Email’s Alive, But You’re Doing It Wrong


I’m a little behind on my blog reading. With SMX East, BlogWorld and other commitments landing side-by-side the past few weeks, I’m just getting back into the swing of things. One thing that caught my eye in the catch up was a post from the ever-brilliant Neil Patel about 7 Lessons Learned From Monetizing Quick Sprout. I have a huge amount of respect and awe for Neil so I was pretty surprised when I heard him declare that email marketing doesn’t work. While I think Neil’s a rock star, I’m going to disagree on this one. Email marketing isn’t dead, but it does need to be woo’d for top results.

If you want proof that email marketing isn’t dead you can read the Epsilon Global Consumer Email Study that found that 87 percent of Americans said they use email as their primary tool for online personal communication. Or maybe check out our BlogWorld coverage from 2009 where Darren Rowse revealed his newsletter sees TWICE the number of conversions than his very well-trafficked blog.

The problem isn’t email; the problem is how marketers use email.

If you read the comments of Neil’s post you’ll see him concede that it’s possible he didn’t see a benefit from email marketing because he “did it wrong” and didn’t build his list before he launched his membership program. I think a lot of people who try to get into email marketing inevitably ‘do it wrong’ or simply don’t give it enough time to succeed. To help fix that, here are some ways I think business owners can help themselves do email marketing right.

Understand your customers’ wants/needs

Email marketing can work for a lot of different industry and business types, but it has to be built around your audience and what they want. For me, I respond to “huggy” emails like the newsletter Chris Brogan sends out to his audience. I like feeling that personal connection and take to emails that make me part of the brand. However, that approach isn’t going to work for everyone [not everyone has the emotional problems I do]. It could be that your audience subscribes for advanced content, for discounts, to create connections, or to overall feel smarter. Ask your customers what they want…and then take it with a grain of salt. Instead, create some test emails and see which content users best respond to and what gets the most clicks. Like Neil states in his post, actions speak louder than words.

Know when people read. Like, really know.

It’s fairly accepted that your niche has a preferred day/time of day when they like to ignore work and read their email. As a marketer, you want to learn what that day/time is for your audience. Marketing is, after all, delivering the right message at the right time. If you’re a restaurant or a business that makes the bulk of its money on the weekend, then you’ll probably fare better sending later in the week than on a Tuesday morning. But maybe not. To find out, experiment and watch your stats to see how people interact with your content. Watch open rates, clicks, visits to your site, etc.

Encourage social sharing

I’ve spoken with a lot of business owners who say they’ve decided to can their email marketing campaigns in favor of things like Twitter, blogs and Facebook strategies. Social sites, they say, are the future and where their customers are hanging out. First, remember that it’s mostly the geeks who are taking to these social sites. Regular People still really, really like email, so don’t totally discount it. Second, why not tie social elements into your email marketing to make it even stronger?

GetResponse put together the Email Marketing and Social Media Integration Report that examined 500,000,000 messages sent by more than 19,000 users to compare the click through rates of messages with links to social networks and ones without them. What they found was that messages with social calls had a 30 percent higher clickthrough rate. Even more, they found clickthrough rates increased AGAIN with the number of social media icons included. For example, results showed that messages with only one icon returned an average 8.70 percent CTR, while messages with 3 or more social sharing icons generated more than 28 percent higher CTR than messages with one icon, and 55 percent higher CTR than messages with no social sharing icons at all.  Dude!

[Also read eMarketer’s timely post today about email vs social media’s effectiveness.]

Create a killer email list

We’ll be digging deeper into this in an upcoming Outspoken Media post, but your email newsletter will live or die on the list you create. If you’re buying lists, you’re already dead. So stop. Instead, do it organically and reach out the people who would see value from the content you offer. To help kick start your list you’ll want to:

  • Give current customers incentive to join. What will this new interaction with your company give them that they can’t get from your Web site?
  • Attract new customers with free content, increased brand access, discounts, a larger voice, etc.
  • Make it easy for others to sign up at check out, from your home page, on your blog, on your Facebook page, etc.
  • Promote the newsletter at every brand touch point.

Once you have your list, you want to segment your customers by putting them in buckets to help you send the right message to the right person. Persona marketing works and email is a great place to leverage it.

Stop shooting yourself in the foot

For email to work, you really need to understand your audience and their habits. You want to soak up every valuable statistic you can in order to better target your message and make it work for your audience. For example, many email programs will allow you to see what email client the recipient of your message is using. That lets you know if you should be designing your email specifically for a preview pane or if someone will have to physically open your message to view it. If you’re dealing with a preview pane, then you can move your call to action above the fold so that recipients have immediate access to the most important piece of content. If most of your customers are reading your email in a third-party client, then you’ll also want to stay away from large header images since most programs will block them by default. The more you can learn about your audience’s reading habits, the more you can tailor your email to them and stop shooting yourself in the foot.

Realize when you’re spamming…and then stop it

Stop me when this sounds familiar – you attend a conference or an event related to your industry. While you’re there, you network with people and hand out some business cards. Over the next few weeks you start receiving newsletters from the companies of the people you spoke with. Yup. Those bastards lifted your email address off your business card and added you, without your permission, to their email list. This is spam. It’s not even borderline spam. The same Epilson email study mentioned above found that 73 percent of Americans defined spam has “Any email I receive that I did not ask for or subscribe to”. THAT is how your audience defines spam. Also, remember that people don’t forget. Last year, 32 percent of US consumers surveyed said they stopped doing business with one or more companies due to poor email marketing practices. Just something to snack on.

Those are just a few ways I think marketers could improve their email marketing efforts to help them see a better return. Because, despite what some may say in blog posts, email marketing DOES work but you have to spend some time creating your list, segmenting your customers and crafting your message. Otherwise, yeah, you’re doing it wrong

Your Comments

  • Simon Ponder

    Up until a few months ago I worked at a paper, and part of my job was to build our email blasts and maintain the lists. It takes a lot of work to root out bad emails and drill down a list to perfection, but once you do you can see a really high open rate/clickthru rate

    Really surprised me, because up until I took over the email efforts I was sure that email marketing was dead.

    But if the subject line is engaging, people will open it.

    • Lisa Barone

      That’s so true. When it comes to actually writing the email newsletter, you can’t undervalue the importance of that subject line and your ability to deliver upon it within the email. At the end of the day, you have to make people care. If you can’t grab them with the subject line, then they’re going to delete the email before they even notice who it was from.

      Thanks for the comment! :)

  • Josh

    My favorite point is the one about knowing, like really knowing, when people are reading. When I worked for a company that sent a newsletter out globally I was really pleased to see that their newsletter was sent out in 5 massive bulks to appease the timezone changes. Great post!

    • Lisa Barone

      I love that! I hadn’t heard of companies sending out bulks of email based on timezone but that’s an awesome tactic. It’s nice to see people being smart about email marketing. It really is the right message, at the right time.

  • Natalie Sisson

    Lisa this is a great post.

    I have to say I left my email list alone for far too long and was not initially proactive about building it. Big mistake.

    I changed that a few months ago by offering a really valuable eBook on Social Media on sign up that has received great feedback plus having a visually appealing pop-up opt-in telling them why my newsletter is so valuable – whereas before they had no idea so why would they sign up.

    In addition I try to balance out my emails with a mix of content that allow them to connect with me on a more personal level, learn something, get great tips, receive value or integrate with links back to my social media sites such as a video on YouTube.

    More recently I asked my readers for feedback and was overwhelmed at the amount of people who took time to answer my questions.

    The only thing I have to disagree with above is to ask people what they want and then `take it with grain of salt’.

    While I agree you shouldn’t suddenly change what you do based on the results you should definitely analyse it and cater your content to what they’re wanting from you if it aligns with your business and mission.



    • Lisa Barone

      Wow, Natalie. Thanks for the awesome comment. It sounds like you’re really being smart about how you’re using email marketing. I love that you’re using your eBook as incentive for people to join your newsletter and become more engaged in your company. I think people underestimate how powerful a motivator content can be. And, as Brian Clark noted in his keynote at BlogWorld, even if you give people 90 percent of the content for free, they’ll still sign up to get the remaining 10 percent because they don’t want to feel like they’re missing something.

      I didn’t mean to fully ignore the suggestions people give you, however, sometimes I do think you need to dig and do your own research. Very often what people say they want and what they actually want are quite different. Either because they think there’s a “right” answer for what they should be asking for or because they don’t truly understand their own behavior. Don’t discount it, but do see if what they’re TELLING you and what they’re DOING are actually aligned.

      That’s awesome your audience gave you so much feedback. It shows you’ve grown a really engaged email list. That’s something to be really proud of! :)

      Thanks for taking the time to hop into the discussion.

  • Jill Whalen

    Shhh….It’s much better when everyone else things that email marketing is dead. Makes my email newsletter stand out even more. Now you had to go and ruin everything!

  • Suzanne Vara

    It is maddening when we hear that email marketing is dead. Poor DJ Waldow, he has to be so over hearing that.

