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When Best-Practices Aren't: Five Ways to Break the Rules of Email Marketing and Still Win the Game

by DJ Waldow  |  
March 9, 2010

In my former job, my title included "Director of Best-Practices." It was a description that made sense at the time, since my role was to offer clients best-practice advice on all things email marketing.

However, as time went on, many of  my discussions with other industry folks got me thinking. What are best-practices?

A colleague, Loren McDonald, likes to refer to best-practices as "generally accepted best-practices." According to Wikipedia, a best-practice "is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive, or reward that is believed to be more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. when applied to a particular condition or circumstance."

OK, I buy that definition. Another way of saying the same thing is that a best-practice is the generally preferred practice, one that will make your company more money, thus making your boss happy, which in turn will make you happy.

If it were only that easy.

In the past five years, I've been giving email-marketing best-practice advice to prospects, clients, partners, coworkers, and, frankly, anyone who would listen.

One of the most common questions I'm asked starts with, "What is the best-practice for...?" For example, "What is the best-practice for subject-line length?" or "What is the best-practice for day or time to send?" or "What is the best-practice for copy/creative length?" The answer inevitably goes something like this:

"Well, the ideal subject-line length is between [insert range] characters but that really depends on what delivers the highest number of opens/clicks/conversions... for you."

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DJ Waldow is an email marketing consultant, writer, blogger, speaker, founder and CEO of Waldow Social, and co-author of The Rebel's Guide to Email Marketing.

Twitter: @djwaldow

LinkedIn: DJ Waldow

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  • by Suzanne Vara Tue Mar 9, 2010 via web


    Great examples and a true testament to knowing or testing to see what works best for you. The rules are based upon research of what has performed best but what performs best for Apple may not be what works for HP. You know more so than many that with email it is about finding the right formula for your company to reach your target market. It seems that when something becomes hot that people jump in wanting to be a part of and do what everyone else is doing. Instead of really taking the time to understand the medium and how their target receives, engages and reacts, the "get it done/out there" seems to prevail. I agree that there are some no-no's in email but yet some turn the no-no into a yes-yes.

    Ultimately, follow the guidelines and see where maybe you can go outside them to reach your target and connect with them. Or call me so I can call you and help companies reach their email goals.

    Congrats on 1st post here - look forward to many more!


  • by Harry Hallman Wed Mar 10, 2010 via web

    This supports my concept that Internet and social media marketing is a messy business. You cannot apply a set standard of rules, but rather test to determine what works best for you. Companies such as Apple can get results because they have spent millions of dollars on ads over a long period. A new company will certainly not get the same results using the same techniques.

    A company's product/service, brand status, target consumer and even the company personality all play a part in the final results.

  • by Karine Joly Wed Mar 10, 2010 via web

    In the case of Apple (and probably some of the others) I wonder if they would not be even more successful if they used best practices.

    Sometimes good results go in the way of the best results.
    Just my 2 cents.

  • by Jim DeLorenzo Wed Mar 10, 2010 via web

    Great post. I think these anti-best practice successes speak to the identity of the specific brand. E.g. I expect Overstock to scream at me based on their act-now-or-miss-this-deal approach; and I expect thoughtful, insightful emails from Chris Brogan vs. lots of links and calls-to-action. It's up to the email marketer to understand their audience's perception of the brand and communicate in a way that's aligned with that identity.

  • by DJ Waldow Wed Mar 10, 2010 via web

    @Suzanne: Thanks so much for your kind words. I really liked your point, "with email it is about finding the right formula for your company to reach your target market." Spot on.

    @Harry: I could not agree with you more. Often, the largest (and most recognizable &/or popular) companies/brands/people can stray from "best practices" b/c they've *earned* that right with their subscribers. Thanks for your additions!

    @Karine: Great point. I actually emailed this article to the 2 guys from Apple (referenced in the article above) who run the email for Apple. They admitted that they normally use alt text. This was an oversight. They also reiterated my point that "it works" so... I'd be interested to see how an A|B test would prevail. Thanks for your comments!

    @Jim: Thanks for reading and jumping in. You got it here. Bingo! "email marketer to understand their audience's perception of the brand and communicate in a way that's aligned with that identity."

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  • by Rob Van Slyke Wed Mar 10, 2010 via web

    You nailed it. Great post. I used to be a black-and-white best practices kinda guy and now it's only on certain things because of the reasons you just stated.

    I had clients ask me why can't I use FREE in call caps in my subject line or get heavier on the images or this or that - all the big brands do. Look at XYZ Company or ABC Company.

    How many times have you heard that? "All the big brands do."

    My answer is so what. What are their response rates? Did that email boost their numbers? Just looking at what others do in email is no reason to follow. You don't have the stats. They know what works for them. Let's do an A/B split test and let's see what works for you.

