Email in phone. Email in phone.

5 big email mistakes eCommerce brands should avoid

When it comes to email, marketers hear advice all the time about what they should do. “Build up your list every chance you get”… “Write catchy subject lines”… “Create a call-to-action that stands out, looks like a button, catches the eye with a contrasting color, and has clever copy that’s also short and actionable”… and on and on and on.  But what about the things that email marketers shouldn’t do?

After all, while getting an email strategy just right is ideal, ensuring that it isn’t horribly off track is essential. So, what are the content approaches and publishing strategies that deeply annoy audiences, quickly kill engagement, and spark mass unsubscribes?

Here are five key email mistakes eCommerce brands absolutely need to watch out for, and some tips on the best ways to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Bad writing and design

It may sound obvious that brands should avoid bad writing and bad design when it comes to email. However, it’s still worth highlighting these first because they are vitally important.

Just how important? An Adobe survey of 1,000 US consumers found that poor writing and poor design are the top two things people find annoying about brand content overall, not just email content.

Results of a survey on the most annoying things about content from brands.
Via: Adobe.

Fundamentally, if your writing and design are bad then the rest of your email strategy is irrelevant.

What’s important to note here is that marketers should be mindful of clear errors (misspellings, broken images, etc.) as well as less obvious missteps (meandering sentences, unappealing formatting, etc.). When it comes to writing and design, consumers quickly notice issues both big and small — and they are unforgiving about both.

How to avoid bad writing and design

Ensuring that your messages are consistently well-written and well-designed comes down to constant vigilance. Send yourself a test email for every campaign and check how it displays on different devices and screens, then read it out loud a few times. Send it to a few colleagues and have them do the same. Also, check out online writing assistant tools like Grammarly or Hemmingway, which can help catch the mistakes that humans sometimes miss.

Mistake #2: Emailing too often

While poor writing and design are consumers’ top complaints with brand content in general, their biggest pet peeve when it comes to email specifically is receiving too many messages.

Another Adobe survey found that people say the most annoying thing about email offers from marketers is when messages are sent too often by a brand. This ranks ahead of other major issues such as offers based on incorrect data and offers for products already purchased.

A survey on the most annoying things about email marketing.
Via: Adobe. 

The challenge for brands is that “too often” is subjective, so determining the right email frequency requires understanding the thresholds for your specific audiences.

For example, a motivated, loyal subscriber base to a brand with a large number of products is likely to be open to more messaging. This inbox screenshot shows StackSocial sending a large volume of emails—often more than one a day—but since they have a large catalog, a steady stream of new products, constantly changing discounts, and a large subscriber base, they can pull off that frequency.

StackSocial sends a lot of emails but the nature of their business makes it work.

As you’re determining your frequency, it’s also important to note that people will be more forgiving if the context for email is right (like a big sale or event, or a targeted offer for an item abandoned in a cart).

How to avoid emailing too often

The key is testing and monitoring. Experiment with different volumes and cadences, then keep a close eye on metrics to gauge audience reactions. Specifically, watch unsubscribes with an eagle-eye for every campaign you send out. If they start to spike, there’s a good chance you’re emailing too often. But don’t overcorrect in the other direction when that happens and drop your frequency too much; your subscribers do want to hear from you, it’s all about finding the “how often” sweet spot.

Mistake #3: Sending irrelevant emails

People aren’t just annoyed by receiving too many emails, they also deeply dislike receiving emails that they do not perceive to be relevant to them.

In a survey conducted by MarketingSherpa of 2,400 consumers, respondents cited emails being irrelevant as the second-most common reason that they unsubscribe from companies’ lists, just behind having too many messages in their inboxes.

The problem for marketers is that, like frequency, “irrelevant” is also subjective. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; brands must hone the relevancy of specific campaigns.

To do this requires effective personalization and segmentation: the more accurate the understanding is of audiences’ behaviors and the more messaging is targeted to individuals and/or similar segments, the more relevant emails will be.

How to avoid sending irrelevant emails

Personalization and segmentation are the first key. Even if those seem intimidating at first, even basic segmenting like gender or geographic area can help up your relevance. This Vitamin Shoppe email, for example, is segmented by gender, so the email to male subscribers is far more relevant than, say, an email advertising women’s multivitamins.

A segmented email to men from the Vitamin Shoppe.

Beyond personalization and segmentation, determining relevance is another case where analytics are essential. Examine metrics such as open rate, click-through rate, and bounce rate to see if specific campaigns are resonating with audiences and inspiring action. Also, as with volume, watching your unsubscribe numbers closely is an effective way to gauge relevancy.

