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Want More Opens and Fewer Unsubscribes? Fix These 35 Email Mistakes

An email pops up in your inbox. It’s from the company where you purchased a gift for a family member’s birthday almost a year ago. It reminds you it’s almost time to celebrate again.

The brand made a smart email marketing move – delivering personalized, relevant, and timely content. But what it did next was dumb.

Sarah Mitchell received a reminder email about her father’s birthday. He had passed away that year so she unsubscribed and gave the reason in the corresponding form.

But the emails kept coming – two more before his birthday. She talked with someone at the company and asked them to permanently remove her email address.

The next year, another email reminder about her dad’s birthday appeared in her inbox.

“I was livid. I’ll never purchase anything from them again and I’ve been a customer for over 20 years,” Sarah says.

While the brand originally provided a personalized and helpful email, its failure to act on Sarah’s feedback led to the loss of a longtime customer.

Sarah’s story, which she recently told on the Marketing Breakout podcast, illustrates just some of what 34 of her fellow presenters at Content Marketing World 2019 say is wrong in email marketing. Read on for that list.

And don’t spend a moment cringing if you’re one of the guilty parties – just focus on the fixes.

Not believing in the merits

The biggest mistake is not doing it. It’s easy to say, “Email marketing doesn’t work anymore,” but that seems to be code for, “Our audience doesn’t respond to what we’re shoving down their throats.” – Peg Miller, senior vice president, marketing, Agility Recovery

The biggest mistake is not doing #email marketing, says @PegMiller. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Not caring about me

Every day my inbox is full of emails that launch right into the sender’s details without considering why I would care. They also make presumptions that tell me right away that the sender has no idea who I am. For example, today I received an email telling me how the company could create my winning digital strategy. Um. Yeah. I do that for a living. – Ardath Albee, CEO and B2B marketing strategist, Marketing Interactions Inc.

My inbox is full of emails launching into sender's details w/ out considering why I care, says @ardath421. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Making assumptions

Emails that make bad assumptions such as since I’m Hispanic, I’d prefer Spanish to English. – George Stenitzer, founder and chief content officer, Crystal Clear Communications

Flooding the inbox

Sending too many pitches in a single week is a mistake. My rule of thumb is 3-to-1 – for every offer I send via email, I write a minimum of three value-focused emails … Successful email marketing today looks like short, simple, and sweet (value, reader-first) emails. – Julia McCoy, CEO, Express Writers 

Thinking three times the charm

I’m baffled by the frequency of some brands’ email marketing messages. If I didn’t open your email when you sent it three days ago, the day before yesterday, and yesterday, what makes you think I want to see you in my inbox today? Back off a bit. Amanda Changuris, manager, social media marketing, AAA – The Auto Club Group 

Talking about what you sell

I see too many industrial emails that are product-centric and there isn’t enough content addressing the challenges of the audience. – Achinta Mitra, president, Tiecas Inc.

Putting in everything but the kitchen sink

We’re making the same mistakes with email that we made in our blogs years ago. We want to make the most out of every single email open, so we’re cramming too much stuff in there.

Why did you send me this email? What’s the next logical step, both for me as a problem-having audience member and for you as the marketer with KPIs to meet? Dial it in, pick a path you want to send your subscriber down, and make that super clear and easy to follow. – Andrea Fryrear, Agile marketing coach and trainer, co-founder, AgileSherpas 

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Email Marketing: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Expecting people to read every word

Cramming too much into one email. Readers “Marie Kondo” their inboxes. They scan something, hold it briefly, and decide in a split second whether it brings them joy. They take action, star it, or delete it. Too often we write emails expecting readers to digest every word. Newsletters should be skimmable, prospecting emails brief and to the point, and nurture emails must be short. Katie Martell, communications consultant, Boston Content

Too often marketers write #emails expecting readers to digest every word, says @KatieMartell. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Treating subscribers as one group

After all these years, companies still don’t segment their lists enough to shape the content for distinct sets of customers and prospects. – Mike Murray, president, Online Marketing Coach

