Take It Off Line Because Email Sucks

Stop Sending Emails & Call the Client

Let me get it out of the way so I don’t waste your time. I believe this is so obvious that maybe this post is frivolous. So here’s my point: Stop sending emails and call the client (friend, relative, anyone) with whom there may be either a misunderstanding or dispute. That’s all. That’s the post. If you’re a glutton for details, here’s an anecdote:

I produced some web development deliverables for my client as we worked our way toward his new website. These included a site map, some content and a content template for creating more content.

What is created for the client and paid for by the client belongs to the client. Indisputable. Right?

Nevertheless, we had a dispute.  And that’s the fun part about business. The indisputable can be disputed.  Hey, everyone’s got a point of view.

So how do you resolve it? I sent him his deliverables by email. He expressed his concerns by return email.  In an effort to address his concerns, I sent him more tools (basically, access to an online tool). He balked. Oops.

My good client wrote a nice email expressing frustration. I’d sent him an invoice. He didn’t think I’d given him what he needed. He interpreted gaining access to the online tool as kind of a brush off as in “you take it from here.” No, I didn’t mean that.

Once again, email had failed. It failed me and it failed my client. Email sucks.

I had many feelings. But the prominent feeling was that I was not going to litigate this dispute or misunderstanding by email. I wrote him back, by email, with two responses:

  1. When would you like to talk. And would you like me to come to your business to talk in person.
  2. Regarding my invoice, you owe me nothing. You only pay me if I deliver value. And, then, you only pay me for the value you believe I delivered. That’s my fine print.

Email is an incredible tool. But it is not the Swiss Army knife of communication. It is, in fact, a terrible medium. Because:

  1. People can’t write. The message is lost or confused.
  2. When people write they can become emotional
  3. People can’t read. TL;DR (Too long, didn’t read)
  4. When people read an email they misunderstand
  5. Email is often for cowards. Face it, you’re scared of the real time interaction

If you’ve got a problem that is being discussed by email, and this is true in business and with friends and family, take it off line. Get on the phone. Go f…..ing see the other person. Use your voice. You’ll do great.

Why Send Welcome Emails to New Subscribers

I am so embarrassed. I have been producing and sending targeted emails (don’t call them email blasts, dammit) for 13 or 14 years using tools from service providers such as ExactTarget, Bluehornet, CreateSend, MailChimp and ConstantContact. Yet not once have I initiated contact with a new email subscriber by sending an initial email that welcomes them to the email communication.

Wait! Before you make me wear the Scarlet S (for spammer) on my chest. Let me explain.

Best Practices

I’m a good person. I adopt best practices. I believe in opt-in emails. I loathe unsolicited emails and the brands that send them. I hate it when non-profits, like WTTW Channel 11* and many/most others, share my contact information unless I tell them not to. So then why have I never sent a welcome email to subscribers who recently joined an email list?


In part, I’m lazy. Not lazy like I don’t give a damn. But lazy as in most of the lists I’ve worked include people who are already receiving communications. For example, email is just a transition from print. Adopting and sending communications by email was an evolution and not a traumatic surprise. The content being delivered was useful and informative, not promotional and annoying. Moreover, the proof was in the analytics. Very few people unsubscribed. Open rates of the emails were at or above what might be expected. The system seemed pretty healthy and it was all good. But the truth is, I was skating on thin ice.

The Dark Side

Lazy, ok. But I got sloppy. I have a client who acquires email addresses whenever customers sign into their in-house wifi system. To be clear, the customers voluntarily contribute their email address as a condition of using the wifi. And I imported these emails into my email service provider. Not exactly opt-in. OK, not opt-in at all. I had moved to the dark side without realizing it.

After the first mailing, I received an email from “Sander” who told me he loved the client’s business when he’d patronized it in Chicago, but he lived 4000 miles away and wouldn’t be back soon. But Sander was wondering how we had obtained his email address. He wasn’t angry. Just curious. But I was the deer in the headlights. I apologized to Sander. I told him I’d misbehaved and promised to fix things.

The Thing I Fixed

Today, I sent an email to 60 new subscribers whose emails I had acquired from their wifi connection. First, on behalf of the owners, the email thanked them for their business, stated the company’s mission and solicited feedback. Then I explained how their email address had been acquired, asked permission to keep them on the subscriber list, promised to never share their information and provided several links to unsubscribe to any further communications.

Imperfect Solution

In a perfect world, every email subscriber opts in to a list. However, I believe an honest and transparent appeal to “prospective subscribers” to continue to receive ongoing email communications is an ethical approach to the dilemma of securing a new email subscriber. For this purpose the “Welcome” or “Thank you for your business” first email is an essential tactic in the email marketing arsenal. I won’t be caught flat-footed again.

What do you think?

I’m interested to know what you think about sending one initial email to people whose email you have acquired but who have not given explicit permission to be on a subscriber list.

