The top 6 email conversion mistakes nearly everyone makes – part 1

John Ekman

Despite the advancements within Conversion Rate Optimization, Email marketing is still a blind spot in terms of conversion. There is plenty of low hanging optimization fruit.

Check your own email marketing against the list of common mistakes to see if you’re in the danger zone.

Conversion optimization & email marketing – Never shall they meet

@+C=?Conversion optimization has been around for a few years now. More and more companies are starting to understand the huge potential of a serious and continuous approach to optimization. The same companies have been doing email marketing for an even longer time. For many online companies email marketing is the primary, if not only, customer retention tool. And still email marketing professionals and email systems providers have managed to stay almost completely untouched by the lessons learnt in the (web) conversion community.

Even worse, many (web) conversions professionals have been so focused on the optimization of web sites and pages that they also have turned a blind eye to the question of email conversion.

The good news is that it’s very easy to fix. There is plenty of low hanging optimization fruit in email marketing, and most of it does not require huge redesign efforts or need to throw out the email systems provider.

Mistake nr 1 – Poor use of the first email to build brand and establish trust and permission.

Addnature Emails

Addnature Emails - Click to enlarge

The marketing department puts tons of efforts into making nice looking newsletters with compelling content. Transactional emails, however, don’t get the same attention. These are the emails you get when you register at a site, open an account, buy something, or similar. Most of these emails seem to have been put together by some sadistic IT guy who enjoys inflicting eye pain to his users and thinks that inserting line breaks comes at cost. See the example from Addnature – to the right.

You can argue that the first email is only sent out once, only as a confirmation of a transaction that already happened. Newsletters, on the other hand, are sent out every day/week/month in order to induce a transaction so they need to be more compelling. This is where you’re thinking goes wrong – very wrong. And the reason why is the Open rate.

Open rates for transactional emails is very high often 75% and above, or at least double digit. Newsletters, however, usually have open rates that don’t even reach single digit, that is below 1 %! Now think again. You are putting all your effort into something no-one opens and completely ignores the only thing everyone opens. See?!

Good things to put in put into your transactional emails:

  1. Build brand – Use company profile colours and fonts. Use logos and images with care (see mistake nr 4.)
  2. Ask the recipient to include you in the ”Safe sender’s list”.
    Copy suggestion:  “Make sure you receive communications from us in the future. Add us….”
  3. Promote your newsletter
    Copy:  “We hope you’ll like the shoes you ordered. Be sure not to miss when we have them on sale – subscribe….”
  4. Promote upcoming events, sales, product launches etc.
  5. It’s not too late for cross-promotion.
    Copy:  “The shoes you ordered go great with these socks. Get right back to the store, order them now,  and we’ll throw in free shipping !”

Just make sure that whatever the transaction was about stands out clearly, order number, order summary, download link etc. There’s nothing more annoying not finding your order nr in a bulk of promo text. sent me a confirmation email which included some of their branding but they should have made my order number easier to find.

Mistake nr 2 Writing lame subject lines, (non-persuasive copy)

Subject Line Screenshot

Subject Line Screenshot - Click to enlarge

I subscribe to tons of newsletters, that’s my job. I put good and bad examples in a folder. When I open it I start to laugh. Sorry, make that “Cry”. Actually, it’s more like “Yawn”. Something like 20-30% of the subject lines are completely free of persuasion, of offers, of emotional triggers – basically free of anything that would make you open them. The most common subject line is “This month’s newsletter from XYZ”.

Some examples from my inbox (translated from Swedish):

Outright bad

From: Kaffebrus
Subject: News from Kaffebrus

This is the most common construction of a subject line by email marketing (un)professionals. The problem is that the subject line adds no information to what you already know. The “From” field already says it’s from Kaffebrus , so you don’t have to repeat that. You don’t have to state that it’s “News” since this is what we expect to find in our inbox if we didn’t just order something.

The screenshot from my inbox shows that 11 out of 23 email have this construction (highlighted by a red box). This is of course a slightly biased selection of course, but anyway.

