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29 email marketing best practices

By Amanda Pell · July 18, 2023
Hero image of an envelope on a light blue background to illustrate emails

Email marketing requires a battle plan. You've seen your own inbox; you know that it's chaos. You submit your email address as a required part of a purchase, and suddenly you're getting 60 emails a month from a mattress company, wondering why on earth they think someone who just bought a mattress would be in the market for more mattresses. 

Want to stand out in a sea of mattress emails? You're going to need a strategy. We'll walk you through 29 email marketing best practices and accompanying examples to help you kick off your next campaign. 

1. Use an email marketing platform

If you're launching an email campaign, forget regular providers like Gmail and Outlook. In order to manage even a moderate volume of emails and subscribers, you're going to need an email marketing platform. 

Platforms like ConvertKit, Mailchimp, and Moosend are designed as all-in-one tools that provide marketers with everything they need to run an email campaign. These tools can store and sort your contacts, track key metrics like email opens and bounce rates, and allow you to test out different versions of the same email to make sure you're sending the most effective one. 

There are a lot of email marketing tools out there, but you might need a more specific type of software based on your goals and budget. Here are some resources to help you pick the one that's best for you:

  • How to choose email marketing software

  • The best email marketing software

  • The best free email marketing platforms

  • The best email drip campaign software

  • The 5 best transactional email services

2. Use AI to write and optimize emails

Utilizing AI writing generators to supplement your process can help you crank up your creativity and nail your brand voice with every email (just be sure you maintain your human voice). But AI isn't just for writing emails.

Email marketing tools utilize AI for lots of other use cases: 

  • Determining the best time to send emails to each subscriber on your list 

  • Personalizing emails to improve click rates and conversions

  • Populating newsletters with curated articles based on each subscriber's past behavior 

  • Tracking real-time deliverability insights 

  • Sifting through email replies to determine whether an automated response or a human response is best 

3. Time your marketing emails

Make use of your email platform's scheduled send feature, and be mindful of time zones—a 2 a.m. email is going to go unread almost 100% of the time. 

There are a lot of conflicting opinions as to when the best day and time are for sending marketing emails, and different tests often turn up different answers. Experts generally recommend sending midweek (Tuesday through Thursday) during work hours, but different audience demographics will have different preferences. The best way to figure out what time you should send your emails is to test different times and measure your results. 

A chart with an orange background with dos and don'ts of marketing

4. Set up opt-ins

An "opt-in" is the process of a reader or buyer confirming that they want to receive your email newsletter, either by clicking a button to sign up, indicating that they want to receive emails from you in a form, or checking a box to receive your emails when they're signing up for your app or service.

In a "double opt-in," someone who signs up will then receive an email asking them to confirm that they want to sign up. Subscribers will only receive your emails after they click the link in that confirmation email. This email is important since it verifies that they do actually want to sign up with that email address (in case someone else entered their email address), and it can help prevent you from getting in trouble for sending spam. (More on spam laws later.)

Screenshot from Sebago's website of an email confirmation

5. Set up auto tags for signups

Most email marketing platforms provide a way for users to automatically organize and tag contacts as they come in from different opt-in channels and when a subscriber performs a particular action. 

For example, contacts who opt in by checking a box while making a purchase can be tagged as "customers," and subscribers that click on an in-email product link can be tagged as "prospects." This will allow you to tailor your emails to different subscribers' specific needs and interests without sorting through contacts and customizing individual emails by hand.

6. Use a variety of signup forms

The more signup forms you use, the more opportunities you have to collect new email contacts. Consider adding forms in the following spots:

  • At the end of each blog post

  • On your purchase confirmation page

  • On your site's "About" page

  • At the beginning of chatbot interactions

  • On your "Contact us" page

7. Add a pop-up form

The jury's still out on if pop-up forms are worth the annoyance or not, but the fact that so many major brands and companies still use them suggests that they're at least worth considering. If you're not sold on pop-ups but want to give them a try, use an app like Sumo to run an experiment. You can also use a service like Exit Monitor or HubSpot to track users' mouse movements and trigger a pop-up as they're getting ready to exit the page.

