Lies, Damned Lies & Email Best Practices

It isn’t often that one challenges best practices. They are called best practices because they are apparently the best. In 2008, Return Path conducted a subscriber experience study to see which businesses were following the best practices at the time, like personalizing messages and honoring unsubscribe requests within a reasonable timeframe.

Flash forward five years, and we looked at the same businesses to spot any trends with best practices. Thanks to competitive email intelligence, we were able to go one step further and see which best practices should actually be considered “best” anymore. The results were surprising.

Personalization Is Impersonal

Personalization used to be a best practice to boost open rates, but now belongs on the Worst Practice list. For the 76 brands we looked at, those that personalized the subject lines had sharply lower inbox placement rates (with most of that mail being sent to the spam folder), lower read rates, and higher subscriber complaint rates.

Spammers are some of the best short-term marketers in the world. After realizing that subject lines that contained First or Last name boosted open rates, spammers used personalization in nearly every email — effectively sending the signal that if you see an email with your first name in it, it’s spam.

For now, ditch the first and last name in the subject line. The good news is that fewer people are using this practice today.

personalized emails

Less Is More

Speaking of personalization, we also looked at the address collection method of these 76 brands. For those that collected email address only, there was no difference in read rates or inbox placement rates, but complaints were lower. For those that collected more than just email, their inbox placement rates were lower, and their complaints higher.

Collecting demographic data had long been considered a best practice. Being able to segment based on things like zip code or gender promised a better email experience. Unfortunately, it appears that collecting lots of data merely encourages people to abandon the sign-up form — and, in the event that they complete the subscription, they’re more likely to see future mail get marked as spam, likely because the company used that information to personalize.

Don’t collect any unnecessary information during the sign up process. In most cases, just an email address is fine. One can do more profiling later in the relationship.

amt collected

Don’t Whitelist Me, Bro!

Another common best practice of marketers is to beg for whitelisting from their subscribers. Best practices state to ask at the point of email collection and again with the preheader of all emails. Unfortunately, this tactic results in higher spam folder delivery — 4.4% sent to spam compared to 3.7% that don’t ask for whitelisting. On the other hand, those that did ask for whitelisting had slightly lower complaint rates.

Forget about asking your subscribers to whitelist you or move you to another inbox (I’m looking at your “Move me out of the promotion tab in Gmail” email marketers), and use that valuable preheader for something else.

Best Practices Aren’t One Size Fits All

While it’s important to track trends in email, it’s also important to realize that your brand is unique, and so are your subscribers. Removing personalization from subject lines and whitelisting instructions from your preheader won’t solve your deliverability problems. Brands asked to get whitelisted because they have already had a deliverability problem, not the other way around. Use these findings as a place to start and guide your email testing program. What works or doesn’t work for others may not be true for you.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Analytics | Analytics & Marketing Column | Channel: Analytics | Email Marketing


About The Author: is Return Path’s senior director of email research. Tom uses his knowledge of ISPs, spam filters and deliverability rules to advise marketers on how to get their email delivered to the inbox. He began his Return Path career as an email deliverability consultant working with top-brand clients like eBay, MySpace, IBM and Twitter.

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  • Alex Johnson

    Great points. Do you think you should still collect names on email sign ups if personalisation isn’t that good after all? Make the signup process easier and simpler? Obviously some will need it, but the majority?


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