Email FAQ

At the eec, we don’t claim to have any silver bullets, but we do have expert answers to the most frequently asked questions in email marketing, such as…

How Email Complements Other Channels

  • How is email marketing different from direct mail marketing?


Obeying CAN-SPAM and Other Laws
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  • In the wake of the latest CAN-SPAM ruling (effective July 7, 2008), what has changed?


Getting and Maintaining Permission

  • Do I need to get permission in order to send emails to customers?
  • Is it okay to email people that I haven’t emailed in over a year?
  • Everyone on my file has opted in, so why do I get spam complaints?


Ensuring Your Emails Are Delivered

  • What factors affect my inbox deliverability rate?
  • What is a Sender Reputation?
  • Can you give me a list of spammy words to avoid?


Growing a Large and Active List

  • How much does it cost to buy an email list?
  • What is the best email acquisition method?
  • What is the average rate of list churn?
  • Why do people unsubscribe?


What to Send to Your Subscribers

  • What are some ways to improve the relevancy of my email program?
  • Is it better to send HTML emails or text emails?
  • Is it possible to embed videos in emails?
  • How often should I email subscribers?
  • What is the best day of the week to send email?
  • What is the best time of day to send email?
  • Is there a magic ‘word’ that will produce a higher response?
  • How do I convince my boss that a lifetime value approach to email marketing will generate better long-term results than more aggressive campaigns that generate more revenue short-term at the expense of higher list churn?

*Disclaimer: We are not attorneys and cannot provide legal advice. All email marketers should consult their in-house privacy department before making any changes to their email operations.

The following answers were provided by members of the eec’s Member Initiatives Advisory Committee*.

 

How Email Complements Other Channels

How is email marketing different from direct mail marketing?

The primary difference is that subscribers have more control. There is a penalty for sending overly frequent or irrelevant email messages and for sending without permission that does not occur in postal mail. If your email is unwanted, the recipients will likely mark your emails as spam, which will degrade your ability to reach the inbox of all of your subscribers. No matter how inexpensive email is, if you can’t reach the inbox then you can’t market effectively. Other differences: Managing your list and keeping it free of out-of-date addresses is vital to avoiding deliverability problems. Email design is also much different than designing a mail piece because of issues like image suppression, preview panes, and variations in email rendering across different email clients. Plus, there’s more clutter in email inboxes because of its low cost versus direct mail, so messages need to be succinct and compelling.

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Obeying CAN-SPAM and Other Laws

In the wake of the latest CAN-SPAM ruling (effective July 7, 2008), what has changed?

The new rule provisions address four topics:

  1. An email recipient cannot be required to pay a fee, provide information other than his or her email address and opt-out preferences, or take any steps other than sending a reply email message or visiting a single web page to opt out of receiving future email from a sender. In other words, unsubscribing should be really simple and straightforward.
  2. The definition of “sender” was modified to make it easier to determine which of multiple parties advertising in a single email message is the “designated sender” and therefore responsible for complying with the Act’s opt-out requirements. This provision is important if you send emails to your list on behalf of third-party advertisers.
  3. A “sender” of commercial email can include an accurately registered post office box or private mailbox established under United States Postal Service regulations to satisfy the Act’s requirement that a commercial email display a “valid physical postal address.
  4. A definition of the term “person” was added to clarify that CAN-SPAM’s obligations are not limited to natural persons.

Additional resources:

  • FTC Approves New Rule Provision Under The CAN-SPAM Act (press release) from the Federal Trade Commission
  • Definitions and Implementation Under the CAN-SPAM Act (full ruling) by the Federal Trade Commission

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Getting and Maintaining Permission

Do I need to get permission in order to send emails to customers?

Not legally, but we recommend it anyway. While the US Federal CAN-SPAM Act requirement is to merely have a “pre-existing business relationship,” it is a best practice to operate above the standard and obtain permission. Email is a very personal communication vehicle and if you haven’t been given express permission to enter an inbox, then you shouldn’t. Sending emails to customers without their permission will likely lead to spam complaints, which if high enough can get your emails blocked by ISPs or get you blacklisted, making it nearly impossible for you to get any of your emails delivered. The golden rule in email marketing is, respect your subscribers—by only sending welcome, relevant and timely messages. They will reward you with higher response rates and lower ISP complaint rates.

Additional resources:

  • The CAN-SPAM Act: Requirements for Commercial Emailers by the Federal Trade Commission
  • Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003 (full law), as enacted by Congress

*For more on the latest rule changes, see the next question and answer.

Is it okay to email people that I haven’t emailed in over a year?

