8 Email Best Practices

It takes a lot of work to grow and maintain a healthy email list. It’s not just a megaphone for you to communicate with thousands of leads. It’s a community you’re responsible to nurture. And if you’re not careful, it can quickly become a ghost town, where despite all the addresses, there’s no one there to listen to what you have to say.

You’ve probably heard about wildly successful email campaigns with off-the-charts engagement and jaw-dropping ROI. You’ve also probably heard people talk about the “email marketing secrets” they used to get those results.

But these tactics are often about as worthwhile to your list as tabloids are to your fitness, with their tricks to get incredible results from 15 minutes of exercise, magic diets, and other health hacks.

If you want to be healthy, you follow best practices like eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting quality rest, and if appropriate, taking supplements. More importantly, you work with what you’ve got, because your body is unique, and what worked for one person may not work for you.

Building a healthy email list is the same way. If you want your list to grow and stay engaged, you need to follow best practices and find what works for your audience. You have a unique list of hundreds or thousands of individual people, who presumably have common interests, needs, problems, or aspirations.

Here’s how to keep your community happy.

1. Know your audience

Why are all these people on your email list? How did they get there? What did you say to make them sign up? What do you know about them?

If you want to send quality emails and engage as many of your subscribers as possible, you need to know who you’re talking to. Are they parents who want to help their kids develop a lasting faith in Jesus? Are they pastors, church leaders, or administrators hoping to improve their church operations? Ministry leaders looking for insights into how they can expand their reach and do better ministry?

Your salespeople change the way they talk about your products or services depending on who they’re talking to. Your email marketing needs to do the same. You want to speak to your audience’s problems, desires, and interests so that they’ll be most receptive to your pitch.

If people feel like you don’t understand them—or like you’re not talking to them—they’ll unsubscribe, or they’ll stop opening your emails. The more attuned you are to what your audience wants, the more they’ll feel like “this is for me, and these people get me” when they read your emails.

And remember, if you ever feel like you don’t know your audience or don’t have useful information about them, you can always send out a survey. Especially when you’re working with an older list that was built from numerous sources, it can be hard to know what kinds of people you’re talking to and what they’re interested in.

2. Be consistent

Imagine you hit it off with someone at a conference and exchange information. . . . and then they call you months later, out of the blue, to make a sales pitch.

It’s jarring and off-putting. By the time that sales pitch comes, you’ve forgotten who’s calling and how you know them. They may as well be a stranger, even if they reintroduce the context of how you met.

That’s how some organizations treat the people on their email lists. And not surprisingly, it doesn’t work very well. If you want people to open and click through your emails, you need to talk to them regularly. You don’t have to send emails on the same day every week (though that’s certainly an option), and you don’t even have to send an email every week.

The point is to make sure you’re connecting with your list on a regular basis, so that when the time comes to make an ask, they’re already interested—because they remember you, they like you, and they always look forward to hearing from you.

You also need to use consistent messaging and voice. Your emails don’t all have to be about the same thing, but opening your emails should feel like continuing a larger conversation with the same person.

3. Make the right offer

What does your audience want? Knowing who you’re talking to should affect what you offer your audience. Say only about 5 percent of the people on your email list are pastors. You might be tempted to think, “The other 95 percent probably know a pastor, so I can still get away with making an offer that only applies to pastors.”

Don’t do it. Making an offer that isn’t relevant to your audience doesn’t just result in a poor-performing email. Over time, those irrelevant offers result in a poor-performing list, because people stop seeing your emails and your brand as relevant, so they stop opening your emails altogether—even when you return to making relevant offers.

So what is the right offer? As often as possible, you want to make offers that apply to the highest percentage of people on your list. Focus on the things these people have in common. Better yet, any time an offer is only relevant to part of your audience, create a segment that only includes that part—so no one ever receives an irrelevant offer.

4. Personalize your emails

Not everyone on your list is the same. They may have some broad, overlapping interests—they may all read articles written to “church leaders” or about “Bible study,” for example—but there are probably a wide range of people with a variety of roles, educational backgrounds, needs, and wants.

Sometimes you’re going to want to speak to specific people in your audience, such as the moms, the church administrators, or the children’s ministry volunteers. As we mentioned before, you don’t want to send emails to your whole list if they only apply to a small part of your audience. And that’s what segmenting your list is for.

