8 Things Studies Taught Us About Email Marketing in the Past 12 Months

by Pratik Dholakiya  |  Published 10:02 AM, Mon January 20, 2014

Human hand holding futuristic transparent mail iconAmidst a swirling mass of Pinterest, iPhones, and Twitter, email doesn’t exactly feel like the next big thing. But if the past year’s worth of data has taught us only one thing, it’s that email is big. In fact, it’s growing. As inbound marketers, we may brand ourselves as SEOs and social marketers, but we all know there’s no such thing as a single-platform strategy.

A strategy without email is dead in the water.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to 8 lessons marketers have learned over the past 12 months, backed by hard data.

1. You Could Be Completely Neglecting Half of Your Email Audience

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that email is an “old school” tactic. This false belief doesn’t just hurt “cutting edge” marketers who ignore email in favor of new platforms like social media. It also hurts marketers who assume it’s safe to treat email the same way they did in the late 1990s.

According to a study conducted by Yesmail Interactive, about half of brand emails are getting opened on mobile devices. These results come from an analysis of about five billion marketing emails sent using Yesmail in the second quarter of 2013.

Forty-nine percent of the emails were opened on mobile devices. The problem? Click rates after opening the email were only 11 percent on mobile devices. They were at 23 percent on desktops. In other words, mobile users are only half as likely to click through after opening an email.

It’s not completely clear from the data what this means. It could be that mobile users aren’t as willing to take the time to click through, being more busy or easily distracted. It could also be that the emails are optimized for desktop, a mistake that very few modern businesses have the excuse to make.

Apple virtually dominates the mobile landscape in this arena, with 82 percent of the mobile marketing messages being opened on Apple devices. Android only accounted for 17 percent of the opens. Everything else made up only 1 percent.

Another insight from the study: the most effective frequencies were between 3 and 7 emails per week. Companies that managed to keep about 21 percent of their subscribers active tended to send out emails at least every other day. At the same time, it’s important not to overload your audience. Companies that sent out emails every day tended to engage only 11 percent of their audience.

As always, test these things for yourself.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of mobile…

2. Three Quarters of Mobile Users Will Delete Your Email if They Can’t Read it

In August, Constant Contact released a study of what consumers had to say about email and mobile devices, and things don’t look good for marketers who are failing to keep up.

The survey of 1,497 consumers revealed that 4 out of 5 people think it’s “extremely important” to receive emails that they can easily read on their mobile device. Seventy-five percent they were “highly likely” to delete an email if they couldn’t read it on their smartphone.

That’s right. They’re not going to save it for later. You get one shot.

On the flipside, if they liked the email when they looked at it on their smartphone, 79 percent said they would reopen it on their desktop or laptop. Half said they would be happy to click on hyperlinks in the email.

The age of your audience doesn’t play a big part in this. Among consumers 60 years and older, 66 percent of them opened emails on a mobile device. This isn’t to deny that 18 to 30-year-olds used mobile for email more often (88 percent of them).

No matter how you look at it, the majority of your consumers are opening emails on a mobile device at least some of the time. If what they see isn’t formatted for their device, you can forget reaching them with that message, and you might even lose a subscriber altogether.

A case study at DEG Digital goes into depth on this, and demonstrates that responsive design can lift your click-to-open rates by 8 percent, and your “read” rates by 15 percent, at least for iPhones. (A “read” in this case is counted when a user stays on the email page for more than 10 seconds.)

3. Some Users Just Can’t Resist An Alluring Offer, Even if they Know They Should

If your click rates are abysmal, here’s some demoralizing news. A survey conducted by TNS Global found that 30 percent of consumers would open an alluring email, even if they knew it contained a virus or it was otherwise suspicious. In fact, 1 in 11 admitted that they had infected their computer by doing just that.

The study found that women were most likely to respond to emails that invited them to social networks, while men were most likely to respond to promises (predictably) of money, power, and sex.

Needless to say, this news should be concerning if you have a relatively large employee base with average tech skills. It means that your intranet is probably fairly easy to infiltrate.

The implications for inbound marketers and email marketers are worth considering as well, though. Don’t mistake high open rates or high click rates for successful campaigns. If thirty percent of consumers are willing to open an email offering social status, money, power, and sex, knowing full well that they’re probably going to infect their computer with viruses and malware, opens and clicks don’t remotely signify trust or an intention to buy.

Only marketers who can successfully re-engage their audience and retain their customers can claim to generate any long-term value with their campaigns.

4. Looking for the Earned Platform with the Highest Conversion Rates?

SEOs and social marketers love to fight for their title as king of inbound marketing, but the data suggests that email marketers prefer to sit quietly and make money. (Come on guys, no inbound strategy is complete without all three.)

Monetate’s Ecommerce Quarterly study analyzed 500 million shopping experiences over the first quarter of 2013. The conversion rates for email referrals completely stomped the conversion rates from the other two inbound platforms:


These results actually shouldn’t be surprising for anybody who’s been following the data, because Monetate has been reporting similar results every quarter since the beginning of 2012.

Why are conversion rates from email so good? There are a few reasons:

  • Email allows you to target specific types of users with more relevant messages
  • Consumers are more comfortable seeing commercial content in their inbox than they are seeing commercial search results or commercial messages in social networks
  • Most consumers at least see the subject lines of all their email. None of them see every message in social media. This makes it a good platform for repeat brand impressions.
  • Email is more conducive to data-driven strategies that can be repeatedly tested and improved upon

None of this makes search or social irrelevant by any stretch of the imagination. You should never buy an email list, and ads are an expensive way to build a list, so search and social are two of the best ways to generate that email traffic in the first place.

It’s also worth pointing out that search sends far more traffic than email on average, although those kinds of industry aggregates are never very useful when it comes to developing your own strategy.

Case in point: Social, on average, sends fewer referrals than email. Clearly this isn’t the case for all marketers.

Here’s what I hope you take away from this: Use search and social to expand your reach and to retain your customers, but transition as many of them over to email as you can. The conversion rates are better, and you have the best chance of actually getting the message to them.

Unfortunately, there is one caveat to this…

5. Billions of Consumers Never Even Get Their Opt-In Emails

We all know that if you buy a list, most of your messages aren’t even going to make it through to the recipient. Well, I hate to say it, but according to a study by Return Path, this happens to more than 1 in 5 opt-in emails as well.

This result was based on an analysis of about one trillion emails sent during the first quarter of 2013. About 18 percent of those messages were blocked or went missing. Another 4 percent were delivered straight to the spam folder. Remember, we’re talking about email that consumers gave permission to receive.

The situation is worst in the Asia-Pacific region, where nearly a third of all opt-in marketing emails failed to make it through. While America had some of the best delivery rates in the world, 14 percent of the messages still weren’t getting through.

Why does the mail fail to make it through? An impossibly large number of factors play a part, and this study can’t pinpoint which source is the biggest problem, but trends include:

  • Senders who have higher read rates and a more active audience tend to have the most success at reaching their audience
  • Senders whose mail is ignored or deleted without being read tend to have the highest failure rates
  • As more and more users mark mail from a particular sender as spam, their emails are more likely to be filtered out automatically

All of this stresses the importance of opt-in, and the necessity to place clear opt-out buttons within the context of the email. It’s always better for a user to opt-out than it is for them to mark you as spam.

6. Here’s the Best Time to Send an Email

I emphasized earlier that you should test this stuff for yourself. I’m going to emphasize that again. Industry studies that tell you the best time to send out an email, or the best time to communicate through social channels, are based on aggregates. They don’t necessarily apply to your audience.

If you haven’t yet done any testing, however, studies investigating questions like this can serve as a useful place to start testing.

With that caveat in mind, a study conducted by Get Response analyzed 21 million messages to determine what time, on average, companies were having the most success.

Here are a few of the takeaways from that study:

  • Sending email during top engagement times could boost open rates and click through rates by 6 percent.
  • Top engagement times were typically 8 to 10 AM and 3 to 4 PM.
  • A quarter of the opens happen within the first hour.
  • Messages sent in the early afternoon tend to have the best results, due to clutter in the morning inbox.

In addition to testing email timing, if you have the resources, it’s always a good idea to get a bit more data-driven and time your posts by audience segment and other factors. “Big Data” is becoming a buzzword these days for good reasons. The more you can gather about your audience though correlations and testing, the more relevant you can be, sending the right message at the right time.

If all of this advanced stuff is outside of your budget, at least commit to split testing the timing of your emails. Here’s a free split test calculator. In today’s environment, there’s no excuse to avoid at least this minimum investment.

7. Social isn’t the Best Place to Get Deals or Coupons Shared

If you read Hubspot and any of the top inbound blogs regularly, you should already know that deals and coupons are extremely overrated. Too many of them will scare off your audience. Given that retention is actually far more important than reach, nothing is more counterproductive than overwhelming users with sales messages. A study by Adestra looked at keywords in subject lines. It revealed that selling words tend to produce far more unsubscriptions than average. The only selling word they tested with better than average unsubscription rates was “New.”

All that said, if you hope to sell something, you will eventually need to present consumers with a call to action. (Exactly how far into the process you should start doing that is another thing you should be testing regularly.)