While not illegal in the U.S., it’s generally not a good idea because it’s likely to damage your sender reputation by generating a spike in bounces and spam complaints—both of which ISPs see as irresponsible mailing practices. There are three dangers in emailing an old list: (1) People change their email addresses fairly often so the older a list is the more likely it is to contain inactive and dead addresses that will produce bounces. (2) Some of those inactive/dead addresses may have been turned into “honey pots” by ISPs. If you send email to a honey pot, ISP find this behavior to be similiar to what a real spammer may do and therefore block your email. And (3) the longer you go without emailing a subscriber the more likely they are to forget that they gave you permission to email them, and therefore the more likely they are to mark your email as spam. The overarching truth here is that permission expires if unused. At a certain point you have to abandon unused addresses. Be aware that laws outside of the U.S. vary on this issue.

Additional resources:

  • How to Revive a Stale Email List by the eec Deliverability & Rendering Roundtable

Everyone on my file has opted in, so why do I get spam complaints?

The most common factors driving ISP complaints (when subscribers click on the “report spam” button) are infrequent and over-communication and not sending email that is relevant to the recipient. If you send to an audience too infrequently they may not remember subscribing or no longer carry an interest in hearing from you. At the same time, over-communication can cause list fatigue and annoyance with your brand. Relevancy relies largely on properly setting expectations of the communication, delivering on that promise and leveraging the data you have about each recipient to make the experience as unique to them as possible.

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Ensuring Your Emails Are Delivered

What factors affect my inbox deliverability rate?

Nearly 20% of permission-based email gets blocked or filtered by ISPs and corporate system administrators. Whether email is sent in-house or through an ESP, non-delivery erodes response rates and program effectiveness. The key factors that ISPs and other receivers use are: complaints (subscribers who click on the “report spam” button), poor bounce management, blacklists, spam traps, infrastructure, volume/frequency, content and sending constancy.

What is a Sender Reputation?

Every sender of email messages has a “sender reputation”—just as every consumer has a credit score. Your reputation is a reflection of your mailing practices. The data each ISP uses to determine your Sender Reputation will help ensure that trusted messages reach the inbox. Sender Reputation is compiled by each ISP/receiver differently, but is based on complaints, content, infrastructure, list hygiene (bounce processing and spam traps) and sending permanence.

Can you give me a list of spammy words to avoid?

Content filtering isn’t as prevalent as it once was—and is mainly an issue in the B2B market where corporate email servers often filter by content—so if you have a good sender reputation you can generally use whichever words you’d like. The eec recommends you work with a professional deliverability company to determine your specific status.

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Growing a Large and Active List

How much does it cost to buy an email list?

Too much, no matter what the price. NEVER buy an email list. Lists that are available for purchase are full of dead addresses and “honey pots” that ISPs use to identify spammers. Sending to a bought list is a surefire way to get blacklisted by ISPs. However, renting lists from reputable vendors is a viable option.

What is the best email acquisition method?

There are only three ways to build your file: organically, through word of mouth (viral) and paid acquisition. The combination that is right for your business can only be found through testing.

Most marketers aim to optimize organic growth by having an email sign-up on every page of their website, using a dynamic acquisition page, and leveraging their call center and sales team. Retail stores and other offline venues can also be strong contributors to email list growth. If you are speaking at an event, pass a sign-up sheet around, and if you are exhibiting, ask for business cards—in each case, it’s advised to offer some research or other content in exchange for the opt-in.

Viral marketing can be hard to do, and results are often unpredictable. However, it’s a best practice to have the forward-to-a-friend mechanics in place, and sometimes it’s easier to focus on creating one or two viral messages per quarter, rather than trying to make every message enticing to forward. Building your list through viral connections on LinkedIn and Facebook can also be easy and cost effective.

Paid strategies include e-append (if you happen to have a strong direct mail database), email list rental, search (PPC) and co-registration. Every company, division, and email communication stream is different though, so be sure to test a number of different methods before settling on what you think may work best.

What is the average rate of list churn?

Generally speaking, each year email marketers can expect to lose roughly one-third of their email addresses to list churn, or list attrition—whether it’s from bounces, unsubscribes or spam complaints. Marketers with stronger brands or stronger email programs will see lower rates of turnover.

Why do people unsubscribe?

People unsubscribe for a variety of reasons but the two main ones, according to JupiterResearch, are that the content is irrelevant and that email is sent too often, with 53% and 40% of respondents giving those as reasons for unsubscribing, respectively. Creating a subscription preference center where subscribers can indicate how often they’d like to receive emails and what topics they’re interested in is a great way to lower your opt-out rate. People may also unsubscribe because their email address is changing, so make sure that you give your subscribers an opportunity to update their address.

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What to Send to Your Subscribers

What are some ways to improve the relevancy of my email program?

