Email Marketing Best Practices (Research)


Email marketing best practices have changed more in the last 6 months than in the last 6 years.

Pre-pandemic best practices aren’t best practices anymore.

With everyone either out of work or working from home and kids distance learning, we spend more time checking email.

The result is an email marketing renaissance, says Direct Marketing Association Board Member and Worldata CEO Jay Schwedelson.

I attended Jay's breakout at INBOUND and it was one of the most talked about sessions. He's an email marketing master.

We spoke at length about how the coronavirus has changed B2C and B2B email marketing best practices. He’s been in email marketing for 20 years and has a wealth of practical knowledge.

And let’s face it. Even before the pandemic, when you consider all the media channels content agencies used for digital marketing– organic search, paid search, social media, referral links and email marketing — email remains the least understood owned media channel.

The irony is it’s also one of the most effective conversion channels in the B2C and B2B customer journey, so it’s worth taking the time to get it right.

That under-utilization stems from email marketing being more labor-intensive than social media marketing. It takes longer, so it’s under-utilized, particularly by small and medium-sized B2B marketing agencies, despite small business owners being among the most accessible.

In fact, since small business owners are forced to wear so many hats, they are among the most avid downloaders of lead magnet content like white papers, checklists, and cheat sheets.

I connected with Jay for a special episode of the Earned Media Podcast to drill down on specifically how the pandemic is changing email marketing best practices.

Our conversation was so riveting I was inspired to share the highlights of this blog post.

If you want to listen to it, use the player at the top of this post to play the audio recording. Or you can watch the video clips embedded in this post and subscribe to the podcast for more digital marketing tips from newsmakers, journalists, and subject matter experts.

So now, without further ado, I am pleased to present my Email Marketing Guide, with answers inspired by my interview with Jay.

How has the pandemic impacted email marketing best practices?

Inbox activity is up about 20% since January, which means people are spending more time in their inbox. 

The other reason email activity is up is that social networks have become more confrontational because of the election. So social media is more contentious, and not really the most significant opportunity for marketing at this moment. 

Your inbox is a safer place where people don't go to argue. It’s the place we go to look for offers, opportunities, and information. Which is why email is flourishing.

What is the top email performance driver these days?

What's working right now, more than anything is creating a sense of urgency, especially in that subject line. 

Create offers that expire. If you offer free shipping, it should end in 24 or 48 hours. 

Whatever your offer is, B2C or B2B, there needs to be offer expiration date

This is the number one email marketing performance driver right now.

How to write effective email subject lines

The subject line is the outer envelope, just like a direct mail piece. If the outer envelope of a direct mail piece isn't compelling, nobody opens it. 

Jay’s company Worldata built a free tool for testing email subject lines called, which has been used to check over 8 million email marketing campaign, scores the potential of subject lines based on dozens of parameters and variables.

It also dispels the many myths about triggering spam filters with the word “free,” all caps, exclamation points and emojis, all of which are fair game and can improve open and click rates.

How do you write good subject lines for newsletters?

If you sending out newsletters, steer away from the wallpaper effect, which is a standardized subject line format like the name of the newsletter and the date, or the word newsletter in brackets in front of every subject line.

Mix it up. Don’t use the exact same subject line with new a date. It’s common practice and it doesn't work.

Get away from the static subject line and say what your content is about. Take the time to put that front and center in your subject line. 

Beyond that, what’s really working best over the last 60 days are suspense-related subject lines. 

Whether that’s taking your content and turning it into a question, like “Who are going to be the leaders in your industry?” or you can even use just one word to get the recipient guessing.

But make sure that word relates to the content. Don’t trick them, or they’ll opne it, see that you wasted their time and unsubscribe.

So avoid any sort of standardized subject lines and work to tease your content with suspense and you’ll see a massive boost in your open rates.

How has the pandemic affected email marketing open rates?

Newsletter open rates are up across the board by more than 15%. Offer email open rates are up even higher.

But it’s not just because of the pandemic. Historically, web traffic goes up 15 to 20% in a presidential election year.

So you have the pandemic traffic and the election traffic, which is sending open rates higher. 

But to stand out, digital marketers are sending more, not less email right now. 

What are the best ways to boost your open rates right now?

Nobody wants to hear stuff we all know

They want to know what the impact of COVID is on their life or their industry. They want to know what the outlook is for 2021.

Right now, there’s a massive appetite for anything related to 2021.  People want to people want to move on. 

We're all sick and tired of the pandemic. Subject lines about what 2021 is going to be like or trends prediction for next year boost open rates, because we're all ready to move.

Is email marketing effectiveness in decline?

Experts have been predicting the death of email since it was invented.

They predicted Twitter’s would replace email because it’s permission-based. Or that Slack is would replace email because it’s easier and takes less time.

There’s always some new communication channel that’s going to replace email. But email hasn’t gone away and is unlikely too anytime soon.

And here’s why.

When you forget your Slack password, they send it you via email .

Email is a legacy channel that’s become the digital marketer’s forgotten stepchild. But at the end of the day, email marketing brings a level of predictability that’s tough to achieve through digital PR, search engine optimization, and social media marketing. 

If you add more people to your list, you can forecast the impact of that growth on sales with a high degree of certainty, making it one of the most effective owned media channels.

So if you want to know how to generate leads, email marketing remains an arrow in the quiver.

How do you email market effectively in a recession?

In a hard economy, build relationships by offering freebies.  

The best tip for B2B marketing agencies right now is that anything free does really well in a recession. Free content, free webinars, free checklists, free offers, free anything does extremely well on the consumer side. 

The freemium is a very effective SaaS marketing strategy as well, so consider using a scaled down version of your product to drive deal flow.

Leverage the word free and in everything you possibly can.

Will voter mail-in fraud rumors weaken confidence in direct mail marketing?

The United States Postal Service will take an undeserved knock in credibility because they lack the PR horsepower to defend their reputation. 

Add to that, especially for B2Bs, most people work from home, so there’s no way to send them anything via mail to their office because we don't know where they are.

So expect the USPS and direct mail marketing as a whole to take a hit for the next six months, but it should resume after that.

What’s the best email marketing platform?

You don't need the best email marketing platform. They're all good. Some of the leaders are Marketo, HubSpot, Eloqua, and MailChimp. 

But most marketers don't need all the bells and whistles to send out email campaigns, so don’t spend much money on features you won’t use. 

Look for an email marketing platform that supports email templates for a fair price, but that will not nickel and dime you if you send an extra 10,000 to 20,000 names. It shouldn’t cost you exponentially more. 

You also want a platform that maintains a good sender reputation, which is labor-intensive and tricky. MailChimp and Campaign Monitor both deliver high-volume sends dependably. 

The last thing you ever want to do is send email campaigns out yourself. You never want to spin up your server and try to be your own email deployment shop because delivery is complicated and tricky.

What are the biggest email marketing mistakes people make?

The biggest email marketing mistake you can make is putting social sharing buttons in a promotional email.  Never link your logo to your homepage in a promotional email.

Never link to anything other than the conversation you’re attempting to drive.

What’s the best way to A/B an email marketing campaign?

Before testing, benchmark your starting point because you can’t improve if you can’t measure.

Start by measuring your deliverability rate.

For example, if you send out 100,000 emails, what percentage gets delivered to the recipient?

That's your deliverability rate.

Tes one thing at a time, like adding more links to the email or including an image, and see how that impacts your deliverability.

The idea is to measure against yourself.

Another thing you should test is your subject headline. Take half your list and send them an aggressive subject line and a standard subject line to rest. 

How does it impact my deliverability? 

But never try and test two variables at one time. Be a little bit patient and test one thing at a time. Find a win, move on, and keep going down that list.

How do you A/B test an email campaign to a small list?

When you're dealing with smaller lists, focus on list growth. Because on an annualized basis, about 20% of your email addresses are going to go wrong. 

It's going to become undeliverable over 12 months. So if you have a 2,000-name list, you'll lose 200 names every year. 

But just because your list is small doesn't mean you can't test. You may not be able to split your list in half. Instead, use your entire list. 

Then, change one variable on a new campaign the following week, and see how it does against the previous week.

If you want statistically significant results, never test anything less than 1,000 name segments. If you have a 2,000-name list, you can test 2 subject lines in one campaign. If you have a 3,000-name list, you can test 3 headlines.