    Rob Van Slyke
    vertical traction

  • by Don Don Wed Mar 10, 2010 via web

    ""What is the best-practice for subject-line length?"
    What a freaking stupid question?
    Instead, "What could be the best subject line for a new learning software tool that will knock your socks off?"
    I really despise stupid people!
    Who cares how long or how short if it does not draw my attention!

    Now back to the article... to me, the last (part) is the best.

  • by DJ Waldow Thu Mar 11, 2010 via web

    @Rob - One comment on using FREE in all caps in the subject line. It's not necessarily a bad thing any longer. Many ISPs are now filtering/blocking/bulking mail based on domain and IP reputation. Subject lines have less impact than they used to. Like you said though, do that A|B test and see what works!

    @Don - I'm not sure I *despise* stupid people like you. Ha ha. I think it's a great opportunity to educate, no? Thanks for your comments. I was hoping the last part brought it all together.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  • by Russ Thu Mar 11, 2010 via web

    DJ, I think the one common thread that these companies all share is that they are all established brands. They already have a reputation in the world. They are recognizable. I think that's why it works. For a brand new company, I think it's best to stick to best practices to build your reputation first before you "tweak" best practices.

  • by DJ Waldow Thu Mar 11, 2010 via web

    Russ -

    Great point and one that I certainly agree with. It's about trust, right? My wife tells me all of the time - she opens emails from companies/brands/people she trusts. She clicks on links and enables images from companies/brands/people she trusts. End of story.

    Thanks for making that point!

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  • by Don Don Fri Mar 12, 2010 via web


    I don't see humor in your following note, true I've wasted my time, and again!
    @Don - I'm not sure I *despise* stupid people like you. Ha ha.

  • by DJ Waldow Fri Mar 12, 2010 via web

    Don! Oh my god. I just re-read my comment to you. I missed a comma! Yikes! I was not trying to call YOU stupid. No. No. No. I was trying to say that I don't despise stupid people.

    Sorry. Sorry. Sorry! I hope you'll accept my apology and typo!

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  • by Kathleen Hanover Sun Mar 14, 2010 via web

    When I'm speaking to clients about email marketing best practices, or Internet marketing best practices for that matter, I start with disclaimers. You have to tell clients that the Internet and the humans who use it are changing at the speed of light. Tactics that worked well a year ago, or even a week ago, to stop working altogether next week, for reasons you may never understand. I'll tell clients what *has* worked, and what I think *should* work. I also tell them their prospects are the only people who can tell them what *does* work. You really have to manage client expectations appropriately--I tell mine, prepare to be surprised. Having said that, I've achieved open rates of as high as 31% on campaigns...and if I knew exactly why, I'd bottle it and sell it online. ;)

  • by Don Don Sun Mar 14, 2010 via web


    No problem.

  • by DJ Waldow Mon Mar 15, 2010 via web

    @Kathleen: Excellent point about disclaimers. I like to call it "setting expectations." Either way, it's very important to talk about those things up front with both internal and external clients.

    "Prepare to be surprised" I like that phrase. Hopefully, it's a good surprise. Thanks for your comments!

    @Don: Phew! I'll do a better job proofreading my comments next time.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  • by Don Don Mon Mar 15, 2010 via web


    Please do not feel bad about this. Often time I'm a lousy and short-tempered guy and some other time, I may cross across as arrogant without substance. But hey that's me, perfectly imperfect! (I hate to borrow this expression!)



  • by Ann Handley Tue Mar 16, 2010 via web

    I'm so glad you guys resolved the issue of the missing comma...!

  • by Peggy Campbell Wed Apr 21, 2010 via web

    Since the day of "noteworks" long before email invaded our lives, I have always used all caps in my email subject line. Even tho, ultimately, the "etiquette of email" dictated this would seem to be "shouting" at the recipient, it became my own personal "brand" -- I just couldn't change now if I wanted to ... and as I scan my inbox, I can always spot the response to one of MY emails based on the subject line's "appearance" :-) But always like your counsel!

  • by DJ Waldow Thu Apr 22, 2010 via web

    @Peggy - Ha! That is too funny. What a cool story. Any interest in doing a guest blog about why an ALL CAPS SUBJECT LINE has worked for you? I'd love to learn more.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  • by Dan Soschin Fri Nov 12, 2010 via web

    One of the common things I see in the above examples is that the rules which are being broken, can be broken, because of the high value of brand trust that exists between the recipient and the sender. For folks with lesser known brands, I think sticking to the rules is a good first place to start... and branching out by conducting some simple A/B tests is a good evolution. But most of us just aren't Apple or PCH.

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