Even though subscribers willingly sign up for way more than they can handle, we marketers are not doing our share to help. We continue to send messages that are untailored, badly timed and all about us. To boost the relevancy of your email program, try a combination of the following strategies:

  • Present a clear and compelling benefit statement for signing up.
  • Establish value from the first moment through a compelling and relevant welcome email and engagement email series.
  • Send more messages when the subscriber is in market, and less when they are not.
  • Segment the file in order to customize the message flow.
  • Respond to the subscriber’s profile, her behavior and her place in your company’s customer lifecycle.
  • Give some control back to subscribers through a preference center.
  • Adopt a cadence that allows storytelling through relevant content.
  • Vary the type of message (e.g., newsletter, promotion, behavioral trigger, etc.).
  • Surprise subscribers with a simple “thank you” every once in a while.
  • Clean out the dead wood (all those subscribers who are ignoring your messages and have not opened or clicked in the past six months).

Is it better to send HTML emails or text emails?

In general, HTML emails outperform text emails. That’s particularly true in the B2C space. However, in the B2B space, where more emails are read via mobile devices, text emails can be more effective sometimes. But the real answer is more complex than that: First, you should send both in the form of a multipart MIME email. Second, allow subscribers to indicate their preference for either HTML or text emails during sign up and in your preference center. Third, when designing HTML emails, work in as much HTML text as possible and not be overly reliant on images in case the recipient is blocking images (which they are about 50% of the time). And fourth, test to see whether your subscribers respond better to HTML or text emails.

Is it possible to embed videos in emails?

While possible, it’s not advisable because support for video is very inconsistent across email platforms—which is to say that video is blocked in nearly every instance. The best practice is to include a link from the email to the video hosted on your site. You can boost clickthroughs to video content by (1) using strong visual cues like an image from the video either in the frame of a media player or with a play button in the middle of it, or both; and (2) mentioning the video content in the subject line. Instead of a single, static image from the video, you might also consider using an animated gif composed of several images from the video to draw the eye.

Additional resources:

  • MAKE IT POP!: Video in Email – So Hot Right Now by Lisa Harmon of Smith-Harmon

How often should I email subscribers?

This varies by brand, file, message type and audience. The best way to know is to test—watch for signals that you are sending too frequently like complaints, unsubscribe requests and early list churn. Generally speaking, B2C marketers could start with sending weekly or twice a week, and B2B marketers with twice a month. However, some types of message are welcome by subscribers more or less frequently. A daily sales alert can be very successful, as can a monthly newsletter.

What is the best day of the week to send email?

It really depends on your business, your audience and the message you are communicating. In the B2B sector it tends to be better to communicate toward the middle of the week (Tuesday-Thursday) and in a B2C environment it varies greatly. The problem with declaring a “best day” to send email is that everyone begins sending messages on that day, making it less attractive. Always consider your message or offer (determine if there are any time restrictions on the call-to-action), consider your audience and their email reading behavior, and monitor your engagement and conversions to determine the best day of the week to send mail for each of your distinct audiences and for each distinct email campaign. Testing will help you uncover trends that work for you audience – review past data to see trends over time. Remember too that there is a “rush hour” for email marketing just as there is on the roads. When you send at the same time as everyone else, you are more likely to end up a victim of clutter in the inbox or slower delivery times in transit.

Additional resources:

  • Week-End Trends posts by the Retail Email Blog

What is the best time of day to send email?

It’s generally best to send B2B emails during business hours, while the morning and evening are better for B2C emails. If you have the technological sophistication, also consider using segmentation to send your email campaign to individual subscribers based on the time of their previous opens.

Is there a ‘magic’ word that will produce a higher response?

Some experts swear by words like “free” and “new,” but “magic” words vary by industry. For instance, “free shipping” is definitely a magic phrase in the retail industry. The best way to determine your magic words is to look at the most popular search terms in your industry and for your company. The key words that are driving the most traffic to your site and within your site are probably the same ones that will drive email opens and conversions.

How do I convince my boss that a lifetime value approach to email marketing will generate better long-term results than more aggressive campaigns that generate more revenue short-term at the expense of higher list churn?

Typically, senior executives are impressed by the numbers. Be sure to measure your program in terms of subscriber value, not overall list size or growth. If you can show that spending more on automation or web analytics creates enough relevancy that your response rates grow (and convert) at a higher rate, then you are most likely to get the resources you need to focus on subscriber experience. Also, if you can show the inverse—that sending too frequently will reduce inbox deliverability or increase list churn—then you can show that not following best practices will actually cost you a lot more than the simple fee of delivering messages. We marketers have to be advocates for our subscribers. When we show that relevancy and respect result in higher revenue and deliverability—and lower churn—then we are talking the language that management understands.

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* A special thanks to Lauren Skena of Epsilon, Maria Shull of McGraw-Hill, Kara Trivunovic of StrongMail, Stephanie Miller of Return Path, Michelle Eichner of Pivotal Veracity, Aaron Kahlow of BusinessOnLine, and Chad White of Smith-Harmon and Jeanniey Mullen of the Email Experience Council for their help on this project.