8 Dangerous (But Common) Misconceptions About Email Marketing

Corey Wainwright
Corey Wainwright




In terms of digital marketing channels, email marketing is one of the oldest. More than a decade counts as a long time in digital marketing, you know.


That means it's had more than its fair share of time to accumulate plenty of misconceptions and myths about how it works. But the times, they are a' changin', guys.

Some of these myths make sense -- perhaps they were once grounded in reality, but over time best practices have changed, yet the myths persisted. The other myths? They're just a bunch of hulabaloo! But they're the kind of misconceptions that, if marketers believe them, can really impact the effectiveness of email marketing campaigns. And nobody wants that.

So, this blog post will cover all of the common myths and misconceptions that plague the email marketing world, and debunk them once and for all. And of course, if you have any myths of your own you'd like debunked, submit them in the comments -- perhaps we'll even need a part two to this post!

8 Common Misconceptions About Email Marketing

1) Trigger Words Land You in the Spam Filter

There are a ton of words that email marketers have been trained to avoid like the plague in their email messages -- particularly the subject line. Words like "Free," "Cash," "Quote," and "Save." These warnings come from the days when email inboxes were inundated by crap messages from email spammers. While the days of email spammers certainly aren't over, spam filters have gotten far more sophisticated at identifying what kinds of messages -- and more importantly, what kinds of email senders -- are legitimate. Spam filters look at way, way, way more than just your email subject line to determine if your message is spam.

In fact, we conducted a test of our own to see if the word "Free" affected deliverability of our email message. The verdict? The inclusion of the word "Free" raised a red flag, but did not actually end up impacting the deliverability of the email message. That makes total sense -- because it's just one very minor indication that you may (or may not) be a spammer. Nowadays, if you're a legitimate email sender with a great sender reputation, telling someone you have a free ebook for them in your email subject line isn't going to shoot you into someone's spam folder.

2) People on Your Opt-in List Want to Hear From You

You generate all of your email contacts through legitimate opt-ins. Good for you! That means people raised their hand and said, "Hey! You! I want you to email me!"

That's true ... ish. Not everyone that opts in to your emails actually wants to receive your emails. Two scenarios may occur after an opt-in:

  • Someone opted in thinking your emails would be something they aren't. As a result, they see your first couple of emails, end up disappointed, but don't necessarily get around to unsubscribing.
  • The contact reads your emails for a while, but eventually becomes disengaged. Perhaps they change jobs, move, get busy, abandon that email address, or just plain lose interest in your content. Whatever the reason, they don't bother to unsubscribe from your emails.

In both of these scenarios, you have people on your opt-in list who, at one time or another, thought they wanted your content, but eventually decided they didn't ... and didn't tell you, either. That's why you can't rely on unsubscribes as the only way to tell if your email contacts want to hear from you; you should look at email engagement too. That's why it's important to periodically monitor email engagement, attempt to re-engage those who have become dis-engaged, and then cleanse your list of those who don't respond to your re-engagement campaign. We've written a blog post that walks you through that whole process in a way that will keep your sender reputation sterling -- read it here.

3) Unsubscribes Are Bad

Unsubscribes are an indication that someone doesn't want to receive email from you. Bad, right?

Not so fast. When people unsubscribe from your emails, it acts as a natural list cleanser. Like we just covered, there are plenty of people on your list who don't really want to hear from you ... they're just not going to the trouble of opening your message and unsubscribing. If you have a healthy unsubscribe rate -- under 1% -- then don't think of unsubscribes as a bad thing. Think of it as natural list cleansing that every email marketer needs to do to keep a healthy list, so you don't end up with frustrated subscribers who huff and puff and, out of frustration, just mark you as spam (when you really aren't).

4) Email Isn't a Lead Generator

Email is a nurturing tool -- it helps to convert leads into marketing qualified leads, but it doesn't actually generate net new leads. Right?

Wrong. Thinking of email as just a nurturing tool is only half the story. First, remember that emails are heavily shared -- to people not already on your email list. That means if you have a lead generating call-to-action in your email, and that email is forwarded to or shared with someone who's not on your list, you have the opportunity to generate a brand new lead. So if you don't already have forward and social sharing buttons in your email messages, add them stat!

The second scenario in which email is a lead generator is kind of a mashup between lead generation and nurturing -- because you're nurturing subscribers (sometimes referred to as prospects, depending on your internal nomenclature) into leads. For instance, if someone subscribes to our blog, they're only subscribing to receive email notifications when we publish new blog posts. They're not signing up to receive, say, invites to our next webinar. But when you send an email alerting these subscribers to a new blog post being published, that email could include a lead generating call-to-action, too. All the sudden, email has helped you upgrade subscribers to a lead in your database!

5) Emails Have to Be Highly Designed

Not at all. In fact, sometimes it's better that your emails are really plain -- like, so plain that they're plain text, even. There are a couple potential benefits to sending plain text, or almost plain text emails:

  • The recipient doesn't feel like he or she is being marketed to. A plain text email is what they'd receive from a friend or colleague, and it's free from distracting bells and whistles. You're free to just say what you want to say, and the reader can just ... read it. This may not work for everyone, mind you. We've tested this on certain segments of our email list, and there are still some that response better to HTML messages. Like many email tests, your results will certainly vary, as well.
  • It's easier for the email message to render. Emails with tons of design elements -- big images or video, for example -- could experience more hiccups than your basic HTML email with just a logo in the header and a small picture of, say, the product you're promoting. Some of your recipients might have images turned off by default, so your email looks totally whacky when the meaning of the email rests on all of the images displaying. Or perhaps your recipients are reading the message on their mobile devices -- are they really going to wait for that giant email to load? If they do, will it still look as great as it looked when you designed it on your desktop computer? It's a long shot, to be sure.

Just because you have the ability to do some epic design work in your email marketing, doesn't mean you should. Err on the side of simplicity, and test out more sophisticated design elements incrementally to see if they impact your conversion rates.

6) If You Abide by CAN-SPAM Laws, You're Gravy

Nuh uh. If you abide by CAN-SPAM laws, it means you're legally compliant. It doesn't mean you're going to get into inboxes, though. There's simply a greater correlation between people who get into inboxes that are CAN-SPAM compliant because, well, spammers don't get into inboxes as often as legit email marketers, and spammers aren't CAN-SPAM compliant.

If you want to increase the likelihood that you get into inboxes, you have way more to work on -- namely your sender reputation. I'd recommend reviewing this post, "How Marketers Can Avoid Those Dreaded Email Spam Traps" as a start. And, of course, remain CAN-SPAM compliant!

7) Open Rate Is an Important Email Marketing Metric

The email open rate metric many ESPs display is very misleading, because the name implies that it will tell you how much of your list opened your email.

It does not do this.

If you had a reliable open rate metric, email open rate would be an important metric to track. The problem is, email open rates are unreliable for a few reasons:

  • All your recipients using Outlook have images blocked by default, which means open rate isn't tracked accurately ... because an email being opened is indicated by an image in that email being downloaded. All images blocked means no opens being recorded.
  • This image blocking is becoming more common in other email clients as well. Do you have images blocked by default? I do. Some email marketers out there might think I really hate their emails ... but I don't. Usually.
  • Similarly, mobile devices often default to a text format for emails in which images aren't automatically downloaded. Again, this will lead to a decrease in open rate.

Instead of looking at open rates to decide if your email send was successful, look at clickthrough rates on your email's calls-to-action, and the leads generated from that email send. That's what you care most about anyway, right?

8) Open Rate Is a Useless Email Marketing Metric

What the $&#@!? You just said ...

I know, I said email open rate isn't an important metric. But it doesn't mean it doesn't have a use. Email open rates are still useful as a comparative metric. If you're trying to see what subject line people are more likely to open, for instance, you can segment your send and compare the open rates -- assuming they are each being affected relatively similarly by open rate metric "issues." So while open rate isn't a reliable email marketing metric to gauge how many people are opening your emails, it can still be used as an gauge when considered as a comparative metric.

What other email marketing myths and misconceptions are out there that you think should be debunked?

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