Email Marketing Best Practices 101

Email has been around a while, so you’d think marketing people would understand best practices by now. But recent experience proves otherwise.

A company started sending me emails I did not subscribe to. When I tried to unsubscribe, the form said I would be removed from “list 1.” The next day, I continued to receive emails from the company and when I again tried to unsubscribe, the form said I would be removed from “list 2.” This went on for some time. When it ended, I began getting emails from a dozen other sources.

I purchased a product from a consultant and opted in to the newsletter. This consultant began sending me a relentless stream of emails, often multiple times a day, which is not what I signed up for. Fortunately, I had used a utility Yahoo address rather than one of my primary addresses, so I just abandoned the address.

Around Christmas, I purchased a book of hockey game tickets for a family member from a well-known ticket vendor. You know who I mean. They began sending me emails and when I tried to opt out, discovered that they called these “administrative” emails and that I could not not opt out. That’s right. They refused to allow me to opt out. I had to block the address to make the emails stop.

These are just three examples of bad email marketing. They display deep ignorance about how email works, what consumers want, and the best practices that can make it successful.

I know because I’ve been acting as the marketing director for a political grassroots nonprofit for a few years and have used email best practices to grow the organization. Currently, list growth is as high as 500 new opt-in subscribers a day with low opt-outs (from 0.1% to 0.2%) and nearly non-existent spam reports. And I’ve not spent one penny buying lists.

Email marketing is the lifeblood of this organization, driving traffic to the website, filling events and fundraisers, and soliciting donations and volunteers.

I try to adhere to best practices at all times because they work. What are these best practices?

Subscription form top left. This is the hot spot on any website. The form appears in the same place on every one of the more than 7,000 pages on the site. It’s not just a link. I provide a text box to type in an email address with a “Go” button to subscribe.

Newsletter description. The form includes a short description of the newsletter promising what the subscriber will get. This includes a free 38-page “grassroots action guide” as an incentive.

Privacy policy. This is the equivalent of a guarantee. I keep it simple: Your email address is kept confidential. We do not sell, share, trade, or in any way reveal your private information to anyone for any reason.

Full registration form. Yes, I could get by without this, but I use it to get people to confirm their email address, confirm the newsletter they want, choose text or html, and provide complete name and address (which is optional). Because the organization is a nonprofit appealing to a motivated supporter base, we can get away with asking for all this information without affecting our opt-in rate.

Expectations. At the top of the registration form I clearly state the newsletter frequency and explain that the subscriber will receive other occasional emails of interest. Why surprise people and increase opt outs?

Welcome email. Immediately upon subscribing, the subscriber receives a welcome / thank you email that again sets expectations on frequency and briefly describes the newsletter content. It also repeats the privacy policy and explains how to unsubscribe.

Relevant content. I deliver what I’ve promised by including interesting, up-to-date content in every newsletter. I keep promotional material to a minimum, stick to the publishing schedule, and don’t overload subscribers with too many emails.

Prominent opt-out links. If someone wants to unsubscribe, I let them. There is an opt-out link at the top and bottom of every email I send. When someone unsubscribes, they are instantly removed from the active subscriber list and added to the do not mail list.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand these email marketing best practices. By treating people with respect and honesty, and by communicating with them clearly, you can get more subscribers and keep them loyal.

Email marketing best practices can be boiled down to the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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11 Responses to “Email Marketing Best Practices 101”

  1. Jason Fladlien's Pal on August 26th, 2010 10:10 am

    Bad e-mail marketing turns off potential customers. In internet marketing you want your customers to be returning and speak well of you to others.

  2. Sam on August 31st, 2010 5:37 pm

    All you’re saying is don’t spam people or sell their information. That much is obvious. What is it about your content and design that you think keeps people subscribed, and clicking?

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  4. Brad on November 2nd, 2010 4:08 pm

    Great article on email marketing best practices. I included a link to this article on my blog about web development. Thanks!

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    [...] Email Marketing Best Practices 101 [...]

  6. Georgia Christian on November 22nd, 2010 5:49 am

    You’re absolutely right, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist, yet many businesses and individuals still choose to ignore best practices – often to their detriment unfortunately.

  7. Rolv Heggenhougen on February 26th, 2011 11:26 am

    There’s no doubt that email marketing works. In addition to the traditional email marketing (mass email) one should look at another marketing opportunity and that is the emails we all send from our corporate email addresses every day. I represent a company that has developed a solution for just those emails and thus this post.
    The basic idea behind wrapmail is to utilize the facts that all businesses have websites and employees that send emails every day. These emails can become complete marketing tools and help promote, brand, sell and cross-sell in addition to conducting research. Wrapmail is available for free at

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    [...] you are a nonprofit, you will want a list that is opt-in, and not purchased wholesale. There are great solutions from companies like Care2 to develop email lists of customized, [...]

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