From: Flying Blue
Subject:  Your Flying Blue update on Miles, news and g…

Flying Blue wasted so much subject line real estate that the last part of the message got truncated. The “g…” actually stands for “great offers”. Well, if your offers are so great why don’t you put them at the beginning of the subject line so I can read it??

From: Dustin
Subject: Offers from Dustin

Dustin & Tretti Subject lines

Dustin & Tretti Subject lines - Click to enlarge

This is bad because it’s unspecific. It’s just says “offers”, not what kind of offers and how they relate to my needs. But then it gets really bad; If I sort my inbox by “From”, you’ll see that Dustin repeats the exact same subject line for each of their newsletters! So there’s no way to distinguish one from the other.  I cannot imagine that this has a positive effect on open rates.

By the way, Dustin is Sweden’s most successful online retailer of electronics. See why I say “Mistakes nearly everyone makes”?!

Trying but not making it

Here are some companies trying to get something more appetizing out there, but not really cutting it.

From: Hemköp
Subject: Weekend deals!

One of the cornerstones of persuasive copywriting is “Be specific”. This is unspecific. It just sounds spammy.

Subject: 1 Million cheap flights from SAS

If there are 1 mill flights on sale I should be able to find one that suits me?! But still – Unspecific.

Subject 1: Summer products
Subject 2: Products with a spring feeling

The email marketers at have tried to use a common content/message strategy -Seasonality. The problem here is that the ONLY thing the subject line communicates is the season. There is no strong persuasive connection to offers or products at Tretti which are relevant to that season.

Great subject lines

Subject: For better focus at work and school!

These guys sell vitamins online. Who doesn’t want “Better focus at work and school.”?!

From: Cyclecomponents
Subject: Delivery before Vättern!

Vätternrundan or “”Vättern” is Sweden’s largest cycling race. If your order from Cyclecomponents you’ll get it before you get to the starting line – Yes!

If you need more inspiration on persuasive copywriting I recommend Copyblogger or  Bryan Eisenberg’s book: “Call to Action: Secret Formulas to Improve Online Results”.

Mistake nr 3 – Newsletters should contain “News”

Have you ever noticed that the word “Newsletter” is actually a combination of two words, the first one being “News”?

Aftonbladet by Aftonbladet

Aftonbladet by Aftonbladet

Many email marketers seen to have completely missed out on this point as you can tell by what lands in your inbox. Same old, same old, week after week. (Dustin – you hear me?!)

When I was put in charge of turning around Betsson’s casino site CasinoEuro I got the team together, made prints of the last rounds of newsletter, held them up side by side for 2 seconds and asked them if they could see any difference? No. They were all different, but they didn’t LOOK different.

I told the team we needed to start thinking like the tabloids. They have something called “nr 1“ which leads the sales of the paper every day. It’s not like the editor in chief calls the news room and they go:  ”Sorry, there’s not going to be a paper today, nothing happened”. No, they will dig out, some would even say fabricate, a new compelling leading story in order to get the buyers to the newsstand every single day.

Aftonbladet by Dustin

Aftonbladet by Dustin

The screenshot to the top right here show the randomly picked front page of Aftonbladet. It says:

“Women at TV4 fought for her life with a knifeman”. It’s a celebrity. She’s fighting for her life. The guy’s got a knife! Man I’m buying this paper!

Let’s see what Aftonbladet would have looked like if the Dustin guys would have been employed in Aftonbladet’s newsroom: “Today’s news from Aftonbladet”. Every day. Over and over again. You know what, I think the Dustin guys would have had to look for other “Employment opportunities” pretty quickly.

So think like a newspaper. Decide on a publishing schedule. Make a plan for “news” to fit that schedule and reach your subscribers with relevant, compelling content time after time.

The top 6 email conversion mistakes nearly everyone makes – part 2

The second part of this blog post, covers conversion mistakes 4-6:

4. Ignoring the importance of the preview pane
5. Not setting clear conversion goals for each email
6. Not maintaining the scent from the email on the landing page

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Note: I owe a lot of thanks for inspiration, and even part of the title, to Marketing Sherpa and their excellent “Dirty Dozen – Email Newsletter mistakes nearly everyone makes”   and  “Best Practices in Email marketing handbook”.

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