered from a variety of marketing experts and studies, but you may find through testing that you need to adjust certain elements for your specific audience.
Before you dismiss the importance of the “from” field, just know that 43% of email recipients report spam based solely on that (Convince & Convert).
Your “from” field should include the name of your company or brand name. The easiest way to decide what that should be is to answer the following question, “How will people quickly and easily recognize my business or organization?”
In most situations, you want to use your brand name, not a person’s name — unless the person is well-known or has a personal relationship with the recipients.
“Reply to” Address
Your “reply-to” address should be something friendly that doesn’t discourage engagement (you don’t want to use any variation of “no-reply”). And you want to make sure someone is monitoring the inbox for this address in case of replies.
There is no overstating the importance of writing good subject lines. The subject line is the first step to getting your email opened — so it doesn’t matter how amazing your email is, if your subject line doesn’t entice someone to open it.
35% of email recipients open an email based on the subject line alone, and 69% report email as spam based solely on the subject line (Convince & Convert).
Below are some essential best practices and considerations to keep in mind as you write subject lines.
- Keep it short. Shorter subject lines have higher open rates. And while it used to be generally accepted that subject lines should be no longer than 50 characters, mobile displays have pushed that number down to 30 characters. That’s something you can’t ignore when 45% of emails are now being opened on a mobile phone (Experian).
- Personalize it. Personalization can mean using the recipient’s name, including a specific product they expressed interest in, and much more. Personalized subject lines have a 27% higher unique click rate, and an 11% higher click-to-open rate, and more than double the transactional rates (Experian).
- Be clear. In the case of subject lines, clarity is more important than cleverness. People generally hate to guess what an email is about.
- Convey a benefit. What’s the recipient going to get out of opening your email? If you’re offering a discount or premium asset, make sure to mention that. Studies have seen a lift in open rates when using words such as “sale,” “new,” or “video.” Conversely, make sure you’re not offering something generic or uninteresting (words such as “newsletter” tend to significantly hurt open rates).
- Create a sense of urgency. Subject lines that create a sense of urgency and exclusivity can give a 22% higher open rate (Email Institute). Obviously, this tactic can only be used in specific instances, but it’s always good to include a timeline or deadline if you can. Don’t be afraid to make the turnaround time as short as 24 hours. “Now or never” types of deadlines are often the most successful. Even including a word like “alert” can boost open rates.
- Use numbers. Numbers tend to stand out in a slew of emails, so think about whether you have any interesting stats to include, or maybe even a list (e.g., “10 email best practices you need to know”).
- Start with an action verb. Essentially, write your subject line like a call-to-action (CTA). Instead of saying, “Our new mobile app is now out,” consider rephrasing as, “Check out our new mobile app.”
- Avoid all-caps and multiple exclamation points. Not only is this off-putting to many people, but it’s also likely to get your email marked as spam.
Personalize it. Include the recipients’ names whenever possible, as well as a personalized sign-off from a sales rep or another individual where applicable.
Make it scannable. People today scan more than they read, so make sure your content isn’t all chunked into one long paragraph. Cut down content whenever you can, avoid long paragraphs, separate copy into shorter blocks of text, and use bullets.
Get to the point. Make sure your recipients can immediately tell why you’re sending them an email (within the first sentence, not within the first two paragraphs).
Get over yourself. Don’t just talk about you. Focus on what’s in it for the recipient — which brings us nicely to our next point.
Provide value. Make sure you can say “yes” to the following question: If you were the recipient of your email, would you find the content of your email, including anything it’s linking to, interesting, meaningful, or valuable? It doesn’t matter whether you’re providing entertainment, education, or cost savings — but you have to provide some sort of value.
Don’t worry about length. There is no concrete rule as to email length, as this can significantly vary between audiences and industries. A recent study by Boomerang found that sales emails between 50 and 125 words have the best response rates — but according to Constant Contact, the optimal length for an email is usually 20 lines of text and 1-3 images. So you’re just going to have to test what works best for you.
