In the 20+ years since email proved itself as a worthy channel for messaging and marketing, we still don’t have a single set of guidelines that’s accessible for all, for the best way to conduct business with it.
For many of us, “best practices” fill that knowledge gap.
So, we latch onto these concepts when we need to solve problems. The solutions become trends (because everybody’s doing it), and boom! An email urban myth is born.
That’s not to say that all “best practices” have such murky origins. My problem is with generally accepted “best” practices that don’t stand up to closer examination and rigorous testing that works for every brand. I’m not saying that the 4 myths below aren’t applicable for some, they’re just not applicable for all, as is often touted.
4 email urban myths posing as best practices
- Double opt-in is the best way to build a high-quality email list.
- Delete your inactive subscribers or customers to maintain list quality.
- The best test of a subject line is the open rate.
- Short subject lines work best.
Right about now, you might be thinking, “Wait! What? That’s not what the boss/my co-worker/a conference speaker said.”
I understand your confusion, but hear me out in the next section. If I still haven’t persuaded you to test these out to find if they work for you, let me know in the comments section at the end of this post.
Email Urban Myth No. 1: Double opt-in is the best way to build a high-quality email list.
DOI is the appendix of the email industry. It served a purpose once, back before ISPs had strict permission requirements, when scammers and spammers hijacked millions of email addresses and made up millions more to reach inboxes.
Back then, many ISPs and some email service providers, like Mailchimp, required commercial email senders to use DOI to use their platforms as it played a very important part in deliverability.
In days of old, deliverability by ISP’s was based on whitelisting, and you could only be added to a whitelist if you could prove DOI. But deliverability has come a long way since then and we’re not reliant on whitelists and DOI.
Today, we have more reliable methods to identify legitimate senders and validate email addresses, such as Never Bounce, Kickbox, Fresh Address and others. Plus, most countries have laws mandating consent to receive commercial email (the United States and India are exceptions).
On the business side, DOI can cost marketers up to 60% of potential subscribers, hampering database size, confusing subscribers, delivering a poor customer experience and hurting revenue.
You don’t have to look any farther for guidance than ESP giant Mailchimp, which changed its DOI requirement to being an option in 2017.
“We’re making this change now because we have stronger, more intelligent data-backed systems in place to prevent spam for all of our hosted forms—double and single opt-in—so we don’t expect this to impact deliverability,” the company said in a blog post explaining why it switched to single opt-in (SOI) as the default setting for email lists.
DOI might make sense for some marketers and I’m not saying it’s not the best solution for some brands such as finance, government etc. Or those who are based in, or mailing to countries who prefers DOI, such as Germany, where DOI is not a legislative requirement, however, based on case law, established by the Federal Court of Justice, it’s recommended for evidence purposes.
So choose wisely. Don’t go with DOI just because someone told you it’s the best practice. Pick the format that best serves your business objectives as well as your customers’ interests.
Email Urban Myth No. 2. Delete your inactive subscribers or customers to maintain list quality.
I’m turning to Mailchimp again to explain why this practice when applied generally, is more of a “worst practice” than a “best practice.” In short, it can kill off business and should not be applied ‘generally’ to all businesses, however, it may be relevant for some.
Mailchimp’s analysis of 6 billion emails sent on its platform in 2017 came up with a solid finding that undercuts the quest to delete non-responsive (inactive) email addresses: “Inactive subscribers are 26% more likely to return [to the website] than non-subscribers.”
(Mailchimp’s study also highlights how subscribers are more valuable to your business than non-subscribers, but that’s a topic for another time.)
The finding comparing inactive subscribers and non-subscribers was revolutionary because it demonstrated the branding power of email, even messages that recipients don’t open.
Email messages can nudge consumers to take many actions that don’t get attributed back to that email, as this chart from the UK DMA’s Consumer Email Tracker Report 2017 shows:
Yes, you read that right. Out of the top 8 actions a consumer takes, only one will be attributed to email, and it’s not even the top action!
Email is a push channel and it often starts the consumer on a journey to purchase, albeit not always in the desired journey route, such as clicking through the email.
Right about now you’re probably wondering about the other engagement metric—opens— and the role it plays here.
I’m sure we all know by now that opens are reliant on the recipient downloading an invisible pixel in order for ESPs to be able to track that they’ve ‘opened’ the email.
Because of this and because not everyone has images set to download by default, opens are essentially an unreliable metric.
For example, if you’ve designed your email to gracefully degrade and not be reliant on images downloaded (which is recommended), then the recipient can read your persuasive copy and details of your fabulous offer without needing to download images. They then can simply head off to your website to take advantage of this offer.
