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.

Nurture Your Subscribers to Higher ROI in 2010

Email subscribers want only one thing from us: help. They want to be more informed, more beautiful, given raises, be heroes to their kids and make better business decisions. Given the amount of poorly targeted messages in my inbox, however, it seems many of us have forgotten this central tenet. Generic is boring; custom is compelling. Response goes up when messages engage and nurture subscribers.

Email subscribers want only one thing from us: help. They want to be more informed, more beautiful, given raises, be heroes to their kids and make better business decisions. Given the amount of poorly targeted messages in my inbox, however, it seems many of us have forgotten this central tenet. Generic is boring; custom is compelling. Response goes up when messages engage and nurture subscribers.

The inbox is essential in 2010, but it’s also fiercely competitive. Social networks drive their businesses through the inbox, and more and more marketers are sending more and more promotions. Your message must stand out amid this noise.

Sending the same message to everyone is the opposite of nurture — it’s numbing. It has the opposite effect, driving disengagement and dissatisfaction. Too much email in short time periods will not only depress response, it’ll increase complaints (counted by ISPs like Yahoo and Gmail) every time someone clicks the “Report Spam” button. Even a small number of complaints will prevent your messages from reaching subscriber inboxes — all your subscribers, not just those who complained.

It’s painful enough imagining the slow death of your email response rates when subscribers are bored week after week. Even worse, imagine the drop in revenue if all your messages are blocked by Yahoo due to high complaints. Ouch! It’s worth taking the time to nurture instead.

The ideal is to offer subscribers what they need before they realize they need it. Luckily, you can get pretty far even without deep resources. Test a few of the following “baby step” ideas now; then integrate the hardest-working into your ongoing calendar this year. Since not all subscribers have the same value, focus on those with the highest potential.

1. Educate prospects. Many marketers have both prospects and customers on their house lists, each receiving the same promotions. Probably neither are inspired by something watered down for the masses. Never assume prospects know anything about your content, editorial personalities, products or benefits. Consider a series of messages or offers that move prospects through the sales pipeline.

2. Treat customers better. Email is a great way to treat your best customers special. Certainly VIPs are easy to find and celebrate, but also take that same approach down the line. Identify your cusp customers, and invite them to participate at higher levels while showing them the benefit of doing so. Every once in a while, just thank your customers. You’ll be surprised at the response you get.

3. Listen. Let subscribers tell you what they need through their actions. Even if you can’t overlay behavior and demographic data, use the data you have. Customize transactional emails based on purchase. After a click, trigger a context-specific email with content recommendations — which could be sponsored advertorial — or premium services. Replace static landing pages with deeper microsites focused on particular topics to capture more page views or present more detailed offers when prospects are “in market.”

4. Test subject lines. Many campaigns go out without any optimization testing. Yet even simple A/B testing of subject lines can improve response by 5 percent or more.

5. Customize by age. Watch response by vintage (the length of time the subscriber has been on the file), and determine when subscribers go “inactive” — defined as no open, click or conversion/response activity in the past three months.

Quickly send out a “win-back” campaign to those who may be on the verge of going inactive. Don’t wait two years to send a win-back. Once subscribers start ignoring your emails, it’s difficult to re-engage them.

Audit your past 90 days for a “nurture appeal.” Are you blasting or engaging? Broadcasting or customizing? Talking or listening? You’ll likely find a number of points of vulnerability where you’re not optimizing your nurture potential. The payoff is real: Satisfied customers click more, buy more, and engage frequently with advertising and offers.

Let me know what you think; please share any ideas or comments below.