April 17, 2018 | Lauren Nettles

16 Email Marketing Mistakes You Can Easily Avoid

Email has long been a cornerstone of digital marketing, and even after all these years and the mountains of spam we receive, it continues to be one of the most effective. Almost all businesses are doing at least some email marketing, but few actually optimize their email campaigns to get the kind of ROI they're capable of.
It's understandable—tracking multiple metrics across numerous campaigns sent to different list segments, then trying to interpret and leverage all of that information, is challenging to say the least. But you don't have to go from zero to perfect to see the benefit of taking a more strategic approach to your email marketing.
Some of these common email marketing mistakes are low-hanging fruit that you can correct immediately, while others take more time and planning. There's something here for businesses with every level of email marketing experience, so get ready to see some results!

Email Planning & Strategy Mistakes

1. Forgetting Mobile

This is first on the list because it impacts every other element of email marketing. About 56% of all emails are opened on mobile devices, and many brands see mobile open rates that are much higher than that. 

Here are a few keys to mobile email success:

  • Keep it short. Email content, including headlines and individual paragraphs, will appear longer on mobile devices due to the narrow screen.
  • Use images carefully. Think about how they will display on smartphones, especially when held vertically.
  • Make sure that CTAs are easy to tap. In-text links should have longer anchor text, and any buttons with an image component should have descriptive alt text so that if your image doesn't display, the recipient can still click.
  • Test send times with mobile in mind. If you have a high mobile open rate, take a look at your successful campaigns. Are people opening your emails right when they wake up? While they're in line for coffee? Over their lunch breaks? If you have a lot of repeat opens, are they checking them out on mobile and then returning later on a desktop? If that's the case, you may want to make it easier for them to read or act on your emails the first time.
Most email services allow you to preview messages on different devices, so be sure to take advantage of that as you try to diagnose issues and optimize your emails for mobile.

2. Unwanted Content

When each person on your contact list gave you their email address, they had expectations about what they were going to receive and how they would benefit from it. It's risky to stray from those expectations—if you send them things they don't want or feel are a violation of that contract, they can unsubscribe or even report you for spam violations. 

Yet when you surprise them by delivering more value than expected, you build and expand those relationships, converting or retaining more customers and creating brand advocates.

Ask yourself:

  • How have you acquired email addresses over time? Did all of those people consent to receiving marketing emails?
  • What expectations were set when they signed up? What did you tell them they were going to receive?
  • What have they heard from you since then? 
  • Are you making changes to your email marketing content that you need to explain to them (e.g. starting a weekly newsletter)?

The key is understanding
 who they are and what they want from you. If those questions are too complicated to answer, you probably need to segment your list into clear groups. Which leads me to... 

3. No Segmentation

If email marketing success is all about sending the right content to the right person, list segments are how you make that happen. Segmentation refers to the process of dividing your list into segments so you can target the content they receive to their specific needs, preferences, concerns, locations, or stages in the buyer's journey.

There can be overlap among these segments, and people can move between them, such as when they get further into the buyer's journey. But you can only segment your lists based on data you've collected from your contacts, so it's closely related to other marketing tools like forms and lead-capturing content offers.

How to Start Segmenting

If you're currently sending all your emails out to the same list, start by identifying the type of customer with the best lifetime value and finding the piece of information you collect that allows you to group them together. If you aren't collecting it yet, don't worry—just use the best information you have to create the most useful segment you can.  

Then, create email content targeted specifically to your new list segment. How can you customize the messages they receive to appeal to them in particular? Can you use examples or make suggestions that are more specific to their experiences? Can you change the sender and email signature to a member of your team with subject matter expertise, or who they might have heard from before or work with in the future?

You're probably starting to see the massive potential of segmentation, and why targeted emails generally have better open and click-through rates.

4. Bad Timing

Email timing is one of the most underappreciated factors in your open rates, click rates, and even unsubscribes (a whopping 66% of unsubscribes occur between 5 and 10 p.m.). It's closely connected to your buyer personas, and the wrong timing can sabotage the impact of an email that would otherwise succeed.
For starters, use campaign data to correlate open and click rates to send times. As you do this, keep in mind that different types of emails may be more successful at different times of day and different days of the week. 
If you've been looking at send times but you've had trouble getting conclusive results, you may need to take another look at your segments—or even spend some more time getting to know your buyer persona.
Are your list members scattered across different time zonesSome email services (including HubSpot and MailChimp) have features that account for recipient time zone when you schedule an email, but if yours doesn't, you could always create list segments for your most important time zones. 
Different buyer personas have different priorities at different times of day. People with young children may open emails in the morning (or not!) but aren't likely to have time to read or act on them, while other people may wake up and start the day by scrolling through messages and reading emails in bed or over coffee.
If you're getting started, begin by making your best guess about optimal send times based on your understanding of your buyer persona and their habits. The better you understand them, the better the first guesses will be and the better information you'll have for future tweaking.
After a few email sends, compare emails sent at different times of day and week, and be sure to try to use a sample of emails that are as similar as possible. While you're primarily checking open rates, look at conversions as well. People may open an email on a busy morning, but not have time to click through to buy or read an article. While email engagement is important for deliverability, conversions and sales are the ultimate goal.

5. Wrong Frequency

I have no doubt you've been on the receiving end of this one. Too many emails is irritating, perhaps even more so from brands you actually want to hear from because you don't want to unsubscribe. Unsurprisingly, 78% of consumers have unsubscribed from emails because a brand was sending too many emails.

Too few is just as bad—if you've been out of sight for too long, people may not remember subscribing and think your emails are spam. So, how can you find the right balance? According to a 2015 survey, 86% of consumers would like to receive promotional emails from companies they do business with at least monthly, and 15% would like to get them daily. 

6. Ignoring Analytics

Email isn't really a "set it and forget it" medium. As devices and platforms evolve and brands compete for consumer attention, both technology and trends evolve quickly. 

Best practices are a great place to start, but you have to prioritize your own data. Experts may say that a first name personalization token in the subject line increases your open rate, but does it do that for your audience? Maybe not! You have to check. 

Surprisingly, 15% of marketers report that their companies do not regularly review email open and click rates, and the remaining majority who do often struggle to act on the information. Set reminders to review your data after each campaign or an appropriate period, and make a few actionable notes each time about what you can do to improve your metrics. Make sure that information lands somewhere you'll be able to review it when crafting your next campaign, and presto, you have an optimization process.  

If your email system has the capability, A/B tests are the best way to isolate the individual factors that most impact your results. Not only do they yield more accurate results, but they will save you so much time and effort in analyzing the data from separate email campaigns.

7. Isolating Email from Your Other Marketing

Email marketing shouldn't happen in a silo. If it doesn't reflect and support your overall business goals, the work of other departments, or even your other marketing efforts, it's a waste of your time and energy.

That's not to say that every marketing tool has the same goals or targets the same buyer persona, product line, or pain points. Indeed, one of the main benefits of using different platforms and media is that you can appeal to a broader range of ideal customers—but your marketing shouldn't be working at cross-purposes.

Think about the experience of a loyal customer. What other marketing messages are they seeing in addition to your emails? Do they follow you on Instagram or Facebook? Are they receiving different messages about what actions your company wants them to take via those platforms? The more clearly your brand speaks with a single voice, the more effective your marketing will be.

Pulling your marketing efforts into alignment begins with communication within your marketing team. Work together to document your weekly, monthly, and/or quarterly goals, and how different platforms and campaigns work together to accomplish them. And then, before you begin execution, explicitly discuss how you're going to track your progress against those goals.

This is where lots of great companies drop the ball; only 23% of marketers say they've integrated their email marketing with their websites so they can track what happens after a click. So apparently 77% of marketers don't know that you can set up email tracking in Google Analytics relatively easily.

8. No Focus on ROI

This is closely related to ignoring your analytics, but we're going to take it one step further. Technically, you can use analytics to increase the performance of various metrics without actually measuring profitability. It's important to measure the return on investment of the time you put in to your email marketing, and to break down different email activities to determine what's working.

Once you've accurately measured ROI, you can make more strategic choices based on what's profitable rather than just chasing an upward trend or focusing on offers you think "would be cool." Measuring ROI gets you closer to understanding what your buyer persona wants from you, and what you're great at delivering—and that information is priceless. 

Email Execution Mistakes

9. Bad Sender and Subject Line

Whether your reader is opening emails on the phone or computer, the first thing they see is the sender name and subject line. Their decision about whether to open your emails is largely based on those elements. If they recognize the sender, great—they'll skip to the subject.

But if not...

Sender Name and Email Address

For email recipients who might not recognize you as a sender, either because it's the first time you're contacting them or because it's been a while, the important thing it to trigger their memory, if possible in a way that's tied to the value you offer.

The oft-repeated advice is to send from an actual person, but what if the recipient won't recognize that person? Sure, people are more likely to open an email from an individual than from a company, but as the tactic has become more common, context has only gotten more important. One compromise is to do both: instead of "Emily Winsauer," try "Emily from VIEO Design" or something similar. 

If you do use someone's name, the email should be sent from their email address or at least an address associated with their department. Though recipients rarely see the actual sender email these days, by all means avoid the generic "info" or "donotreply" at your domain. 

