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Archive for September, 2010


buttonI met my wife long before sending my first commercial email.

Which is lucky, because “will you marry me?” got a 100% conversion rate, whereas “click here to learn more about marrying me” might have produced a different outcome.

(I never got the chance to do any A/B tests.)

We know words – and their presentation – matter. Especially in emails. Yet the call to action (CTA) is perhaps the most undervalued part of email marketing.

We think once people are interested in our offer or content, they’re going to click the link.

The wording or format of that link is irrelevant, because they’ve already decided what they want to do.

That theory, unfortunately, is nonsense.

Astonishingly, a tweak or two to a simple button can do more for your clickthrough and conversion rates than an entire revamp of your email marketing program.

Don’t believe me?

Google lifted gadget installations over 50% by shifting a blue background to the CTA button. That’s a 50% conversion rate increase through a color change.

But if tweaking and testing the call to action seems like a good use of your time and resources, what should you actually tweak and test?

Here are four areas to consider, together with test results and resources for advice and inspiration.

1. Wording

Whether a standalone text link or text on a button, words drive action. And the right words drive more actions.


The phrase “You should follow me on Twitter here” increased CTR by over 75% when compared with “Follow me on Twitter”. (Source)

When ESP Campaign Monitor sent out a customer survey by email, the link text “Tell us what we can do better” scored 51% more clicks than “Give us your best Campaign Monitor ideas!” (Source)

Obox reported a 200% increase in sales after changing their button CTA from “Visit our theme shop” to “See Options and Pricing”. (Source)

Soocial added the words “it’s free” next to the main CTA button and saw conversions rise 28%. (Source)

The wording of a linked CTA should tell the viewer one or more of the following:

  • What they should do
  • Where they will go
  • Why they should go there

The best CTAs communicate all three in as few words as needed.

This isn’t as simple as it looks. Before you even start thinking about words, you have to consider whether and which of those three goals are already communicated implicitly by the location and format of the call to action.

Do people read your CTA independently of the surrounding text, images and overall messaging? Or do those elements already ensure people know why they should click the “Shop now” button?

Do you need to put “click here” on a link that is very clearly a link? Or do you only need to do that for people new to your email program?

Some, for example, argue that putting “click here” on a link is like putting the words “press” on a button. It’s a button…what else can you do with it?

Others argue that those who don’t live and breathe the Internet need more handholding. They need to be told where to click.

The importance of context and audience underlines three critical points:

1. The need to test for your own audience and email context.

2. What works for one site or one email won’t necessarily work for another. Not all CTA test results are transferable, because context and audience can change with and within each email.

3. Your audience is actually a collection of individuals, not an amorphous whole. Is there potential to use different CTAs for different segments within that audience?

As for words, consider these results from my own newsletter. The CTA takes people from an article teaser in an email to the full article at the website. CTAs using active verbs like “find out here” or “discover more” pulled an average 56% more clicks than neutral verbs like “read more”.

For advice on wording CTAs and the call to action in general, look out for Bryan Eisenberg’s articles. For example:

2. Location

Another aspect to look at is the location of the call to action.


Putting an unsubscribe link (also a CTA!) at the top of an email, rather than just in the footer, reduced spam complaints by 30% for one B2C company. (Source)

Adding links in the teaser copy itself, rather than just at the end, lifted article clickthroughs by over 25%. And the closer the distance between the in-text and end-of-text links, the higher the CTR. (Source)

There are three aspects to location.

The first is placement relative to associated images and text. How much white space do you leave? Should the CTA be above, below, to the right, to the left? How much design and color contrast do you build in?

The second is location in the message itself. A call to action can appear in various places, including:

  • subject line
  • preheader
  • menu bars and footers
  • above the content/offer
  • embedded within the content/offer
  • alongside the content/offer
  • below the content/offer

(Anything clickable also becomes a call to action, which is why many experts recommend linking images and headlines, since people tend to click on both.)

The third aspect is repetition. How often do you repeat the call to action? You’re not limited to just one placement.

3. Coding and format

The most basic call to action is a simple text link. But different formats and graphical enhancements can also change response.


A large technology vendor boosted email CTR by 67% by changing a link to a button. (Source)

Turning a plain text link into a button with icon lifted downloads over 7% for one font seller. (Source)

ESP AWeber tested buttons versus text links in their emails and found the former outperformed the latter…initially. After a few weeks, buttons actually performed worse than text links. (Source)

Whatever differences you may find between responses to buttons and text, remember that graphical elements can lose impact when images are blocked.

As a result, some marketers use so-called bulletproof buttons. These compensate for image blocking by achieving a button-like effect through table cells with HTML text and appropriate colors and styling. Here’s a simple implementation from Google:

With images:


Images blocked:


For more information, see these articles:

4. Shape, size, colors and highlighting

Button size, button shape, colors, fonts, font size, icons and arrows all also impact responses.


An online retailer lifted conversions 44.11% by using a larger “Add to Cart” button. (Source)

A fundraising email campaign doubled clickthroughs by adding an arrow to the top CTA and overlaying the main image with that CTA. (Source)

Adding a small, relevant image next to the email call-to-action lifted total clicks by over 50% for one marketing agency. (Source)

A red button pulled 21% more conversions than a green one for a software provider. (Source)

In an email test of purple, green, orange and blue buttons, the winner produced over a third more clicks than the loser. (Source)

For most calls to action, there is a size sweetspot: not too small, but not too big either. As Bryan Eisenberg puts it:

“Go extremely big so they can’t miss it, but avoid making it so big that it looks like a banner”

He also suggests you try variations on the standard rectangular or oval box theme for buttons. The GetElastic blog has numerous examples of CTA buttons to draw on for inspiration. See, for example…

The choice of color reflects both the psychology of colors and (again) context: a green button on a green website doesn’t stand out as much as a green button on a blue website.

More sources of inspiration

You’ll find galleries of call to action buttons, illustrating best practices, at Smashing Magazine and

You’ll also find email CTAs in the 12 design galleries listed in the “design inspiration” section of the HTML email design post. Retailers, in particular, should review the Retail Email and Smith-Harmon blogs.

…and if you want to see more test results, the Which Test Won and websites both collate results from website and email tests.

Final thoughts

1. All the above should tell you that it’s worth tweaking your calls to action.

Throw away any skepticism and abandon your own personal feelings and perceptions. Little changes, illogical changes, inexplicable changes…all can make a big difference to bottom line results.

2. If you do test, make sure you measure what matters.

Many of the reported CTA tests look at the impact on clicks, but don’t report the impact on conversions. One test version may have better intermediate metrics (like clicks), but poorer result metrics (like conversions).

3. As the AWeber example shows, responses change through time. Review your test results down the road and see if they still hold true in fresher tests. Beware the impact of the novelty factor, where a short-term response boost comes simply from change itself and not from what you change.

4. Remember the role of context and audience.

When we talk about segmentation, we usually think of offers and content. Perhaps it’s time to think of segmenting for microcontent: sending different calls to action to different segments.

If you can classify subscribers into characters or personas, you can build CTAs that reflect those characters or personas. Those who respond to urgency might get a “buy now before this offer expires” CTA, those who prefer deeper reflection before buying a “find out more” CTA…

So, any insights you can share on calls to action for emails?

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Permalink | September 30th, 2010 | 7 Comments »
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breaking throughIn the Brave New World of “best practices” email marketing, you eventually hit a wall.

Try as you might, you can’t lift responses much further with the tools and resources at your disposal.

You’re stuck.

And yet a sizeable majority of your subscribers still aren’t opening, clicking, reading, downloading, buying etc.

So what do you do?

One answer is to realize that what we understand by optimization…isn’t. Then you discover hidden facets to your emails that you can improve, together with your bottom line.

All very mysterious, so let’s explore…

Form and function, value and serendipity

Most topics in email marketing focus on what you might call the two pillars of functional optimization. (I love making words like that up).

