I should say upfront that I am not a marketer — but I know a lot about emails.
I have been building, uploading, templating, tweaking, designing, and deploying emails for more than 7 years as part of DemandGen’s Implementation Team — and that’s just part of my 20-year career doing content production in fields ranging from retail environment simulation to interface design. Remember, I’m not a marketer: I don’t write the copy, I don’t decide on the offer and I don’t pick the email recipients. I’m the guy with the hunchback who flips the switch and ticks either “It’s Alive!” or “Master, the villagers have gathered at the door, they brought fire!” on the clipboard.
Time and time again I see emails drop, and fail; and time and time again I watch my clients scratch their heads and wonder why the email open rates are so low. Have I mentioned, I am not a marketer? But when you see the sheer volume of email deployments that I do, you can’t help but see patterns emerge.
I have narrowed it down to five reasons why your email open rates may be low:
#1: You’re asking too much of the recipient.
With increasing frequency, I am seeing emails deploy with offers that are either too convoluted to understand or impossible to locate. In order to even understand the offer, recipients have to take a significant number of conscious actions: click on the email, read the subject line, load the images, read the headline and body copy, evaluate the offer, locate the call to action, and so on. News flash: that’s too much. Today, for most people, dealing with email feels less like surfing the cutting edge and more like sorting laundry. Reading emails is work, evaluating the offer is work, and the delete button is right there. . . In the same way that a guitar player learns to play without watching their fingers, sorting email has become an activity that we relegate to our subconscious minds.
So you need to stop thinking of email recipients as human beings and start thinking of them as lizards. You need to stop appealing to the human part of the brain and start speaking to the Lizard Brain: that part of the brain that operates solely on instinct, and isn’t able to carefully evaluate each email in the inbox to thoughtfully determine whether to click through to the landing page.
Need. Want. Fear. These triggers are what motivate the Lizard Brain, and you need to target them immediately.
Start by stripping away all of those “actions” that you were counting on. Ask yourself the following:
- Is my offer clear if they don’t read all the copy?
- Is it clear if they don’t load the images?
- Is it clear if they don’t scroll down, or see the entire email?
- Is it clear if they don’t even open the email?
Put simply, your offer needs to be understood immediately, at a glance, without relying on bells and whistles. It is really all about message, and your message is worth more attention than you are giving it.
#2: Your brand is not your logo.
More often than not, I see a client planning an email place more importance on the company’s logo than the marketing message. There is a mistaken assumption that brand Identification is expressed in logos and color palettes, rather than the value you deliver to your would-be customers.
I am going to go full-nerd and reference a piece of speculative fiction called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow. In it, the author describes a future society where an individual’s wealth is defined not by money, but by a social-media driven evaluation of the “esteem” people have for them. The more people that like you and are inspired by what you do, the richer you are.
Naturally this is a nightmare scenario for an introverted misanthrope such as myself, but it does provide insight into the source of a brand’s value. The esteem an email contact has for your brand is primarily dependent on the relevance of your offers and the overall experience of doing business with you. They will express this by opening your emails. In short, you need to focus less on looking like your brand and more on acting like your brand.
Focus on the message, and don’t lose sight of the fact that every email is part of a long-term strategy. That long-term goal is almost always about growing or continuing a relationship.
#3: Creating a great email is a copy exercise, not a graphic design exercise.
Let’s do a quick rundown of things that do and don’t affect your email open rates.
Things that do:
- A quickly identifiable and relevant message or offer
Things that don’t:
- Your logo
- Your email newsletter title
- Your headline graphic
- Social media icons
- Webinar speaker images
- Your partner logos
Clearly I am well down the path of marketing heresy, and obviously not all of the above elements are in the email just to increase email open rates. But ask yourself, whatever role it is that social media icons and partner logos play, can they play that role if people don’t open your email?
Having implemented a lot of email templates I have seen a mountain of brand guideline documents. They all include a “brand identity statement” — the emotional response the brand should prompt, or what experience is conveyed by interacting with your brand — a set of brand usage rules, and many examples of proper brand usage. But the guidelines that are usually missing are:
- How does our brand identity influence how we communicate our services with our clients?
- How does this guide the content of our communications?
- What does the tone of our communications tell our clients about us?
Here’s a great question for your brand team: “What would our brand look like as sky-writing?”
