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Lousy email campaign advice you should stop following

“How do I get people to open my emails?” is perhaps my most-asked question. The underlying tone is usually, “I sent people an email. Therefore they should want to read it.” As if people are broken that they haven’t read your announcement of a 15% off sale.

Do a google search for riffs on email campaign advice or improving email open or click rates and you’ll get a bunch of lousy, trite advice for most people most of the time. Things like “test your subject lines!” “Try sending at different times of the day!” “Include an emoji!” This is all very superficial.

By “most people” I mean businesses with fewer than 8000 subscribers, serving local or regional customers, and without huge advertising budgets. If that’s you, and your advertising is email campaigns, Facebook, and a website, you’re most people.

A/B testing doesn’t work

More specifically, it does work…if you have many tens of thousands of subscribers. I don’t think it’s valuable unless you have at least six-figure subscriber counts. Some might even argue a million.

A/B testing is making two variations of an email and sending it to a sub-set of subscribers. If you have 10 people on a list, 2 get version A and 2 get version B. You set a “success” measure, like open rate or purchases. If 1 person buys something from version A and version B gets 0, then the A version of your email is sent to the other 6 people on the list.

Most services like MailChimp, Aweber, Active Campaign, etc. do this. The problem is with my example: 10 people are statistically insignificant. 100 people are, too, and so are 1000. Even at 1,000 subscribers, 400 people get sent a campaign. Now you’re relying on 200 in each to be your data set. Assuming almost no one but 20% of that opens the email (more on that later), you’re relying on 40 people in each set to determine what a “success” is.

Skip the A/B testing until you have 100k subscribers or more. And even then I wouldn’t bother testing much beyond a headline or subject line.

Testing subject lines

Speaking of subject lines: the best ones are incredibly short and vague. Just like real people and their usually lousy subject lines (the number of emails in my inbox with subject: “website” is a testament), vague helps.

How vague? Let’s pretend you’re promoting an event coming up tomorrow. It’ll have a petting zoo, kids’ play area, and a pony. Most people immediately try to summarize everything into the subject:

Ride the pony, see the chickens, tickets on sale now.

To a lot of users on a phone or with small subject line fields (like Outlook users) this probably looks like:

Ride the pony, see the chi…

The better subject line?


That’s it. Not to say every email as part of a series should be just that or even “next month”, “next week”, etc. For instance, your announcement of ticket sales should say so and upfront:

Just announced: ticket sales at $45
New: $10 savings ends at 8pm EST
Now available: tickets from $30

Testing who it’s from

When we really want to grease the skids on an email we send “from” someone specifically. So instead of an email showing as from “Acme Pet Food Co.” it’ll look like it’s from “Janet Smith”.

Tech companies are really on this bandwagon, but that doesn’t work for a lot of them because they’re unheard of. If you have a company with strong connections to customers because they did work with you, spoke to you on the phone once, etc., this works way better.

How much better? Yesterday we sent a campaign to 1,800 people. A prior campaign about a rescheduled conference garnered an 18% open rate. It was from the name of the group. Once I changed it to send from the name of the Board President, the measured open rate shot up to 42% — an all-time high. The subject line? “August”.

Do not get greedy. This technique is like the fire extinguisher in the hallway. You use it sparingly. My rule: no more than 5 times a year. Choose wisely. If you do it all the time you risk training everyone on your list that emails from that person are useless or likely spam. And that hurts you, the organization, and the person whose name you’re using.

A note on open rates: they’re probably higher

Click rates are a much better measure of an email’s success. Or better still, how many people actually buy, donate, register, etc.

Open rates in Mailchimp, Constant Contact, etc. all operate the same: a small 1×1 pixel image is inserted in the corner of the email. When the email is loaded, it calls for this image to be loaded and that can be measured by the server.

This has become a privacy issue because it’s moved into the realm of every day emails from scummy salespeople. So most email clients don’t load images by default. Apple Mail on iOS, Outlook, and Gmail to name the biggest games in town. Think of how you use your email and if you always load images or not.

I don’t, because it’s just an extra tap and I don’t care that much. This is why you must design your emails with as few images as possible. Make it clear with plain text. And remember that your open rate is actually probably higher than your campaign service can measure.

People don’t care. Get over it.

Speaking of caring: people get a lot of emails. A lot of people are tragically bad at managing their email. We all have that friend with 10,522 open emails in a glaring red badge on their phone. I don’t trust those people.

Point being, your product or service, as much as you think you’re great, is just another person’s “thing in my inbox”. Don’t take it personally.

Lastly: don’t call them ‘blasts’

I hate the word “blasts” as much as I hate the word “content”. If I take a picture of a mouse turd and post it on Instagram it suddenly becomes elevated to “content” when it’s really just garbage. The semantics matter when you think about it for two seconds.

“Blasts” are aggressive. “Blasts” are like bullets out of some Schwarzenegger-esque cannon from a fighter jet as baddies flee in multiple directions.

“Let’s blast people” is a terrible phrase and puts people in the mindset that our emails are like bullets designed to shoot through people’s eyeballs.

They’re “messages”, “campaigns”, or just “an email”.

The fire department does not get a call and the Chief does not say, “Alright folks, let’s go blast ‘em!”

The baker does not get an order for a cake with buttercream icing and says, “Let’s blast ‘em with icing!”

The only people who get “blast” anything peddle in war. You are not a warrior. This is not combat.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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