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Actionable Ways To Improve Your Email Marketing Right Now

By November 20, 2013November 5th, 2014Email Marketing
Actionable Ways To Improve Your Email Marketing Right Now

You’re doing email marketing… but are you doing it well? How are those open and clickthrough rates? Do you regularly make sales and start conversations or does your list linger in limbo?

Whether you started yesterday or have been engaged in email marketing for years, you may be wondering, “What now?”

These are some simple tips that don’t take much effort to implement and they can make a big difference in how successful you are with your email marketing. In fact, why not add a single to-do to your list and promise yourself to try at least one of them today?

Rethink Free

You’ve probably heard a billion times that you should entice your readers with free offers, downloads, reports and whatnot. I’m here to tell you that sometimes “free” can backfire.

I tested this concept with an offer where one version said, “Get this free thing,” and one said, “I’d like to share this with you”. Interestingly enough, the “free” offer essentially tanked compared to the softer “share”.


How about I answer that question with another question: When is free really free?

If you said, “Never!” You’d probably be right. We are bombarded with free stuff every day. Free whitepapers, free eBooks, free reports and charts and resources and videos and samples and and and.

Sometimes they’re pure junk. Sometimes they mean we’re about to get bombarded with even more stuff… usually in the form of ads and solicitations. Sometimes we know there’s an inherent catch – we’ve been there before, we know that the “free week in a gorgeous tropical bungalow!” is really just an extended sales pitch.

We are incredibly – rightfully – leery of free stuff. We may want it, but that doesn’t mean we’ll take it. It’s a bit like the cheese stuck on the mousetrap. So when we offer free stuff, usually in all caps with exclamation points, instead of enticing people it only sounds warning bells in their heads.

I’m not telling you to retract your offers. I’m merely suggesting that you rethink how you offer. Can you ditch the word “free” and find a way to share instead?


Email templates are awesome. Most email programs come with preconfigured templates with options for columns, rows, sections, sidebars and all sorts of formatting.

How much fun!

And how distracting for your readers. Part of the problem with all those wonderful templates is that unless you already have your content planned and laid out in your mind, you’re going to fall into the trap of picking a fun-looking template and then attempting to backfill. Two sidebars? Well, surely you can find something to stick in them…

Next thing you know, you don’t have an email so much as a junk drawer, with a bunch of stuff crammed in and unable to find any of it.

Another problem with all those templates is that unless you’ve got very specific content needs then you really don’t need much more than a single blank space. Most of us don’t even need the ubiquitous sidebar.

Stop listening to people who still tell you to get your content “above the fold”. It’s ridiculous when it comes to websites and even more so for email.

If you provide good content, people will scroll the same way they always do. Start by eliminating at least one gratuitous section of your email template. If you’re feeling brave, go cold turkey and strip it down to a single, essential section. Get rid of the junk that pulls your reader’s eye all over the place and prevents them from focusing on anything.

Get Personal, Not Personalized

Anyone can drop a merge tag into an email and start with “Dear <<first name>>.”

Personalizing is a nice touch… if you’re living in 2002. These days, we’re a lot wiser to the ways of marketers and we know that Random Company isn’t really sitting there writing to us.

That doesn’t mean ditch the personalization, but if the extent of connecting with your email list happens with that merge tag then it’s time to rethink your methods.

Each week we send out an email that is both personalized and personal. We write it to our list… to each individual person. Not literally, but we write it in a conversational and personal way that speaks to people and doesn’t simply sound like a three-column-with-sidebar form letter.

And do you know what happens? People respond. Not once have we received a response to our RSS emails – those automated emails that kick off whenever a new blog is published. People may click to read the post but they don’t reply to the email.

But they reply consistently and in numbers to the personal emails. In fact, I’ve had people tell me specifically that they don’t usually/have never responded to a “personalized” email because they know the whole “drop in first name” thing is just a button click and that nobody is really talking to them, but that the personal emails are different.

If you’re sending coupons or sales alerts, skip the personalization. If you’re going to personalize, go the extra step to make it real.

