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Email Q&A

How long should an email be?

As short as you can make it, without making it useless. There are some businesses sending very long and complex material in email form, but they’re rare. The typical inbox is exceedingly full already, so is an unpleasant space in which to spend time. So get in, get your message across, and get out.

The typical length for a content-heavy newsletter (as opposed to an invitation or simple notice) is two or three screens’ worth. That seems reasonable. As always, keep your client’s audience in mind, as their needs or expectations may be different.

Should I put the full articles in the email, or just teasers and links to the site?

If shorter is better, linking to the full article online is often the way to go. If you have expansive content, putting it all in the email will be overwhelming. On the other hand, if you can write a shorter version, or carry your point across in a few paragraphs, you could save your reader time by giving them everything they need without having to click through.

How often should I send emails?

As always there is no single answer, but a 2009 survey found that 73% of respondents cited “sending too frequently” as the main reason for opting out of an email mailing list. Conversely, email that’s too infrequent risks subscribers forgetting they ever signed up, or finding another solution to the problem you’re trying to solve for them.

In general, it’s better to err towards too few emails than too many. The answer in any specific case will depend on what the subscribers expect, as well as the timeliness of the content.

But then, you can simply ask your subscribers—and even people who’ve just unsubscribed— how often they’d prefer to receive your content.

What is the best time to send?

Endless theories have been proposed and tested about the perfect time to send an email campaign. Studies have been unhelpful, because the mystical perfect day and time seems to shift unpredictably from one study to the next.

Of course, you also need to consider your content and your audience; some types of content will lend themselves to a Monday morning arrival, others to a lazy Sunday afternoon. The only really useful answer to this question is, “Try a few different times and see what works best for you.”

Is it okay to buy or rent an email list?

Generally, no, it isn’t. Although there are services and products that claim to have fully opt-in up-to-date databases, you have no real way of confirming that. Most email service providers and anti-spam systems take a very dim view of purchased email lists. The risk is too high, and the chance of success too low to bother with.

Take the slower approach of building your own opt-in list over time, by interacting with people yourself.

What is a good open rate?

This is yet another question for which there is no simple answer. There is such enormous variation between industries, companies, and recipient lists that overall statistics are unhelpful. Still, we all know clients will ask anyway, so it’s good to have some general idea. Broadly, a typical range is 20-40% of the subscriber list.

Often the real question your client is asking is, “Why don’t I have 100% open rates?” so you’ll need to discuss their expectations and the reality of email marketing with them.

How many clicks should I expect?

This follows on from the previous question, but is even less likely to have a reliable answer. Email marketing industry reports tend to quote a 2-15% unique clickthrough rate as typical. This means for every 100 people who open your email, less than 15 would typically click a link.

Business to business emails are often at the higher end of that range, and mass market consumer emails the lower. Emails that are targeted and valuable to the recipient can go much higher, of course.

How can I avoid my email being filtered?

Use magic, if possible. Otherwise, you’re unfortunately stuck in the land of trial and error. No email service can honestly guarantee your emails will escape filtering, except in very particular circumstances. The vast majority of the time, it’s your actual content (subject line, message body) and possibly your “From” address that filters are checking. Your email service provider is unable to control this, so it’s largely up to you.

Some topics, such as pharmaceuticals and mortgages, are so heavily targeted by spammers that legitimate senders will always struggle to avoid filters.

The best approach is firstly to avoid highly common spam words (good luck if you ever need to send an email campaign about Viagra!), and then test your email with as many different clients and filters as you can. If your email is filtered in one or two of the tests, but the rest are okay, you’re probably fine. If your email is systematically filtered, there could be a broader problem.

In that case, try using one of the email testing services that give spam filter results with reasons why the email failed. Otherwise, cut out half the content and send the rest. If it passes, there could be a problem phrase or word in the half you omitted.

There are no easy solutions to spam filtering, but you need to make your clients aware that even the same email client in two different installations can behave differently. The best you can do is to test, test, test.

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