The 3 Myths of Email Marketing (and why size doesn’t always matter…)

“Look at that nice car”, 8 year old me said, pointing to a red Porsche 944 turbo. “I want one of those one day, Dad”.

“They’re just showing off, Alastair*. Probably making up for a lack of something in a certain department.”

*My Dad always uses my full name!

Course, at 8 years old, I didn’t understand the reference, but I certainly understood the meaning. 

They may not be quite as cool as they looked.

These days, whilst I try not to judge anyone based on the car they drive, I have noticed that vanity metrics, like follower counts or email list size, are often used to denote success.

(My father might suggest that the longer they say their list is, the shorter the… well you get the idea.)

There’s even something called ‘List Shame’ that us email marketers see all the time. 

“How big is your list?”, we’d ask a new client, trying to gauge how effective a campaign might be for them.

“Well, erm, I don’t know. It’s growing every day”, the client would reply. “Maybe somewhere about 500”.

We know that means two things:

  1. It’s less than 500.
  2. It’s a hotchpotch of current and ex-customers, a handful of people who’ve subscribed to a newsletter that never gets sent, and some hastily entered email addresses of people they met at a networking event or trade show.

The simple fact is, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got 200 or 200,000 contacts on your list – if your subscribers don’t open and act on your emails, you’re going nowhere.

In fact, the larger the list, the more likely it is that your email marketing is ineffective…

Larger lists usually have lower engagement rates, which means that they’ll have lower deliverability rates (which really means fewer people even see the email in the first place!).

So the size of your list is nowhere near as important as knowing what to do with it. (I promise the tenuous innuendos will stop here!)

In this article, I want to give you three things:

  • A story about two booksellers
  • The three email marketing myths
  • Three tasks you can do this week (that will drastically improve your list growth and improve your deliverability)

Let’s get cracking. 

I’ll start with a semi-fictitious tale about two bookshops in Manchester. (They are loosely based on two bookstores that I used to walk past, back when bookstores were a thing!)

A Tale of Two Cities Shops

Imagine two bookshops in Manchester – each is run by a book enthusiast, who just wants to help people buy books they’ll love.

Bookshop 1 is run by Ron, who’s watched a few webinars on marketing. 

He knows that to attract customers, you need to give away something for free, so he offers discounted coffee (50p a cup) for new customers who are willing to give Ron their email address.

Unsurprisingly, on the second day, his shop is packed:

  • There’s a group of teenage girls in the corner drinking coffee and chatting about school. 
  • There’s a flustered mother in the queue who’s asked him to heat up her baby’s milk.
  • There’s even a group of businesspeople trying to have a meeting, despite the din.

Eight weeks go by, and Ron should be delighted (spoiler: he’s not).

So what does Ron have after 8 weeks?

After eight weeks, Ron now has:

  1. A list of over 2,000 email addresses collected from the customers who wanted 50p coffee.
  2. A shop packed with people.
  3. More people browsing the books – some are even buying.

But he’s spent a fortune on coffee. 

He’s also had to employ extra staff to manage the coffee orders, and a troop of cleaners to make the store look presentable again.

Putting this in email marketing terms, his ‘list’ is big, but they’re not really buyers. 

Most aren’t even browsers. 

And what’s worse, a lot of the email addresses look like they’re made up…

At the other end of the street, Jodie has a similar sized bookshop, and she’s feeling the pinch too. Amazon makes it tough to survive in this market.

However, she remembers the book clubs she used to go to as a kid, and thinks that might work with her shop.

She decides to hold a book club event this Friday – she knows from her records that ‘horror’ is a popular genre.

Monday morning comes around, and she puts a big sign up outside her shop, that reads:

“Free Book Club: This Friday our subject is Horror! Strictly pre-book only”

Over the next few days, at least 50 people have asked for a ticket to the book club event.

She’s strict though, and grills them on their favourite horror authors before giving them a ticket. 