Watch The Competition

You should be on the email list of at least three of your competitors. Yes, I made that number up, but it’s a good place to start. As you come across more competitors, subscribe to their lists, too.

If you don’t know what your competitors are doing, how can you compete?

Maybe you’ll see a fantastic idea that you can adopt. Maybe you’ll notice a glaring omission you can be sure to avoid. Maybe you’ll realize that there’s a gap in your industry where you can jump in and be better and provide even more value than everyone else.

Study their subject lines, pay attention to what gets you to click and what bores you, what you scan through and what you skip because the twenty-six-column format has given you a headache.

No need to reinvent the wheel every time. Someone out there is bound to be doing a good job. Emulate them. And someone is bound to be terrible. Don’t let that be you.

Let People Reply

Unless you’re Walmart, there’s no conceivable reason to send from a “do-not-reply” email address.

In fact, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to encourage your subscribers to reply. It’s an opportunity to build relationships, to understand your audience, to open doors to opportunities that you will absolutely not have if you shut the conversation down as soon as you’re done talking.

Keep Your Content Consistent

True story: I was on an email list that sent out campaigns on a daily basis. They were neither personalized nor personal, but I enjoyed the information.

One day, after months of receiving emails in one precise format, I received a different email. This one had my name on it. It was so conversational that I actually thought that the sender had emailed me personally with their offer. (Perhaps not “me” specifically but at least a small subset of “me’s” who qualified for this particular thing.)

The offer was intriguing but outside my price range so I wrote back as a courtesy, thanking the person for making the offer and asking about options.

What I got back was basically, “Oh, we just send that out to everyone, no biggie. Bye.”

Ok, so maybe I’m a dope. But the tone and content and purpose of the email was so fundamentally different than what I had come to expect with this company that it prompted a whole different response from me.

Maybe that was the point.

But in the end I just felt stupid for not recognizing a form letter and it actually turned me off doing business with them.

If you’re going to sell stuff, then sell stuff. If you’re going to personalize, then personalize. If you’re going to switch it up and confuse your readers for the sake of scaring up a few replies… don’t.

Stop Talking About You

Please don’t take the new mantra to “tell your story” so literally. Nobody really cares about your story. They only care about your story insofar as it pertains to them.

I tell lots of stories. I just did, in fact. But it’s not really about me. It’s about an experience that I can turn into something to help my readers.

So many newsletters are a diatribe about company awards and charitable contributions and amazing projects.

There are times when I talk to my own mother about some awesome project I’m working on and even she will say, “That’s nice, dear. I really have to get this pork in the oven.”

Go ahead and tell your stories. They’re fun, relatable, human. But make sure you find a way to tie it into WIIFM or I promise you, even your mom’s eyes will glaze over.

Make People Act

Whatever type of email you send out, whether it’s for blog posts, sales events, news or something else, get your readers used to taking action.

Zombies are cool in the movies. Not on your email list. If you train your readers to ignore you, they will.

Actions don’t have to be big. Read this… Click that… Visit here… Download there…

I’m on constant search for the best way to get the most responses to my emails. From links to photos to “reply now!” I test all sorts of things.

Sometimes my most brilliant ideas are a complete failure. Sometimes the dumbest things will resonate. It just goes to show that you don’t really know unless you test.

So figure out what you can do to generate action – getting people to open your email is always a good start! And try and try again.


If you’re sending HTML emails, I dare you to get it to look the same in every email program.

Gmail will format differently than Outlook, which will format differently than Hotmail, which will format differently than Yahoo mail…

If you’re sending yourself a test email before each campaign, that’s a good start. But you might be surprised by how differently an email can appear in different email programs.

And then there are tablets and cell phones!

Do yourself (and your audience) a favor and get yourself a free email account to as many services as you can and send a test to each one of you. And check each one on your desktop and your phone and your iPad.

Different isn’t terrible. Broken is.