8. Offer an incentive

In addition to adding forms in different locations, you should offer a variety of reasons for users to sign up. I rarely open newsletters, but I'll never say no to a discount code in exchange for an email signup. 

Consider offering things like:

  • Reports and white papers

  • Discount codes

  • Sale alerts

  • Downloadable tools and templates

  • A free session or sample product

  • An email course

Screenshot from the Pura Vida website of an offer for 20% off if you sign up for emails

9. Import contacts from other sources

Set up integrations between your email marketing platform and other apps so you can collect and tag contacts from those sources as well. If you're hosting events with GoTo Webinar, selling tickets with Eventbrite, or managing prospects with Salesforce, your email marketing platform can organize all of those email addresses automatically. Here are some more tips on how to automatically import contacts into your email marketing software.

Read more: How to build an email marketing list—and 24 winning strategies

10. Segment your email lists

There's nothing worse than getting hit with nonstop emails that don't apply to you whatsoever (see: mattress emails). Email segmentation helps prevent you from annoying your subscribers with irrelevant content. 

Create different email lists (or segments) for different target groups, and then send different email sequences according to each segment's interests and needs. 

11. Set up a robust tagging system

The key to easy, effective segmentation is a robust tagging system. A few good tagging categories to set up include:

  • Gender

  • Age range

  • Location

  • Career industry

  • Job title

  • Relationship to your company (e.g., prospect, customer, event attendee)

The more data you have about your email contacts, the more specific you can be with your emails. Tagging your contacts allows you to create new segments instantly with a simple search instead of having to build each list manually.

12. Use automations to create behavior tags

If you use an email marketing platform that allows you to set up "if/then" commands, you can get even more specific with your tags by having your app automatically label contacts based on behaviors. For example, you can label contacts based on:

  • What they buy

  • When they buy

  • What emails they open

  • What emails they read multiple times

  • What links they click on

  • When they abandon their cart

With this information, you can send emails that react to specific activities: send deals for items that pair well with a past purchase, ramp up offers around holidays that you know a customer tends to shop for, or remind customers about abandoned cart items.

If your email marketing app doesn't offer this kind of functionality, you can use Zapier to do things like automatically add new Shopify customers to a Mailchimp audience, or do the same thing with Stripe or any other app.

13. Don't buy contacts

Starting an email list from scratch can feel daunting at first, but resist the temptation to buy contact lists from third parties. Not only is this sometimes illegal, but it's also ineffective. People who didn't opt in and have never heard of you or your brand aren't going to open your emails anyway, so adding them to your database is a waste of time and money.

14. Clean your contact list regularly

When your campaigns have consistently low open rates, your emails are more likely to get marked as spam. That's why it's important to go through your contact list every few months and purge contacts who don't ever open your emails. If 25 people are going to open your email either way, 25 out of 50 is a much better open rate than 25 out of 100. Here are more tips for how to clean your email list.

Seven email marketing best practices with icons for each: use a single contact database, track KPIs and generate reports, create a tagging system to generate targeted lists for different campaigns, optimize subject lines and text previews, use design elements and text formatting, collect addressess only from subscribers who opt in to receive emails, don't give away all of your information within the email.

15. Change sender identity when appropriate

Another benefit of using an email marketing platform is that it allows you to send from different personas. Not that you should pretend to be someone else or invent an alter ego, but there are some times when sending from someone different makes sense. For example:

  • To have a junior marketer or assistant send a campaign on your behalf

  • To send emails on behalf of a client

  • To match sender identity to your audience segment (target financial industry workers with emails from the CFO, for instance)

For example, Travis Dailey at Clearscope uses his name to send out emails on upcoming webinars and events. For more general updates, Clearscope uses the Team at Clearscope sender identity. 

Screenshot of an email from Clearscope with the sender name highlighted in a red box: Travis at Clearscope.

16. Avoid using no-reply email addresses

Make sure your emails are being sent from a real person—avoid using a "no-reply@" email address whenever possible. Not only is it cold and impersonal, but it can also decrease deliverability since no-reply addresses are more likely to be filtered as spam.

