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25 Email Marketing Tips

Make yourself valuable through email marketing

A surefire way to attract new subscribers and retain present ones is to make yourself as valuable as you can to them. You can increase your value by making your email program as user-friendly as possible.

How to do that? By improving its usability, meaning how easily prospects learn about, sign up, participate in and remove themselves from your email program.

Here’s a real-world example showing how a lack of usability can block a desired outcome:

While waiting for a flight recently, I filled out an airport market-research survey using a tablet PC. At the end, the survey invited me to sign up for email updates.

First, the survey asked me to sign up for updates without giving me a compelling reason or explaining the benefit. I was feeling a little reckless, though, so I decided to sign up anyway.

Second, once I started to type in my email address, I couldn’t find the “@” key on the keyboard. The survey-giver walked past just then and showed me where the “shift” and “@” keys were (located in a different spot than in a regular PC keyboard). These two examples violated a key tenet of usability: Don’t make it hard for the user.

The whole experience got me thinking: How can online marketers boost their subscription and performance rates by improving the usability of their email programs? Also, how do sites actually make it hard for users to sign up?

The Basics of Usability

Some online experts say content is king. Actually, content is a function of usability. Without usability, you won’t get many people to read your great content.

Think of usability as ways to make life easier for your prospects and subscribers. It breaks down into three categories:

I. The subscription process
II. Message design and content
III. Managing subscriptions and unsubscribing

Great usability requires optimum design on your Web site, where you promote your program, where you register and manage subscribers, and in your email messages, which will likely be your users’ most frequent contact with you.

Michael Gold, a principal in the consulting firm of West Gold Editorial, sees a lot of what he calls “lunkhead” thinking on Web sites and in email programs, especially in the subscription phase of the email relationship.

“I see an awful lot of lonely, nondescript boxes on homepages that say ‘subscribe to our newsletter’ and that’s it,” said Gold, whose firm works with clients to launch or renovate publications and Web sites.

“The thing we tell people over and over is at least to include a brief promo line giving a concrete, specific benefit that would drive a visitor to sign up, using the kinds of language and words they need to use in all of their promotional copy all over the Web site and links.”

Gold also sees these three common problems:

“A big dead silence” after someone subscribes. “I want something to happen right away in my email inbox,” he said. Send your latest newsletter or offer in a return email instead of waiting for the next publication date.

Overwhelming readers with too many choices, without explanations or grouping into interest or demographic categories. Not explaining whether the email a prospect is signing up for is a bulletin about new content at the Web site or a full-content newsletter.

How Do You Rank?

Want to find out quickly how usable your Web site and email program are? Try these two free methods:

1. Seek out a usability rating tool and rate your program by answering some key questions. It scores your email program using a basic set of usability factors.
2. Ask 10 friends or family members — those who don’t get your emails or use your Web site — to test your site and opt-in procedure. Have them start at your home page and monitor how long it takes to get to and complete a subscription form. If it takes more than three clicks or 10 seconds, you fail the usability test.

Usability Principle One: Keep Subscription Simple

This means giving prospects every opportunity to sign up and making the sign-up process quick and uncomplicated.

A 2002 study of email-newsletter usability by the Nielson-Norman group recommended having no more than a two-step sign-up process: one step to collect the email address and another to confirm it. The more steps in the process, and the more information required, the more likely prospects would abandon the effort.

If you want more detailed information, such as what you might need to qualify leads, you can go back and ask for it later after you have established a relationship with the reader.

Promote your email program at every customer touchpoint: online on each page of your Web site, in order or registration confirmations and white-paper downloads, and offline at call centers, on point-of-sale cards in retail outlets, at trade-show booths, in print ads, etc.
On your Web pages, briefly explain the benefit to your subscribers (“Want to get email -only deals? Sign up for our newsletter!”) and provide an address field? and link to your registration page.

List all your email opportunities (newsletters, announcements, press lists, news alerts, special offers) on a central registration page, but group them in common categories.

Keep registration/subscription to one page. Don’t force people to click more than twice at your site (not including an email confirmation if you use it.)

Limit how much personal information you request, but give prospects many opportunities to customize their subscriptions.

Provide blank checkboxes to let users indicate preferences for frequency, format (text vs. HTML), content and personalization.

Test Web links periodically and newsletter links before each send to make sure they work. For offline registrations, tailor the message to the medium.

Keep text explanations short and sweet in POS cards (just a one-sentence benefit explanation, the field for an email address and a short privacy statement). Similarly, a brief but compelling pitch from a customer-service rep can help a prospect say yes on the phone, after the initial business has concluded.

