James Arnold, Chief Digital Officer, Rooster Strategic Solutions

E-mail marketing isn’t new. In fact, the first e-mail was sent back in 1971 from Ray Tomlinson to himself, as a test. Apparently, the test worked. According to Forbes, 91 percent of Americans check their e-mail daily, and e-mail campaigns deliver on average 21 percent of a companies’ overall revenue.

Unfortunately, the ease and low cost of e-mails has led to expected proliferation, meaning that the average office worker receives 121 e-mails every day. And that was before more and more office workers started working from home, rather than going to an office. All this means that if your company uses e-mail marketing as a primary or secondary means of communicating with customers – and you should – you’re going to have to do more to stand out from the crowd. Here are 8 easy tips.

#1 — Ask yourself if you really need an e-mail campaign. “We need a new e-newsletter.” Whenever you hear someone say this, it’s usually the moment that it’s a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of e-mail marketing – when it’s done correctly, and for the right reasons. But “We need one” shouldn’t be the starting point. Consider first what might be the best method to support your customer with your unique product brand or information. It might be an e-mail. But it might instead be social, mobile, or video. Think of your audience first.

#2 — Understand that e-mail is an extension of your brand. You’ll obviously want to use your company’s logo, color palette and fonts, and you should definitely include links to your website. But you’ll also want to talk to prospects and customers in language that they’re used to hearing from you. If you’re a discounter, focus on incentives. If your strength is after-sales service, include testimonials that reinforce this.

#3 — Targeting is critical. A lot of marketers make the mistake of sending e-mail blasts to everyone on their list. And then they wonder why their metrics are so low – except for the unsubscribe rate, of course. There are two easy ways to fix this. First, clean your list regularly by analyzing who hasn’t engaged with you over a certain period of time and remove them. This gives you a more-accurate open rate and gets rid of folks who are probably not interested in hearing from you anymore.

Second, and more important, segment your e-mails by customer location, interests, purchase history, etc. It obviously takes more time, but your customers will be more interested in hearing from you if you’re tailoring messages to them. One study I saw showed that segmented e-mail campaigns improved performance by more than 14 percent. That’s worth a little extra effort.

#4 — Send your e-mails at the right time. A conventional rule of thumb declared that the best days/times to send e-mails were Tuesdays and Thursdays between 9 am and 10 am. And there’s some truth in this yet, as weekdays are typically better than weekends, and mid-week usually performs better than Monday or Friday. But the bigger issue here is that you need to do some testing to identify the best time to send e-mails to your customers. Thanks to mobile phones, farmers and agribusiness professionals are more accessible than ever. The key is determining when they have time to read and act on your e-mails, and that may be Tuesday or Thursday from 9-10, or it may be Monday at 3. The more you segment and test, the more accurate you’ll be. Then, when you have a good answer, it pays to be consistent. Customers will quickly get used to your schedule. As far as how often to send e-mails, consider your audience relationship. Do you have something to tell your audience that they want to hear more than once or twice a month? Prove it. Send a few and watch the metrics.

 #5 – Spend some time on your subject line. The first thing e-mail recipients notice is the sender. The next is the subject line, and unfortunately, this is often the last thing companies do before hitting send. That’s a mistake, because a well-crafted subject line not only sets the expectation for what the recipients will find when they open it, it can improve open rates significantly.

In general, don’t be wordy, and don’t try to be clever. Instead, write a clear, straightforward subject line in as few words as possible. Keeping the line on the shorter side – think 4 to 7 words – makes you focus on the news-worthy portion of your e-mail, and since most folks are seeing your e-mail on their phones, a concise subject line ensures that they understand what you’re sending them.

As far as being creative, it’s not a bad idea, but it really isn’t necessary. MailChimp studied 40 million e-mails and concluded that the most-read e-mails were those with a subject line that “describes the subject of the e-mail.”

#6 – Don’t skimp on the design. Simply put, good-looking e-mails will generate better results than ugly ones. This will be shocking to companies who have a committee of folks doing multiple reviews on the wording before handing off the text to an intern to put the finally-approved copy into a formulaic – and often, ugly – template.

Studies show that recipients look at e-mails in an F-shaped pattern, so the top lines of copy and the first image are the most important. Make sure that if this is all a recipient notices – and for most, that’s exactly the case – they’ll understand why you sent the e-mail. A good place to put your logo is in the upper-left corner. And keep your e-mail no more than 650 pixels wide. Any larger and recipients will have to scroll horizontally to read them on a mobile device, and most won’t.

#7 – Make your copy count. Before you start writing the e-mail, start by asking yourself what the customer cares about. If all they want is a discount or cash off, that’s fine. Make sure to include yours in the subject line – studies show that highlighting incentives improves open rates by as much as 50 percent – and put the link to the offer at the top of the page.

But there are other ways to convey information without making your e-mail sound like a press release, or a page from an annual report. For instance, tell a story, and tell it the same way that you’d tell a friend sitting next to you. Use a testimonial, which is especially effective to segmented audiences (see #3). Include a link to a video; one study showed that adding video increases click rates by 300 percent. You’re competing with 120 or more e-mails for your recipient’s attention. Spicing up your e-mail with animations, videos, and interactive content is a good way to improve your odds.

And make it easy – really easy – for people to unsubscribe. Many marketers are reluctant to add this feature, but you should look at it as a way of making it easier for you to regularly clean your database to improve your overall metrics.

#8 Track the right metrics. Most companies look at Deliverability and Open Rate, and that’s good; the rise and fall of these will impact the more important metrics: conversions and sales. For the record, the average open rate across all industries is around 21 percent; for Ag and Food Services companies, it’s a little higher, around 23 percent with a 3-percent click through rate (CTR).

But deliverability and open rate, while good, should be just a good start. What’s your spam placement rate? The read rate? Deleted-before-reading rate? Forward rate? Are your e-mails generating complaints? If your e-mail provider doesn’t give you these metrics, you should be talking to a third party – or to another e-mail service provider.

If you’re interested in pursuing better metrics, or simply want to talk about how to make your significant investment in e-mail marketing work harder for you, I’d love to have a conversation.