It may come as a surprise to some of you that the best place to get deals like these “shared” is not on social networks. A study by Social Twist found that 55.4 percent of brand advocates turned to email to share information about new deals, coupons, and promotions. Only 41.8 percent turned to Facebook, and a meager 2.6 percent of them turned to Twitter.

More importantly, 50.8 percent of new customers were earned through email, while only 27 and 22 percent were referred from Twitter and Facebook respectively. Surprisingly, Twitter makes up for its relatively small number of sharers, since the tweets tend to be far more influential than Facebook shares, on average.

Perhaps still more important, the trend is toward email, not away from it. Users increasingly find email a more comfortable medium to share. In fact, “dark social” makes up more than half of all sharing on the web. The intimacy of email is becoming increasingly appealing as concerns over privacy grow. And I’m not just talking about political privacy. I’m talking about the fact that your parents and your boss are using Facebook.

Believe it or not, Facebook’s engagement numbers in the 1st world have been in decline for quite some time now. Social Twist first noticed this shift toward email about a year and a half ago.

Viral underlined with red markerIf you’ve been tracking “viral sharing” (a loaded and overblown term) through social networks alone, you’re missing an important piece of the puzzle. Odds are good you’re generating more brand impressions and more new customers through email than through “social.” No inbound marketing strategy is complete without addressing both, of course, but one is easier to measure than the other.

If you aren’t formatting your campaigns and content to be easily shared through email, you’re missing out on a massive opportunity. Email is a favorite for brand advocates. It deserves at least as much attention as Facebook and Twitter, and likely more.

8. In Search of the Perfect Subject Line

In September, Mail Chimp released a study that examined subject lines for their effectiveness (and their counterproductive attributes). They looked at open rates for more than 200 million emails in search of the perfect subject line. Here are some of the results:

  • Most marketers should already know not to use words like “free” that can trigger spam filters, but the study found three words that didn’t affect spam filters, and still heavily damaged open rates. The words weren’t necessarily obvious choices, either. They were “help,” “percent off,” and “reminder.”
  • This should be surprising: including their name in the email doesn’t significantly affect open rates. If putting a name in the subject line means going over 50 characters, it might actually hurt you.
  • In contrast, localization had a positive impact on open rates. In other words, mentioning city names or landmarks can help capture attention, and it works far better than using their name. Of course, keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you should try to stick their city name into the subject line every time you send an email. It’s best to use this only if you’re trying to let them know about an event in their area.
  • Hands down, promotional emails just don’t do as well as informative, actionable ones. Incentives like scarcity and sales just don’t work like they used to. Most users turn to email for information and communication, not for products. Use the emails to retain your customers and increase brand impressions. Sell sparingly. As we pointed out before, the data suggests excessive promotion leads to unsubscriptions.
  • Never use all capital letters or exclamation points, since these tend to get picked up by the spam filter, and ignored by any user unfortunate enough to see them anyway.
  • Excessive frequency puts off your audience. See point #1 above: on average, every other day is best. This of course depends on your audience, the kinds of messages you’re sending, and innumerable other factors.

Putting all of this together, we can see a common narrative. Don’t get too promotional. Don’t fake emotion with capital letters and exclamation points. Faking a connection by putting their name in the subject line won’t help you significantly. Put the focus on them, their needs, and how you can solve problems for them using email as a platform. This creates a genuine bond.

One Final Thought

There’s one more thing I’ve hinted at in a few of these points that I feel I should come right out and say. Many inbound marketers place too much emphasis on “sharing,” with the goal of “going viral.” Extensive research has shown that this essentially never happens. A very good inbound campaign can, however, expand initial reach by 30 or 40 percent.

Why am I bringing this up in a post about email? Because the key is retention. If you can keep these new exposures as well as your existing audience, you can quite literally expect exponential growth. Your initial reach gets bigger every time you share, so your expanded reach gets bigger every time as well. If, on the other hand, you can’t keep your existing audience, you will never achieve exponential growth, and you’ll be lucky to keep growth rates flat.

Email is the best platform for retention. Consumers see every subject line. Your messages aren’t at the whim of Google’s PageRank or Facebook’s EdgeRank. Don’t squander this platform by using it to push sales messages, and don’t write it off as the platform of yesteryear. Consumers love email more now than ever, and so should marketers.


Pratik Dholakiya is the Co-Founder & VP of Marketing of an internet marketing company, E2M Solutions & a creative design agency, OnlyDesign. He’s passionate about startups, entrepreneurship & all things inbound marketing. Catch him on twitter @DholakiyaPratik to discuss on any of these topics.