Best practices for email marketing

Avoiding Spam

Spam is when you send an unsolicited email to a whole list of people. Often this begins with the purchase of an email list from a business. You absolutely can not send a mass email to this type of list without their consent.


As the video showed, there are ways in which you can collect email addresses correctly. One possible way to do this is to collect email addresses on your website. If you have ever signed up with a web service you have probably seen a small checkbox at the end of the form where you can opt in or opt out from marketing messages. You can also collect addresses at your events through a sign-up form, or send postcards requesting email addresses. As long as people are consenting to receiving your email you will be good.

Opting Out

Now that you have a list of consenting email addresses there is one additional requirement to prevent from being a spammer: you must offer a way to unsubscribe from your communications. Working MailChimp, this function is built in by default, and in fact they will not allow you to send an email without an unsubscribe link somewhere in the message. These can be very inconspicuous, and in fact are generally included as very small text in the footer of an email.

Adding Lists Correctly

Enough talk about what not to do, let’s focus on how you should be adding lists. You can manually add recipients to MailChimp, but the quickest way is to import contacts directly into MailChimp. This short tutorial shows how to import lists in different formats:

Learning from your contacts

One of the most valuable aspects of email marketing is the ability to gather real-time statistics on what you recipients are doing with your messages. A smart marketer will learn from their recipients and tailor future campaigns to meet those needs and desires.

A wealth of data is being tracked with each campaign sent. This data will help you to figure out what works and what doesn’t work in getting your recipients to open your message and take action. Watch this short video that overviews the Reporting and Tracking features in MailChimp:

As you can see there are a ton of tools built in to help you base your future decisions on and also really nice looking reports to impress your boss. You could spend a career specializing in the crunching of analytics data, so we will focus on four areas of data that can be very important in successful email marketing: open rates, click rates, unsubscribe rates, and time analysis.

Open Rates

Open rates very simply track the number of people that clicked on your email and viewed it with images enabled. These rates are tracked by inserting a tiny invisible image into each message and then tracking the number of times that image is “viewed.” There will be some margin of error to open rates because some email clients don’t automatically download and show images. You can use these numbers to evaluate the success of your subject lines and the timing of campaigns. If the open rates fall below your normal rates for one campaign you can use that information to determine what went wrong.

One of most important aspects of an email campaign is the subject line. If you don’t have a compelling subject line there is a good chance that your message will not be opened at all. You may have the best engaging content in your email campaign, but if someone doesn’t open it it is useless.

MailChimp has done some research on this matter look at actual subject lines used by their members and the resulting open rates of those emails. The results might surprise you. This chart below shows the subject lines that earned the best open rates on the left and the ones that earned the worst open rates on the right.

Hopefully you’ll noticed that the best subject lines are clear about who is sending the message (company name would be replaced with the sender’s name) and what type of information is in the email. The worst subject lines read more like bad marketing headlines. Your readers have consented to receiving messages from you, so you don’t have to trick them into reading the content. The best way to craft a compelling subject line is to distill down the who and what of your campaign.

Click Rates

Once someone has opened your message, you want them to take an action of some kind. This may entail clicking a link to read more about a topic or filling out an RSVP form for an event. Click rates will allow you to see which links are most successful. With this data you can decide whether it is the text of the link that makes it successful, or the placement. Links that simply say “click here” are generally not as successful as more descriptive links like “view the full event details.” Your link text should describe what the person will find at that location. The placement of links can also be a factor, and generally you should have your most important link placed several times throughout the email. With the same example in mind, you might put a link both at the top and bottom of the message to view the full event details. This will catch people who aren’t interested in reading the entire content and want to get to the details right away and also the people who want to read the message first and then view the additional information.

Unsubscribe Rates

Sometimes people want to leave a list and stop receiving email. If, however you notice that this rate is accelerating you will need to ask some critical questions about your marketing methods. The first thing to question is whether you are sending the type of information that your recipients signed up for. Maybe you promised them updates about upcoming events, but lately you have been sending donor solicitations instead. It can be easy to think you have a captive audience to send any type of information you want, but the reality is that people will unsubscribe if you aren’t delivering on your original promises.

