Bending the Email Best Practices Rules

Is it ever okay to break email marketing best practices? Which ones are breakable? And when?

Best practices describe tested email techniques that other marketers have found successful. Best practices establish a baseline for your campaign. But a lot of times, these practices come down to what works best for you and your subscribers.

So when is it okay to bend the rules and when should you stick to the best practices straight and narrow?

The Best Practices You Can Sometimes Break

It takes more than best practices to make a successful email campaign. Word to the Wise posted a recent reminder that you can follow every single best practice and still be a nuisance to your subscribers.

Some of these best practices might work well for you, while others might not.

Subject Line Content

We’ve written some subject line advice before: It’s good practice to brand your subject lines and reveal your message content. But not all brands follow this model.

Take ModCloth for example. Their subject lines are conversational and fun (which matches their brand’s overall voice):

And even though I don’t entirely know what the email is about (though I assume it has something to do with a wishlist), I still want to open the email due to its friendly, inviting tone.

If you want to go the same whimsical route with your subject lines, just make sure you’re not misleading your subscribers as this violates CAN-SPAM laws. Like the ModCloth example above, you can have fun with your subject line while also keeping the content on-topic.

Message Length

Plenty of online sources discuss the attention span of online consumers. It’s best to keep your message content short and sweet to keep your subscribers’ attention.

But in some cases, longer might be better. Do your blog broadcasts perform better with short teasers or full posts? Test your message length out on your subscribers to see what they respond to best.

Timing and Frequency

The optimal time to send emails for better open rates can vary from industry to industry. Business-to-business marketers might find more success sending first thing in the morning, for example, when their clients are first getting to work and checking their email.

But a retail store might do better sending around lunch time or after 5 p.m., when their subscribers are more likely to check their personal email accounts. We have a whole post analyzing the send times and frequency of some big-name marketers.

Like your message length, this is another practice to test on your subscribers to see how they’ll respond.

Consistent Branding

Consistently branding your emails is a no-brainer – you create a consistent and comfortable experience and your subscribers easily recognize you in the inbox. But in some cases, consistency might hurt you more than it helps you.

Mark Brownlow points out that in the case of inactive or disengaged subscribers, all of your consistent branding practices could be conditioning them to ignore you in the inbox instead. To build a fresh relationship, you might consider a different subject line structure or new template to get their attention with a reactivation campaign.

Basically, if there’s a best practice you can test before bending, do so and see how your subscribers respond.

The Best Practices You Should Never Break

A lot of “best practice” advice is best followed only if it works for you. But other best practices are in place for very good reasons: Without them, you look like a spammer.

These practices aren’t just a matter of personal discretion. They protect you from getting in trouble and they help your deliverability.

Including An Unsubscribe Link

CAN-SPAM regulations dictate that all marketing emails contain an unsubscribe link your customers can use to opt-out of your promotional mailings. AWeber automatically includes an unsubscribe link at the end of every email sent from our system. It’s a good idea to include an additional link in your email where subscribers can easily find it, like in your pre-header.

If you don’t include an unsubscribe link, you’re hurting your deliverability. Without a link to safely unsubscribe from your mailings, subscribers who don’t want your emails will have to click the spam button in their email client to get you off their list. The more spam complaints you get, the higher your chances of getting filtered to the junk folder.

Not including an unsubscribe link just doesn’t make sense – for your subscribers or your brand.

Getting Permission to Email Your Subscribers

If you’re emailing people without their permission, you’re spamming, plain and simple.

You can’t purchase a list and send emails to the people on that list because they haven’t explicitly stated that they want your emails in the first place. Sending unsolicited email like that is spam. Even renting a list can get you into some trouble.

This also includes people you exchanged business cards with several years ago who you might want to add to your list. Unless they told you that they want your emails, you’re emailing them without permission.

To make sure you’re always getting permission, check out some of the list-building scenarios we cover here.

Including Your Company Contact Information

This is another CAN-SPAM requirement. Besides, who wants to do business with a person or company who won’t disclose their address?

Your customers may want to contact you via phone or through the mail with questions or concerns. Include your company contact information in the footer of every email. It also helps build trust with your subscribers.

Not Using a No-Reply Address

This one doesn’t break the law, but it’s still very bad form. Using a no-reply address says that your marketing efforts are only a one-way conversation.

Instead, create an email address you can check regularly to communicate with your subscribers.

What Are Your Best Practices?

An article from iMedia Connection reminds us that even with best practices, it’s important to test and see what your audience responds to best. If your subscribers don’t respond to a practice, it’s okay to bend the rules a bit.

Have you broken a best practice with good results?

Which best practices do you follow religiously? Which ones do you feel comfortable bending the rules on sometimes?


  1. Michael Katz

    2/21/2012 11:02 am

    Great points. And I agree, beyond the “never break” best practices you mention, following all the others to the letter makes you look like everyone else – the opposite of what good marketing is all about.

  2. Sean M Kelly

    2/21/2012 4:19 pm

    Great reminder of what to do and what not to do in our email marketing. thanks a mill Rebekah. Kind regards

  3. Sandy Halliday

    2/22/2012 2:57 am

    Good advice. I still get a lot of emails with misleading subject lines and I’ve even seen some marketers suggest them to their affiliates in the emails they provide.

    I think you can make the subject line intriguing but without misleading. As with all areas of Internet Marketing you have to test, test, test to see what brings the best results.

  4. Terence Savage

    6/12/2012 12:39 pm

    I agree that rules are meant to be broken but you need to know what the effects of the rules are before doing do. That way you have a benchmark against which to assess other choices.

    I diagree,however, with your argument concerning message length. It’s not length that is the issue – a boring message is unlikely to engage your audience whatever its length. Conversely, a message that is written in a style that interests the reader is more likley to be read.

    Length is dependent upon presenting benefits and copywriting skills not a tape measure. How can it when to do the job properly the message begins with the most important benefit, continues with the next most important until all the benefits have been explored, and only then does it stop.

    The problem is that just because everyone can know the rules few have the skills to write.

    To break other rules requires other skills too.

  5. Rebekah Henson

    6/12/2012 1:19 pm

    Terence –

    That is an excellent point, and shows how important it is to test and see what your readers respond to best, as this article recommends.

    Certainly, long copy is sometimes warranted. But not in every case. You may be able to effectively convey the benefits of your product in a single paragraph or even a single sentence – advertisers do it all the time. Plenty of email experts out there say that a lengthy explanation of benefits belongs on your landing page and not in your email message at all. The point of the email is to win a click by “teasing.”

    Testing long vs. short copy can lead you to some of these insights, or reinforce that your audience responds best to a long and detailed email. You don’t have to test it if you’re already getting a good response from your subscribers. The point is to get you thinking about ways you might want to improve your campaign, which looks like that’s the case. Thanks for your comment and your insight. 🙂