I once went a little bonkers trying to figure out why the lovely purple text in my emails was turning bright green in Hotmail. Purple worked with the design and branding. Green… not so much.

It turned out to be a CSS issue that took a workaround but I never would have seen the mess in the first place if I hadn’t been looking.

My advice to you? Look!

There’s No Magic… Just Smart Marketing

Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a simple blueprint that you could follow, a six step plan, that would take you from zero to “awesome email marketer”?

It would certainly make things easier… but a lot less interesting. Admit it: few things are as exhilarating as watching your open rate jump by 25% after you tested a brilliant subject line.

In the meantime, while you’re waiting for brilliance to strike, you can try some of these ideas. They may not be magic but they can certainly help you boost your email marketing in some practical ways.

How’s YOUR email marketing? Do you need help getting started with a template or content ideas? How about setup and testing? Let me know. I’d love to help!

Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • That was a great post about email marketing! It’s really important to keep in mind that the more we can make our emails short, personal and expecting a reply, the better results we will get. A marvelous concept I’ve found is the 9 word email. Every time I do it(every 60 days or so) I get triple the clickthrough rate and new customers. I might make a post about it tomorrow and link it to this article for additional ressource. Great job! You’ve inspired my next blogpost

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Nine words!! I haven’t heard that one but it sounds fascinating. I would love to her about that and how you do it… and try it!

  • Frederic Gonzalo says:

    “That’s nice, dear. I really have to get this pork in the oven.” Love that quote! Excellent post, Carol Lynn. I strongly believe email marketing is still very much alive and kicking, but you certainly address the pitfalls to avoid.

    And when you mention “Test”, gee, it’s incredible to see how many brands and marketers don’t bother testing, sending out the same content to all their database without any segmentation, or not trying different creative, or different titles… as if it didn’t matter anyway, right?


    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      haha, glad you liked that 🙂

      People do forget the testing part quite often, don’t they? You made a great point about testing content, too, which is a whoooole other thing. Yes, I have known people to shoot off the same exact generic thing to lists of tens of thousands of people. That’s just begging for a split test! (or any test, for that matter!)

  • Vukasin says:

    Hey Carol

    This is an amazing post. When it comes to Email Marketing I’m really serious. Losing valuable subscribers and getting new is crucial.

    I’m going to include this post in the Weekly Link Roundup of all epic posts this Friday on FireProved Marketing.

    I will let you know when I publish it!

    Have a great day and thanks for the amazing tips!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! I appreciate you including it in your roundup 🙂 Let me know and I’ll stop by!

  • Adrienne says:

    Hey Carol,

    I do my emails on a personal level, shock right! So this guy opts into my list and he gets the welcome email. He then responds to the email pointing out that the “name” should have been such and such instead of whatever the heck it was. I just laughed because that’s the name he signed up for when he opted in. I wrote back and pointed that out and he was SO embarrassed. We got a good laugh out of it though and the conversations began.

    I do start my emails off giving a little something about me but that’s because I want my list to be comfortable and feel like they “know” me. I have a very high open rate and I get a lot of email chats from my newsletter so I know it works beautifully. For me it does. They’ll even respond to something I shared in my newsletter in their comments on my posts.

    Some of the people don’t like it and they’ve opted out and told me so but that’s perfectly find with me. You know the old saying… I wouldn’t want to work or be friends with that person anyway. lol…

    Great advice on all accounts girl and so spot on. You always hit the nail on the head with your tips. Keep them coming. 😉


    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      That’s hilarious, Adrienne. At least he realized his mistake after you pointed it out! Some people just like to be crabby. I love when people send me emails about how they want to be unsubscribed and they get so annoyed about it. And I say… you signed up! Just hit the giant unsubscribe link and you’ll never hear from me again. It’s not that hard!

      I can’t believe people opt out because of personal emails. That seems like the whole point of running a business – you get to know people so you can help them better. But you’re right, those aren’t the kind of people you want to be dealing with anyway. Good riddance. The people who stay are the ones who matter because they will respond and have conversations with you. Much more fun AND productive!