* Chicago Channel 11 WTTW’s privacy policy: “…from time to time we may disclose personal identification information about you as an individual user (such as, for example, your full name, street address, telephone number or e-mail address) to one or more third parties in order to expand our membership base and increase support for our programs.

Increase Your Email Open Rates

Much has been made of best times, day of week, effective subject lines and other strategies to achieve the single most important objective of getting your email opened. But there is one strategy I have found that is incredibly effective and infallible: send that email again.

But wait. Before you abuse your subscribers let me explain what I have done that increases open rates without irritating your email recipients. And how you can know this is working.

My client lists range from the passionately engaged who open at an average rate of 45% to the “I-didn’t-know-I-signed-up” crowd, with an open rate of 15%, who coughed up their email address to access the business’ free wifi. In all cases, I’ve been able to increase open rates by as much as 50%.

My email tool of choice is MailChimp. One of the features provided is the option to create segments of your email list. That is, a segment is some portion of your list that meets certain criteria. And the criteria that I select is “Campaign Activity = Did not open [the last email]. In MailChimp it looks like this:

So now you have your list. Take these few additional steps to be respectful to your subscribers as well as to be effective:

  1. Change your subject line.
    Your new subject line is a tacit acknowledgement that this is a redo. It also provides you the opportunity to attract subscribers who didn’t find your first subject line particularly sexy. I usually go with something like “Reminder: xxxx.” For the people who may see both your emails in their queue it just appears as a friendly re-notification. For most, it is the first time they’re seeing your email.
  2. Send at least 2 days after your first email
    Think about your own email nemesis and how you fall behind in getting to less pressing email. But there is a half-life to email opening. My experience is that after about 2 days (your own results can be observed to tune this timing) you can safely assume that very few people will open your original email.
  3. Change the time of day
    Did your first email go out at 8AM? Did you send it on Tuesday because everyone says that’s the hot day for sending email to get the best open? Send the second email Friday night or a weekend morning or some time that is different from the first email. Again, you might test different times to determine your best second-send time
  4. Measure
    The two most important metrics for evaluating the effectiveness are open rate and unsubscribes. You WILL increase the open rate. My experience that your new open rate will be about ½ of the original. I’d be interested to know what you experience.

But the real measure of effectiveness is unsubscribes. Unsubscribes are not always bad. That’s a topic for another time. But for many reasons you don’t want people on your list who don’t want to hear what you have to say.  But, if you consistently get a lot (you decide what a lot is) of people unsubscribing to your second email, you’re probably irritating your subscribers.  This has not been my experience. But your results may differ and you should be alert to this possibility.Rinse and Repeat
Do it again. If your message is not time-dependent or if you have given yourself enough lead time, you can continue to send to non-openers a third or even a fourth time. You will realize diminishing returns but you will get some new opens each time. Manage your list
The hard truth is that you probably have subscribers who do not open and never will open your email. Only you can decide it if it worthwhile deceiving yourself or others about how huge your subscriber base has become. Chronic non-openers will also give you a more pessimistic view of your open rate and other engagement metrics. Ridding your list of these inactive subscribers may help you better understand what your engaged subscribers truly like about your email sends.

I welcome your opinion about this strategy as well as sharing experiences you may have had re-sending campaigns to your subscribers.

Mobile Email is More Important than Your Mobile Website

We’ve been pounding the mobile drum for about three years now. Our advocacy is fueled by the overwhelming trend that can be observed in every website analytics analysis. Granted, the results vary depending on the demographics of your site visitors. But the increase in mobile access to your digital assets is inexorable. And, by the way, that includes your email as well.

While many/some firms who actually care about their site visitor’s experience have made the investment to provide some kind of mobile access to their website, most are still lagging far behind in providing the same consideration to their email recipients. Which, if you think about it, is counter-intuitive. Unlike a website that visitors can, by and large, elect to visit at a moment they have convenient access to a large screen display, email arrives randomly and is commonly viewed in the moment. And that moment has a good chance of being when the recipient is up and about.

I looked at the results of recent email campaigns and even I was surprised to see that about 50% of emails were opened on a mobile device. This would be compared to B2B website traffic that hovers around 20% to 30% mobile. So if one were to prioritize their mobile-izing effort it should be placed on email before the website. But this does not seem to be the case.

Granted, mobile email is a tad more complicated than a mobile website. Websites are viewed in browsers (Firefox, IE, Safari, Chrome, etc.) that to some limited extent and imperfectly interpret website stylesheet code in a common way. But email is viewed via email clients and these clients’ rendering of the email stylesheet on a mobile device are much more divergent. Nevertheless, there are some best practices for producing a reasonably coherent mobile email display.

Surprisingly to me, email publishers rarely view and test their own emails on the devices used by their subscribers. Is this laziness, ignorance or something else? I don’t know. What I do know is that email is a key component of the mobile evolution of the Internet. And about that I will keep beating my drum.