Subject Lines

Volumes have been written on how to craft an email subject line, and I certainly won't try to cover it all here. In fact, I shouldn't. Like so much of marketing, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution - you'll have to do some experimenting with different proven factors to see what works best for your customers. 
Here are 7 factors that go into making the best email subject line, according to HubSpot: 
  • Urgency
  • Curiosity
  • Offers
  • Personalization
  • Relevance and Timeliness
  • Name Recognition
  • Cool Stories
Here's another great opportunity to use A/B Testing. Nearly half (47%) of marketers say they sometimes test alternate subject lines to optimize email performance. It'll help you get a better idea of what factors appeal to your audience. 
For more on perfecting email subject lines, check out this study from Venngage testing out the performance of 45 different subject lines and how effectively some online tools can predict high-performing subjects. 
10. Too Much or Too Little Personalization
It can be hard to walk the line between too impersonal and creepy-specific. Nearly every marketing email I receive greets me by name, often when I have no memory of how I got on the company's email list.
Many, many marketers will disagree with me, but I think personalization is overrated. I would go with more granular segmentation over "Hi, [first_name], how's the weather in [contact_city]?" any day of the week. But what I think isn't necessarily what your audience thinks. Like so many other factors that often appear on "best practices" lists, there's no substitute for testing for yourself to see what your recipients respond to.
Start by A/B testing the effects of different types of personalization on the subject line. Are certain personalization tokens more effective than others? Does it make a difference where the token appears in the subject line? How does it compare to no personalization? Then, move on to testing whether and how personalization impacts clicks on links within your emails.
11. Too Much Text
When they aren't at work, Americans frequently check their email while watching TV (70%), on the phone (43%), from the bathroom (42%), and while driving (18%), according to a 2015 survey from Adobe. 
People just aren't giving you their full attention. If they open an email and see a big block of text they can't easily skim while watchingThis Is Us, they're likely to skip it. 
A few guidelines:
  • Give people only the information they need, then stop.
  • Make important details "skimmable" to entice them to keep reading.
  • Vary the formatting (headings, lists, bold text) to make it easier to read.
  • Use short, 1-2 sentence paragraphs to optimize for smartphone users.
  • If you're getting bored reading it, so will they.

12. Essential Data in Images

When you include key data in images, such as coupon codes, event details, or (*gasp*) the entire message, anyone with image auto-loading turned off won't see anything but the alt text you've added for the image.  

If you're worried about losing visual appeal, don't—according to HubSpot, the clickthrough rate of an email actually tends to decrease as the number of images increases. So, by all means, use a cool header image, a timely in-text GIF, or a cute staff photo in the signature, but keep things lean 'n' clean and don't use images to communicate essential information.

13. No Clear Call to Action

No matter how good the impression you make with your emails, you need to channel that attention you have on your brand into action. 

Email CTAs can be tricky because space and your readers' attention is limited. Every word of your email is essentially part of the CTA. You can't just have a "Join Now" button at the end of a short description about your company and expect results. Join what? And why? 

Make sure your email has a purpose (and a clear benefit for your reader), and that every word of your email is working towards that purpose. Then, finish up that purpose with a related, easy-to-spot CTA. The more specific, the better. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, keep mobile in mind. CTAs need to be easily visible and easy to tap for mobile users. And don't forget about that alt text. 

14. Not Proofreading

This one doesn't need much description. I know you're eager to send, but proofing your emails before they go out is non-negotiable.

It's not just about typos—be sure to check any embedded links, recurring elements like promo codes, and the font and formatting of any text you copied and pasted in, etc. 

15. Skipping the Test Send

Chances are, you've received a weirdly-formatted email at some point in your life. If you're like me, you probably clicked away from it pretty quickly instead of trying to spend precious time figuring out how to navigate that formating. 

You can proofread your copy all you want, but without a test send, you have no way of knowing how it's truly going to look once you send it out into the world. Depending on your platform, you can preview for different devices. This feature becomes even more powerful combined with the ability to see what devices your readers use to open your emails. Keep track of best practices for different platforms - how Gmail displays vs. Mac Mail, for example - and the differences in display between mobile and desktop. 

Do an actual test send to yourself. You may even catch important copy errors now that you're looking at it in a different format. 

16. No List Maintenance

Failing to maintain an updated list of contacts can result, in the best case, in low engagement. It can also lead to compliance issues, which can affect your ability to send emails or even shut down your account. With new GDPR regulations to contend with, it's especially important to update your list and make sure no one is receiving unasked for communication from your company. 

Once you have compliance taken care of, you can focus on metrics like open rates. You probably already know that clean lists see higher open rates. In some cases, a carefully purged list saw raw opens increase by 25% or more. Of course, cutting off people who aren't opening your emails will improve your open ratio, but there's more to it than that.

Internet service providers are a little intense about deliverability. They estimate about 95% of emails have no value. Harsh. It's far from hopeless though. Higher engagement triggers higher inbox placement by telling ISPs that you're worth people's time - which means they'll let more of your emails through. 

Here are some changes you can make to your list to see a rise in open rates: 

  • Remove soft bounces
  • Remove email addresses that don't belong to an individual (e.g. info@, etc.)
  • Create a re-engagement campaign. Try to re-engage users who haven't opened an email in the past 6 months or whatever time period you feel is appropriate. Then remove people who don't open those emails. 


While we're at it, make sure it's clear and easy to unsubscribe. As a subscriber, it's frustrating enough to get emails you don't want, but not being able to quit getting them is even worse.

Email marketing is hard to master, but it has the potential to drastically change your business. If you haven’t seen the results you want from your email marketing efforts in the past, we hope these tips will help you turn email marketing into a valuable, successful part of your marketing campaign. And if you need a hand, we're happy to help you make the most of email marketing.

Download our Email Marketing Checklist!


Lauren Nettles

Lauren Nettles

As VIEO's content marketing strategist, Lauren Nettles creates content strategy for VIEO and our clients. She works with the content team to create, document, and revise creative content strategies that help clients and customers better understand each other.

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