In fact, she even refuses a few people because they’re clearly not true horror fans.

Because Jodie is smart, she makes a quick note of which authors they like next to each name and email.

She also makes them promise to RSVP (by clicking a link in a confirmation email) before the event, or they won’t be allowed in.

Friday comes around, and 35 of the original 50 people have confirmed they’re coming. This not only makes it easy to plan the evening, but she knows they’re true fans

The night goes well. The guests were very happy chatting and arguing about books, and because she only had to buy coffee and tea for 35 people, she spent about £15 on the night.

She even sold a few books!

The next morning, bolstered by her success the night before, she decides to run this every Friday for another eight weeks (each week will have a different book genre/theme).

Each week she gives out 50 tickets, and, just like that first event, each week 35 confirm they’ll be there.

At the end of the 8 weeks, she has 400 names and email addresses (8 x 50), and 280 of them have turned up for the book club (8 x 35).

So what does Jodie have after 8 weeks?

So after eight weeks, Jodie has:

  • A (small) list of 400 book-lovers…
  • …with each name and email ‘tagged’ with their favourite genre…
  • …and their favorite author(s) in that genre.
  • A smaller segment of people who follow through on their promises (and turn up when they say they will).
  • A repeatable event that brings in 50 new ‘subscribers’ a week.

True, Ron (the other bookseller) has a bigger list, but which of them has the more valuable asset?

So who won BookWars?

Let’s take a look at who did the best here.

Ron has a list of 2,000 emails, which consists of:

  • Some fake emails (stewey@familyguy.com for example).
  • Emails of people who like cheap coffee.
  • A new, weekly (LARGE!) bill for coffee, servers and cleaners.

Jodie has a total list of 400 which consists of:

  • 400 email addresses of people, plus a note of which specific genre tickles their pickle.
  • 280 names and emails of customers who turned up to one of the events (8 weeks x 35 attendees).
  • A weekly bill of £15 for tea and coffee.

Hopefully, it’s clear that whilst Jodie has a much smaller list, her list is packed with interested, eager customers, and is segmented by the books they like to read.

An ‘irresistible offer’ arrives…

The following week, both booksellers receive a letter from their publisher with a special offer:  12 Stephen King books, for just £95 (rrp £170). 

The profit to Ron & Jodie on this bundled offer is 50% (I know – unrealistic for a bookseller, but stay with me for a moment!)

As there’s 30 bundles available to each bookseller, there’s a total profit of £1,425 available to each shop (30 x 95 * 50%).

Let’s see what happens when they email their list.

Jodie’s Email

Jodie looks at her list and sees that she has 50 people who’ve expressed interest in horror, and 35 people who turned up for the horror book club.

Jodie is smart – she sends a personalised email to the 35 who turned up, and offers them first refusal on the bundles.

JODIE EMAIL 01

Hi FIRSTNAME,

Just wanted to thank you for coming to the Horror night here at Jodie’s Books.

This morning, my publisher sent me 30 book bundles specifically for Stephen King fans.

Each ‘bundle’ consists of 12 of his best books, and also gives the reader access to the Stephen King Fan Club for 12 months.

To buy these books separately would cost you £170, but I’ve been told I can sell them to true fans for just £95.

Would you like me to keep one of these back for you?

If so, just click here, pay a £20 deposit, and I’ll make sure your books are waiting for you next time you’re in town.

If you don’t want one, then can you just reply and let me know – that way I can put the pack I reserved for you back on the shelves.

Thanks!

Jodie

PS. You up for another horror book club night soon?

PPS. I can hold this for another 48 hours for you, then I have to allow another customer to buy it. So if you want one, can you reserve it ASAP?

Jodie only sends out this offer to the 35 who turned up to the Horror event.

She sells 20 bundles!

So she then sends a very similar email to those 15 who didn’t turn up.

