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Email Marketing Is Live Ammunition

Did you know managing email marketing the wrong way could get your web site banned?

Spam a large email list and nothing good can happen. “What do you mean, I get spammed all the time,” you are thinking. If you are a black hat Internet marketer set to spam then nothing is going to stop you. Most Internet marketers reading this Atlantic BT post are well meaning Internet marketers who want to do the right thing and may step on trip wires anyway. Here is a list of email marketing Do’s and Do Not’s honed from fire, experience and the desire to do the right thing:


  • Don’t Use FREE in the subject line
  • Don’t say Free Shipping = not good but Shipping is on Us = Better
  • Don’t Use business names in subject
  • Don’t use common spam phrases such as “limited time” or “act now” in subject and avoid in body copy (if you have to use these phrases do so in images since spiders can’t “see” images)
  • Don’t use more than 12 words in subject and try and live with 7 (seven is the magic number for billboard advertising and not a bad goal for email marketing subject lines)
  • Carefully mention major holidays (be sure NOT to use anything too sales-y around them such as Free Trial ends on Christmas)
  • Don’t write more than 200 words in an email unless clearly marked as NEWSLETTER and don’t send newsletters more than once a month
  • Don’t lock into a schedule you either can’t support or will drive customers crazy (there is always more list flexibility than you realize as long as communication is relevant and segmented – see segmented point below)
  • DON’T Talk more than you listen(good rule for all social media marketing and for Neomaxi-zoom-dweebie marketing of all sorts 🙂
    • Provide links to share feedback other than opting out
    • If you have reviews or testimonials consistently share them and always ask for more (asking for more legitimizes the ones you have)
    • If you have video use it to get higher open rates but be careful about “video” in the subject (check to see if on spam watch list (read excellent post on watch lists from Stephanie Miller)
  • Don’t Sell Used Cares – making offers is fine but “selling” is best done via reviews, testimonials and some perceived neutral third party (Yelp, Alexa, epinions)
  • If someone is saying bad things out in the world DON’T bring it back to your site and NEVER in an email since this is the equivalent of gas on a fire (DO create content AROUND the fire so you can burn it out, like a backfire)
  • Don’t let search engine spiders see your emails (can cause duplicate content problems and is usually more dangerous than beneficial) – put email into a folder and use Robots.txt to exclude spider (many think of emails as content and so want them on their site, this is wrong because the ratio of pictures to text isn’t great and Google HATES the DM-like nature of email language excluding email from spiders is safest bet)
  • Don’t Panic if (or when) you get black listed, but do contact the regulatory personal at the ISP and ask for specifics for why you are black listed and any recommendations to fix the problem (this is a TRUE pain btw)
  • Don’t single opt-in because it is too dangerous these days, but 2x opting in does cut conversion from landing page to list acceptance by half, so some may decide to live dangerously…if living dangerously must watch other metrics like a hawk since any small misstep will lead to black listing and black listing can grow like cancer.
  • Don’t Buy lists (these never work)


  • Do gather cell phone numbers and be active in social media marketing since both create disaster hedge for email marketing (you will never lose list + social at same time, well maybe NEVER is to strong, you shouldn’t EVER lose your email marketing list AND social or cell)
  • Do reference Seasons – “5 tips to improve indoor tennis this winter”
  • Do evaluate who serves your site AND who serves your emails (better if both come from same place as long as ISP knows how to manage email marketing)
  • Ask your ISP’s “best practices” and if they look at you quizzically RUN
  • Do include at least 2 but no more than 5 Calls To Action, but no more than 5 (remember opt-out is a CTA so really no more than 4)
  • Do use social media marketing to help build your list
  • Do include Twitter and Facebook “add this” like tools and prepopulate the link but make sure it is never more than 110 characters (best for ReTweets)
  • Do be aware YOUR email practices impact your host too since they will be banned right along with you if you violate email protocols and best practices (stated or unstated)
  • Do read your ISP’s compliance page – most ISP’s have compliance pages and your email marketing should live well within guidelines
  • Do create contests and campaigns specifically designed to grow your list (growing converting lists is an art and a science)
  • Use names in email but even more important is next bullet
  • Segment list by customer profiles (this is also art and science read Robert Rose’s Managing Content Marketing and visit Sally Hogshead’s site for segmentation tips
  • Include 2 – 4 Calls To Action in every email (Newsletters included)
  • Contact my friend Alan Fitzpatrick at mailVU in Charlotte and put video in emails (higher open rates)
  • Create a NEWSLETTER and mail it religiously monthly
  • Give subscribers the ability to profile and select frequency within general alternatives such as “News” not “once a month”- always talk subjects not timing since timing locks you in
  • Treat AOL subscribers carefully since there are still a lot of them
  • Make sure you create a specific AOL unsubscribe button so they DON’T hit unsubscribe to opt out (as this can get you in penalty box across other ISP’s)
  • Be sure to clean your list for abuse@zzzzzz(dot)com addresses (most email tools do this automatically now)
  • Include a feedback path besides opt-out as this can cut the number of opt-outs
  • Always reward people for being on your list and reinforce the benefit with words like “exclusive”, “VIP”, “team” and “club”
  • Share customer feedback and testimonials via email, but make sure you have a link to where someone reading the email can contribute (link = legitimacy)
  • Do Stay Calm and Carry On 🙂

Email Time
As Internet marketers we have calendars regulated by our promotional needs. Our customers calendars are regulated by their needs not ours. Holidays and ritualized events provide bridges between promotional needs and customers. B2B clients tend to think this rule doesn’t apply. Not so, the pull of regular ritual is so valuable it makes sense for B2C and B2B. B2B clients have to work a little harder to relate past the ritual and to issues their customers face, but rituals as openings are ALWAYS helpful.