17. Utilize email previews

Use a tool like Mailchimp's Inbox Preview to find out what your emails will look like in people's inboxes, on both desktop and mobile. 

Don't use character counts to make sure your subject lines will fit. Because some letters are physically wider than others, character counts aren't always accurate—a 60-character subject line might fit if it has a lot of lowercase l's and i's but get cut off if it's heavy on capital O's and D's.

18. Keep it short

As a chronically long-winded individual, this is one that took me a long time to accept: emails should be short—no matter how much you have to say. If you have a long message, turn it into a blog post or site copy, and then use your email as a preview with a click-through to the real content.

A screenshot of an email from MarketingProfs Today that serves as a table of contents with links to longer pieces of content.

Emails that don't ask a lot of the reader are more successful than emails that immediately appear dense or like they're going to require a lot of focus. MarketingProfs offer a table of contents at the top of their emails giving readers a preview of what's in store, but the meatier content is saved for after the jump.

19. Place your value-add at the top

For the same reason that your emails should be short, they should also lead with the most valuable and actionable information. Emails have to hook their readers quickly. If you place the valuable or actionable information at the bottom or buried within dense text, subscribers will probably stop reading before they even get to the important part.

20. Keep it skimmable

Increase the likelihood that subscribers actually read your entire email by keeping it as skimmable as possible. Think about the difference between a page of 12-point Times New Roman and a page with headers, subheaders, and bullets. Which is going to be easier to read? User text formatting to guide the eye and make your emails easy to consume.

Screenshot of an email from Cision with the title of a study: Here is what journalists really want. The email demonstrates how to highlight only the most important info from the study by listing journalists' top three priorities and three sources journalists trust most to validate information.

This email from Cision is short and easy to skim, but it's still packed with key information. It's visually interesting without being overwhelming.

21. Keep it simple

Busy patterns and tons of bright colors are the visual equivalent of a wall of dense text—they tire readers' eyes out. Stick to one or two colors and fonts, and keep complicated illustrations to a minimum. 

22. Keep it consistent

Create or use templates that utilize the same or similar colors and fonts in order to present a cohesive brand identity. A little visual consistency can make the difference between an email that looks homemade and amateur versus one that looks clean, professional, and impressive. 

Check out our guide to B2B email marketing best practices for more tips on email architecture and design.

23. Write engaging subject lines

The most effective subject lines are personal, promotional, and engaging. Exactly how that shakes out will depend on your industry and your target audience. 

For an eCommerce business selling women's clothing to twentysomethings, that might look like incorporating Gen Z slang, nodding to popular songs or TV shows, and teasing sales. For a B2B SaaS company, that might look like reeling customers in with information about upcoming webinars or new industry reports. 

Screenshot of an email from Reformation with a subject line that says: LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP. The email contains an image of a woman wearing sitting on a still wearing a dress with large text that says: Anti-pants.

If you find your eyes glazing over trying to drum up a catchy subject line, AI can help. There are many AI text generators that offer specific email subject line templates to help you create better subject lines.

Keep these subject line best practices in mind:

  • Include a deadline in the subject line (this works well for sales and signup deadlines) 

  • Ask open-ended questions to pique readers' interest

  • Avoid words associated with spam such as "free" or "last chance"

  • Keep subject lines around 40 characters or five to seven words 

Screenshot of an example of a subject line asking a question
Screenshot example from Madewell demonstrating an email subject line creating a sense of urgency

24. Provide a seamless mobile experience

You're probably putting your marketing emails together on a desktop, but it's likely that most people will be reading them on mobile—that's why you need to test on a variety of platforms before sending.

Most email platforms can resize images and text and condense everything into one clean column to be mobile-optimized. You can also often control what appears on mobile vs. desktop. For example, if you have an image that won't display well on mobile, you can set it to only display on desktop emails. 

Whatever decisions you make, test them on multiple platforms before sending them off. 

25. Utilize email footer space

The email footer is too often overlooked, but it's a good opportunity to put a stamp of personalization on your email. For example, you could include a personalized letter from your CEO thanking the reader for their support and loyalty. 