Exacerbating lack of cultural understanding

People often expect digital communication to be a cultural leveler, eliminating any ambiguities or misunderstandings. But in the absence of cues from tone or gestures, cultural differences can be exacerbated … Global customers expect content that is personalized along the customer journey to be relevant in their culture. It’s an individualized hyper-customization that email marketing is well-positioned for, and we don’t take advantage of it enough. – Annalisa Nash Fernandez, intercultural strategist, Because Culture

Serving ubiquitous flavor

Brands that promote their own content using a vanilla template. It’s clear that zero time went into each email. Instead, share a unique point of view that’s exclusive (e.g., something that can’t be found anywhere else). That, from the start, gives the email some “preciousness.” – Dennis Shiao, consultant, Dennis Shiao Consulting

Not blocking

Marketers are vastly underutilizing the abilities of most email service providers to customize content blocks within emails based on users’ past behaviors. Zontee Hou, co-lead of consulting, Convince & Convert

Pretending we’re friends

Honestly, I know the email is addressed to a thousand people, so it feels disingenuous enough to see my name up there in the first place. But if you’re going to do it please at least make an effort to get it right. – Dan Hatch, founder, Typeset 

Tricking subject lines

A subject line that says “Following Up on My Last Email” is a mistake. If I did not respond to the first one, why am I going to all of the sudden respond to your second one? Most B2B subject lines need serious work. – Carlos Hidalgo, CEO, VisumCx

A subject line that says 'Following Up on My Last Email' is a mistake, says @cahidalgo. #CMWorld #emailtips Click To Tweet

Give only unsubscribe option

The biggest mistake in email marketing is when there’s only an unsubscribe link at the bottom and not an “update your address” link. I would have transitioned those emails to another address I check a little less frequently instead of unsubscribing altogether. – Adam Ritchie, principal, Adam Ritchie Brand Direction

Big mistake: Only an unsubscribe link at the bottom of #email & not an 'update your address' link. @aritchbrand Click To Tweet

Extending email signups

If I sign up for one list, I get put on a million others. And I can’t unsubscribe without putting in my email address (who remembers which one I used to subscribe). I have no idea how I got on your list … Drives me nuts. – Ahava Leibtag, president, Aha Media Group 

Sending as NOREPLY

The biggest mistake marketers make with email is sending me an email from [email protected] or [email protected]. How are you supposed to build a relationship if you don’t want me to respond? Andrew Davis, author, The Loyalty Loop, Brandscaping, and Town Inc.

Sending from brand only

Not putting a human’s name in the sender name. It takes seconds, costs nothing, and can increase open rates by 20% or more. Make the sender a person. – Andy Crestodina, co-founder, chief marketing officer, Orbit Media

Customize your sender name w/ a human’s name. It costs nothing & can increase #email open rates by 20+%. @crestodina Click To Tweet

Stopping short

I would say it is not setting up campaigns that have at least seven touchpoints. Lots of data seem to support that conversions continue to happen through seven contacts and begin to tail off after the eighth outreach. – Arnie Kuenn, senior advisor, Vertical Measures 

Selling without the seduction

Too many email programs assume I am in a transactional mode and try to shove me into their catalogs as quickly as they can. We must master the skill of leading enticing information related to our products that get us seduced down the path then builds desire for the product.

For instance, don’t just tell me you have the greatest infection prevention solution for surgery, connect me to the latest clinical research on the topic, which happens to align well with your product. Don’t just tell me you have the greatest respirators on the market, help me understand how silica dust is going to kill me or my employees, what the regulations are for my work environment, then I will open your emails. – Carlos Abler, leader of content marketing strategy, 3M

Using same old copy

Rewriting copy from a website or landing page – nothing new, just the same words in a different order. How is that supposed to excite me to execute your CTA? – Ben H. Rome, manager, marketing and communications, AIHA 

Asking questions and failing to deliver

Lack of relevance. If, on your registration form, I select “one to 10 employees,” I am not the target customer for an enterprise solution with a price tag that’s as much as my gross income. Carmen Hill, principal strategist and writer, CHILL Content

Using cookie cutters

Too much mass emailing and cookie cutting so that you are not differentiated at all. Everybody wants to see someone else do something and then do the same thing. People like Bob Glazer’s Friday Forward is a perfect example of unique content that he is building a platform off of. –John Hall, co-founder, 