Jodie EMAIL 02

Hi FIRSTNAME,

Sorry you couldn’t make it to the Horror night here at Jodie’s Books last week.

However, I have something I think that you might be interested in…

This morning, my publisher sent me 30 book bundles specifically for Stephen King fans.

Each ‘bundle’ consists of 12 of his best books, and also gives the reader access to the Stephen King Fan Club for 12 months.

To buy these books separately would cost you £170, but I’ve been told I can sell them to true fans for just £95.

20 of them have been reserved this morning by other Stephen King fans – would you like me to keep one of the remaining 10 back for you?

If so, just click here, pay a £20 deposit, and I’ll make sure your pack is waiting for you next time you’re in town.

If you don’t want one, then can you just reply and let me know – that way I can put the pack I reserved for you back on the shelves.

Thanks!

Jodie

PS. You up for another horror book club night soon?

PPS. I can hold this for another 48 hours for you, then I have to allow another customer to buy it. So if you want one, can you reserve it ASAP?

She sells another 5.

She’s just sold 25 bundles, making her £1,187 profit in a day.

Oh, and she now has an offer template that she can repeat for the seven other genres she’s run book club events for.

So let’s look at how Ron got on. (Poor Ron…)

Ron’s Email

Ron is excited about this offer – even though he doesn’t have any names, he’s got a big list of email addresses, and this is an easy way to make £1,425.

He fires up his email software and sends out the following email to his list of 2,000:

Ron EMAIL 01

Hi friend,

You came in for coffee the other day to Ron’s Bookshop, and I thought you might be interested in this special offer.

I’ve got a bundle of books from Stephen King for just £95 – the usual price is £170.

Come on down and pick up your copy – I’ll even give you a free coffee when you do!

Yours 

Ron

So what happens when Ron presses send?

  • 20% (400) of the emails bounce back immediately – they’re the fake ones
  • Only 10% (200) of the remaining subscribers open his email
  • Just 2 people reply and say they want one.

Ron has made just 2 sales, compared to Jodie’s 25, even though Ron’s list is 5 times bigger than Jodie’s!

However, what’s worse is that Ron has now demonstrated to Gmail, Outlook, AOL and Yahoo mail servers, that his emails are irrelevant (90% don’t open), and he collects fake emails (20% don’t exist).

So even if he sends another email, it’s more likely to go to the ‘promotions’ tab or, worse, ‘spam’, because his reputation is in doubt.

So let’s look at why Ron lost and Jodie won. Ron believed the three big myths of email marketing…

The Three Myths of Email Marketing

There are three big myths that can affect the way you do email marketing:

  1. A large list means large sales volume
  2. A status of ‘Delivered’ means your email is delivered
  3. Collecting subscribers means collecting customers

Myth 1: A large list means large sales numbers

There’s an old saying in email marketing:

Your money isn’t in the list – it’s in the relationship with the list

In other words, you can make a decent number of sales a month with a list of just 1,000 people, as long as you have a good relationship with them.

I know one guy who has 50,000 people on his list, but it makes him no money (mainly because he spams the ever-loving shit out of it at any given opportunity).

It applies to huge lists too; There’s a UK company called Pizza Express (a slightly upmarket pizza chain) who built a very large list of emails.

But they burnt it a few years ago by sending 50% off vouchers twice a week for months and months.

All this did was train us subscribers that we should never pay full price for a pizza – a discount is on the way!

Similarly, I know of a company (that I can’t name!) that ran a very ‘successful’ giveaway a few months ago for 20 apple watches.

They grew a huge, 12,000 person list in a very short period of time.

However, now they have a large list of people who are interested in getting a free apple watch, not booking a meeting with an accountant to chat about taxes (oops – maybe gave away who I was talking about).

Just because the list is big, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make any sales!

To summarise:

So, I implore you to repeat after me:

“I’d rather have 200 engaged readers than 200,000 bored strangers”

In fact, a list of 1,000 true fans can easily bring in £100,000 a year – which is a nice living for a lot of small business owners.