The footer is also a great opportunity to include your brand mission and point readers toward other ways to support or connect. Check out how McSweeney's does it below. 

A screenshot of an email from McSweeney's that demonstrates how to use footer space, with links to social media pages and email subscription preferences.

26. Master the art of CTAs

Your emails should direct readers to take a specific action, like signing up for a demo or buying a product. To craft effective email CTAs, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Be clear and direct in your CTA wording. If you want a reader to download your report, use wording like "Download the report." 

  • Use animation strategically. This is especially useful when your CTA is near the bottom of the email. 

  • Aim for no more than three CTAs within an email. 

  • Use color strategically by highlighting the CTA wording in a color you don't use anywhere else in the email. 

  • Design your CTA buttons to look clickable with a small shadow or rounded edges. 

A screenshot of an email from Krewe with an image of an open bag of potato ships with yellow sunglasses on top and the text: In the bag. Introducing chartreuse, our newest flavor of the summer.

27. Track meaningful email marketing metrics

Email marketing is already an extremely time-intensive practice. When something's not working, you want to find out right away so you can stop doing it and use that energy elsewhere. It's important to test and track success metrics so you can continually improve your tactics and increase your efficiency as you go along. 

Open rate

Open rate is the percent of emails your recipients actually open. By tracking how many people typically open your emails, you can note when an email has an unusually high or low number of opens, investigate the cause (usually timing, subject line, or topic), and make decisions about future campaigns based on what you learn.

Bounce rate

Bounce rate is the percentage of emails that couldn't be delivered, usually because the address is invalid or doesn't exist. Keep track of bounced emails, and remove stale contacts as soon as you find them to keep your open rates high.

Click-through rate

With an email marketing platform, you can also track how many (and which) people click on the links within your emails. This allows you to understand what kind of content is resonating and identify high-engagement subscribers, so you can target them as more promising prospective customers. 

28. Utilize split testing

When you're tracking your email metrics, you can start to make more informed decisions about what subject lines, types of emails, structures, and send times provide the best results. That's where split testing comes in.

Split testing allows you to try two different versions of an email and compare the results. You'll send both versions to a smaller group of people to see which performs better, and then send that version out to your wider audience.

You can A/B test emails with different:

  • Subject lines

  • Images

  • Designs

  • Calls to action

  • Click-through buttons

  • Tones of voice

You can A/B test just about anything, and the best email marketing software will have built-in testing features. The more you experiment, the more effective your emails will become.

29. Don't break the law

Most countries, including the U.S., have strict laws surrounding email marketing. In the U.S., the CAN-SPAM Act dictates what you can and cannot do, and it's important that you understand it so you can stay compliant.

Here are the most important parts of the CAN-SPAM laws, with an image showing how Zapier follows these regulations.

A screenshot of a Zapier email with red arrows pointing to different areas that show how Zapier follows email marketing laws.
  • You must include a link to unsubscribe from your emails—it's common to include this in the email footer.

  • If someone submits an unsubscribe request, you must honor it within 10 days—your email marketing software should take care of this for you.

  • You cannot lie in the "From" line—so, no, you can't pretend to send emails from the White House.

  • You must include a physical address representing the company or the sender—it's common to state this in the email footer, too.

  • You cannot send email to "harvested" email addresses—don't purchase email lists from a third party.

For a more detailed overview, read the FTC's article, "CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business." The European equivalent of the CAN-SPAM Act is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and there are also separate laws for Canada and many other countries.

This is one of the great features of reliable email service providers: they force you to comply with the law before sending any emails, so you're protected. If you're sending through a good email marketing tool, not lying about who you are, and not importing harvested email lists, you should be fine.

Read more: 

  • 6 ChatGPT prompts that will generate great sales emails

  • The best free email marketing services

  • Email etiquette: How to ask people for things and actually get a response  

  • 5 B2B email marketing mistakes to avoid

This article was originally published in 2015 by Nathaniel Eliason. The most recent update was in July 2023.

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