Using segments, you can isolate specific roles and types of people on your list, so that you can send even more relevant emails to them without alienating the rest of your list.

Some organizations segment their lists at the lead capture stage, using their forms to collect demographic or professional information. Others segment based on how their leads have responded to previous emails and interacted with their content so far. Or, they send surveys or other emails that encourage subscribers to choose the type of content they want.

The other side of personalizing your emails is creating a more human connection. You certainly don’t have to do this, and there’s no guarantee it will make your emails perform better, but many brands have success sending emails that include the recipient’s name in the email copy. This helps increase the feeling that your brand is speaking directly to the individuals on your list. Your subscribers know you aren’t only talking to them, but adding personal touches can make it feel like a more meaningful relationship.

Additionally, you may want to consider sending your emails from a specific person. Your audience is developing a relationship with your brand, but if your emails come from the same person every time, it can make people feel like they know your organization on a deeper level—because they “know someone” who works there.

5. Use mobile-friendly email templates

Once upon a time, the only way people read email was on a computer. But today, more than half of your subscribers read your emails from a mobile device. So if your email is only designed to look good on desktops and laptops, you’re asking most of your subscribers to put up with a terrible reading experience. And many of them won’t.

Even if someone is interested in your content, they’re only going to put up with so much side scrolling, zooming, and squinting before they give up. If they feel like they’re fighting your email template every time they try to read your emails, they’re going to stop opening them.

That’s why it’s best to use templates with responsive design. Responsive design adapts your text and images to fit the screen each person reads on, so navigating your emails doesn’t feel like so much work.

At the very least, you need to create mobile-friendly emails. These may not be responsive, but they at least take into account what it’s like to read on a smaller screen. Mobile-friendly emails use a single column, shorter subject lines, larger text, and smaller images (except for buttons, which need to be big enough to tap). If you want your email to look good on mobile, and you can’t switch to a responsive email template, make sure your emails are no wider than 600 pixels, so people reading on their phones don’t have to side scroll to finish each line of text.

It doesn’t matter how much work you put into your email copy and design if your email doesn’t look good on mobile.

6. Optimize your emails

What works for one email list doesn’t always work for another. And just because your email gets high open rates and clickthrough rates doesn’t mean it’s as good as it can be.

Every email you send is an opportunity to learn something about your audience. But unless you A/B test your emails, it’s hard to say what makes one email more effective than another. There are too many variables.

A/B testing lets you compare how your audience responds to one variation of your email versus another. Do certain styles or lengths of subject lines lead to higher open rates? Does one button text perform better than another? Is there a color your audience prefers to click? Do text links outperform buttons?

Every audience is different, so the only way you know what works for your audience is if you test it. Ideally, you’ll only test one variable at a time. And every time you learn something from your test, it should inform how you craft future emails.

7. Keep your language simple

Every industry has unique vocabulary to describe its problems, solutions, and concepts. But if your emails are saturated with jargon, you risk alienating parts of your audience that haven’t developed that specialized vocabulary yet, and you risk creating confusion, because your audience may not all have the same understanding of those terms.

You want your emails to be relevant and useful to as many people on your list as possible. And that means you can’t make assumptions about what they know. You need to break ideas down to their simplest forms and focus on being clear more than being clever.

Simple language makes your content more accessible, and ultimately, more successful.

8. Send test emails

All it takes is one mistake to ruin your reputation with your subscribers. Remember, every email you send is the first email for some of your subscribers. If that first email includes broken links, placeholder copy, or looks wonky on their device, they’ll be much less likely to open the next email you send. And it’s not just about your email list: it’ll also impact how they perceive your brand as a whole.

That’s why it’s always important to double-check your work with test emails. Tools like Email on Acid let you see how your email will display on the most common devices and email clients, so you can catch mistakes and errors in your code before you hit send.

You should also have a colleague—who hasn’t already been staring at your email for an hour—receive a test email, so they can check your links and make sure there are no blatant errors in your messaging or design assets.

These safety measures keep you from losing subscribers to preventable mistakes, and help you consistently provide the best experience for your readers.

Your email list is a long-term asset

If you treat your subscribers right, your email list will be valuable for years. But if you abuse their trust, send sloppy work, or bombard them with sales pitches, your subscribers are going to tune you out. Don’t let anyone’s desire for short-term wins destroy your long-term asset. Test your theories, and trust that email best practices will keep your list healthy and your subscribers happy for years to come.