  • Awesome post, Carol 🙂

    I haven’t thought much about my email marketing plan, at least not yet. After reading this post, I have decided to dedicate next week for my list – I really need to put some effort into it.

    My biggest challenge right now is deciding what incentive I should offer for my subscribers. Ebooks are nice, that they are far too common (And unless you have a very good following, which I don’t, it won’t be of much help; The supply has decreased the value).

    I was thinking of writing a auto-responder series based on three different topics (Still in the planning process, so I may change it).

    I have planned out everything else although (well, a rough outline of what I should be doing). Hopefully it will all go well. If it doesn’t, I will just experiment and find out what works 😀

    I do love the tip about writing personal emails (of course, while not talking about us). It should be about them, how they can relate to our experience – the problems we have faced and how we solved them.

    Anyways, thank you for the awesome post, Carol 🙂 Appreciate it!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      You’re awesome because you read about something and then you try it! I know plenty of people who read something and then just keep doing the same thing. It’s great that you like to test out different ideas.

      I agree ebooks are pretty common, but I think people still like them – as long as it seems like they’re getting a perk. It has to be enticing, though. And I think sometimes shorter is better. Almost like an expanded list post in a book – something people can read, understand and try out instead of spending hours readings a lot.

      I really like the idea of an autoresponder series and have been playing with that idea in my head. Maybe I’ll get it working in real life one of these days.

      The personal emails are my favorite. They’re fun to write and people respond because it doesn’t feel so “corporate”. It’s more like replying to a friend.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and let me know what you eventually decide to do with your offer!

      • Thank you, Carol 🙂

        Yeah, I do have a problem with length. When I write, I just write. I don’t particularly watch the length of the post (most of the emails I wrote for my previous email list ended up being long blog posts). Hopefully, I didn’t have to fully test those emails. I am sure people won’t take the time to read those. I am planning to tackle the situation with bullet points 😀

        A short eBook does sound interesting (with the right formatting and design).

        I could just write something this week, and format it later when I decide on something. If I decide to make it an email series, I could personalize it and If I decide to convert it into an eBook, I could make it more formal.

        Hopefully that will work out 😀

        No mention, Carol 🙂

  • Sylviane Nuccio says:

    Awesome post once again, Carol.

    Interestingly, my post on Monday will be about writing emails, but don’t worry it’s a different article than yours.

    Starting with free, people are very cautious with this word, so I’m so not surprised that “share” worked better in your test.

    I think that email templates have just too much stuff, and when I pick one I always delete most tabs and keep the stick minimum. Around the holidays, though, I will be sending some cool holiday templates, but that different in this case.

    Emails do look different in different email accounts and browser for sure. Like your blog which I just switched from Chrome which is acting up to Firefox and it looks so much different. Now I can’t see the sharing buttons, but will share anyway.

    By the way, just got the book you’re sharing on facebook. Thank 🙂

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      You’re right, email templates are way too cluttered! Sometimes I just scan right over everything and unless there’s a big headline to catch my attention, I just delete it. I don’t have tie to figure it all out.

      My blog is a pain!! We are redoing it and fixing all the issues so that shouldn’t be problem soon. I’ve paying with those sharing buttons about ten ways but they never show up on the side on mobile. It kills me. Soon to be fixed 🙂

  • Gazalla Gaya says:

    Hey, Carol – some awesome tips. I dare say that I’ve not given too much thought to my email marketing, but I’ve read 2 posts this week about its importance, from you and Copyblogger. I love the tip about subscribing to the competition and decluttering. I’m also going to rethink free as I always thought that was a magic word. I’ll test share instead and let you know the results. Thanks for highlighting email marketing.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      It’s funny about the free offer. We did a blog test, too, one with “free thing” and one that said “steal our thing”. And the “steal” offer got waaaaayyyy more responses. I think people start to think you’re going to pull something over on them. Worth playing with wording, for sure!

  • lisa Smith says:

    simply awesome blog with the great email marketing tips.