Note: Although you want to simplify your sign-up process, there are two shortcuts to avoid. You should still use a double opt-in process to avoid data-entry errors and prank sign-ups. Also, don’t precheck boxes on the registration page.

Usability Principle Two: Make Messages Meaningful

First, you have to get the recipient to open your message. Then, you must make the content relevant to your audience. If you haven’t revisited your basic message design in the last year or so, it’s time to take another look.

This principle covers both “outside” of your message (the from and subject lines) and the inside (the content).

Use your company or brand name in the “from” line, which tells recipients who sent the email.
Write a brief (six words or less is ideal) subject line that accurately represents the message’s major content. Longer subject lines are OK, just make sure each word is critical and the most important are in the first 50 characters – those that follow will get cut off in many email clients. Include the email’s title, if it has one (such as a newsletter title). If you can’t, then include your company, division or brand name in the “from” line. List it first here.

Keep HTML-format messages as simple as possible. The more gizmos you pack into an HTML message — superfluous images, graphics, sound or video — the more likely something won’t work on your recipients’ computers. Store rich-media content on the Web; limit image size and use colors that reflect your logo.

In HTML messages, use alt tags and support text around images so that readers whose by default will still get the gist of your message. Many email clients will also block alt tags, so good use of text is key.

If you offer a text version make sure the content includes links to all of your core functions and tasks. Don’t force readers to click to the of your newsletter to receive its benefits or manage their subscriptions.

Load up on relevant links. If your goal is to funnel readers to your Web site, give them many access points, such as two or three order buttons sprinkled around a promo message instead of just one, or links to related information on your site. You’ve probably got a wealth of info at your site; make it easy for your readers to find it.

Lose the generic action button. Instead of “click here,” use descriptive terms such as “Order now!” or “subscribe me!” or “Get whitepaper here.” Be explicit about the actions you want users to take.

Test each email message before you send it, in different browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, etc.), email clients (Outlook, Lotus Notes, Gmail, Yahoo!) and platforms (Macintosh and PC). Click each link; watch out for oddities and inconsistencies in the way images load (or don’t load) and in text fonts and widths.

Adhere to your users’ preferences for frequency, format and content. If you keep sending promo offers to people who signed up just for the newsletter, you’ll lose them.

However, you can promote your other publications in your messages, as long as those promos don’t get in the way of the main content. For example, add a brief product offer at the end or side of a newsletter or announcement message, or list headlines from relevant news stories in a promotional-offer message. This way, you can promote other products and services without committing readers to extra emails.

Help readers manage your information. Include a forward-to-a-friend link in messages where appropriate and a print option that links to a printer-friendly version of an HTML message. Label those functions, either with icons or brief text.

Usability Principle Three: Make Change Easy

A highly usable email program makes it easy for subscribers to update their preferences or exit the program.

Design a standard box (in HTML) or copy block (in text) that includes all important subscription data: the email address used to subscribe, your company name and contact data, instructions on how to change preferences, an unsub link (separate from the reader-preference page), a link to your privacy policy or an abbreviated statement of it and any other relevant information.

Label each action clearly and separately: “Change your address/Update your preferences here;” “unsubscribe here.”

Place this information in the same location in all messages, whatever the format. Near the end works best. Wherever you put it, do it the same way in all messages.

Dedicate a Web page to reader-preference changes. Don’t confuse its purpose with other goals or actions.

Allow readers to change their preferences by checking and unchecking boxes. List their new preferences on a separate page before they navigate away from it, but don’t ask them to take yet another step to confirm them.

Make the unsub link stand out; label it clearly and don’t surround it with extra copy or tuck it way down at the bottom of the email.

Move to a one-click unsubscribe process, maximum two clicks. You can send a confirmation email with an opt-out in case they really did hit the unsub button by accident but don’t make them confirm their request.

This looks like a daunting list, but the thing to remember with usability is that much of it results from common sense and putting the user’s needs first. If you have revamped your email program to follow many of the email industry’s best practices, you’ve already begun to boost your usability.

Now, review your web site and email messages and see where you can make them even more useful to your customers and prospects.

About Steven Smith

Steven M. Smith, Partner and President, graduated The Art Institute of Vancouver for Web Design & Interactive Media, Graphic & Web Design and has been featured in the Province Newspaper and the Vancouver Sun for his articles on SEO for small companies as well as Company Branding musts and misses.

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