If you’re looking to take the next big leap with your email marketing, one way is to distinguish between two types* of best practices.

There are best practices that help optimize your email marketing. Truths that are as near-universal as we can get them. A good example is sending new sign-ups an immediate welcome message.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where not sending some kind of welcome message is the best course of action.

That’s what best practices are supposed to be about: proven approaches that are better than the alternatives.

But there’s another type of best practice. One that does not optimize your email marketing, but does prevent you from blowing it up.

These are really “safe practices” and exist as best practices because industry experts recognize that “a little knowledge can be a bad thing.”

In a review of an unusual email, Justin Premick raised the issue, asking:

“…are best practices always the way to go?”

One response came from Laura Atkins, who said:

“The things we tell people are best practices are not written in stone and inviolable. Rather, they’re a way to succeed without understanding all the ins and outs of email.”

It’s a concept worth expanding on.

There are a lot of tactics that bring excellent results if applied wisely. If not, they lead to disaster.

But wise application demands an understanding and attention to detail that can’t be taught (or learned) in 140 characters or a 400-word blog post.

So rather than try and run the risk that over-simplification leads people to make poor choices, industry experts often take the safe route and preach absolute best practices that aren’t always truly best practices. But they will keep you out of harm’s way.

For example, nearly everyone (me included) would say that a best practice is not to send emails that are pretty much all-images. Because image blocking kills the message.

That’s not really a best practice. That’s a safe practice.

Fact is, image-heavy emails – in the right circumstances with the right execution – can outperform the alternatives.

Newsmarketing, a Swiss agency, recently tested 6 different levels of images in 2.1 million emails to see which drove most traffic to a landing page.

The winner? The giant single image with a text salutation. Details here (in German only).

The catch is knowing the right circumstances and the right execution that lets you break the rules. To make image-heavy work, you need a solid understanding of various factors:

  • role and strength of imagery in driving action for the audience/conversion in question
  • trust factors
  • proper use of alt attributes
  • text/copy interaction
  • use of sender and subject lines to encourage curiosity
  • Subscriber open rate patterns
  • etc.

…all of which takes time and effort to understand. Knowing people are often not in a position to find that time, experts deal in safe absolutes: don’t use image-heavy emails. If they didn’t say this, too many people would make mistakes like this one:

example of blocked images in an email

There is no reason to respond to this email. Now I could download images out of curiosity, but the email does not do enough to exploit the curiosity effect.

The sender is a marketing agency, the subject line is “November News” and there are no alt attributes, so my curiosity really isn’t aroused enough.

Email marketing without best practices is like being put in a Formula 1 racing car. Know what you’re doing and you’ll reach your goal faster. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you end up in a car wreck.

So experts take the “safe practices” route: stick to your family car. It’s not always as fast, but you’re much less likely to crash and burn your email marketing program.

Of course the positive side to this is that if you do take the time to understand the nuances of various tactics…if you know what the right circumstances and execution are…if you know what’s a best practice and what’s a safe practice…then you can “break” best practices and profit as a result.

Not forgetting the critical role of testing here.

The required knowledge comes not only through experience, but through interaction with other practitioners and extensive reading. Because “when to break the rules” information is out there if you look for it. (Alternatively, hire a consultant).

More examples

A best practice is to include privacy reassurances immediately next to sign-up fields for email lists. Correct. (People need to know their email is safe in your hands before submitting it.)

But…if you have a trusted brand, does an overt privacy reassurance actually raise privacy concerns where none were there before? When I removed mine, sign-up rates increased. Perhaps worth a test?

A best practice is not to increase frequency significantly. Correct. (This can lead to more spam complaints and deliverability problems.)

But…this advice largely applies to sending “more of the same.” There are ways to increase frequency that deliver more value to both the subscriber and the sender. See this post.

A best practice is not to force people to scroll horizontally when viewing an email. Correct. (Mostly because compelling people to scroll doesn’t work when people don’t…um…feel compelled to scroll. And some email clients have problems displaying wide emails)

But…give them a reason to do so and perhaps you open up a novel, memorable email experience? See Justin Premick’s look at Stuck in Customs, Dylan Boyd’s analysis of Abercrombie and Fitch emails or Anna Yeaman’s take on a very creative email from the Canadian Tourism Commission.

The takeaway here is not to rush out and start ignoring best practices. Without the background understanding, that way lies email marketing hell.

But if you can gain (or hire) a more nuanced understanding of issues, you might be able to break selected rules to the benefit of both you and your subscribers.

What do you think?

*A third type is best practice that isn’t really best practice. It’s a lazy title for someone’s opinion or an approach that is best for a particular scenario but isn’t universally applicable.

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