Email Marketing: What They Don’t Teach in School

In a recent webinar, speaker & digital marketing evangelist, Jessica Best, shared “Email Marketing Burning Questions – Answered.” Here are a few of the insights she shared. Be sure to login and view the recorded webinar via the link at the bottom.

What I’ve learned after nearly 9 years in email marketing: They just don’t teach this stuff in school. Still! There have been entire college courses added for social media marketing or on the psychology of video. Email marketing tops nearly every Return on Marketing Investment chart available today, but database marketing and particularly email marketing still aren’t on the curriculum for most marketing or advertising degrees.NewsletterLayout

So, as part of my job as a digital marketing evangelist, I’ve made it part of my mission to share what I’ve learned from my own experiences with fellow marketers. Here are a couple of the questions I hear most often from clients and audiences:

What works in email subject lines? And how do you measure subject line “success”?

Before you can determine what wins, you have to know how you’ll define success. Typically, that depends on your campaign goals. Do you want more eyeballs (opens), more engagement (clicks), or more sales (conversions)?

Engagement and sales rely on many other factors, from email content to the offer and product itself, so it’s sometimes easiest to spot a subject line winner based on open rates. So, what gets the best open rates? What’s the secret word, phrase or offer that will guarantee your best response? Of course there isn’t one. No silver bullets here. If you don’t offer discounts, trying a “buy now and save” subject line wouldn’t be a good option for you. If you’re a financial publication with a professional sounding brand, a playful tone of voice – which is very popular with some brands – won’t be nearly as effective for you.

Test what works for your product, your brand, and your audience. Work up 2-4 subject lines for an email that all use different emotions or mechanisms to elicit response. Or try focusing on different articles from the email as your subject lines to test. Be sure to keep your test segment size large enough to garner statistically significant results. (Learn more about how to ensure scientific testing and results here.)

There are a few basic best practices, though, when it comes to subject lines. These may not all be true for you, but in general, here are a few tips:

1. Keep it short. 80 characters is about the max that any inbox will show of your subject line, but on a mobile device readers may see as few as 25! Just like journalists, be concise and place your most important information first.








2. Use your “2nd subject line” too. The text that appears under/alongside the subject line (like in the above examples) is another opportunity to elicit an open. Outlook, Gmail, and mobile devices all pull in a “snippet” of the first text from your email, usually your text pre-header. Use this space wisely! Think of it as another opportunity for rich copy. Tip: “If you can’t see this email…” is not using that space wisely.

3. Avoid ALL CAPS. Yelling still isn’t cool in marketing. Unless you have a label (i.e. BREAKING) or an important word to highlight, keep it cool and proper or lower case.

4. Avoid spammy words or characters. Some punctuation or characters like $ and % will make you look a bit like spam. It doesn’t mean you’re headed straight to the junk folder, but it does make it a bit more likely.

What are the trends in email marketing design?

My biggest tip for email design isn’t new: Design for email with images turned off. Up to 30% of your readers will have images turned off by default, including Outlook and any Android devices. Be sure your message comes across with or without your big hero graphics. This especially applies to calls to action. Make sure you have text links in addition to buttons (which are usually images).

A bonus tip: don’t embed words in your images if you don’t have to. Especially now that mobile readership can be as high as 65% of your list, you should be designing for mobile accessibility. Your hero image may be perfectly legible at 600px wide, but on an iPhone, it’s probably only half that size. If your readers have to work to read your call to action, they become much less likely to read it at all.

Lastly, a bit of wishful thinking: What I hope to see trending in email marketing in 2016 is video and/or animation in email. There’s really only one inbox that still won’t play any animation in the inbox, but as long as it’s one of the biggest Business-to-Business inboxes in the market, video in email will have to stay simple. Currently, the best practice for video in email is a still shot of the video with a play button super imposed on it, linking to the full video somewhere else (YouTube, Vimeo, etc). As video becomes more and more prevalent in marketing, especially in social media, I’d like to see email inboxes open up to the possibilities, too!

Have more burning questions on email marketing? Find me on Twitter @emfluence or @bestofjess, or check out our blog full of resources at

Happy sending!

To see the full webinar with 8 additional questions answered, click here. (You’ll need to be logged in.)

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