Back to E-Mail Basics

Looking to boost your response rate? Here are some tips that helped one client boost sales by 75 percent. And cost was minimal.

What’s the secret? Go back to basics. We created a test version of an existing email promotional piece and sent both pieces out head-to-head.

In a recent SKYLIST study, 40 percent of email marketer respondents cited declining response rates as one of their biggest challenges. Many factors may cause a response rate to falter: tired creative, repetitive offers, older email addresses, spam filters. Or, you may just have moved a bit too far from email standards and best practices.

We’re all guilty of it at times. We’re so familiar with our product, so rushed to review and approve creative, so preoccupied with other channels we may manage that we drift away from the core logic behind email marketing. If it’s been a while since you looked at your email creative with fresh eyes, it’s probably time to do so. Here are some changes we made.

Make the Most of Your Seven Seconds

Seven seconds is about how much time you have to engage readers and pull them into your email. The client was already using its household name brand in the sender line, which was great. But the lead was buried in the subject line. A new price point, a significant discount over the old, was the last item. A restatement of the corporate brand followed by the product brand (which isn’t yet a household name) were first.

You get the most bang for your buck from the subject line’s first 23 characters — the portion your recipient is pretty much guaranteed to see. I always assume truncation after 23 letters and make sure they get the message across on their own. If recipients see more, great. If not, at least they got the message.

We moved the price to the front of the subject line, dropped the redundant corporate brand, and shifted the new product brand to a less-prominent position.

To Preview or Not to Preview

There are debates over how many people use their email client’s preview pane. In informal surveys, I find most people (even email marketers) still use preview panes. As a result, I like to focus special attention on this area and make it engaging to readers.

Preview pane height varies. I use two inches as a conservative estimate. The top two inches of your message should give readers a reason (or three!) to open the message.

The email already had a corporate logo here, which is great. But it also had a large graphic, roughly two inches tall, that stretched the width of the message. The graphic didn’t really say anything about the product or about the new, lower price.

We kept part of the graphic, but used it on only about a third of the width. In the rest of that prime real estate we put a headline and a benefit-related call to action, including the lower price. This one-two punch of an explicit benefit tied to a lower price allows readers to self-select right away. If they’re not interested, we don’t want to waste their time. If they are, we want the price to pull them in and get them engaged.

Bullet Points and Short Paragraphs… Ooooommmm

One copywriter colleague considers this the good copywriter’s mantra (online or off-). We had moved away from it with this email, likely in a rush to get absolutely all product benefits into the copy.

Step back. What’s most important? What needs to be explained and what can be conveyed in one to three words? We took the latter and turned them into a bulleted list of feature names. With the former, we created a bulleted list that included a brief benefit-feature phrase about each.

Years ago, I read a case study that determined 5.25 lines, no more, is the perfect length for an online paragraph. Though not fanatical about it, I do try to keep my paragraphs within this guideline. It keeps copy easy to skim and stops it from looking like a daunting block of text.

To accomplish this, we broke long paragraphs into shorter ones. Each had a natural breaking point we could use so the copy didn’t sound stilted. We also removed some marketing lingo that really didn’t convey anything valuable to a prospective client.


We did an A/B split and sent this test creative to half the list. The test piece generated 75 percent more sales than the original (control). Open rates were slightly lower for the test piece, but the difference was so slight I’m not convinced they’re significant. We’ll keep an eye on it. The lift in CTR (define) and landing page views was 15-20 percent each, much lower than the sales increase.

My theory is the people who opened and read the test email, although slightly fewer in number than for the control, understood the product better from the get-go. That allowed us to convert more of them into paying customers.

Look at your email creative with a fresh eye and a back-to-basics frame of mind, and let me know how it goes.


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