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What’s wrong with Email Marketing today

One day, a man walked into a London-based ad agency and asked the director to help him. He had recently purchased a country house and wanted to turn it into a hotel, but only had  $500 to spend on advertising. This was a low budget even for the 1950s, when the conversation took place. As you can easily imagine, the director turned down the project. Luckily, he also sent the man down to the “office boy” who at that time happened to be David Ogilvy.

Ogilvy took the job right away and invested the budget in penny postcards, mailing them to people in the neighbourhood. Six weeks later, the hotel was opened to a full house. Since then, as he confessed in his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, he became an advocate of direct marketing.

Today, email is booming

Just as Ogilvy wanted and predicted, companies did become more and more interested in direct marketing.

Software products like HubSpot and Marketo have promoted the power of nurturing leads and delighting customers, persuading companies to engage with their audience more via email. They allow marketers to personalise their campaigns, design beautiful emails, and send them out to strategically segmented lists.

But, as usual, it’s easier said than done.

There’s just too much marketing in email marketing

If you want to get it right with email marketing, think about these two: tone of voice and context.

When I think about tone of voice, I can only see two major distinctive situations: the obviously-salesy tone and the natural, human way of talking. The problem with automated-messages is that it feels like there’s nobody on the other end, so there’s no point in responding and interacting with the company. A more natural tone humanises the brand, keeping the door open for a real conversation.

Now think about the context: when people open up their inboxes, they’re mostly looking for work-related emails, or news from family or friends. They immediately delete the emails that aren’t helpful or that simply don’t fit into their context. They are in email-mode and if you’re not there with them, you go straight to the Trash folder.

So how can we get it right?

Here are some good and bad examples of subject lines and body content.

Subject Line: make it pretty straightforward

MailChimp conducted a really interesting study: what subject lines work (60-87% open rate) vs. what subject lines make you delete the email asap (1-14% open rate) [this is the link to the report].

They compiled a list of good and bad subject styles, and they noticed a pattern.

Clickbait | Credit: Cartoonsbyjim.com

Image credit: cartoonsbyJim.com


The more mysterious, salesy or “creative” the line, the worse it performed. Think about it, can you recognise a clickbait title from a mile away? Of course you can. But so does everybody else. As the research shows, when checking their inbox, people are rarely looking for promotional, salesy content.

There’s another downside of the catchy subject lines. The “open rate” indicator is rather misleading. It doesn’t exactly tell you how many people were actually interested in your content; it simply says that the subject line works. You get a click, before the email goes to Trash. On a grander scale, does that open rate even matter?

The best performing subject lines are the ones that are quite straightforward and briefly explain the content of the email. Simply put, they set the right expectation and the open rate becomes a very valuable indicator of how your message is perceived by your audience.

Message Content: be more human

I remember this phrase, “more human”, from a brilliant video produced by HubSpot for their Inbound marketing conference in 2013. Although it doesn’t refer directly to email marketing, it speaks about an attitude to which all marketers aspire. Some have managed to adopt this.

Take Drift for example. This July they announced a change in their marketing approach. Part of it meant that they changed their welcome email to make it sound more human, something that would encourage their subscribers to hit the reply button and talk to them.

Here’s how it goes.

First email from Drift

The subject line is “just saying hi”; pretty straightforward. Their tone is professional, but it has a personality, and it all seems to be working for them. As Dave Gerhardt, Drift’s lead marketing, admits their open rate is around 50%.

Key takeaways

Email marketing has a bad reputation, but it doesn’t have to be this way for your company. Now it’s the right time to make a change and stand out by being less annoying, and more helpful. Even funny or entertaining.

  • Email is (still) the most direct way to reach your audience
  • A straightforward subject line will increase your open rate. Use the subject line to briefly explain the content of the email.
  • An authentic, friendly email content will increase your engagement rate. Show your subscribers or clients who you really are by using a professional but friendly tone of voice.



I’m a SaaS marketer always happy to read & talk about all things inbound, SEO, storytelling, design, and literature.
  • Emma Jones

    Good points. It’s actually not that hard to be good at email marketing
    if you know and follow simple rules similar to those outlined in this
    article. We use SendPulse marketing automation platform to send out
    segmented campaigns of personalized messages and often perform split
    testing to determine the best course of action in a particular
    situation. Looking at our campaigns statistics and tests results we
    could clearly see in time what choices of subject lines and message
    content lead to better results. And there wasn’t actually any surprise
    there – things like relevance, clarity and some real value of your
    message are what works the best.

  • Ellie

    Nice article. Sometimes those subject lines make the message go straight to Trash. We’re using GetResponse marketing automation.