5 email marketing tips I’ve found useful

Email marketing is one of those things that I never set out to do. In the early days of Distilled (much like the book-keeping, tax returns, and general admin) it was my job simply because someone had to do it.

We started small - emailing the dozens of people who came to our early events. A few years ago we decided to work to grow our list more actively - I distinctly remember working with one of our early interns on the campaign that took us past 500 subscribers.

Free video trio

The first big thing we did was to create a reason people might actually want to hear from us frequently. Our first attempt at that was our monthly free video email - something that a little over half our list has opted-in to receive. Since then, we have added blog updates by email, DistilledU news and, of course, updates about our events.

Along the way, I’ve made most of the mistakes you’d imagine. I’ve sent emails to the wrong segments, I’ve sent emails with typos, I’ve sent emails with broken links. But I’ve also picked up a bunch of useful tips and tricks - and I thought I’d share a few of them here:

1. Encourage replies

My first tip is straight from Patrick McKenzie (aka patio11 on Hacker News) but having tried it out myself, I can’t resist telling everyone I know who writes marketing emails. It’s the simplest of them all - simply encourage people to reply. Email is a two-way medium, but it’s incredible how many businesses send their email marketing from a no-reply address.

Firstly, it should be clear that the people who are giving you permission to appear in their inbox on a regular basis are good prospects and secondly, it should be even clearer that if they want to get in touch with you, they are great prospects. Sending marketing from an email address that goes to a human is necessary but not sufficient. Too many people have been conditioned to believe that email marketing comes from a black hole. You have to encourage people repeatedly and tell them it’s ok to reply.

Even having done that, it still shocks people when I reply to their replies to our email marketing.

As a sidenote, I highly recommend Patrick’s training material.

2. Draft in Gmail

See! Here's I am sporting it for a recent DistilledLive video. See, here I am sporting it on a recent DistilledLive video!

I am a huge Mailchimp fan. They sent me one of my favourite t-shirts.

But I try to avoid writing emails in their editor. I do this even though they recently rolled out an enhanced editor that’s really slick and easy to use. I do it because writing emails in Mailchimp feels like writing email marketing. I don’t typically want to write email marketing. I want to write emails to people. And where do I normally do that? Gmail. So that’s where I write my first draft.

Sometimes I’ll even go so far as to put someone in the TO: field and imagine I am writing just to them. I find it helps me write in a human way.

3. Use a “from” line that includes a name and a company

I forget where I got this tip, but I think it works really well. I send out emails from “Will Critchlow (Distilled)”. That lets me simultaneously remind people who the hell I am, where they signed up for the email and emphasise that it’s coming from a real person (see tip #1).

Unless you are a celebrity, you probably shouldn’t assume that everyone who signs up for your emails knows exactly who you are. Give them comfort that this is an email they actively signed up to receive but back it up with a human face - the exact opposite of the noreply@companyname.com reply addresses that are all too common.

4. Check your spam folders for your own emails

If you use Gmail, you can use a search like:

from:distilled.net AND in:spam

(Replace “distilled.net” with your own domain).

There are two big reasons for ending up in spam folders - message content and sender reputation. If you find some of your messages getting caught, this Mailchimp article is a great primer on common causes.

The tip, though (and again, I can’t remember where this came from), is to get a bunch of people to do the search above and mark any messages they find there as not spam. Relatively few people mark legitimate emails as spam and even fewer dig through their spam folder correcting false positives - so this kind of behaviour is a pretty strong positive signal.

5. Checklists are your friend

I mentioned above that I’ve made all the mistakes in the book. Most of these would have been avoided if I’d religiously followed our checklist. I strongly recommend starting your own and including things like:
  • Do all the links work?
  • Have I spell-checked? [Include specific checks for common typos like your / you’re or whatever your own spelling / grammar weaknesses are]
  • Am I sure who’s receiving this email?
  • Are all images clickable?
  • Do the mail-merge fields work?
You’ll add more of these kinds of checks as you make your own mistakes - the critical thing is (a) to use a checklist every time you send and (b) to update it to make sure you only make any given mistake once!

I really enjoy email marketing - people giving you permission to send messages to their inbox is pretty powerful stuff - it’s a fun challenge to write for large groups of people in such a way that it’s relevant and valuable to individuals.

I’d love to hear your email marketing tips in the comments - and if you like the sound of our emails, you can sign up in the right-hand sidebar.

Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. Will is part...   read more

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18 Comments

  1. Arienne

    "Get a bunch of people to do the search above and mark any messages they find there as not spam." ooo -- that is a smart one. Thanks for sharing. I'll be using that, as well as a specific encouragement to reply to an email marketing message. We have done that once or twice, and it has been wildly successful. Yet for some reason I forget to make it a regular part of our message. Appreciate the reminder.

    p.s. I have your "Do you still want this?" emails saved as models for when I'm cleaning up future lists. They were effective on me. I think. If you bumped me, I'll resubscribe ;)

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    • Will Critchlow

      I'm glad you liked our reactivation email. We've done a couple of different kinds of those - I should probably write up the success of those at some point...

      You can resubscribe in the right-hand bar of the blog very easily :)

  2. Good tips in there Will! Very simple ways to engage, especially the part about wanting to write emails to people as opposed to marketing emails. Thanks!

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  3. Will - Great stuff!

    I'm sort of ashamed to admit that we've never invested in email marketing. Your post got me thinking... why haven't we? I don't know that I've ever seen any of your email campaigns.

    What percentage of your emails are targeting new clients (for SEO engagements, etc.) vs. selling conferences, classes, etc.?

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    • Will Critchlow

      We don't really send any sales emails about consulting. We send promotional emails about our conferences (to people who've asked for that information).

      The majority of our emails are content-heavy - either giving away video content, announcing new modules in DistilledU or pointing to popular blog posts.

  4. Good stuff. I'll add an extension to Tip #3: Send personal emails from a slight variation on your actual email to avoid getting your primary email marked as spam.

    For example, if your primary email address is will@distilled.net, you would set all of your email marketing to go out from willc@ or willcritchlow@. From there you can either set the email to forward to your proper inbox, or you can set the reply-to to your correct email.

    You'll inevitably get people marking your emails as spam and this will allow you to send personalized emails without putting your primary email at risk of getting marked as spam.

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  5. Great tips. Customizing the actual subject line is a great way to get better conversions. Only problem is that I don't think Mailchimp or Constant Contact do this. Must be more high end applications so I haven't done it yet!

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  6. I really like two of those tips. The first is about adding your name in addition to the company name and the other is about checking your spam folders for your own emails! That happened to me! I was preparing my email marketing campaign and when I sent a test email it went directly into my spam folder. It's really important to keep an eye on this detail.
    Really good tips here!
    Thanks for sharing.

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  7. I like the idea of drafting in gmail, even for a retailer where the concept might be based on products, trends, deals or offers. It might just add that personality and conversation that these emails often lack. Even if the draft email does turn into something very different aesthetically!

    Ps. add to the bloopers repeat email, wrong modules, subject line fails and the occasional mildly inappropriate language (even if was only mildy inappropriate for a teeny section of the base)

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  8. With the #3 tip - do you mean put the "from line" in the subject, to start off the email, or somewhere else? I'm just a bit confused.

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    • Will Critchlow

      Programs like Mailchimp allow you to control the information sent in the "from" headers. In normal email, you'd likely have your name. Many companies use just the company name in email marketing. I'm advocating combining the two for the personal touch + brand recognition.

  9. I have tried email marketing before but have not had great success. I am gonna try it again and this time really read through before how email marketing should be done. Thanks for the tips.

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  10. Simple is usually best. Great tips. I like the reason behind writing in Gmail because you can apply that to other marketing practices.

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  11. Write some additional details about you and your company near the end of your letters. Doing this simple measure builds trust for your first e-mail sent to the most recent one.

    I have a question: I use Gmail and can see the sender's face if they have one with their full name and address. Would you recommend using your real face or company logo?

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  12. Hello Will,
    Thanks for this post. I am getting emails from many SEO organizations as like yours with reply option. But, when I interact with them(inquiring about their products/services) they wont reply me at all. Though they interact with people like me, it would be certainly at once. It would be nice if they interact with us at sometime not at all.

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  13. I just started with a newsletter at Mailchimp two months ago and I was surprised at the response which was so positive...also by who unsubscribed...you can't take it personally. Lol.

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  14. Great tips Will. I can not tell you how many clients ive worked in the past who had issues with their inhouse campaigns (thus their need to move it to an agency) because of something as simple as your #4 (Check your spam folders for your own emails). Its one of the most obvious things that could go wrong but one that is often overlooked. Ive shared this with my twitter follows, thanks!

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