Consumers’ inboxes are inundated by spam, trash and malware disguised as marketing messages. How can marketers differentiate their content and connect with consumers?
E-mail is a marketer’s greatest tool and greatest conundrum. E-mail gives marketers access to the potential attention of nearly 4 billion consumers across the world, but it also fills consumers’ inboxes with an avalanche of spam, malware and mistargeted ads.
And the avalanche of e-mail is growing. In 2017, people sent or received 269 e-mails each day on average, up from 110 per day in 2010, according to reports from research firm The Radicati Group. In three years, consumers will have to work harder to keep up with their inboxes, as Radicati predicts consumers will send or receive nearly 320 e-mails each day.
As consumers fight to keep up with their inboxes—“zero inbox” has become more an aspiration than a realistic goal—marketers have used design, targeting and personalization to cut through the clutter. But as access to e-mail marketing tools has become common beyond the agency marketer, e-mail has become democratized. Anyone, from a backroom spammer to a Fortune 500 CMO, can send an alluring e-mail.
In turn, consumers have become chary of the messages they open—and for good reason. In 2017, cybersecurity software company Symantec reported that spam composed 54.3% of all e-mail messages. No longer the unpolished shlock it once was, spam can now look just as good as the finest e-mail marketing campaign. In the same year, IBM researchers found that the volume of spam with malicious intent—phishing, malware or account takeovers—was swelling. One wrong click could mean disaster; trust has become imperative.
How can marketers build trust and stand out in cluttered inboxes? Here are nine tips.
1. Be Human
MailChimp, where Tom Klein serves as CMO, is one reason why creating polished e-mail campaigns is easy for anyone. “You don’t have to be a $20 billion company to create incredibly compelling marketing communication,” Klein says. MailChimp is likely the most well-known e-mail marketing and automation platform, claiming to deliver 2 billion e-mails each month. But others—such as VerticalResponse, Constant Contact and SendGrid—have also made e-mail marketing scalable.
These platforms simplify the technological end of e-mail, but Klein says that without thoughtful content, marketers’ messages will sound robotic. Being a human will set marketers apart in the inbox, he says.
As in real life, being a human in an e-mail means something different to each company. Some companies may want to be apt and abrupt, other companies easygoing and long-winded. At MailChimp, Klein says the marketing department likes to keep messages to subscribers “weird.” In a recent list-building campaign, MailChimp created a landing page with an e-mail submission form in the foreground and flowers, candles and a CD titled “Ultimate E-romance Classics” in the background. Users who submitted their e-mail address received a download link to an “e-romance” song that someone from MailChimp’s design team wrote and sang.
“It’s weird, it stands out and it’s clearly something that’s not a hard sell,” Klein says, adding that these no-pressure landing pages deliver results to marketers and value to consumers. “I could have just as easily given away a PDF. It’s a way to deliver some value and get people to sign up to your list.”
No matter what style is used or what value is given to the consumer, Klein says marketers should think of their e-mail marketing as if they were writing a letter to somebody they care about. “It’s like a love letter to your customer,” Klein says. “Put a little heart into it.”
2. Don’t Overdo Personalization
Whenever Kevan Lee signs up for a new e-mail list, he enters his name in lowercase letters. “When someone tries to personalize it to me, I’ll notice that my name is lowercase and be turned off right away,” says Lee, director of marketing at Buffer, a social media management app. “It’s easy to tell when someone is just being a token. Like, yeah, we know your name, but it’s not personalized. It needs to go deeper than that.”
Just as lazy e-mail marketing can turn customers off, there’s also danger in being too proactive and personal. InMoment’s most recent CX Trends Report states that 75% of consumers find most personalization “somewhat creepy,” and 40% of the marketers surveyed agree. =
At Buffer, Lee says his team tries to avoid laziness and creepiness by sending personalized messages to a targeted audience rather than a specific person. Using a targeted audience instead of a targeted individual ensures subscribers receive relevant content without feeling weird.
3. Test, Measure and Trust Your Data
“The best practice for sending is a lot of testing,” Klein says. “Testing the message, testing the creative, testing the content, testing the timing.”
Testing, Klein says, improves the results of a campaign and boosts marketers’ confidence by replacing guesswork with knowledge. Testing is also easier than it used to be, as most e-mail marketing software now has built-in A/B and multivariate testing tools.
