Email Best Practices: A Primer to Successful Email Marketing

It’s nearly 2018, and email best practices continues to be one of the most sought after needs in the marketing tool box.

After all, email marketing does have the highest ROI of any marketing channel out there.

It’s easy to get distracted by the latest social media platform and take for granted the tremendous value of a group of people that have already shown interest in your business.

Why have so many marketers flocked to email?

There are many reasons.

While many would cite it’s comparatively low cost as a primary motivator, those who have used email best practices successfully have learned that it is quite possibly the most effective direct marketing tool to date.

Top Email Marketing Trends in 2017 from Litmus

Email makes it extremely easy to personalize communications and segment offers by customer type and behavior.

It can be deployed far more quickly than more traditional forms of marketing communications.

In addition, it is extremely measurable, allowing marketers to collect and analyze data, and then refine their efforts.

In this guide to email best practices, you will learn what is needed to implement an effective email marketing plan in 2018.

» Free Bonus: Click here to get access to 32 free tips to improve your email marketing strategy.

Step 1: Start with Clear Objectives

Developing a successful email marketing program begins with a focus on the objectives. While that may seem obvious, too many marketers leap into email without clearly defined objectives. It then should come as no surprise that they never achieve more than a vague sense of their eff­orts’ success or failure.

With email marketing, the technology’s performance is so readily measured that failing to track it becomes a costly waste of resources. Determining exactly what to track depends on the specific objectives. Perhaps the organization wants to increase visits to its website. Maybe the goal is to secure actual purchases of products. Or, it may be to encourage prospects to download more information to guide them through the purchase process.

Once the objective has been identifi­ed, it’s only a matter of pinpointing the metrics related to that objective. If the goal is website visits, the metrics may include the number of click-throughs from links in the email. If it’s product sales, raw numbers (coded by source) would be a good choice.

Email best practices tell us no single metric works best for everyone. The key is to identify those that will best allow you to set goals and evaluate your program’s performance. You also have to determine the time periods for which you’ll gather and compare those metrics. Are you interested in daily performance? Week-to-week comparisons?

You can also set up metrics that allow you to compare the performance of specifi­c campaigns or approaches. For example, you can measure to see whether emails that include discounts perform better than those without.

Step 2: Understanding Your Email List

Email marketing is most effective when you’re sending relevant messages to people who want to receive them. In addition, since email marketing began, there has been an expectation on the part of recipients that they need to give you permission to contact them through the channel. That expectation is reflected in regulations passed in both the U.S. and the European Union (more on that later).

The most common concept related to permission is what’s known as “opt-in,” in which a recipient has to agree to receive emails before they can be sent. In most cases, a consumer fi­lls in a subscription or permission box on a website, provides an email address as part of a sweepstakes entry or checks a box when conducting business online with the organization.

Some marketers have tried to use an “opt-out” approach, in which they believe that it’s okay to send as many emails as they want to a consumer until that consumer says he or she doesn’t want to receive them (essentially the model that traditional direct mail marketing follows). However, opt-out emails tend to irritate consumers and may violate laws. In addition, reputable email marketing service providers such as Delivra will not work with organizations that take the opt-out route.

Email best practices tell us a “double-opt-in” process is even better at ensuring list quality. With that approach, before someone’s name is added to the mailing list, they receive a confi­rmation email, usually with a link that needs to be clicked. If the organization doesn’t receive that confi­rmation, they won’t add the name to the list.

opt in confirmation email example

Just as important as a procedure for adding names is the way that “unsubscribes” will be handled. The best way to do this is to include an unsubscribe link in every email. Clicking on that link takes the email recipient to a page that allows them to verify that they want to be taken off­ the list. Some organizations include a question that asks why the individual wants to be removed, so they can determine whether there are flaws in their programs. However you handle unsubscribes, be sure that you remove the individual’s address quickly – definitely before your next email.

List management is one of the most important ongoing email best practices that helps you ensure that your list is accurate and useful. In addition to prompt removal of unsubscribes, pay close attention to bounces and other problems. If you see multiple bounces of emails heading to the same domain, or with multiple emails being handled by a particular ISP, the problem may lie with the recipients’ mail server. For example, the server may have incorrectly identified your mail server as a source of spam.

Or you may discover that an email bounced because the address was misspelled. Keeping your list clean and up-to-date will keep your program running efficiently.