Taking the easy way

I’m also getting a LOT of unsolicited email lately whereby I’m unsubscribing from at least five lists a day. It seems like there are many brands out there just using it as an “easy” means to blast their message without care to who they’re sending it to/what the message actually is. – Melissa Harrison, CEO, Allee Creative, LLC 

Missing an opportunity

No preheader text! – Christoph Trappe, chief content officer, AC Business Media 

Thinking stationary

Not designing for mobile. It’s hard to believe that, in 2019, I am subscribed to emails clearly not designed to be opened/viewed on mobile devices. – Jacquie Chakirelis, director of marketing, Great Lakes Science Center

It's hard to believe I am subscribed to #emails clearly not designed to be viewed on mobile devices. @JacquieChak Click To Tweet

Treating as single opportunity

That you only distribute the content in the email. You should integrate paid distribution as retargeting on your own email list. Yes, you heard me. You should pay to reach your owned audience. – Jesper Laursen, CEO, Native Advertising Institute 

Wielding tools that really won’t do

Using a tool set that isn’t the right fit for your email strategy. Don’t use your CRM’s email tool just because it came for free. Don’t let someone talk you into buying an email platform that they’ll “build out just for you” – that means it’s half-baked. There are powerful tools out there and I still see (large!) companies using entry-level platforms that aren’t robust enough. – Jessica Best, vice president of data-driven marketing, Barkley

Don’t use your CRM’s #email tool just because it’s free, says @bestofjess. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Delivering occasionally

Email is not truly valuable and, if it is, is not delivered consistently. – Joe Pulizzi, founder, Content Marketing Institute

Ignoring newbies

There is a lot of power when someone subscribes to your email. Too many marketers (and I’ll put myself in this camp) don’t take advantage of the initial interest to connect with that person right then and there. At the very least, send that person a welcome email to introduce them to your brand and share helpful content with them. – Michele M. Linn, head of strategy, Mantis Research 

Treating it like one email

One big mistake is pushing out one-and-done emails and not taking the time to plan out behavior-based campaigns. Mapping multichannel campaigns based on customer journey and personas can ensure a higher quality of lead generation and conversion. – Pamela Muldoon, campaign and content strategist, The Pedowitz Group

One big mistake is sending 1 & done #emails & not taking time to plan out behavior-based campaigns. @pamelamuldoon Click To Tweet

Thinking social only

The absence of email marketing completely and a reliance on social media platforms. There’s an assumption for emerging brands that these social platforms can house consumer data, and their followers would not be as engaged in email marketing. This is true, but at least the brand owns that email list and isn’t just renting it from Facebook. – Christine Michel Carter, author and marketing strategist

Equating email traffic with content value

Conflating content performance with email performance. If a piece of content gets a lot of email traffic, that doesn’t mean the content is good, it means the email is good. Conversely, if an email doesn’t drive a lot of traffic to the featured content, it doesn’t mean the content was bad – it means the email creative was bad. – Scott Spjut, assistant vice president, social and digital content, Fifth Third Bank

Underestimating risk

Marketers are underestimating their level of risk in the area of consumer data privacy. We haven’t seen a U.S. federal standard on data privacy like the EU has in GDPR, but we will, and very soon. Why? States are trying to develop their own data privacy rules, and nobody wants 50 sets of rules to follow in this area. Marketers haven’t paid enough attention to their lists and databases to make sure they’re compliant. Sharon Toerek, principal, Toerek Law 

Now fix it and send

Email marketing isn’t going anywhere. The majority of consumers (59%) prefer email communications from brands above any other channel, no matter the context, according to the 2019 DMA Consumer Email Tracker report.

Though spam filters may get stronger and data privacy laws may get stricter, your brand still can use email successfully. And if you follow this expert advice, you’re one step closer to making sure your brand’s email is among the useful 3.5 brand emails the average consumer opens and reads in a week.

Follow this advice to make sure your brand is among the ave 3.5 brand #emails/week consumers actually read. @anngynn Click To Tweet

Join these and other expert speakers for a few days of learning that, in some cases, will last a lifetime. Register today for Content Marketing World Sept. 3-6 in Cleveland, Ohio. Use CMIBLOG100 to save $100. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute