When you’ve got innovative solutions and creative ideas about marketing automation coming at you from all directions, it’s easy to lose focus on the basic tactics of your email marketing operations. As Carolyn Acker’s recent post discussed, marketers can pay dearly for major errors like sending the wrong email at the wrong time, or to the wrong person. But over time, sub-par email practices probably cost marketers just as much, if not more, than the big embarrassing mistakes we fear!
So let’s take this opportunity to revisit these email best practices that we all know, but may not be taking to heart with every press of that SEND button.
#1: Don’t be a spammer: intentional or not.
Your prospects won’t like you—if they ever even see your emails, which they probably won’t. And spamming, whether on purpose or through negligence, reflects badly on your organization. Maintaining a spam-free marketing operation entails focus on two main areas: the CAN-SPAM Act, and spam filters.
- The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 has been around for 10 years now and isn’t getting the press it once was. So it’s a good idea to check occasionally to make sure these key compliance points haven’t dropped off your radar screen:
- The Unsubscribe link must always be easy to find, and not hidden in other text.
- You must include the company address in the footer.
- Correctly identify the sender/company.
- Provide contact details: name, phone, email.
- Remember, the United States is opt-out; outside the U.S. is opt-in.
- Develop content with one eye on spam filters.
- Avoid trigger words like free, prize, coupons; using click here more than 2-3 times can trigger spam traps.
- Don’t use ALL CAPS or excessive punctuation!!!!!
- Don’t use recipient name in the subject line; it’s a common spammer tactic.
- Avoid terms of extreme urgency like once in a lifetime, open immediately.
- Include only a few links in any one email; excessive links are red flags.
- Avoid or limit links with odd URLs, or URL redirection services like bitly.com
- Always link to files or pages rather than including attachments; it’s better for lead scoring, as well
- Keep up to date with the spammers by regularly reviewing your own spam folders to see what terms and practices are in current use
#2: Code like it’s 1999.
Email HTML is different from web HTML in a surprising number of ways. The best approach to designing effective, highly deliverable emails is simplicity. Treat your emails like very old-school web pages.
- Stick with standard fonts: Arial, Helvetica, Times New Roman.
- Keep email width to 650px or less.
- Use inline CSS only; don’t include style sheets in the header tag because many email readers strip everything out of the header tag. Avoid short hand CSS like font:bold 13px Arial or background: #fff url(image.png) no-repeat 20px 100px fixed;
- Use tables instead of div tags, and use them sparingly.
- For ease of coding tables set the border=”1” in the table so that table edges are easier to work with. When the email is setup as desired reset the border=”0”
- When adding images make sure the <img> tag always falls on the same line as the table tag; it helps to avoid odd spacing that might appear. Example: <td><img></td> instead of:
- When setting up tables, always add the closing tag immediately after adding the opening tag to ensure you don’t forget the closing tag. Finish setting up the table, then go back and add images and copy. Example:
- If you must support Lotus Notes, I can only say: good luck! A few hints, though:Use a doctype declaration to help most browsers and tools know what version of HTML is being used, and improve the chances of proper rendering. Example: <!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/loose.dtd”>
- Use old base HTML tags like <b></b> for bold, <i></i> for emphasis / italic, <u></u> for underline, valign=”top”
- always set width in <table> and <td>
- force fonts with a font tag or font CSS style
- Always paste plain unformatted text into a WYSIWYG editor like Marketo and Eloqua, even if you have to cut and paste from another document first. Copying text directly from a word processor like Microsoft Word brings unexpected formatting tags forward into your code and can cause many odd and frustrating problems. Always paste the original copy into a text editor like Notepad or Notepad++, or an HTML editor like the code view in Dreamweaver, and from there into the WYSIWYG editor.
#3: Images are great, IF you use them right.
Images are actually valuable analytics tools! Most email clients download them on the click, allowing you to track opens, and of course they help make emails attractive and interesting. Here are a few keys for using them well.
- Include meaningful ALT tags and title tags for usability; different browsers use them differently.
- Add style=”border: none; display: block;” to the <img> tag, because:
- Hotmail adds a space under the image
- Yahoo has been adding a space as well
- Outlook adds borders
- Do not put important information into an image that isn’t repeated in text; your reader may not see it.
- If your main link is a button, make sure to use at least one text link as well; if the button doesn’t render correctly for some reason, the reader can still access the linked information.
- Use a background color even when using background images, to ensure something will appear even in clients that don’t support background images.
#4: Make your emails easy for the reader.
Email effectiveness is all about compelling the reader to action. And to take action, they have to able to easily understand your message. Make an effort to develop clear, readable, and logically structured email layouts.
- All links should be the same color; multiple link colors confuse the reader.
- Don’t make titles or other copy the same color as the links; it irritates the reader who tries to click on them.
- Include at least one link “above the fold” so it’s easy to find.
- Keep font sizes at a minimum of 12px to help with readability; footers are acceptable at 9-10px.
- Plain text emails should be no wider than 60-80 characters, and you should use textual dividers to break up the copy: =====, ******, ———-, white space, and the like.
- When linking to files, make sure the file names have been updated to replace any spaces with dashes or underscores: for example, services_overview.pdf. Spaces will often render as %20 (services%20overview.pdf). (Whether dashes or underscores are better is still a matter of some debate, but either one is probably better than a space.)
#5: Update your QA procedures regularly.
Things change, browsers are updated, email clients go in and out of fashion. So make sure your QA process stays up to date with the latest technologies.
- Always test in every browser and email client that your recipients may be using, and whenever you can, take into account the platform and operating system on which emails are viewed.
- Top email clients: Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail / MSN, Outlook >2007, Outlook <2007, Outlook Online / 365
- Browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Apple’s Safari
- On the desktop: Apple O/S popularity is increasing, but September statistics from NetMarketShare show that 89.8% of the desktop O/S market still belongs to Windows.
- Smartphone/tablet: Mobile rendering is critical, with 61% of consumers reporting that they read at least some of their email with a mobile device (YesMail Interactive). In August, IDC reported that Android leads the smartphone O/S market, with Apple’s iOS still strong at #2. Windows Phone has gained ground, while Blackberry OS and Linux are trailing. This September research report from Millennial Media reveals that among tablets, Apple is winning out. So don’t neglect the mobile reader!
- Use a top-rated testing client like Litmus and others. Do your research and choose the right client for your circumstances.
- After a fix or hack, don’t just assume the issue is corrected. Test again!
- Make sure to test with images displayed and hidden.
- Don’t forget to test text-only versions.
#6: There’s always more to learn: get help.
The very best marketers continually learn and grow. Seek out great resources and experts. Here are a few of my favorites:
Testing Clients (some are typically used for validating HTML, not necessarily email):
Research and Information:
DemandGen Campaign Execution Services . . .if you don’t already know that!
Lori Mann is an expert in web and email design and deployment. As a DemandGen Production Specialist, she uses her advanced knowledge of HTML, XHTML, CSS, PHP, and MySql to build and deploy emails, landing pages, forms/smartforms, and microsites in clients’ Eloqua and Marketo systems. Lori also helps clients make the most of their marketing programs through sophisticated email template development, script authoring for automated form input, and rigorous quality assurance testing.