Or, if you do a great job with your subject line and let them know the offer within it, then they don’t need to open the email but can go straight to the site.
So, the danger here is that unless we have a single customer view of our database (and not many of us do), then we could be cutting off those customers who are ‘nudged’ to the site to buy, but ‘appear’ to be inactive.
And this cutting off could have dire consequences on our revenue.
You have many ways to identify and win back lapsed customers without getting out the carving knife:
- Factor in your buying cycle. Some experts will tell you to drop non-responding addresses as early as 90 days after opt-in. That’s pretty harsh if your products have a long buying cycle. Do what Mailchimp did, and study the buying habits of your inactive customers. They might be more active that you think.
- Look for activity in other channels. Can you identify whether your inactives have been browsing or buying on your website, as the Mailchimp data suggests?
- Start a win-back program as soon as you begin to detect inactivity.
This is not a topic to take lightly and due diligence is necessary to determine which approach best suits your brand and your brand’s goals.
Then fully armed with this knowledge you can make an informed decision, rather than following advice from someone who does not have the responsibility of delivering upon your brand’s goals, as you do.
Email Urban Myth No. 3. The best test of a subject line is the open rate.
The open rate has many uses. Judging the success of a subject line generally should not be one of them.
Your objective for your email determines the KPI you’ll use to measure how well different versions of your subject line performed. If all you care about is how many people opened the email, then go ahead and use the open rate.
But if your email is supposed to drive conversions and, ultimately, revenue, the open rate won’t tell you that. It’s a top-of-funnel metric that can potentially indicate success but making business decisions based on open rates can prove to be quite costly.
“Opens and clicks don’t predict revenue any better than a coin flip!” Mailchimp said in an excellent blog post on run times for A/B tests.
Mailchimp’s study found subject-line tests that ran for 12 to 24 hours more accurately picked winners when measuring for revenue.
If you use revenue as your KPI but judge it according to which subject line had the highest open rate, you could end up cutting off a test too soon and picking the wrong subject line.
Research by Tim Watson of Zettasphere puts it even more baldly: “Open rates wrongly predict success 53% of the time.”
Here’s how using the open rate as your metric to judge a revenue-based campaign’s success can lead you astray:
When testing a subject line for a cart-abandonment email, this brand compared two subject lines in an A/B split test sent over four weeks:
- “Reminder: Items saved in your cart – Shop now for an extra 10% off”
- “Come back and save an extra 10%”
Subject line B had a 10.5% higher open rate. But Subject line A increase orders by 21% and revenue by 35%.
Go on and have a look at your historical subject line tests which have the conversions recorded and see if these tests show that high open rates deliver high conversions. Not just most of the time, but every time.
Email Urban Myth No. 4. Short subject lines work best….for everyone….all the time
As a trainer, speaker and consultant, the most common question ever asked of me is “Should my subject lines be short or long?” This question and associated urban email myth arises from two contributing factors:
- Some email clients, like AOL & IOS, truncate subject lines in the inbox between 35 and 60 characters.
- Shorter subject lines generally drive higher open rates.
So, shorter subject lines work best, right? That’s the myth, but here’s the reality:
The question above is actually the wrong question to be asking. The correct question is “Should my subject lines be generic or specific?” In general, shorter subject lines are generic and appeal to a broader audience, which leads to higher opens, as the more generic they are, the more people can read into them what they want to.
However, longer and more specific subject lines qualify leads in the inbox. That is, they appeal more to the people who are more likely to convert from the open. Fewer people open, but more of those that do open click through to the website. A perfect example is the cart abandonment email shown previously. A is more specific and B is more generic which led to A delivering a lower open rate but higher conversions.
It might seem logical to write shorter subject lines, so the inbox doesn’t lop off crucial information – but that doesn’t mean it’s right for your email program.
Using the open rate as your KPI is fine if your objective is to reach as many people as possible. But, if your objective is to gain conversions, don’t stop at the open rate. Test it. Test short, generic subject lines against, longer, specific subject lines to see which help you to achieve your objectives. You might be surprised.
As Chris Goward writes in his book, You Should Test That!, best practice recommendations often don’t consider a brand’s unique business environment, goals and target audience. It can be intimidating, too, to turn your back on conventional email wisdom.
Always see what works best for your email program before adopting anyone else’s recommendations – even mine! When you know what works best for your email program and audience, with its quirks and unique needs, you can plot your course for the best outcomes.