Step 3: Building Your List

One of the most common questions about email marketing is how an organization can build its mailing list. For most organizations, the key is to make acquiring email addresses a regular aspect of contact with customers and prospects. Most organizations do not begin with a large list, but they are amazed at how the list will grow over time.

Start with the email addresses that you already have acquired from customers and prospects. Email best practices tell us if they haven’t already given you permission to email them, set up some kind of opt-in program. Let them know exactly how you plan to use their email addresses, and what you expect to send them. Give them an easy way to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Going forward, look for every opportunity to capture email addresses. When dealing with prospects, ask if you can send them information by email. O­ffer a giveaway of some sort, and put opt-in information on the sign-up screen or entry form. You can also direct customers to a sign-up form landing page through your invoices, direct mail or other forms of customer contact. But be careful which devices these forms appear on your website. Mobile popups have become ways for Google to penalize your website from appearing in search results.

email list building example desktop popup

Step 4: Segment for Effectiveness

Email is one of the most personalized marketing channels you can use, making it even more effective at communicating with customers, prospects and other stakeholders. You can make it most eff­ective by segmenting your email eff­orts.

It’s as simple as breaking your entire list of customers and prospects into smaller groups that share common characteristics. Those characteristics may be based on demographics, on behavior, on the nature of their business or relationship with your organization, or any other factor that may di­fferentiate them from others on your list.

For example, suppose you operate an online retailer that serves outdoor sporting enthusiasts. That’s a very broad universe. If you drill down into your customer base, you’ll find that you can divide customers into groups by the primary interests. Some prefer biking, some hiking, some fishing, some camping, and so forth. And, of course, some enjoy multiple activities. Within those groups, you can perform additional segmentation. Those who enjoy fishing may be divided into freshwater and saltwater enthusiasts. Among bicyclists, you’ll have everyone from extreme mountain bikers to people who enjoy a slow cruise through the local park. Some campers will trek to wilderness settings, while others bring the comforts of home with them.

segment email subscribers email marketing

Another one of the email best practices for segmentation is to segment based upon interaction with your emails. In addition to seeing who opened your email, you can determine who performed particular actions, such as clicking on specific links.

The potential for segmentation is limited only by your imagination and the amount of information at your disposal. Some of the most common approaches include:

  • Basic Demographics—such as gender, age, location, and size of they company.
  • Engagement—reflects how recipients react to your emails.
  • Source—address, referrals, search engines, promotions, and other means.
  • Lifecycle—how their email address was acquired and how long they’ve been on the list.
  • Occupation—both the type of work performed and the level within a company.
  • Employer—by company size or industry.
  • Technology—segment by platforms recipients are using.
  • Value—relate to the recipient, such as average order size and number of products purchased.

As you create your email marketing program, consider how your audience might be segmented, and how you’ll go about acquiring that data. One example might be a brief survey about areas of interest that are part of your opt-in program.

Step 5: Understanding Permission and Spam Risks

One of the most misunderstood aspects of email best practices is spamming. Organizations may assume that because they are legitimate and are sending out emails on legitimate subjects, they’re safe from being tagged as spammers. Sadly, that’s not the case.

As the volume of spam has increased, services and software designed to protect email users have become more aggressive. It’s all too easy to have your emails identifi­ed as spam, and that can lead to situations such as your mail server being blacklisted–which can effectively put you out of business online.

Both the United States and the European Union have strict anti-spam laws in place, and any organization that uses email as part of its marketing mix needs to develop a working familiarity with the laws. Given that the Internet has no borders, and that you may not be sure if you have any emails traveling to EU countries, it’s important to become familiar with both laws.

In the U.S., the 2004 CAN-SPAM Act provides for penalties of $250 per violation, up to a maximum of $2,000,000 for repeated offenses. Generally speaking, organizations can stay compliant if they:

  • Don’t “harvest” email addresses from the Internet or generate them via a “dictionary” process for commercial mailing purposes.
  • Don’t send commercial email via a computer for which they don’t have proper authorization to use.
  • Don’t falsify or obscure the header information in commercial email messages.
  • Include a valid postal mailing address and a functioning opt-out mechanism in every commercial email message.
  • Don’t continue to send email to a recipient who has opted out of an email list.
  • Include a warning label when sending any adult content (e.g., sexually explicit material).

The law from the European Union focuses primarily on ensuring that email messages are sent only to those people who opt-in and that the sender’s identity is accurate and clear.