Simplify your language. “Smarter” writing isn’t necessarily better writing. Half of Americans can’t read a book at an 8th-grade level, and according to a recent study, sales emails written at a 3rd-grade level get the most responses (Boomerang). Studies show that even highly literate people prefer copy that is worded simply (Nielsen Norman Group). There are quite a few different readability testing sites out there you can use for this, such as readable.io for example.
Include your CTA above the fold. Despite what anyone says, the “fold” still matters (where the bottom edge of a viewer’s screen cuts off content). So make sure to include your main message and call-to-action (CTA) button “above the fold” on your email.
Content “above the fold” still gets approximately 84% more attention than content below the fold (Campaign Monitor).
Use buttons. Your main CTA should always be a button, not just an in-text hyperlink. Use CSS buttons, as they render even when images are blocked in an email.
Make buttons and links stand out. Use color contrast to make buttons and in-text hyperlinks stand out. Don’t place a red button on a red background, for example, and don’t use the same color for links as you do for regular text.
Be clear. With all CTAs, make sure you clearly convey the action you’re asking someone to take, as well as the expected benefit. Don’t ever say “click here,” but rather concisely state what the user can expect to happen after clicking on a CTA.
Include just a couple of links. The first couple of links in any email get the most clicks — and after 5-7 links, additional links have a minimal impact on improving your click-through rate (Constant Contact). So include several links, but don’t pack your emails with tons of links. Focus on a specific action and link to it from multiple locations: a clickable button, an in-text link, an image, etc.
Provide a direct path to the end goals. Make sure links are as direct as possible. If you’re asking recipients to download a specific white paper, don’t take them to your resources page and hope they can find it. Instead, link directly to the white paper or to its landing page. Same goes for any type of product.
Keep it under 600 pixels. On desktop, 600 pixels is now the norm due to email client restraints. From a readability standpoint, it’s also not good to have wider emails with too many words on a single line.
Plan for mobile. In fact, you might even want to consider designing your emails mobile-first. With 45% of emails now being opened on a mobile phone, you can’t only focus on desktop views (Experian). Responsive design is a must.
Don’t over-use images. Not everyone has images displayed when they open your email. While it is still recommended to include images in your email, don’t make your entire email one big image or use a background image behind all your text.
Include alt text. Always include descriptive, meaningful alt text for images, as this is what shows up for people who have images turned off, and it is often read even more frequently than body copy. This text, and the image itself, should also always link somewhere.
Always have a button for the primary CTA. It’s inherently more noticeable than in-text links. Buttons should be separate from imagery and have enough white space around them to stand out. Use the “squint test” if in doubt: squint and look at the email, and see if you can still locate the main CTA.
Use the right fonts. When you’re creating content for online purposes, you should use web-safe, Sans Serif fonts for larger blocks of text because they’re easier to read. For headlines, you can choose more creative fonts (keeping in mind that you’re limited to web-safe fonts for live text) — but avoid using more than two different fonts in any of your emails.
Make your fonts big enough for all audiences. Ensure readability by using large enough type. Anything below 12-point type is too hard to read, and studies have shown benefits to increasing web type from 10pt to 13pt.
Don’t go crazy with color. Stick to 2-3 colors that align with your brand. Using too many colors can be distracting and make your emails look unprofessional. Colors that are off-brand and unrecognizable to the people who know your business can cause confusion and lead people to ignore or delete your messages.
Pick the right column layout. It’s best to use a one-column email for a single, succinct message with one CTA. These tend to be easier to read and easier to convert to mobile. Multi-column layouts should only be used for emails with a wide variety of content (multiple product options, for example) — or where non-crucial content can be relegated to a sidebar.
Video and GIFs
Emails with videos and GIFs have started to capture more engagement than static emails. Many businesses have reported higher click-through rates when using video — but keep in mind that this can depend on your audience and the quality of your video.
Although videos may not play in the inbox due to video compatibility problems (and it’s also much more difficult to track viewership), that doesn’t mean you can’t use screenshots of your video in the email and link to the full version.
And now that GIFs are widely supported across email clients, they can also be used in marketing emails to grab your audience’s attention.
Just note that emails will be flagged or unopenable if larger than 25Mb in Gmail and 10Mb in Outlook and Hotmail. Be careful not to exceed those sizes when incorporating GIFs or other large additions.