Myth 2: Delivered means delivered

This isn't actually your fault. 

If you use any kind of ESP platform (e.g. Mailchimp), their success relies on deliverability, so it’s in their interest to tell you that an email has been ‘successfully delivered’.

However, there are three places your ‘delivered’ email can end up:

01: The spam folder/bin. 

The fact is, it’s difficult to get information on which emails go to spam via your ESP (e.g. Mailchimp).

Part of the reason is that this data is not easily available. 

Some EIP providers (like Yahoo) will send feedback on which emails are marked as spam (assuming DKIM is set up), but Gmail refuses to provide this feedback on an individual level (it will provide aggregated spam reports though).

And as statistically, 50% of your subscribers use Gmail, you’ll never actually know who marks your emails as spam, and which emails triggered it.

Course, there’s another factor…

It’s not in the commercial interest for consumer-level bulk-mail providers (E.g. Mailchimp, Active Campaign etc) to provide this information.

If users knew just how many of their emails went to the spam folder, they might either give up sending, or move to other software providers in the hope that the spam rates might be lower (which is unlikely!). 

02: The Gmail ‘other’ folders 

As we said above, Gmail accounts for more than half of the average email list contacts, and the Gmail algorithm will categorise your email before the user even sees it.

The biggest problem for email marketers is the ‘promotions tab’ where the Gmail stuffs all the email it deems as promotional. This keeps your primary inbox clear for important emails (like your mum or that needy client who always wants ‘one last round of edits’).

On some level, it’s understandable why Gmail does this (better user experience), but it’s frustrating for us email marketers nonetheless. 

Studies claim that the introduction of the Promotions tab doesn’t make a huge difference to the end result (sales), but I feel that’s just industry ‘spin’.

Personally, I almost never look in my promotions tab, and if I do, I’m predisposed to treat each email as a ‘sales’ email. I think most users are the same.

Regardless of opinion, the fact remains that the more emails you can get to the primary inbox, the better the engagement will be.

03: The ‘archived’ folder

Your biggest problem isn’t getting your readers to take action – it’s getting them to open the damn thing in the first place! 

How many emails do you get that you just ‘archive’ without reading? 

You might not think archiving is a problem – the email still gets delivered, right? 

The problem is this: if a user archives your email without opening it, the EIP algorithms will (correctly) assume that they’re not interested in your content.

Which means, over time, Gmail will start to filter out your emails for that user to the Promotions tab (or spam, if you’re being really naughty).

And it gets worse…

If a significant number of your readers use Gmail (which statistically they do), and a significant number of readers archive your emails without reading them, this can affect every Gmail user on your list!  

In other words, if a lot of your users archive without reading, then Gmail can put every email you send in the promotions tab for all users, regardless of that individual user’s engagement with your emails. 

Once you’re in the promotions tab, this can be a vicious circle: 

Because you don’t appear in the primary inbox, your emails get opened less. And because your emails don’t get opened much, you never get promoted to the primary inbox!

To summarise:

So, in summary, even if your latest email campaign is showing as ‘delivered’, it doesn’t mean that your customer will even see your email.

Myth 3: Subscribers are customers

When was the last time you opened up your laptop, looked at your inbox and muttered, “God, I wish my inbox had more emails!”.

Probably never, (unless you’re very lonely, or a complete mad person).

So the ugly naked truth is that nobody joins your list because they want more email.

The main reasons someone will join your list are:

  • You bribe them with a ‘free’ download
  • You invite them to an event/webinar
  • You make them log into something you’ve created
  • You promise to send regular content that is relevant to the reader
  • You offer a free iPad/holiday/naked picture of Ryan Gosling/Jennifer Aniston in exchange for an email 

Course there are some exceptions. 

I enjoy being on Pat Flynn’s list, for example, because almost every email is valuable and helps me grow this magazine. I joined it because I listened to his podcast.

