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Maverick Email Marketing: Breaking Rules and Making Waves

Nov 13, 2013   |   5 min read

Knowledge Center  ❯   Blog

email marketing rebelsThere are a host of email marketing dos and don’ts that have been put forth by pundits. However, there also are a good number of marketing practitioners who see conformity to these types of strict rules as restrictive and detrimental to success.

Among the rebels is Jacqueline Zenn, who advises marketers to ignore best practices and go with your instinct. When nearly everyone is collectively following the same guidelines and benchmarks, says Zenn, “things can get a little stale.”

As Zenn points out, it’s difficult to stand out when you your social media or digital campaigns are merely parroting those of your competitors. Moreover, following the herd in what are considered best practices can feel rote and contrived on the recipient’s end.

Rejecting the Double Opt-in

There are many rules experts tout as carved in stone. Among them is the need to obtain a double opt-in. For example, says Paul Turnbull, product marketing manager at Campaigner, “Using double opt-in forms on websites, blogs, social media pages and anywhere prospective recipients may be looking to stay in touch with you is a must.”

Not so, say the renegades. Among them is DJ Waldow, co-author of “The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing,” who argues that when a prospect is ready to buy, the seller should not put an obstacle in the way. Once someone says yes, a salesperson stops asking questions, says Waldow. “It’s the same with email marketing,” he says. “Get an opt-in and send a thank you, but don’t force them to click another link.”

Waldow goes further, challenging the rule that says to never send an email without first getting explicit permission. Pointing out that it is legal to send emails in the U.S. without explicit consent from the recipient, give them the choice of opting out, rather than requiring them to opt in, he says.

Subject Line Taboos

A good deal of dogma is focused on the length and makeup of the subject line. For example, “Keep subject lines short and precise,” says Vangie Beal in her email marketing tips for professionals on

Here, too, the rebels beg to differ. Longer subject lines can be just as effective as shorter ones, says Margaret Farmakis, arguing the length really should depend on what resonates with your subscribers. For example, she notes, newsletter campaigns have been more effective when the headlines of the top stories were listed in the subject line and were as long as 100 characters.

DJ Waldow agrees, pointing out that when the number of subject line characters increase, the open rate tends to dip but the click-to-open rate rises. The theory behind this, says Waldow, is a longer subject line reveals more of the content of the email.

Ryan Deiss on also rejects the thinking that subject lines have to be short, citing Karen Talavera of Marketing Profs who says longer subject lines increase open rates because they enable the subject lines to carry more specificity about the topic. If you’re dealing with a sophisticated product, you’re going to need a longer subject line, says Deiss.

Adestra’s study also found that long subject lines of 90 characters or more produced the highest response rates. Why? “More benefits can be communicated by using more characters.”

Use “Free” Freely

Rules dictating that certain words and characters in subject lines cannot be used also can be ignored, say the rebels. Waldow takes aim at the rule that says you never use the word ‘free’ or capital letters in subject lines. The word free, like other words, is no longer considered spam and automatically blocked, he says, explaining that spam filtering today is based on your reputation. An offer of free shipping, in particular, can yield exceptional results, says Waldow, citing a King Arthur Flour campaign that had a soaring sales rate.

This also jibes with Adestra’s “groundbreaking” finding that people love a deal. The study showed that the words “free delivery” and phrases that specified a discount performed exceptionally well.

Four more rules that DJ Waldow says can be disregarded are:

Concepts Get Stale

Particular email marketing practices can become tired and lose their effectiveness over time. For example, emails advertising webinars have lost their drawing power as users became inundated and webinar fatigue set in. Thus, we see more and more marketers offering incentives to attend webinars.

An Adestra study found particular subject-line words can lose their power over time, such as the word “newsletters.” Personalized messages are another area in which this effect is occurring, says Margaret Farmakis on Not unlike other email marketing practices that have fallen out of favor, she says, spammers have overused personalization elements, like first and last names in emails, which can make the practice seem hokey and impersonal to recipients.

Open Rates Open to Interpretation

Open rates can vary according to the audience and their purchase history, and often there are so many other factors to consider that the open rate tends to lose its meaning, says Carolyn Nye on

Two more rules that Nye says email marketers can safely ignore are:

Automatically purging your subscribers can eliminate potential sales and revenues, says Nye. There is value in simply getting your name in front of your recipients, she argues.

Guy Hanson of Return Path agrees that traditional email metrics such as open rate and click rate do not provide the full performance picture. Hanson shows that the notion that symbols and other special characters are “spammy” is mistaken. He reveals market intelligence that shows symbols in subject lines add value to the user experience, as opposed to being a mere marketing gimmick.

Don’t Follow Blindly

The ranks of email marketing rebels include Spencer Kollas of Strongmail, who argues that not all best practices are as black and white as many experts present them to be. In fact, he says, not all best practices help customers achieve their business needs and goals, and some have better results by not following a conventional best practice.

Scott Hardigree of is even more emphatic, advising email marketers to “ignore email marketing best practices, period.” What’s best for one marketer is not necessarily best for another, he says. His advice is to use general practices to create a solid foundation for your email program as a beginning, then eliminate practices that don’t work for you.

As email marketing evolves, a lot of walls are tumbling down. What best practices do you feel should be ignored?

Photo Credit: The Atlantic


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