There’s no hard rule about when to send emails, as different companies have found varying results (even when testing within the same industry). This fluctuates even more as mobile devices become popular.
A variety of studies suggest that the highest open rates occur for emails sent earlier in the week — but these same studies show higher click-through rates on the weekend (perhaps because there are fewer other emails to compete with). Opinion is also divided on whether to send early in the morning before the workday starts, later in the afternoon, or even in the evening. Recipients may be more actively checking their inboxes in the morning, but this could also be part of their “cleansing regime,” and they may pay more attention to emails coming later in the day.
The best way to find the right time to send emails to your audiences is to test: segment your list into 2-3 equally sized groups and send the same copy of your email during different times. Try this test for a few different mailings and keep track of which version performs best. Also note, your optimal open rate may occur at a different time than your optimal click-through rate, so make sure to look at both.
In some industries, a weekly newsletter makes sense, but if you don’t have a clear reason to communicate with your audience every week, you may not need to send emails that frequently. Campaign Monitor has found that sending emails every two weeks may be the “sweet spot” for email marketing, but that may not hold true for every audience or application. For example, Marketing Sherpa found that 61% of their survey respondents want to receive promotional emails at least weekly.
Open and click-through rates will be the best metrics to see whether or not your sending frequency is working. People may be ignoring or deleting your emails if you’re sending them too often, so make sure to adjust as necessary if you see those measurements drop.
Keep in mind: other groups within your company may also be sending emails to the same contacts without you knowing about it, and this may affect your metrics.
In order to truly optimize your campaigns and gain insights to run more successful future campaigns, testing is crucial. There are a variety of things you can test, but we recommend on focusing on just one or two items from this list within any given email blast:
- Subject line
- Headline and subhead
- Email length
- Main image
- Static imagery vs. GIF or video
- CTA phrasing/location
- CTA button design
- Type of asset being promoted
- Day and time of email send
When it comes to email testing, we recommend that you:
- Test with a significant amount of people. Email marketers generally recommend testing 10% of your list if you plan to use that data to optimize for the rest of your list (e.g., for subject lines). It is also recommended to test with no fewer than 1,000 contacts, but if that isn’t possible, you can test with a higher percentage of your list. You can also split your entire lists into 2 groups (or more) if you’re testing a tactic to implement in your subsequent campaigns (e.g., layout optimization).
- Wait at least 24 hours after the test email. Then send the rest of the emails in order to allow for full results to be gathered. Most interactions with emails will happen within the day of send.
- Keep a record of your A/B tests so you don’t repeat a past test. This record should include: items tested (i.e., subject line), assets used in the test, what the A and B versions were, metric to decide the winner, and the winner of the test.
There are a variety of things you should be tracking with every email campaign. All these metrics can be used to set performance benchmarks that you can then improve through testing and subsequent campaigns:
- Open rate: percentage of recipients who opened your email. Note: This is actually a very misleading metric for several reasons. An email is only counted as “opened” if the recipient also receives the embedded images, and not everyone has images enabled. Also, email clients such as Outlook can automatically open emails for users on their desktop. You can still get value out of looking at open rates, though, especially if you’re using them as a comparative metric on the same list to test something like a subject line.
- Click-through rate (CTR): percentage of recipients who clicked on one or more links in your email, out of all recipients in your list.
- Click-to-open rate (CTOR): percentage of recipients who clicked on one or more links in your email, out of recipients who opened the email (this is the best metric to analyze email design/layout/content, because unlike the CTR, it only takes into account users who’ve already opened the email, and thus isn’t skewed by reactions to timing, subject lines, “from” fields, etc.).
- Conversion rate: percentage of recipients who clicked on a link within an email and completed a desired action, such as filling out a form.
- Unsubscribe rate: percentage of recipients that unsubscribe from your emails.
- Bounce rate: percentage of emails sent that weren’t successfully delivered. Note: “Hard” bounces indicate a permanent reason that an email cannot be delivered to a specific address. “Soft” bounces, however, indicate a temporary reason an email cannot be delivered — such as a full inbox, a server being down, etc.
I hope this post helps you write better emails and boost your performance metrics. If you’d like additional help optimizing your email campaigns — just get in touch!