Janet Roberts has been around email marketing for longer than most. I’m pleased to have her back as a contributing columnist. -Larry Chase

1. List Hygiene Is Essential

A clean list – one with few outdated or incorrectly formatted addresses – will have a higher deliverability rate. This translates into more messages delivered correctly to intended recipients. A clean list also makes ISPs happy. They are less likely to block your email messages or route them to bulk/junk email folders.

The more often you send, the more frequently you need to clean your list, and the more often you need to monitor your list’s performance. Blacklists, or third-party monitoring services, also watch email deliveries closely and will put your email address or mail server identification number on their lists if they suspect you. ISPs and other email services consult these blacklists to help them decide whether to allow, block or filter your messages. Therefore, check your delivery reports during and after each message send to find out who is blocking you. You, your IT/database people or your email agency can work with the ISPs and blacklists to resolve disputes, but it may require you to change the way you send messages – and to get very serious about monitoring who you send your messages to.

2. Avoid List Fatigue

The more often you send email (especially if you send more email than your recipients wanted or expected when they signed up) the lower your open rates will be. You are simply wearing out your list, ie., wearing out or “fatiguing” the patience of your subscribers. Return Path, an email monitoring and optimization service, found in surveys taken after the 2005 and 2006 holiday shopping seasons that many recipients complained that they got too much email. The consequences of emailing too often? Your recipients will delete your messages unopened or unsubscribe from your list. Worse, they could hit the “report spam” button in their email programs thinking this shortcut will stop your email. Let your recipients choose how often they want to hear from you by listing frequency options on a preferences page, and then respect their choices.

3. Gauge Your List’s Age

How old your list is also affects your open rate. As with traditional direct marketing, your most enthusiastic recipients are your newest ones, or what are known as your “hotliners”. You need to capture them right at the get-go, when they sign up, with a welcome message that tells them what they can expect, with copy, frequency, benefits and the like. Recent research by marketing publisher MarketingSherpa showed subscriber interest drops off markedly within weeks of signing up. So, you’ll also need to recapture your older subscribers’ interest. Create a list subsegment of names that have been on your list for a certain amount of time – say, three months – and send them a special offer or put a custom subject line on your regular offer to grab their attention and get them back into the fold. If you let subscribers choose their own options or provide a registration page, invite them back to update their preferences or registrations.

4. Reinvigorate Inactive Subscribers

You can also segment your list by activity to find out who is opening your messages. An inactive list is not going to generate any of the numbers you need, no matter how tempting the offer is. This is an argument for the use of specific email distribution software or a third-party agency. Either one will generate reports that will tell you pretty precisely what kind of activity your list is producing. If you want to boost your open rate, you will need to look at the number showing you the unique opens for that campaign: one open per reader, not multiple opens from a single reader (which skews your results). Once you know that number, you can dig down into your database and create segments based on activity, such as those who have not opened or clicked in the last three months, to re-engage the interest of those subscribers who have grown passive. Then test an offer on that segment or invite them to update their subscriptions.

5. Write Clear, Informative Subject Lines

Your subject line is crucial. It has about 2 seconds and 50 characters to tell your readers who you are, what you’re offering, and why they need to skip over all the IN box clutter and open you right away. You need to be eye-catching but not deceptive. Direct is best: Put the benefit, call to action or urgency element in the subject line. Resist the urge to be cute. Saying “Here’s something we know you’ll like…” tells the reader nothing and even makes you look like a spammer if your name is not familiar. Do make sure your company or brand name shows up in the “from” field, not an email address, a department name such as “Sales” or “Email Marketing”, or a person’s name – unless that name would be instantly familiar to your recipients.

6. Design For Preview Panes

Many readers view only a portion of your message in a preview pane, so don’t waste the top real estate with copy or images that don’t tell the story. Others read email on portable devices such as all-in-one cell-phone/PDAs like the BlackBerry and the Treo, which don’t read formatted emails at all. So if you rely on just one big image, they’ll see one big blank space. Create a “light” version of your message in text format for people who either want just text or who read email on portable devices. Offer the text version as an option on your sign-up page, or use your email service provider’s multi-part MIME sniffing technology, which senses when an email client cannot read HTML and then provides a text version instead. Link to the full Web version at the top of your text message. This makes the subject line wording and copywriting even more important, because you will not be able to rely on a picture to help sell your offer. However, you will better adapt your messages for this new world of email viewing.

7. The Medium and the Message

Maybe your problem is not so much getting your message in front of readers or prospects as it is choosing the right venue in which to deliver that message to them. You might rely on solo offers – the one-off, stand-alone email message that has no editorial content around it. Third-party email newsletters are another medium to consider. When you buy ad space in a newsletter, you only need to deliver good, workable copy. Someone else will do the heavy lifting of targeting, formatting and delivery. This is a good choice if you lack either your own house list or access to good rental lists. Yes, you will have to share eye space with other attractions, including articles, images and even other ads, but you will also benefit from placement in front of a highly targeted audience. You will want to ask about rates, of course, but be sure to inquire about open and click rates, the mailing list size, delivery frequency and placement. Top placement may be ideal, but you can also get good traffic and results from mid-level and lower placement. Some say that lower placement yields more qualified leads.

8. Image Blocking Loses Eyeballs

You can no longer rely on images to tell your story or sell your product. Today’s email clients routinely block images by default unless the user changes a setting to allow those images to download. It’s done to block spam and prevent viruses from downloading, but it also means image-heavy messages will show up with a lot of empty windows filled with red X’s.

Worse, a message formatted as one large image will show up blank unless the user elects to show the image or change the setting. You can make sure readers don’t miss essential information by replacing a call-to-action image with text instead. Or simply duplicate your call to action in text. Also, be careful when choosing your call to action words in text because many spam filters look for precisely those words in that configuration (words we cannot show you here because the filters would nab us as well). BTW, don’t forget that you can include descriptive text in your alt tags.

9. Segment Your Offer

Your customers respond to your mailings in many ways and for many different reasons. So, don’t send the same offer to everyone. That doesn’t mean you need to come up with five completely different products or services for a campaign. Instead, work with your database manager or with your ESP to find ways to slice and dice your database into relevant segments – demographics, geography, past purchases, activity, age on the list, whatever you have. Then, write copy that will appeal to each unique segment. Send the emails as usual. But be sure to compare results segment to segment. Once again, you will be able to leverage email’s flexibility to create multiple versions of the same offer and increase your open rate, because you will come much close to your recipients’ self interest.

10. Test and Test Again

If you merely get copy OK’d before handing it off to your production person, you’re missing lots of opportunity to fine-tune your campaign. When you test your message on a sample population, you can look for weaknesses all along the line: in the content itself, in the subject line, the images used, offer placements in the layout, etc. Send yourself a test message before pulling the trigger. Click each link, and review all images to be sure they display properly. If you can, view the message on different hardware – PCs, Macs, cellphone and PDA screens – and in different browsers or clients.

Don’t just test the message itself. Test multiple versions of the landing page to see which landing page captures more sales, subscribers or registrants. But wait – you’re not done yet. Even though one landing page may capture more respondents, a thorough testing exercise might well reveal that a landing page which captures fewer respondents might actually capture more qualified prospects.