The first pillar is building an email program that gives your messages the best chance of getting attention. That covers the technology, sign-up form optimization, welcome messages, preheaders, “share this” links, subject lines, design, etc.

The second pillar is delivering value. So when the message gets seen, it gets a response. That covers your offers and content, and includes all the things you do to improve the value you deliver: targeting, segmentation, trigger messages, etc.

Nothing wrong there. These are the right things to focus on.

The idea of delivering value is where we need to add new perspectives.

We know the typical subscriber has to decide whether giving an email some attention is worth his or her time. And the big factor in that decision is the likely value of that email.

So we try and deliver as much value as possible. But…we tend to see this value as purely functional:

  • What offer (item, price, discount, coupon) can we send that has the best chance of getting the subscriber to buy the relevant product or service?
  • What information (topic, length, perspective, level, etc.) can we send that has the best chance of getting the subscriber to actually read it?

Again, nothing wrong with that. It’s the foundation on which most successful email programs are built.

But success still relies on serendipity.

However targeted you manage to be, you’re still relying on catching the subscriber at the right time, in the right frame of mind, with the right current need. All of which are hard to plan for (especially the last two).

It doesn’t matter how optimized you are, you can’t please everyone every time with this kind of functional value. That’s the brick wall we all eventually face.

What about emotional value?

One solution is to recognize that value isn’t only created through a “functional transaction” (relevant offer or content).

We don’t read novels to do our jobs better. We don’t read emails from friends because they contain relevant offers. We don’t go to the cinema to get information. We don’t view paintings because of the value of the canvas and frame.

Value also comes from entertainment, inspiration, storytelling, humor, creativity, quirkiness, style, emotion, humanity…all things that rarely get considered in the function-dominated best practice literature.

And therein lies your chance.

Quality content, permission, creative design, value, relevancy, timing, personalization, customization etc. are important factors that take your email marketing amplifier all the way up to 10.

But these other, softer, difficult-to-measure elements may take it up to 11.

For example, I read every email that Michael Katz sends out. He has an informational newsletter about using email newsletters to market professional services.

I don’t learn too much from Michael.

Not because he hasn’t anything useful to say (he has), but because I’ve been studying the topic for over ten years and know my way around already.

So why bother to read every email?

Simple…every article is an entertaining read. He has style, humor and personality.

I have many calls for my attention, but I still find myself reading Michael’s articles, because he’s managed to establish a personal, emotional connection that overrides any content issues.

That’s the goal: an email optimized for functional value and performance, but which also has the emotional connection that keeps people engaged even when this functional value misses its mark (as is inevitable in any email program).

So how do you work on optimizing the non-functional aspects of your email’s value? Good question!

Part of the reason we focus on functional value is because it’s easier to measure, calculate and create.

It also fits with our technology-oriented view of the web. Most of the tools we use are there to help us optimize what we offer and what information we give out. They don’t help us decide how to present that offer or information.

Non-functional value is, therefore, harder to create, but here are some quick suggestions…

1: Turn data into people

peopleCreating more value for subscribers becomes easier when you start thinking of them as…subscribers. Not as numbers in a database or an email address.

As J-P De Clerck recently wrote:

“Whatever they are called: ultimately, they are just real people like you and me. 80% water, some flesh and bones, a brain and plenty of desires, issues, problems, challenges and dreams.”

Or as The Prisoner puts it:

“I am not a number, I am a person”

We are seduced by our wonderful campaign reports, spreadsheets, databases and other technologies into ignoring the human element in favor of numbers. Data is good. Data is important. But data is data and people are still people.

It’s hard to build an emotional connection with a number.

Once you keep the human aspect top of mind, you automatically start to plan, write, design and implement in a way that’s better suited to subscriber needs and emotions.

It can be helpful to remind ourselves of the real meaning of popular email marketing metrics. For example, “clicks” are not clicks, they’re people interested in buying/reading/learning more…

2: Add Personality

Suggesting you add personality to emails is a glib thing to say.