However, Grant Cardone’s emails never get opened ‘cos they always rub me up the wrong way

So why don’t I unsubscribe from Grant Cardone? 

Two reasons: 

  • Firstly, because once in a while he’ll send an email with something that’s actually useful, (rather than the usual vacuous ramblings about hustling).
  • Secondly, I just can’t be bothered. I don’t care enough about him to click the unsubscribe – it’s easier just to ‘bulk archive’ unread emails every week.

Apathy, rather than spam complaints and unsubscribes, is actually your biggest enemy.

So you need to make sure that if someone is going to join your list that:

  1. You’re offering something that is closely related to what you sell (so please stop giving away iPads, unless you’re Apple).
  2. You email regularly enough that you’re expected in the inbox. Only this morning, I muttered, ‘Who the hell is this?’ as I dragged someone’s carefully-written email to the spam bin. Only afterwards, I realised that I’d subscribed months ago and this was only the second email they’d ever sent me.
  3. You tag them with what interests them and send them more of that (all decent email marketing platforms allow you to do this easily).

OK, so this is all well and good, but what should you do about it? The following rules will set you straight.

The 3 rules of effective email marketing

In order to grow and maintain a clean list, you need to do the following things:

  1. Attract the right subscribers
  2. Double opt in (controversial!)
  3. Validate every email

Rule 01: Attract the right subscribers

When you ask for email opt-ins, be specific about what you're giving away – and make it relevant to the reader.

As we said before, you'll build a large list very quickly if you give away an iPad, but unless you sell Apple products, all you’re doing is collecting emails of people who want free iPads. (Can you tell I’m fed up with clients telling me they’re giving away a free iPad?!)

The second thing is to ensure you set expectations like:

  1. How often you’ll email
  2. What you’ll email about
  3. Who the email will come from

Let’s say you have a website called TheDailyDog.com, and you produce a daily email about dogs (that’s actually a pretty good business idea!).

Subscribers will get an email every day with a round up of news, training tips, food advice and health issues that dog owners will love.

So a great ‘opt-in’ offer would be:

“Pop your email address in the box below, and every weekday I’ll send you some cute pictures of dogs” 

Or:

“Enter our giveaway for a free doggy makeover* (worth £299) and get a daily doggy email with the best of canine capers from around the web!”

*Does such a thing exist? I bet More4 or MTV have a reality show about it…

Your subscribers will know three things:

  1. You’ll email every day
  2. Your emails will be about dogs
  3. The email comes from TheDailyDog.com

A bad offer could look like this:

  • “Join our mailing list” – who wants more email, even if it’s about something you like?
  • “Win a £25 Amazon voucher ” – I’ve already said why unrelated giveaways are a bad idea
  • “Get this free ebook” – doesn’t disclose that you’ll be emailing every day

Hopefully it’s clear why setting expectations is vitally important when getting email opt-ins. 

Yes, you’ll end up with fewer subscribers, but those who do subscribe are happy to get your emails (and likely to engage with them).

Rule 02: Double Opt in

In case you haven’t come across this term before, double optin is the opposite of single opt in:

Single opt in: Someone joins your list and you start sending emails right away.

Double Opt In: Someone joins your list and they have to click a link saying they definitely want to get emails from you before you can send anything.

Advantages Vs Disadvantages

The pros and cons can be summarised here:

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Single Opt In1. Bigger list (as every opt in becomes a subscriber)1. No explicit confirmation
2. More likely to be marked as spam
Double Opt In1. Only have subscribers who definitely want to be there
1. Better deliverability
1. Fewer subscribers (smaller list)

Personally, I like to use double opt in – yes, I’ll have a smaller list, but in experiments, we’ve found a double opt in list has much better deliverability.

I’d rather have a list of 1,000 contacts, with a 40% open/click rate, than a list of 10,000 with just 20% open/click rate.

(And as we mentioned before, that vicious circle applies – the more often your emails get ignored, the more likely they are to be filtered out from your subscribers inbox, and in future, your emails will more likely to be ignored!).

It is definitely your choice. 

One technique we’ve been testing is to create a ‘soft’ double opt in automation sequence.

It works like this:

  1. When someone opts in to a list, they get added to a 4 part email automation.
  2. This automation includes 4 emails, each which have minimal content,  simple wording, no images, and just one link.
  3. The emails are all based on this template: ‘Hey [NAME], Thanks for requesting [THE THING THEY OPTED IN FOR]. Before we send it can you just let us know this is definitely you, and you're happy to get regular emails from us. [LINK]. Note: We can only send you  [THE THING THEY OPTED IN FOR] if you confirm you’re happy to get emails.’.
  4. The email goes out immediately. If the link is not clicked, then we resend it 2 days later, then 4 days later then 5 days after that.
  5. If they click the link, a tag is added telling our team that they are ‘confirmed’ and they get sent our regular, weekly email campaigns.
  6. If they do nothing, then we start them on a re-engagement sequence designed to get that confirmation.
  7. If they still don’t click after 6 weeks, then they get deleted.

This is a little more work, and you’ll be deleting emails of people who’ve subscribed (shock), but let’s be honest here – if they never click the link, then were they really that keen on us in the first place? 

Validate every email

There’s a lot of crap out there about email validation, but one of the best services we’ve come across is Klean13 (we discovered this via the deliverability guru Adrian Savage).

You can either integrate Klean13 with your opt-in forms to prevent dodgy, made-up or misspelled emails from being submitted, or you can regularly run your lists through their app to weed out email addresses that are likely to bounce.

Why bother?

Great question! Who cares if you’ve got some fake or old email addresses on your list?

The answer is Gmail/Hotmail/Yahoo/AOL care!

If you continually send emails to users that either don’t exist (either they’ve been mis-typed or made-up), or the accounts are no longer used, then it could hurt your reputation with the EIP (e.g. Gmail).

Best case scenario, you’ll be classed as a sender with no list hygiene.

Worst case, you’ll be categorised as someone who buys lists (bought lists often contain fake or abandoned email addresses) – and this is almost certainly going to end up with your emails being relegated to the spam bin permanently!

So it’s important to spring clean your list and remove dodgy email addresses regularly.

The good news 

The good news is that this can be done automatically using a great free app called the Deliverability Dashboard

We’re very keen users here, and as well as offering amazing segmentation tools, it can automatically schedule list cleaning for you (subject to buying credits from Klean13).

Look out for a review of this app coming soon. 

Summary

Phew – that was a lot to take in.

Let’s go back over the main lessons here:

  1. A large list doesn’t mean large sales numbers. In fact, if your large list is disengaged, you’re more likely to hurt your deliverability by sending emails to your whole list.
  2. Delivered doesn’t equal delivered. Just because your ESP (e.g. Mailchimp) says that your email has been delivered, it only means it’s been accepted – not that it’s in the primary inbox.
  3. Subscribers don’t mean customers. You’re better off having 200 engaged readers than 200,000 bored strangers. In other words, when building your list, go for quality of subscribers, not quantity of subscribers.
  4. Be clear what subscribers are getting when they opt in. Don't try to trick them with irrelevant giveaways – be specific about what will happen when they submit their details.
  5. Consider double opt in to keep your list clean. By making a subscriber jump through an extra hoop, you’ll end up with a smaller list, but it’ll be packed with subscribers who actually want to hear from you (not just those who wanted to download your free thing).
  6. Start validating emails. Make sure that every email on your list belongs to an active user. We suggest using the Validation tool here.

Yes this isn’t the sexiest subject in the world. And yes, it will require effort.

But it’s vitally important – it doesn’t matter how good your email content is, if it doesn’t get to the inbox, then you might as well have not bothered.