“Recipients will surprise you,” Klein says. “It’s hard to tell which [message] is going to win, and it usually comes down to compelling creative and simplicity of message.”
4. Go Beyond Conventional Wisdom
Shorter is better, according to the conventional wisdom of e-mail subject lines. But that’s not always true, Lee says; Buffer’s most successful e-mail subject lines are often 15 to 20 words long. To find what length works best, marketers must continue to test their messages and trust their data.
“When I joined Buffer, I was a big proponent of shorter subject lines,” he says. “But we do really long ones. ... That was a good learning experience for me; we trust what works, not necessarily what best practices are.”
Lee says marketers should also use the “from” name and the pre-header—the space that previews the e-mail’s body content before it’s opened—to entice subscribers into opening a message. “That tells the fuller story before someone even clicks,” Lee says. “We think of all those together as this big mechanism and big opportunity that we have to get someone to open.”
5. Optimize for Mobile Devices
As more consumers buy smartphones, tablets and smart watches, more e-mail is opened on small screens. A 2017 report from Return Path found that 55% of e-mails are opened on mobile devices, up from 29% in 2012.
“We create e-mails and check links on desktop, but our recipients are opening them on mobile devices,” Lee says. Marketers should be testing how their e-mails look on mobile devices, he says, but also testing how the links within a message look on mobile after they’re opened.
Again, trusting data becomes crucial when figuring out which platforms subscribers use to read their e-mail. If most subscribers open their e-mails through a desktop Gmail interface, spending hours formatting a message for an Apple Watch is a waste of time.
6. Know the Law
Internet privacy laws continuously change; marketers who get lost amid these shifts could make an expensive mistake.
In the U.S., the CAN-SPAM Act requires marketers to allow subscribers to easily opt-out or unsubscribe from a list, include a valid physical postal address within messages and prohibits marketers from using deceptive or false subject lines. CAN-SPAM also outlawed the practice of buying or selling of e-mail lists. Violators of CAN-SPAM face a fine of up to $41,484.
In 2018, the European Union strengthened its privacy laws with potentially extreme penalties. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the newly implemented EU law, ensures that users consent to the data being collected from them. Companies with a presence in the EU now must be clear about the data they are collecting from subscribers and website visitors—notification of data collection can no longer be limited to the fine print. The EU is taking this protection seriously; low-level GDPR fines are up to $12.3 million or 2% of global annual turnover, and upper-level fines are up to $24.6 million or 4% of global annual turnover .
7. Automate Messages and Have a Regular Cadence
“There’s an old e-mail adage,” Klein says. “You just need to do two things: Build your list and send to your list.”
That’s still true, Klein says, but many marketers don’t regularly send messages to their subscribers. Regular messages take discipline, something many find difficult. Instead of worrying about writer’s block or a busy schedule interrupting a regular cadence, Klein suggests setting up automated messages: a welcome message to new subscribers, a special offer to current subscribers or an abandoned-cart message to potential e-commerce customers.
Subscribers have given you permission to have a conversation with them, Klein says, so establish that conversation and keep it going. MailChimp sends subscribers a weekly message, which discusses the company’s features and challenges, and a monthly e-mail, which discusses company news. With both e-mails, subscribers know what to expect and when to expect it.
“Establish your ground rules at the beginning,” he says.
8. Every E-mail Should Have One Job
Lee holds content sacred, but he also knows that most readers merely skim e-mails. Litmus, an e-mail marketing software company, found the average person spends 11.1 seconds reading an e-mail. Therefore, Lee says each e-mail should only have one job, and that job should be obvious.
“Even if someone is not reading the content, make it obvious what the buttons are with one link, not 10 links,” he says. “Make it very clear with what you want people to the take from that e-mail.”
Marketers can vary the length and type of e-mail while keeping in mind its singular job. Even longer e-mails in plain text—those that look as though they are from a friend—usually only have one link at both the top and bottom, Lee says.
9. Get Feedback
Some subscribers will inevitably unsubscribe from a marketing list; rejection is part of the business. Instead of letting subscribers go in silence, Klein says marketers should ask why they’ve unsubscribed.
If marketers are collecting data on what people dislike about their campaign, it’s a good idea to occasionally ask what subscribers enjoy about a campaign, too. Feedback can be another useful data point, Klein says, but consumers likely won’t volunteer feedback without being asked.