Not So Fast: Slow Down Your E-mail Review Process

People think of e-mail much the same way as fast food. They want it cheap and fast, and they don’t always expect high quality.

As a result, e-mail messages are written quickly and blasted out the door practically on a same-day schedule.

Problem is, you get same-day results. So if an e-mail doesn’t perform as well as expected, you know within hours — as does your whole team and your boss. Then a lot of time is spent analyzing why — usually with finger-pointing directed your way.

I’ve witnessed this scenario twice in the past week, and here are some insights from those experiences.

Same-Day Reviews Create Too Much Pressure

Recently, I was asked to review an e-mail at 11:30 a.m. that was going out at 1:00 p.m. Often that’s no problem if it’s just a quick proofreading job.

In this case, the e-mail had some serious problems. The subject line wasn’t targeted enough. Plus, the sidebar copy was too long, which meant the call-to-action buttons wouldn’t appear in the initial screen. I was concerned that these problems would seriously depress response.

So I dropped the other assignment I was working on and tried to make things better. However, we couldn’t get buy-in on cutting the copy in time for the broadcast — so the call-to-action button remained under the fold.

As it turned out, the subject line I suggested didn’t generate a high enough open rate. (I only realized later, after reviewing my junk e-mail file, that spammers were also using the new subject line I thought was so creative. Ugh!)

What could we do better next time to prevent a situation like this?

  • Refine the e-mail template. Mandate that only a certain word count is allowed in the initial screen. That way call-to-action buttons won’t get pushed down the screen.
  • Review e-mail at least a day before the broadcast, with a deadline for all comments. Give reviewers more time than to just proofread. Then if problems are uncovered, they can actually be fixed.
  • Test subject lines with a small section of the file. After we had a debriefing about this e-mail situation, we decided that in the future, we’d e-mail the East Coast portion in the morning, testing two subject lines, and review the open rates. Then we could use the winning subject line in the broadcast to West Coast recipients in the afternoon..
  • Another important point: communicate the e-mail’s goal to all reviewers. In this case, while I knew the client wanted to raise $200,000 by e-mail over the course of the three e-mail campaign, I didn’t realize how much the organization had riding on this first e-mail. If that had been communicated, I might have gone with a less risky subject line, pulling out a tried-and-true approach from my toolbox.

    Over the course of the campaign, we exceeded our goal, bringing in $325,000. Still, this experience serves as a cautionary tale for future efforts.

    Pay Attention to Text E-mail Formatting

    The same week, with another client, my inbox received a flurry of test e-mail messages. The HTML versions were fine because we had run them on an earlier date.

    The text e-mail messages were another story. Bullet-point symbols had been left out, leaving a long list of one-sentence phrases that were eye-glazing and impossible to read in a logical method.

    What happened? The e-mail vendor just cut and pasted the HTML copy into the text format. And a last-minute fix was required to give the text e-mail a fighting chance at success.

    You can’t always just slap the HTML version of an e-mail into a text format. Without the benefit of sidebars, hotboxes, and graphics, copy may have to be reordered to flow correctly. You may also want to highlight important copy with typographical tools. For example, you can emphasize a key phrase in capital letters or create a Johnson box at the message’s top set off by a line of asterisks, and so forth.

    You may not be able to do this when you’re under pressure to broadcast the e-mail in a half hour. That’s why it’s important to know in advance if a text e-mail version will be needed — and make that part of the initial assignment. Formatting a text e-mail immediately before broadcast is like changing a TV ad into a radio ad by just deleting the visuals. It could work but probably won’t. When the words have to stand alone, you must help them work harder by using the tricks of the trade for that particular medium.

    After reading all this, I’m sure you’re thinking, “But we don’t have time for all this added review!” That’s true, but what about the time now spent analyzing and putting recovery measures in place to make up for underperforming e-mail? Invest time upfront instead, and you’ll spend less time Monday morning quarterbacking.

    What e-mail review processes do you have in place? Any suggestions you can pass on to your colleagues? Send them to Karen.

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