High-quality email marketing service providers have a thorough understanding of spam and can provide advice to help their clients avoid problems. In addition, they maintain working relationships with Internet service providers and anti-spam organizations to ensure that their clients’ emails are perceived as legitimate communications. That’s one of the key advantages of working with an ESP, instead of going it alone.

Keep in mind that each spam fi­lter works differently, and it’s possible that a particular ­filter could incorrectly identify one of your messages as spam. Common triggers include words like “free” and “save,” subject lines and messages typed in all uppercase letters, and emails with many addresses in the “to” section. Some email programs allow users to label incoming mail as spam and send that message back to their ISP, so someone who doesn’t want to receive your emails may actually create a problem for those who do.

Step 6: Campaign Timing and Frequency

Some self-styled email experts will tell you that the only way to achieve success is to send your emails at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Or maybe it’s 4 p.m. Friday. They’ll be happy to give you a convincing rationale, but we won’t buy it. There’s no perfect time, and no magic answer.

You see, no two organizations are exactly the same – and nor are any two lists of email addresses. What works great for one group may be a terrifi­c disappointment for another. If the folks in your audience need information on Monday morning to plan for the week, that’s when you want to email them. If they’re wildly busy from fi­rst thing in the morning until 3:00 p.m., late afternoon is probably a better choice.

Email best practices tell us to make your initial decision based on your knowledge of your audience. Then conduct tests to determine whether you’ve made the right decision. If you notice higher open rates and click-throughs when you send emails at a particular time of day, that’s probably the right time for you. Good email marketing software gives you the data needed to determine your most effective times and messages.

You may even want to ask recipients when they sign up. If a substantial number of them indicate that they’d prefer to receive emails on Friday mornings, you’d be crazy to send them at other times.

How often should you send? However often it takes to stay top-of-mind with your audience without irritating them – and not so often that you run out of relevant content. As long as the recipients believe that what you’re sending is worth their time, they’ll make the time to read your emails. But if you start sending emails that don’t interest them – or if your content makes it clear that it’s just an exercise rather than a genuine effort to share something worthwhile – they’ll ignore you and start unsubscribing.

If your email marketing service provider’s system allows you to segment by engagement, you can tailor messages to groups of recipients who react the same way. For example, if you know that a recipient nearly always opens your emails and clicks through to key links, that recipient is probably pretty happy with your organization and your messages. But if a recipient hasn’t been opening messages or showed an interest in any of your links, you may need to pique his or her interest. One way is to send a special email that includes some kind of inducement for action, such as a discount or a free gift.

Step 7: Creating Your Email Campaigns

Every time you send out an email, the recipient has a series of choices. Is he or she interested enough to open it, or will it receive a quick delete? Once it’s open, will it be scanned quickly or read thoroughly? Is there any reason to click on the links? And what impact will all of this have on the recipient’s impressions and opinion of your organization?

For marketers, one of the primary goals is increasing the open rate of emails, which reflects the percentage of recipients who actually open the email. As the number of emails increase, busy recipients are becoming increasingly selective about which emails they will open and which they will ignore.

Email best practices tell us the best way to ensure that your recipients open and engage with your emails is to consistently send them relevant content. But having great content won’t help you if recipients don’t see a reason to open your emails in the first place. That’s where aspects such as design and carefully crafted subject lines come into play.

Here are some email best practices for certain common business sectors:

b2b gotowebinar email example

hr block retail email example

costal retail email example

nonprofit email marketing example ada

Compelling Subject Lines

Your subject line is often the make-or-break item that determines whether a recipient will read your emails. That’s particularly important for web-based email clients like Gmail that display the sender, subject line, and little else. Email best practices tell us you should include something that will be of interest to the recipient, or that will intrigue him enough to open the email. Don’t make subject lines misleading, or your reputation will suffer.

Who’s It From?

Make sure your emails are coming from a recognized source, whether that’s a name your recipients would recognize, your organization’s name, or both. Cryptic sender names or email addresses like “noreply” may make your message appear to be spam.

Responsive Design

The design of your email is incredibly vital to the information you hope the subscriber receives or the action you hope they take. There are more email clients and mobile devices than ever before. That means the message you design for one email client on one specific device may be diffi­cult or impossible to read in another. Email best practices tell us it’s a good idea to test your emails in as many different clients as possible to ensure that they are readable. A high-quality email marketing service provider will have the capability to perform that testing.