Suddenly logo placement, font choice, and PMS colors are meaningless, and all you are left with is the relevance and tone of the message. That is what email communications are. You can never tell when your message will be reduced to those terms. (I am looking at you, Lotus Notes!)
#4: Testing, testing, testing. . .but are you learning anything?
Hooray science! Marketing automation tools are wonderful at delivering all sorts of scientific-looking and detailed metrics. But is all that testing really science, or does it just look science-y?
By far the most common form of testing I see is subject line testing. Typically we run tests (90/5/5 or 80/10/10), and also typically (but not always) they show a narrow margin of improvement for one sample group. But there are two key things we need to know here: what does that increase really mean, and what does the testing gain for you long-term.
To know what an improvement means, you need to examine:
- The margin of error for the sample group. Is it larger than the difference in open rates? If it is, there should be no expectation of successfully increasing open rates with a different subject line. If it is smaller than the difference in open rates, does the expected improvement rate actually translate into a complete whole person? I have seen results where the mathematically expected improvement is 0.75 of one contact. (Is that considered fully opted in?) Is your overall list under 10,000 contacts? If so, you may be doing a lot of work for nothing.
- How you chose the contacts for the sample groups. Were they chosen at random? Maybe not; digital randomness is a lot harder to achieve than you think. And if not, your results may not be meaningful at all.
A larger question is what testing is gaining you long-term. You may achieve marginal improvements on your individual email deployments, but are you getting better at communicating with your contacts long term? What can you do to get better at choosing subject lines in the long run?
Some things to consider:
- Email metrics can tell you which subject line performed better, but they are no help telling you which subject line will perform better next time–and that is where to go old-school, and take the intuitive approach at which great marketers have traditionally excelled.
- Don’t rely on blog posts or webinars that want to tell you how to pick your subject lines. They can give you a sliver of insight into what typically works, but they get you no closer to establishing the proper tone and identity for your brand.
- Keep track of all your subject lines for 6 months, a year or indefinitely. Group the winners and the losers. If you can segment by product, and audience, do so. Look for patterns, recurring words or phrases, and try to recognize what works. It’s painful and daunting, but it is a crucial part of the feedback loop that makes AB testing valuable.
#5: Have you considered not sending the email?
“Are you nuts? How does that help us?”
Sending email is a destructive act. Every one you send diminishes your ability to communicate with your contacts. Why? I rarely see a set of email deployment results without at least one or two unsubscribes. That means that every time you send an email, whether or not you are getting the desired response rate, you are losing contacts.
And those few unsubscribes are the tip of the iceberg: only the people that have chosen the unsubscribe method of blocking your communications. It doesn’t include those using other methods of blocking you, or those who have just mentally written you off. It doesn’t include those people whose lizard brain response to your emails is now “not interested, delete on sight.”
What to do?
- Consider not only how this email helps your long term communication goals but also whether this email is worth the damage it may do to your ability to communicate with our contacts.
- Test the viability of your offer, instead of how to frame it. Does the sample group seem interested? No? Then maybe you shouldn’t blast this list-killer to your entire audience.
- Go with quality over quantity. Some marketers globally apply rules that exclude email sends to contacts who have received more than a set number of email per week.
- Being a good archer isn’t about how many arrows you shoot, but how many targets you hit. Try smaller email blasts of more targeted relevant content to specific audiences.
And to wrap it up. . .
Email marketing has come a long way from its batch-and-blast roots, but most of my clients still seem to think of it as a volume communication medium. What should be apparent by now is that the audience itself is trying to define the medium by objecting to that approach. The ever-evolving spam filters, tighter opt-in protocols, and expanding subscription management schemes all point to a communication channel that demands relevant content.
Right place, right time, right offer. Simplify everything else.
If you want to discuss your email practices with a DemandGen expert, schedule a call or drop a note to our team. For more tips and trips around email best practices, check out Back to Basics: 6 Top Email Best Practices.
Patrick Belford, Implementation Specialist, has been deploying email campaigns for DemandGen clients at the rate of several hundred per year. He specializes in optimizing email designs to increase open rates for clients in a variety of Marketing Automation environments. He continues to help DemandGen clients design and deploy email campaigns in the ever-evolving technological and sociological landscape of email marketing.