    It is so easy to blame the medium and too many fall into the trap instead of looking at why the email was not opened and acted upon. Could it be that people really do not know how to build a list? Could they think that they have a real list of interested parties when they do not? Or could they have started the campaign too early and needed to work on the list? That is the first part and really one of the most, if not the most important component of the entire email campaign. Yes you have to have great content, message, call to action but you can have that and no readers or unengaged readers. Pointless.

    On an other note, I do wish that when we were spammed that we could call the company out. I had to send the laptop to HP for a repair (which did not happen) and they wanted my email address. Low and behold, guess whose newsletter I am on. Bastards, you did not fix my laptop as it suddenly became my problem and you spam me?!!!) There should be a “Email Spammer” hashtag where we can just add the company and retweet the crap out of it. Then again, they are prob too busy spamming to notice. sorry, a lil rant.

    Always the best articles here and btw it was my pleasure to have a few min of your time at BWE. You totally rock and hope to have a chance to bump into you at another conference.


  • Rolv

    Companies seem to ignore the single largest online branding/advertising venue available: their own regular external emails. Why not use these emails to market the senders company?

    You have a website.
    You send emails.

    Why not multiply your sales-staff by “wrapping” the regular email in an interactive letterhead?

    No other marketing or advertising medium is as targeted as an email between people that know each other (as opposed to mass emails). These emails are always read and typically kept.

    WrapMail offers a solution that is server-based (i.e. compatible with all email clients), has a complete back-office with a WrapMaker, reporting etc and it is FREE!

  • kathryn

    I hear this. Even some big-names make the mistake of inundating customers with email. Take Sephora, for instance….(whom I adore, at least when I’m in the store). Yes, I’m on their mailing list. But I receive emails on average of 4 times/week and they lag horribly when they load. It’s annoying. (Did I mention that I adore them?)
    Nowadays, I usually don’t bother reading them…but I love the products enough that it’s the only thing that keeps me from unsubscribing.

    For what it’s worth.

  • Facundo Zocola

    First, Lisa, I love you.

    Then, i haven’t read the comments and i’m directly commenting myself before doing it, in order not to lose my first impression of the article, which I consider the most important tool for determining its value.

    I live in Argentina and i’m a travel agent. Here, although this new “social media world” does exists for business, it does it in a much more naive and distant perspective than the one you are accostumed to.

    In my company, we started using e-mail marketing a few years ago, but with very few and primitive tools.
    Back in the last May, I encouraged and convinced the CEOs to go for a new e-mail marketing and social media plan, which was intended to cover the communication holes we were stepping into at the moment.

    And it worked. And e-mail marketing works.
    But, as Lisa wisely expressed, it have to be taken with extreme care.
    E-mail marketing can be a double-edged weapon.
    But it can be a gold mine, also.

    Thanks, Lisa.

  • Jennifer

    Great points! On the other end of things, I’ve recently been unsubscribing from everything (sorry, Word of the Day! Goodbye, Orbitz!) in my personal inbox in an effort to declutter. The only senders that get to stay are the ones that don’t send too many messages, offer consistently interesting or relevant content, and/or I have a personal connection to. This purging process has definitely been shedding some light on the newsletters I write!

  • DJ Waldow

    Lisa – First of all, I’m still bummed that we didn’t meet face to face in Vegas during Blogworld. Shame on us! Oh well. Next time, right?

    Thanks so much for taking the time to blog about email marketing. Clearly, I’m biased, but email is very much alive. The numbers don’t lie. It still has the highest proven ROI (according to the DMA) than any other online channel … if you do it right. Not bad, huh? But again – as you say too – you have to do it right. I think the rub is that “doing email marketing right” is different for everyone. I yell at Chris Brogan all the time for breaking email marketing “best practices” (quotes intentional). BUT, it works for Brogan.

    I said this at the New Marketing Experience event last month in Chicago: “In order to be good at email marketing, you have to be slightly better than SUCK.” Think about it though, right? Just better than suck. That’s because so much email and email marketing out there is crap.

    Okay. Mini-rant over.

    On a related note, I’d love to guest blog for you about email marketing … anytime.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  • Gary Jesch

    Good article, Lisa. Your observations hit home with me. I don’t email nearly enough to my list, and it is probably costing me some opportunities. Good email lists in my circles (B2B) are high-maintenance, though, with all the transitions in the workplace. Getting them read is also challenging – with my clients facing tremendous pressure on them to accomplish the seemingly impossible. And getting in front of the new people industry is so hit and miss. All that said, email is still worthwhile and will continue to be.