Email Content

To capture your reader’s attention your email campaigns must be unique. You need to hold the interest of your audience and be informative as well as relevant. Being clear, precise and friendly are key to capturing your subscribers and getting them to act. A reader’s attention span only lasts a few seconds when scanning through the emails, so you need to reel them in with compelling content. The shorter your content is the better you are at having the subscriber consume everything you’re trying to get them read.

Using Video in Your Emails

Adding video to email campaigns is increasing in popularity. While video is growing as a marketing channel it leaves many marketers searching for new ways to get views and shares of their content. It may sound difficult to intertwine these two powerhouse channels together, but connecting the two can provide increased engagement and revenue.

Email Rendering

At this point, you’re ready to send out your first email campaign. But first, you need to make sure your email will work in as many email clients as possible. A good way to uncover and correct and bugs in your code or layout. By performing email rendering tests, you can see a preview of how a subscriber using a certain email client would receive your email. Any inconsistencies can keep your message from fully being received and should be corrected if possible.

Step 8: Measuring Results and Testing

A subscriber can react to an email campaign or offer in a number of ways: Read it, ignore it, skim it, forward it to a friend or click on a link in the email. While most of those actions would be classified successes, email best practices point marketers to needing to narrow their focus before analyzing their campaigns.

You can determine the success of your email campaign by tracking the following key metrics:

  • Delivery rate: This determines the number of emails that were delivered corresponding to the number of emails that were sent. In order to ensure deliverability, your email will have to have relevant content and has to be sent from a valid send address, to avoid being blacklisted.
  • Bounce rate: This denotes the number of emails that were not delivered corresponding to the number of emails that were sent. Hard bounces happen when your email encounters an invalid or non-existent email address, while soft bounces result from a temporary problem such as a full inbox or a server problem. They rectify themselves in time, but email addresses with hard bounces have to be immediately taken off of your list as increased hard bounces can make you look like a spammer.
  • Open rate: This attributes to the number of times your email actually gets opened by your customer. Open rate denotes the effectiveness of the subject line and the validity of you as a sender.
  • Click through rate: Yes, your email has been opened, but how many of your customers actually responded to your message or call-to-action? This can be determined from the click-though rate. It determines the effectiveness of your email message and how well the customer responded to your call-to-action.
  • Website traffic: Maybe your campaign was a monthly newsletter. Did traffic to your website pick up after you sent your newsletter? How long are visitors staying on your website that visited from your newsletter? Is traffic growing after each mailing? These are important metrics to keep track up when considering the relevancy of your emails and the success of your campaigns.
  • Conversion rate: This determines if your email was successful in achieving what it set out to do. Has your customer accepted your offer and made a purchase? This helps you find out if your potential customer has in fact become your actual customer.
  • Unsubscribe rate: This shows how many of your opt-in customers have opted out from receiving an email from you. Measuring your unsubscribe rate lets you determine if your email campaign needs to be revamped and if the frequency with which your email reaches your customer needs to be evaluated.

The ready availability of data about your email marketing makes it easy to refine and improve your efforts. By incorporating a “feedback loop” into your program, you can analyze the performance of each email and determine which strategies work best.

Savvy email marketers are always testing new ideas, whether that’s a new format, different types of offers and incentives, time of day, and other factors. Suppose you have a list of 100,000 names, and you want to offer a discount to build sales during your slow time of the year. How much of a discount should you offer? You could create a test email to 5,000 of the names that offered a 10 percent discount, and a second email to another 5,000 names offering a 20 percent discount. Once you receive the results, you’ll know what to do with the balance of the list. For example, if there’s no appreciable difference in response between the two segments, you can roll out the 10 percent discount.

Other things you can test include subject lines, how and where links are presented within your emails, types of content, how graphics are handled–the list is endless. Each time you conduct a test, you strengthen your understanding of your audience and what appeals to them. Ideally, that should help you increase performance with every email.

Another simple technique is to send surveys out to your entire list, or to a representative sample. While you may not receive many responses to a survey, the answers and comments you do receive will give you insight into your stakeholders’ opinions of your program and organization. (It’s generally considered polite to offer them something in return – perhaps a special discount.)

We hope this has given you some ways to launch or refine your current email program. If you have any questions about Delivra, please feel free to reach out to us. We also have additional resources that cover email best practices:

  • We have numerous guides in our resource library that cover various topics of email marketing.
  • Our blog is frequently updated with posts that cover the entire gamut of email marketing.
  • Our video tour can show you a full run through of how our email marketing platform works and delivers results.


Join the email marketing community at an upcoming event near you.