Email Marketing Action
Email is an IMMEDIATE medium. Don’t send email about something happening in a month. Do send email about something happening at the end of the week and then “drip” your campaign being careful to be relevant and different with each drip (email sent).

Email Marketing Offers
When email marketers aren’t specific then those receiving their email will be confused. Confused customers never buy (or convert to via white papers or other “soft” conversions. Confused customers DO opt out. Really confused customers complain and REALLY confused customers get mad and make your misery their mission (recommend avoiding this). Be specific, friendly and supportive.

Email Marketing Polls and Games
Bet you lunch your highest open rates will be on easy and fun polls and games. People are naturally curious about others. Smart email marketers use our group curiosity to engage and then convert. Pay votes with a landing results page with a clear Call To Action.

Email Marketing Respect
There is a trend to use secret crassness in emails in order to shock an open. With very few exceptions (Howard Stern) such shock openings don’t work (opens go up, conversions go down). Respect people on your list. Don’t go for shock and awe (works short term only and divots long term list viability and future marketing).

Email Marketing Nonverbals
Everything you do online communicates in secret ways. Email marketing is no exception. How an email is designed, words used, colors and subject all communicate MORE than surface values. Everything you do (and this is true for site design too) communicate “tribal” “like me” values. People are so inundated with messaging anyone opting into a list, especially 2x opt in, wants to be there. All communications must be consistent with the brand they signed up under. If a brand is a video brand, use video. If a brand is a trust mark (banks) then stock photography and large, impenetrable buildings are important. Design firms can be more creative while being mindful of the respect rule.

Email Marketing Consistency
There is a lot of communication floating around now. Emails, social media and what others are saying about you can create cacophony. Email saying one thing, site doing another and social doing yet a third is not unusual. Damaging doesn’t begin to cover it. Email suffers the most because trust is earned HARD on email. Make an offer that doesn’t work, is inconsistent with something on Twitter or other social platforms or present poorly formatted emails to mobile (phones or tablets) and prepared to be flamed, have higher unsubscribe rates or worse (people complaining to FTC). A consistent, careful and supportive communications strategy has never been more important.

Email Marketing Disaster Plan
Stuff happens. Dry run a disaster plan such as cascading blacklisting (usually starts with AOL), delisted (this has actually happened to me) or someone screaming on other contact points about email practices. Here is how I would respond to each:

  • Cascading blacklist – start with AOL since if they turn positive others will follow. This is VERY hard to do since their regulatory people can be hard to reach so you may be forced to work outside in (from smaller ISPs in toward AOL).
  • Delisted –  Your url’s are hosted. If your emails come from your host BEWARE they can take your site all the way down to China Town.   Read your ISP’s (host and email provider’s) Terms and Conditions (horrible reading but necessary). If problems prop up be ready to defend with 2x opt in and a long history of non-spam best practices. Best practices is to have site URLs with a trusted source (such as Atlantic BT) OR someone so large your URL’s are nondescript (Netsolutons). Never have URLs and emails in same place UNLESS you know and trust the ISP.
  • Customers or advocates screaming about email practices on Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms hurts but isn’t fatal. Fatal is ignoring the feedback or trying to defend on the same platform (never do this). When you get flamed look up what to do in the disaster plan and follow your strategy such as moving brewing fires over to less traffic properties like blogs or one-to-one email.

Email marketing provides the highest margins (typically) of any online marketing channel. Email marketing also has the greatest potential for disaster if you ignore or are unaware of email marketing best practices. Each email bets your online company so treat it as CRITICAL COMMERCE. Each email communicates overtly and covertly so be aware of both. Each email is another opportunity to listen so be sure to do so. Each email should be consistent with the macro communication strategy outlined by company, brand and product.

Did past mistakes of others create a mind field for our generation of email marketers? Yep, but it is what it is.

Mistakes happen. We are human. Heartfelt communication is so rare it is valuable.

Finally, remember that selling anything is emotional well before it is logical. My old P&G boss Russ Mills taught, “People buy with emotion and justify with logic”. Email marketing and all Internet marketing and web development  should heed Russ’s advice particularly since few do :).

Atlantic BT will be updating our product offerings to include high margin, high quality email marketing soon. If you would like to speak to someone in the meantime, please call, email or come visit Atlantic BT at our first Raleigh Internet Marketing Meetup tomorrow.


Martin Smith
Director of Marketing

P.S. This list of email marketing best practices is not exhaustive. If you have other valuable email tips please share in comments and we will pull together and share.

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