Bigger is better because you're not going to get reliable information for 200-name segments. 

Also, if you're sending to less than 1,000 names, test your assumptions at least twice before you believe them. With smaller lists, run the same test multiple times. 

How do you determine the right email marketing frequency?

2021 Email Marketing Survival Guide

Determine email marketing frequency based on your unsubscribe rate.  

If you have an average unsubscribe rate of a quarter of a percent, and then you increase your frequency by two more email campaigns a week, and your unsubscribe jumps to three-quarters of a percent, it’s an indicator that your sending too frequently. 

Use your unsubscribe rate as a barometer for campaign frequency. 

After that, look at your email open rate. In the last 18 months, it’s not uncommon to see open rate moving up from 20% to 30% and click rates declining. 

There's a new phenomenon in the email marketing world, and it’s particularly acute in B2B. To block malware, spyware, adware, and viruses, more businesses filter their incoming mail before distributing it.

In your email marketing campaign report, it registers as an open or a click, but it’s not real. If you don't realize that it's fake traffic, you think open rates are going up, but actually, just cyber security software checking the mail before it distributes it. 

If you see your open rates jump and your response rates decline, you likely have a bot traffic problem. 

Send out a test campaign at 3 a.m. and if you trigger the same alleged super users on your list, it’s not real. Show the results to your email-sending platform and ask for help. If you don;t get it, try another platform.

How do you keep spammers from signing up to your list?

There’s really 2 things you need to do to maintain data hygiene. First, you need to keep spammers from signing up for your list, which is tough. Because a lot of bots out there are designed to look for forms with poor security that they can use to infiltrate websites and networks. 

One way WordPress sites block that traffic is by blocking the countries where most of the worst offenders are using a security plugin like Wordfence

And second, you need to make sure no spam traps enter your list.  A spam trap is an email address set up specifically to catch spammers. Unscrupulous competitors sometimes register them on your list to trip you up.

A spam trap is a regular email address. It just looks like a normal email address. But when you send an email to a spam trap address, you get instantly blacklisted, which means that your emails get blocked by entire networks and some internet service providers. 

It’s not just your email marketing campaigns that get blocked. Every email coming from your domain, even the one-offs you send, can wind up getting blocked too.

These are the two sides of email marketing data hygiene. There are a number of services you can use to keep your lists clean like Webula and Blaze Verify.

They take your database and remove spam traps, poorly formatted addresses, habitual complainers and even lawyers that sue people for noncompliance.

Is double opt-in an email marketing best practice?

Double opt-in is great in theory, but not in practice, because 30% of the people that sign up aren’t going to click the link. If you're a small or even medium-sized business, not converting 30% of your sign-ups is too steep a loss. 

For that reason, email opt-in is great in theory, but it is not an email marketing best practices from SMBs.

How should I segment my email marketing lists?

The most important segmentation as relates to email marketing is engaged versus nonengaged recipients.

Put the names that have been opening and clicking on one list, and those that haven’t on another. 

Pre-COVID, we segmented out non engaged emails in the last 18 months. But now, pull out anyone who hasn’t engaged in the last 6 months.

If somebody hasn't opened one of your emails in the last six months, they’re not interested. They're losing interest in what you have to say, right? Put them in another bucket and send them different stuff. 

Don’t just keep sending them that newsletter. They don't care. 

Send an email that says, “We miss you,” “Where have you been?” or “We'd love to have you back.” 

Give them a special offer or free shipping because you want to win you back. Write a super intense, aggressive subject line. And they open it, move them back into the engaged bucket 

You can segment by account, role or industry as well. But at the end of the day, engaged vs non engaged are the two most important segments to market to.

A useful tool for finding email addresses for direct email marketing communications is a browser plugin that works with Linkedin called ContactOut.


The old rules no longer apply.

Email marketing best practices have changed dramatically as a result of the global pandemic. We're all spending more time on-screen and more time checking email.

 If you want to leverage your content marketing efforts — particularly your creative content marketing efforts — and increase sales and build pipeline, email remains one of the most effective conversion channels.

Follow the guidelines in this Post-COVID Email Marketing Survival Guide to supercharge the effectiveness of your campaigns.

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