Though all things Internet seem to move at the speed of light and come or go overnight, commercial email marketing is, impressively, approaching its 15th anniversary.

I remember becoming involved with email first in 1999 and being impressed by the creative and technical possibilities—even though dial-up Internet connections still outnumbered broadband!

Although anti-spam software and abuse-prevention delivery rules have often thwarted the channel's technical capabilities since its early years (video in email was possible in 2000), no excuse justifies emailing like it's still 1999.

After a decade of following so-called best-practices, we should examine the core components of our email programs to be sure we're applying contemporary thinking and capabilities rather than simply running what worked (or was assumed to work) in the past.

Many best-practices are far from evergreen, and if they are not examined continually they become the No. 1 reason an email program slowly degenerates into mediocrity and produces diminishing returns.



Opt-in permission was a much-supported standard of early email marketing, but it was not legally mandated in the US. The result? To develop email lists, marketers often disregarded permission, favoring quantity over quality and adding email addresses to their files via all possible means—co-reg deals, list swaps, compilation of data from directories or prospect files, etc.

Long story short, plenty of large email lists were amassed via less-than-opt-in means, and a huge percentage of people on those lists were disengaged and unresponsive.


Examine your methods for gathering email addresses: Are they clearly permission-based? And do you offer a unique value proposition (UVP) that entices subscriber engagement?

Valuing quality (of list members) over quantity always results in better-qualified, more-engaged list members—which translates into better response performance and return on investment (ROI).

Keep in mind, too, that large percentages of inactive, disengaged subscribers can affect your deliverability and reputation because some of those inactives will include abandoned accounts that turned into spamtraps. And hitting spamtraps can land you on blacklists.

At least two major Internet service providers (ISPs) are now monitoring email-address-owner engagement and using that information as a determining factor for inbox placement. Keeping broad swaths of "zombies" on your list, therefore, will (over time) harm your ability to reach the people who really want your email because your messages will increasingly be relegated to the junk folder.

So, either re-engage your inactives with an orchestrated campaign, or suppress them, and conduct regular email list clean ups to identify and remove spamtraps.

Subject Lines


The conventional wisdom on subject lines dictated that you "keep 'em short and sweet," "long subject lines will be truncated," and "don't use the word free." None of those practices are relevant today.


Though it's true that long subject lines may still not be fully visible in many email client viewers, their content itself is rarely ever cut off or truncated. New research by Alchemy Worx, a London-based email service provider (ESP), found that long subject lines are powerful motivators of not only opens but also clicks. Long subject lines, then, are better relevancy indicators than short subject lines.

Long subject lines also allow for the inclusion of multiple (vs. single) topics when email messages contain multiple offers or benefits; such more descriptive subject lines better set and manage the recipient's expectation of the email's contents; accordingly, they correlate to higher email response rates vs. merely email opens.

And, yes, in the early days of email, when content filtering was king, the word "free" did sometimes trip spam filters and result in junked campaigns. Free, however, remains one of the most powerful words in direct response, and it rarely triggers content filters today. So whether you have a great free piece of content, free trial, or free gift, be sure people know it!

Measurement and Analysis


Basic email marketing metrics measured the number of delivered messages, opens, clicks, conversions, and unsubscribes. Was there more revenue than cost at the end of the day? Great! Positive ROI!


Though basic email process metrics and ROI remain staples of campaign analysis, they don't tell the whole story... so we can't stop there today. Contemporary, smart email marketers look beyond open/click/conversion rate (How many people took an action on campaign X?) and examine open/click/conversion reach (What percentage of people on a list has ever opened?; What's the frequency distribution?).

In addition, contribution metrics like average order value (AOV) and revenue per email address (RPE) paint a richer results picture than simple ROI and serve as meaningful metrics when comparing the results of one campaign with another, or when comparing head-to-head test groups.

How to Email Like It's 2012

In 2012, successful email marketing isn't simply about being in the red or the black at the end of a campaign or business cycle. Today, email marketing is about maximized potential and continual improvement—achieving optimal delivery, response, and financial contribution from the channel. Today, email is about getting the biggest "bang for our buck," achieving the maximum with the minimum, applying the most efficient use of resources, and most astutely implementing the most relevant strategies.

Times have changed, and, with them, the rules of email, which have evolved and will continue to evolve. Success in this channel is (and always will be) defined by flexibility, agility, and innovation.

Stay nimble, always question your assumptions, don't be afraid to experiment, and you'll be light years ahead of the pack who still email like it's 1999.

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Email Like It's 2012, Not 1999

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image of Karen Talavera

Karen Talavera is the founder of Synchronicity Marketing, a company specializing in digital marketing training, coaching, and education.