Best Practices Exist for a Reason, Part 1: Email

I’m continually stunned when a client, art director, copywriter or any other strategist in the marketing industry insists on using a design or copy technique that directly contradicts proven best practices.

I’m continually stunned when a client, art director, copywriter or any other strategist in the marketing industry insists on using a design or copy technique that directly contradicts proven best practices.

Over the years, I’ve absorbed studies about the ventricles of the brain and how it performs distinctly different cognitive processes. I’ve read color studies, the anatomy of eye movement, how words and numbers trigger comprehension and reaction, fonts and their role in evoking an emotional reaction, persuasion psychology and unconscious motivation—the list goes on and on—all in an effort to apply these learnings in order to help our clients get the maximum response to their marketing efforts.

While I have a laundry list of “must-do’s” for every medium, I thought I’d share a few digital best practices as Part 1 in a series, and I’d love to hear why you’re NOT following these proven techniques:

  • Test Your Subject Lines: According to a 2014 poll by Howling Mad’s Parry Malm, marketers ranked subject lines among the top variable that affected email response rates however 25% ever conducted any testing. Parry (one of the leading experts on email subject lines) has learned that ‘Sale’ delivers 23.2% opens while ‘Save’ only gets 3.4%. He also found that if the subject line is personalized but the email content isn’t, you gain opens but don’t drive clicks. I put that insight in my ‘Duh!’ file.
  • Buttons Will Get More Clicks Than Text Links: Many have tested this theory (myself included) and the answer seems to always conclude that buttons will outperform text links. AWeber conducted a series of button/text links, and their findings are fascinating as they determined that, over time, text links outperformed the buttons—but they also concluded that what works today, may not work tomorrow. Again, test and keep testing.
  • Text Links Should Be in Color: While this might seem like a ‘Duh!’ I’m always surprised when I accidently hover my finger or mouse over a block of text and discover “there’s a hyperlink in them there hills!” If you want me to take an action (like clicking on something) then lead my horse to the water.
  • A Button Needs to Look Like a Button: Neil Patel, the co-founder of Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics, owns the button testing world hands down and he concludes that the digital button that gets the most clicks is shaped like a button (rounded corners, slight drop shadow) and is colored (or at least in contrast to the rest of the page of copy in order to stand out—duh). Try NOT to match the color of your button to other call-out boxes on the page as the distraction prevents the action.
  • Button Copy Should Be in First Person: Try this test yourself. If your action button is written in third person (“Start now” or “Try Product X Free”) try testing it against copy in the 1st person (“Help Me Work Faster” or “End My Headaches”). It’s highly likely you’ll see a lift of at least 25% in clicks, at least according to Ashtyn Douglas and Joanna Wiebe who conducted similar tests.
  • Fonts Matter: While many designers will argue this topic endlessly, the current consensus is that sans serif fonts are superior for body text and serif fonts are best for headlines. Of course if you have a newer display, it doesn’t make much difference. But not everyone has the newest technology and some work on displays that are 10+ years old, so if you target a senior audience (yes, that includes senior managers in small companies who cannot afford to regularly upgrade their hardware), you may want to design for maximum legibility. Make sure your font is a system font (most likely to be supported by the majority of email clients and web browsers) like Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, Geneva or Trebuchet MS, and large enough for people to read without any effort—at least 10 if not 12 pt. Even though Google is now providing supposedly supported modern web fonts, it’s a little too early to tell whether every email client and web browser will be able to properly display them.

In summary, if all of these marketers have already done all the testing for you, why wouldn’t you at least consider these insights and apply them to your own email marketing efforts? Tell me. I’m all ears.

Challenge Emails: ‘Go Away. We Don’t Want You.’

“Stay in touch?” That was the headline on an email I got today from the folks at Pitney Bowes. What was notable, however, was the first line of copy: “We notice it’s been a while since you opened an email from us …” I honestly can’t decide if this is a strategic insight gone awry, or a little creepy.

“Stay in touch?” That was the headline on a challenge email I got today from the folks at Pitney Bowes. What was notable, however, was the first line of copy: “We notice it’s been a while since you opened an email from us …” I honestly can’t decide if this is a strategic insight gone awry, or a little creepy.

Email open rates are a misunderstood analytics tool; take a minute and follow my logic:

  • According to Campaign Monitor, the most popular email client is Outlook. And, according to MarketingSherpa, over 50 percent of consumers use a preview feature to view emails.
  • Nearly 40 percent of email clients block images by default.
  • Conclusion: If you read your email via preview pane (or not), and don’t download the images, your “open” is not being recorded as an “open” and in this instances, that seems to make Momma a very bad girl.

Bottom line is this: Pitney Bowes really doesn’t know whether I am reading their emails or not. They’ve assumed I am NOT since I am not downloading the images contained in their emails. And, it seems, they believe I am not reading their “valuable information about supplies, offers, discounts, new products and thought leadership pieces.”

If I wasn’t opening/reading them before, they’ve certainly given me a good reason to unsubscribe now. Like many companies, Pitney Bowes needs to stop thinking their marketing messages need to be about THEM, and start thinking about what might be deemed interesting (and therefore valuable) to ME.

Funnily enough, the last email I got from Pitney Bowes two weeks earlier, was another little smack across the hand for my apparent bad behavior. The subject line “Don’t miss out” didn’t compel me to even open that email, but the message was even worse! They noted that it had been a while since they had heard from me—Really? It’s not like we were corresponding or anything—and they wanted to know if I was still interested in getting emails from them. I had to confirm my interest by July 15 in order to “continue receiving the latest from PB.”

Needless to say I didn’t open nor respond; but that didn’t stop them from sending this weeks’ email to me.

In a world where businesses spend an inordinate amount of time (and money!) trying to collect email addresses for ongoing engagement with their customers, PB seems to want to sever the ties with me. And all because I’m (apparently) not opening their email messages.

I think the good folks in PB marketing need this little wake up call: While I appreciate that you think I’m not reading your emails and therefore may no longer be interested in your products/services/thought leadership pieces, you might want to wait for me to unsubscribe. Or better yet, try sending me emails with content that is actually of value to me and my organization. Oh, and here’s a hint: Don’t make that content about YOUR products/services.