Mr Price: Here’s how not to run email marketing


How not to run email marketing

I’ll preface this post by saying that this isn’t a stab at any of the people or companies mentioned in this case study, but rather a post that highlights some mistakes made by companies (big or small) and how to improve things.

I’ll also say that bad design (and development) of websites and emails drive me up the wall (I registered the domain and hope to turn it into a site where I can review sites and give them pointers to improve), so sorry if this sounds a little negative. I’ll try to keep it constructive.

The naysayers call email outdated and alleged that spam would kill it, that users will kill it or that the multitude of blogs and social channels out there will kill it. I’m still waiting to see what kills it. Email marketing is massive and doing well. It is one of the marketing avenues with the highest returns on investment, if implemented correctly. Unfortunately a lot of companies miss using one of the greatest tools at their disposal. Let’s look at a (really bad) example:

Last week I saw the following in my inbox:

Email inbox

Alarm bells should already be ringing, but we’ll look at what was wrong with it in a second. I went ahead and opened it up, to be greeted by the following monstrosity:

empty email

OK, there’s a lot I can shout and get all angry about, but let’s make this constructive and break this ugly beast up bit by bit and make it useful.

Email subject lines matter

There is an incredibly strong correlation between the subject line that you use and the likeliness of getting your subscribers to open your email. Not everyone will open your emails (you’d be lucky to get an open rate of 20% if you’re a business), but you can at least make it more likely by using a good subject line.

  • Don’t shout (all caps) as in the example
  • Don’t tell me who you are in the subject line
  • Don’t use multiple exclamation marks or funny characters (like hearts, yuck) unless you’re marketing to sixteen year olds

There is actually a lot to be said for using words like “win” and “free” as people love getting a good deal. But don’t mislead them. They won’t open your emails again.

Adestra compiled a fantastic 37 page report on email marketing and subject lines after reviewing trends in subject lines in over 2.2 billion emails. You can download their free report here (PDF). I highly recommend reading it if you’re sending a lot of emails (or to a lot of subscribers).

My suggestion to them: experiment (A/B test) with the following variations and pick the one with the highest open rate:

  1. Hey, [Name], would you like free hot fashion for a year?
  2. Win hot fashion for a year.
  3. Want to win hot fashion for a year?
  4. Win hot fashion for a year. Free delivery.

This way you’re not shouting at anyone and you’ll get those interested in winning hot fashion for a year to open the email. Remember, you’re not aiming for everyone  as when everyone is your customer, no-one is your customer. Keep the subject line relevant, as misleading subject lines will just get them to unsubscribe or not open your emails in future.

The “From” address

sent from

This is mildly offensive; but let’s look at the reasons:

The name

Why does the Performance Marketing Group send me messages? I am expecting a message from Mr Price and it comes from Performance Marketing Group. It’s almost the equivalent of getting a call from a friend and their name shows up as Telkom. Make sure that you set up your email address as your business name (or division) and if you’re using a marketing company to handle this, that the emails will show your company’s name, not theirs. This Performance Marketing Group (who I still haven’t been able to contact for feedback) is surely a business to business company. The consumer doesn’t want to see it and will in all likeliness think that it is either spam or a scam and promptly hit the spam or delete button.

The email address

Why are they sending from a Gmail address. Domains cost as little as $5 per year and there was absolutely no reason to not set up and use an address like [email protected]. Free email addresses like Gmail (not Google Apps for business, which is great) are used by amateurish small businesses, by individuals sending as themselves and by scammers.

The sender

You can send emails via another third party system and this will show up as explained here by Google. You can get rid of that by publishing and SPF record (with the IP of the third-party system you use) to ease the nerves of your recipients.

The trifecta of seeing Performance Marketing Group sending from a free Gmail address via some unknown third party system should make alarm bells go off.

The content

OK, so now we get to the juicy part of what you want your subscribers to see. In my case, it was a single, big image. This is a very bad idea.

By default, most mail applications don’t display images, requiring the user to click a link to show the images. As far as possible, create your emails so that the text parts are in text and show up immediately. Shockingly enough, after clicking “display images below” it stayed blank, only giving me an option to view it in my browser (which makes me question the reliability of the entire operation even more).

launch in browser

Curious as how difficult they’re trying to make it, I launched the link in my browser. Having a link for your subscribers to view HTML emails in a browser is a good idea, as not all mail applications will display emails properly. But if you’re sending email campaigns, you better be testing and if it doesn’t work for the major mail applications, hit your marketing manager on the head.

Finally I got to the content Mr Price was trying to send me:

Mr Price email

They obviously know what they’re doing with regards to design and I’d say this is an excellent layout for an email, but again: this shouldn’t be a single image, but an HTML file with some images. Mr Price missed out on a great opportunity to see where their subscribers clicked. If the text parts of the email were kept as such, they would have seen if more people clicked on the button, the link, images or other callouts (to help them perfect future campaigns). Images are images and text are text. Emails, blogs and websites should be a combination of those.

The footer

Again, rather unsightly and doing more harm in scaring me off than good by adding value:

email footer

(you can ignore the question marks and red circles; it is placed on all pages I view by this great little plugin called Web Of Trust which flags suspicious websites and yes, theirs seems to be suspicious)

  • I don’t care which email marketing company you’re using
  • I don’t like that your email marketing company is leaving droppings all over the work they did for you (it is akin to waking up in hospital with a big Netcare tattoo on your forehead)
  • I like that I can easily unsubscribe (essential, actually if you don’t want to face potential lawsuits)
  • A newsletter isn’t something that anyone wants to share (and if they did, they’d forward it). Use this space rather to link to your social channels and engage with your fans there in a meaningful way.
  • Why can I subscribe to a newsletter I haven’t subscribed to before? If I didn’t subscribe before, you’re breaking the law by sending it to me.

In closing

Even though this post wasn’t really a complete overview of sending emails (or email newsletters, in particular), there are a few things I’d like to reiterate:

  • Add value (in business, in newsletters, yes, in everything)
  • Only send newsletters to your subscribers
  • Incentivise people to sign up (offer deals, freebies and relevant news)
  • Use a strong, relevant subject line
  • Use a reputable mail provider (and set up SPF records)
  • Use images, but link to them from the email
  • Use link tracking to see which parts of your email works better
  • Give your followers an easy way to opt out
  • Keep your emails awesome and non-spammy so that they never opt out

I’m going to spend thirty minutes this weekend and convert this Mr Price email to an HTML file which they should be able to easily send (and track the relevant clicks on), complete with the right footer and advice on how to improve on their next one. I’ll update here if they respond and if they send me a better newsletter next time :-)

About the author

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.

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By Werner van Rooyen

About me

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.