- email marketing & sidestepping send to spam - 

“An email without clarity is like an annoying mime... Just say what you want or get out the way!” 

- Jordie van Rijn

At its best, email is a medium that allows for personal communication at scale. At its worst, it becomes like a mountain of flyers that clog a mailbox when you forget to check it for a few weeks. Ideally, every email should move a conversation forward, leading people towards deeper relationships or even towards a sales conversion. Based on that end goal, let's explore how we can design effective emails by deconstructing them. 

This article is by no means exhaustive, it only contains ideas that made sense to me. In many ways, the principles of the traditional three-act story structure is good to think about as a foundation. Act I - Setup. Act II - Rising Action. Act III - Resolution. 

Subject Line 

Imagine staring at a hundred unopened emails. Capturing attention at the subject level helps start the ball rolling. Classic email marketing advises to grab your leads’ interest immediately by using verbs and adjectives while incorporating personalisation techniques. 

For example: 

Subject: Hey Jim! Want a fantastic product? Grab your 20 percent coupon.

Subject: Hello Jane, snag 20 percent off exceptional products today!

The problem with this approach is most people have read tens of thousands of email subject lines, and we are trained to discern sales pitches from emails that actually matter. This is why I personally prefer the approach of asking the reader a question, which allows us to enter a kind of instant dialogue. 

If the question on the subject line truly matters, it will resonate with the reader and his or her past experiences, which will naturally lead to a little curiosity. The question approach allows the tonality of the email to automatically become more human and authentic. 

For example: 

Subject: What would an ideal school look like to you? 

Subject: How important was education in your life? 

MailChimp conducted an email subject line study and found that succinct, descriptive subject lines fare better than others. By working around 3-7 subject lines per email and running it through this simple framework, we can increase the probability of clickthrough rates.  

Body of Content  

The introduction of the message should ideally speak to the reader and how the content relates to his or her story. By paying attention to a broad writing style that focuses on large themes, as opposed to specific issues, the reader can project their own ideas onto the message. Ideally it should be no more than a paragraph at most. 

It is useful to employ an infographic to the send phase of the email body for two reasons. One, it conveniently breaks up the introduction of the email from the call to action, creating a 3 part structure in the email body itself. Secondly, it will allow and easier digestion of information through the use of colours, data, charts, and statistics.  A picture says a thousand words. 

The infographic can be followed by a link to a short video that could continue to flesh out the narrative, if the reader is still curious. Through this setup we can now move on to the climax of the story, the call to action. 

Call to Action 

We have to begin by setting up a clear value proposition for the next action desired. In developing the value proposition, it can be helpful to frame it to emphasize potential losses without the product or service than potential gains with it. This is because the brain is generally wired for loss aversion. 

Returning to verbs and adjectives, it is important to know not all of the words work in tone. Some words can make the reader uncomfortable. These words include verbs like submit, enter and download. They can come off as completely impersonal or mechanical. 

Instead, try words that let the reader know they are getting something in return
Approachable action verbs like get, find and try tell the reader there is a benefit waiting for them. For best results, combine these action words with an actual benefit to move the conversation along. 

A CTA that's as simple as "Please send me an email at and we can arrange a time to chat" may be a good way to ask leads to take that next step. If someone takes that extra step to call you or email you back asking to hear additional information, it is highly likely that there would be a possibility to convert a sale or deepen the relationship at the very least. 

It is helpful for the CTA to appear visually distinct from the rest of the message, so the reader is drawn to the actionable item. 

Email Signature 

Every email signature can carry messaging that can advance the overall goals of an organisation. For example, it can include a CTA for lead generation by asking if the reader might know anyone interested in the organisation and point them to a summarised explanation of an organisation. This is in addition to all links to relevant websites and social channels that should be there. 

Additional Considerations

Tone & Style 

In a non-verbal medium like email , we lose information like facial expression, body posture, gestures, and voice tone to interpret and predict other people’s behaviour. It becomes imperative to adopt and maintain the right tonality through the entire email in order to try and convey emotion and authenticity. 

Email Marketing Segmentation Strategies 

Starting with the right databases is key, and ideally we would be able to segment the recipients into specific groups in order to better serve their needs. Demographics, geographic area, age, professional expertise, industry subsets... there are a never ending amount of ways to consider tailoring the message. One particularly helpful method is time-based email messages which allow you to stagger emails to send out at optimum times for people in different time zones.

A/B Testing

​A/B testing is a way of comparing how version A of something, like your email subject line, performs compared to version B within an audience, like your contact list. An email with subject line A is sent to up to 50% of your contacts, while a second email with subject line B is sent to an equal portion. The winning subject line is automatically sent to the remaining contacts on your list when you choose to send to less than 50%. This testing can be conducted with almost any element contained in the email and will serve to improve click through rates.

Performance Management 

Clickthrough Rate - The percentage of email recipients who clicked on one or more links contained in a given email. (used for analysing results of A/B tests)

Conversion Rate - The percentage of email recipients who clicked on a link within an email and completed a desired action.

Email Sharing Rate - The percentage of email recipients who clicked on a “share this” button to post or forward email content.

Open Rate - The percentage of email recipients who open a given email.

Unsubscribe Rate - The percentage of email recipients unsubscribe from your send list after opening a given email.