Sealed with a Kiss: Adventures in Email Marketing


I’ve spent a lot of time working on email this year and wanted to document my learnings, before I forget them.

1) User/reader’s experience versus email “real estate”:

The opportunity to tackle a large database of emailable people is a seductive proposition and it’s easy to get distracted by the value of the real estate, as opposed to the value to the user (reader). Each email should have a distinct purpose and a clear call-to-action (CTA = what you want the recipient to do) to a related landing page (where the recipient will go if they click on a link). If cross-promotion is necessary, make sure this is limited to one or two other stakeholders, otherwise competing CTAs may alienate the reader completely.

2) Business self-awareness and company newsletters:

I’ve seen several cases where companies have set up newsletters, with minimal sign-up input fields, working on the assumption that people who sign-up are all interested in the same content. It’s true sign-up should be quick and easy, but newsletters are time-consuming to assemble and if we haven’t hit the mark with content, a couple of lengthy emails may well lead to an unsubscribe. Newsletters should be treated like any form of social media, don’t do it for the sake of it! Know your audiences, recognize their needs and meet these requirements through tailored content in each online channel. If you don’t have the time to focus a newsletter to different audiences, don’t create a newsletter! It’s better to do the job the well.

3) Images

Are fresh images an important aspect of your email campaign(s)? Incorporate an image-generation strategy. Stock photos can cost a lot of money and user-generated images can be complicated in securing permissions and the quality will vary considerably.  Considerably. Although you may have many brand advocates who happen to be gifted photographers and freely assign the distribution/use of their work, I think a long-term incentivised contribution programme, aka social content strategy, is a more sustainable way to generate interesting, on-brand user-generated-content. And be creative with incentives, there’s a multitude of ways to reward users, it doesn’t always have to be a holiday in the sun.

Use an image because it supports your message, not because it’s the only one you have available. If you don’t have the perfect fit, improvise, but don’t compromise.

4) Copy

Direct mail is a sensitive area and of course it’s important to ensure the legal detail of any promotion is within a click of the communication, but don’t start your email with legal copy. If legal copy takes precedence over a welcome message, that’s a red flag for the marketing department.

Email isn’t print and the goal of any email should be to drive traffic through to a landing page or some other trackable CTA (such as calling a specific number). The reader should be able to get gist of the email through a quick glance across the body copy/section. Anything more than a few sentences is considered an effort.

I remember a client stating “if you can’t make them act, at least make them smile” and yet I find that clients can become so self-conscious about their own language that email copy fails to provoke the desired action. Minimise design by committee and ensure you have trusted creative partners who are aligned on the brief and business objectives of the communication.

5) Analytics:

My challenge with working with corporate clients is that analytics (as a department) often sits separately to creative production. The strategic evaluation of creative in any digital medium should:

– be as condensed as possible, 

– offer real-time access (or as close to real-time as possible) to results

– involve regular meetings of all creative stakeholders (agency, analytics, CRM, website)

6) Tracking:

I still have a lot more to learn about email tracking, but from what I understand…. open rates can be inflated by email clients like Outlook Express, which to some extent, automatically open emails, thus there is a need to be realistic about success metrics. I’ve also yet to see any offer-related email have a button that says “I love this offer, but have just spent X for X. Would love to take this up another time.” If readers cannot take-up an offer for any reason, are we interested in their explanation and if not, do we just continue business as normal?  If we get feedback from our emails, how do we capture this and incorporate it into future email activity?

Track everything and if you think that a link isn’t worth tracking, then it shouldn’t be in the email!

7) Making changes:

Below is my incredible Christmas tree infographic of the email process.


I included a version of this in a client presentation to show how important it is to capture revisions early in the production process. The higher up in the triangle (towards the top of the tree) that amends get made, the more layers/branches the changes have to pass through and the greater the margin for error, resource interaction and therefore potential expense (which either gets absorbed by the agency or assigned to the client, but costs like complexity have to go somewhere). Most agencies will accommodate anything the client asks for, but a creative process ideally incorporates the needs of all parties and all parties are mindful of effective (over efficient) project management. 

At a mobile conference earlier this year, I was responsible for introducing the speakers. In conversation with one of the speakers, we chatted about the pros and cons of being a “deep generalist” and he said the best piece of advice he’d been given was “don’t let your client’s dysfunction become your own.” It’s a piece of wisdom that has since haunted me, though I daresay not everyone appreciates such advice.

8) Responsive Design

Ah yes, the phrase du jour and perhaps best explained by a techie, but I shall do my best here. As far I understand it, Responsive Design refers to a piece of code within the CSS* called a media query. The media query is used to verify the screen size on which the email or website is being viewed. If an email is designed to be responsive, the design will change depending on the screen-size of the recipient’s device. When considering Responsive Design for an email, it’s important to explore how elements will stack on a smaller screen, since the layout will change, but the images, copy and links will remain the same. I’ll try and find a visual example to explain this. Coming soon. Probably.

*CSS stands for a Cascading Style Sheet and holds a set of instructions for how an email or web page should be displayed on a screen.

9) Collaboration:

I think this is simple. Global companies need to reward collaboration between departments as well as reward each department individually. Since (some) global companies (arguably) make it their business to spread risk across as many different parties as possible, it can lead to an overly competitive environment, defensive internal cultures and an imbalance of client/agency power that ultimately compromises work.  A fragmented agency roster and thick layer of middle marketing managers means that there are lots and lots of small pots of money around, rather than one large fund. After reading Steve Jobs’ biography (I know I mention this a lot), it’s also become apparent how truly exceptional Apple was with its culture of collaboration. Access to analytics goes beyond emailing around stats – it’s regular, round-the-table conversation about the impact of insights on iterative design.

10) Questions I still have about email:

Why aren’t there any email clients that support HTML5? Is this a stupid question to ask?  Am I wrong – are there email clients that support HTML5? What does email innovation look like? Will it progress beyond video and unicode symbols in subject lines? Is there more scope for mutant hybrid communications between email and other digital channels? Why do people keep referring to email as an autonomous power source / single channel? Really, email should be used to amplify other touch-points AND would be far more effective if it wasn’t always forced into a competition with Social, when people ask questions like “is email dead?”.


Most definitely not.



Related reading:

Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong