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Break Email Best Practices. Add 200%.

Submitted by 6 Comments | 5,491 views

Why turning email best practices on their head may be a good idea


The idea of “best practices” has become something of a crutch in business. Email best practices, for instance, suggests that someone else has already figured out what works in email, so you don’t have to. “Good thing,” many will say, “I don’t have time to figure stuff out. I just have time to do.” Uh oh.

In our testing over the years, we’ve found a certain approach to email that has outperformed more traditional approaches by a factor of 200-300%. A few weeks back, we were presenting our approach to a large, well-regarded digital marketing house, when I heard a sudden intake of air. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “Well, you’ve just broken every email best practice there is,” was the reply. “Exactly,” I said, “if you want to break through, you have to do things differently. No?”  The campaign we ended-up running outperformed their best practices approach by over 500%.

Here’s an example of three campaign executions we sent to online retailers on behalf of a client. Can you guess which of the three approaches has consistently outperformed the others? I’ll share the results at the bottom of this post.

Standard HTML Email Best Practices Standard HTML Email (click to enlarge)
Text HTML Email Best PracticesText HTML Email (click to enlarge)
Billboard HTML Email Best Practices Billboard HTML Email (click to enlarge)

The winner? In case you didn’t guess, it was the Billboard HTML approach. Why? A few reasons, I think:

1. It looks different. Like a billboard by the roadside, it’s easier to absorb because it’s simpler. The approach is also not very common in the world of email, so it garners more attention. As the clickthrough results below support, it also directs the reader a little more aggressively than typical email.

2. Standard HTML email signals “I’m selling!”  Most recipients expect that a standard HTML email, no matter how beautiful or well-crafted, is selling something. As a result, this approach is a whole lot easier to overlook in an inbox.

3. Text email has shown great promise. You may be surprised to learn that the text HTML was the second best performer overall. We’ve actually had more success with text email (or, more accurately, HTML email made to look like a text email), than the results below suggest. A short, personalized text email that comes from someone reasonably senior in your company can produce outstanding results. A recent text email campaign we ran (which came from the client company’s CEO) generated open rates of over 40%. This can probably be attributed, in part, to “standard HTML” email fatigue. You may want to note the clickthrough rate of the text email:

Email Performance Comparison

Results from the email campaigns shown above. The base was 4,730 mailings.

So the next time you hear the term “best practices” applied to anything, consider it a big, waving red flag. That may be the perfect time to kick the crutches out and and see if you can’t turn some best practices on their head.


About Drew Williams

My name is Drew Williams. I’m an author and marketing entrepreneur. “A what?”, you say. I call someone who’s passionate about building businesses a marketing entrepreneur. So that’s me. Full Profile | Google+

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  • Keith Tatley

    Drew. Great article. I’m busy trying to figure this out so very helpful thanks.
    What I’m struggling to understand is the difference in open rates. Your subjects (and preview part) all look the same as far as I can see. As far as I understand all of the people receiving the email should’ve seen exactly the same information before opening the email.
    So what’s driving the difference in open rates?

    • Drew Williams

      Thanks Keith. Really good question. The truth is, I accidentally left out an important part of the story. This campaign was sent to Fortune 100 companies who mostly use Outlook to read their email. Outlook’s preview option displays the first few text lines of an email (several more lines than GMail does).

      The trick is, you can change what the preview lines display if you include an image at the top of your email (even a 1×1 blank pixel) with an ALT tag. Outlook will show the text from the ALT tag in the preview before any other text in the email.

      As a result, three different preview messages were used, as you can see here: It so happens that the preview message for the “Billboard” format was the most popular. Then, once opened, the Billboard format clearly provoked more clickthroughs than the other two formats.

      All of this suggests that you might want to test subject lines and preview lines to maximize your open rates, especially if your prospects are biased towards Outlook.

      • Keith Tatley

        Thank you Drew – appreciate your thorough follow up. I have been displaying a very short piece of preview text. I will definitely expand that for Outlook Clients.

        Do you have any theories on what made the BillBoard preview text almost 3 times more effective?

        HTML #3 has also got all of the elements of “risk free” and authority that Billboard #1 has but Text #2 doesn’t. The only other difference that I can see is clarity of language and “flow” of offer

        • Drew Williams

          I think your right. #1 seems to read better and more naturally. I suspect that being easier to read resulted in it being read more and thus opened more.

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  • Ellen Hibbard

    You make good points. Have you read Nielson’s text on universal design for the web? The third example actually incorporates best design principals. However the challenge with all three, it is still text centric even though it’s ‘visual’. Text represents spoken elements of language. What about images of ‘signed’ ASL (American Sign Language) or BSL (British Sign Language) video embedded in the vlog?

    • Drew Williams

      Thanks Ellen. I’m trying to understand which audience you are referring to. Text is obviously ineffective for the visually impaired. I’m interested, how would ‘signed video’ address that audience’s need? Are you seeing the demand for more accessible web pages in a business-to-business context as well as in a consumer context?