Mistake #4: Failing to get permission

As with poor writing and design, it should be self-evident that brands should avoid sending messages to people who don’t fully understand what they were signing up for (or even realize they’re signing up for something).

Nevertheless, this remains a big problem. In a survey of 1,107 consumers conducted by Litmus and Fluent, respondents cited not being aware if they knowingly or willingly subscribed as one of the top reasons they flag messages as spam.

A graph of the top reasons people mark an email as spam.
Via: Litmus.

When it comes to getting permission, there are two elements:

The first is legal compliance. Does the sign-up process ensure email addresses are obtained fulfill the requirements of guidelines such as CAN-SPAM and GDPR?

The second is awareness and expectations. Even if the approach is technically allowed, are people fully aware that they are signing up (i.e., is the process clear)? And do they understand what they are signing up for (i.e., do they know exactly which types of messages to expect in their inbox)?

Both legal compliance and broader transparency are important because they make audiences feel informed and valued; so while cutting corners with these may lead to small boosts in subscriber counts in the short run, it will create big headaches in the long run.

How to avoid signups without permission

Start by understanding the various laws and regulations which govern email subscriber permissions (this primer is a good starting point). While doing this, keep in mind that you may be subject to guidelines not only in your company’s home base, but also in the places that your audiences reside. Next, do a gut check: look at all your messaging across channels to ensure that you’re being fully transparent about what people are signing up for.

Here’s what Anthropologie does with its email pop-up. It’s well-designed, asks just for an email address to reduce friction—but also makes it clear exactly what the person is signing up for.

Anthropologie's email signup form makes it clear to the subscriber what to expect.

Mistake #5: Poor mobile optimization

When it comes to email we are officially in a mobile-first age: the majority of messages are now opened on a smartphone or tablet, not a computer.

Yet many marketers still struggle with mobile email optimization. Specifically, consumers say they continue to deal with a number of annoyances when reading brand messages on smartphones and tablets, including having to scroll too much (cited as the biggest issue), wait for images to download, read through too much text, squint at small fonts, and look at poor layouts.

A graph on the most annoying things about emails on smartphones.
Via: Adobe.

An important thing to note is that the problem isn’t just appearance: in fact, layout is one of the lesser issues. Consumers’ bigger complaints are around things like too much text and long load times. So, while design is important, effective email mobile optimization also requires thinking hard about everything from the length of copy to the size of images.

How to avoid poor mobile optimization

The best way to understand if your emails are mobile optimized is to open and read them yourself on different devices. Don’t just rely on the display tools built into marketing platforms, send test campaigns to yourself and look at them on different-sized phones and tablets. Think about the entire experience—not just the visuals—and ask yourself whether you are making audiences scroll too much or wait too long.  

You can even test out how your emails will load on different mobile speeds right in Google Chrome using this simple process with the Chrome DevTools.

Key takeaways

Consumers’ top issues with accessing brand messages on their mobile devices—disliking scrolling, waiting for images to load, etc.—highlight a larger theme: People have little time and little patience when it comes to email.

That is, fundamentally, at the root of many of the biggest complaints. Simply put: consumers are busy and are not obligated to look at marketing messages in their inboxes. If emails have bad writing and design, come in too frequently, seem to be irrelevant, aren’t what’s expected, and/or render poorly on mobile devices then they will be ignored, unsubscribed from, or flagged as spam.

In order to avoid these fates, marketers should take the steps to mitigate and eliminate those subscriber irritations:

  • Start with the writing and design. If these aren’t exceptional then the rest of an email strategy is irrelevant. Read campaigns out loud, send them to colleagues to review, and utilize online tools to catch mistakes.
  • Pay close attention to frequency. Test different volumes and cadences to see what audiences will and will not tolerate. Monitor unsubscribes closely to gauge if you are going too far.
  • Be relevant. Invest in personalization and segmentation to ensure audiences are not receiving irrelevant emails. Examine metrics such as open rate and click-through rate to assess relevance for different audiences.
  • Get clear permission. Comply with legal guidelines (CAN-SPAM, GDPR, etc.) and be forthright when onboarding subscribers. Ensure that you understand regulations across all the jurisdictions in which your audiences reside, not just your home base.
  • Optimize for mobile. Don’t just look at the design, think about things like the length of the text and the size of the images. View test emails on devices with different-sized screens to understand exactly what subscribers will be experiencing.
Ayaz Nanji
Ayaz Nanji is the founder of ICW, a firm specializing in content services and social media services for tech startups and established tech firms. He has worked for Google/YouTube, the Travel Channel, AOL, and the New York Times.

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