Another point to consider is how frequently you are sending messages. Are you emailing every day? Maybe that is too often. If you think this may be the issue, you can set up interest groups based on the frequency of mail and then allow your users to choose how often they want to receive messages.

Best Times to Send

When you send a campaign is just as important as what you are sending. You will definitely want to tailor your timing based on audience, but there are a couple of general rules to also keep in mind:

  1. Daytime hours are better than night hours
  2. the highest volume of emails are sent on Tuesdays and Thursdays

With those rules in mind, you want to also start thinking about who your audience is and what their typical schedules are like. Let’s say for example that you are communicating with high school students. It is safe to assume that they will be in school from 8-3 Monday through Friday. In this instance, those times would not be good times to send your messages because the recipients are likely not checking email then. If your audience is mostly working professionals you can safely assume that they work a standard 9-5 schedule Monday through Friday. It is probably more likely that this group is checking email throughout the day, so you have to consider other factors, like when would they feel most rushed when checking email. For this group, open rates are much lower on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons. On Monday mornings, professionals are often digging through full inboxes of messages that have come in over the weekend. On Friday afternoons, they are likely more interested in getting out of the office and beginning their weekend.

Much of what I’ve covered so far is guesswork, but luckily you don’t have to rely on that alone. As you establish a history with your recipients you can use the statistics and data from your actual campaigns to determine ways to improve. Once you have sent some campaigns, the Reports tab will show you statistics on those campaigns. In the upper-right hand corner just under the monkey there is a button to Compare All Campaigns. This button will prompt you to download an excel file with all of the data from all of your campaigns.

This file can be extremely helpful in analyzing patterns over time. One of the fields in the file relates to the day of the week that emails were sent on and their corresponding open rates. You can use these two numbers to determine which days of the week your particular audience is more likely to open emails from you.


Now that you are armed with tons of data and have figured out the best way to send messages you can also consider how best to remarket to your subscribers. Remarketing is simply following up with subscribers based on their actions. This is useful to reinforce messages and can lead to greater engagement.

Remarketing is based on segmentation of your lists. When you create a new campaign you will see all of your lists with a link to “Send to Segment” of each list. Within each list you can segment based on information about subscriber location and activity. Location can be very important when publicizing events. If you are having a small event in Ohio it isn’t likely that someone from California is going to attend. The location feature will help you target messages to only people that might be able to attend. Ensuring that all of your recipients are receiving relevant content is important to keeping engagement high.

Most important with remarketing is the subscriber activity section. This will segment your lists based on how recipients interacted with previous campaigns. You can segment based on whether users opened or didn’t open a previous campaign and also whether they clicked or didn’t click on a link in a previous campaign. You can even combine multiple criteria to get even more specific. How can this help?

If someone didn’t open your last campaign you might follow up with the same message a week later and change the subject line. This gives you another chance at getting them to see your message without having to send the message to everyone again. If you were to send the same message to subscribers that had already opened it there is a higher likelihood that they will unsubscribe from the list because you are sending repeat information to them.

On the other side of that same activity, you might want to follow up with people that did open the last message, but didn’t click on the call-to-action link to prompt them again to make the action. Knowing that this group has seen your last message you can tailor the language to briefly ask them again to do something without having to give them the entire message a second time.


The final feature I want to touch on is the ability to personalize content. Any field that you add to a MailChimp list (name, email address, physical address, etc.) can be inserted as a personalized field in an email’s content. You might use this to create a personal connection with a greeting that reads “Hey Ann!” or a salutation that says “We really hope to see you Friday, Mark.” Small touches of personalization can help increase action from subscribers.

You might also use this feature to check-in with your subscribers and make sure their information is up-to-date. For example, let’s say you are about to do a large print mailing. You might precede the print mailing with an email message letting everyone know that the annual magazine is about to drop and you want to make sure they receive it. You can use a personalized field to display the address you have on record for them and a call-to-action asking them to click a link and update their address if it isn’t correct.

There really is no limit to the type of information you can include and personalize. You could include a gift amounts, business names, kids names, and virtually any other information that you know about your subscribers.

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