Those with a brand personality to project and protect have a head start (and a set of self-defined limits). But the rest of us are left wondering quite what a bit of personality is supposed to look like.

In essence, it’s anything that distinguishes the email from the mediocre. The mediocre is the bland sales or corporate style of writing and designing that everyone gravitates to because it’s safe, and because it’s easy to do by committee.

The lure of mediocrity is particularly strong in informational B2B newsletters: content-based vendor emails all tend to look and sound the same. And, yes, I’ve fallen into that trap, too.

All it takes to steer clear of mediocrity is more of a human voice. It doesn’t mean you have to be a writing master like Michael Katz. It just means recalling that the recipient reads the message as an individual, not as an “audience” or a group of spreadsheet cells.

For a longer discussion of personality in newsletters, there’s a whole book chapter on the topic available free online here.

3: Get creative and innovate

Emotional value is also helped by creativity and innovation. Two more recommendations that are so easy to say, less easy to do.

Again, the key step is recognizing and resisting the pull of mediocrity…developing a mindset or production environment that encourages you to develop unique, memorable, engaging campaigns, irrespective of the actual offers or content those campaigns might contain.

Off the top of my head:

Of course, all these ideas and concepts need testing and need to deliver, results wise. Personality doesn’t work if it’s the wrong personality for your audience.

So I’m curious. Do you agree? And what emails always grab your attention, even when the offer or content isn’t relevant right now?

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Permalink | September 22nd, 2010 | 11 Comments »
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testing your designOnce a year I update my guide to the best people and places to get good, solid, reliable email marketing information from.

This is not exclusive. There are so many great email marketing resources online right now that the final cut is necessarily subjective. Ultimately, it’s a selection of personal favorites based on around ten years watching the space.

Please feel free to plug your own favorites in the comments, of course…if there are enough, I’ll publish a “reader’s tips” follow-up post.

Media sites

1. MediaPost’s Email Insider is probably my favorite media site, hosting various excellent columns written by experts with strong backgrounds in the subject area.

If I was forced to name a top column, I’d go for Loren McDonald’s, which probably comes closest to the way I think about and use marketing email.

2. ClickZ was one of the first marketing media websites to publish an email marketing column. They now have five, featuring many long-time industry stalwarts.

All are good value, but my particular favorites are anything written by Derek Harding, Ed Heinrich, Stephanie Miller or Simms Jenkins.

3. MarketingProfs offers many great resources, but the email newsletter “Get to the Point: email marketing” is perhaps best. You get summaries of email marketing articles at the main site, plus highlights of useful posts from other sources. The summaries are often better than the original articles.

4. Other broader marketing venues with useful email marketing sections include Econsultancy and eMarketing & Commerce.

5. iMedia Connection has slipped down my personal rankings of late, but you can still get good stuff from their email regulars, like Wendy Roth, Chris Marriott and others. Watch particularly for articles by Dylan Boyd.

Stats and studies

MarketingSherpa’s Email Marketing Benchmark Guide has achieved iconic status in the industry. The main Sherpa site is also a good source of case studies and other reports.

The website is the place to start looking for public stats. It’s the brainchild of Simms Jenkins (mentioned earlier).

[N.B. This page lists 30+ sources of email marketing data and benchmarks.]

Keep an eye out for studies published by ExactTarget. Their Morgan Stewart is one of the few experts out there with an understanding of email, wider marketing channels and statistical analysis. I value his blog posts very highly.

Blogs and newsletters

testing your designThere are hundreds of relevant blogs/newsletters out there, but the following account for most of the links I share through my Google Reader.

Don’t forget that many of the below provide various ways to access their content (feed, email, Twitter etc.)

  • The Email Guide’s Jim Ducharme does a great job of highlighting the best of the email marketing web in his daily buzz roundup. The site’s also a great source of service listings and hosts email radio.
  • Chad White operates the Retail Email blog which is a super public source of insight into what the big retailers are doing with their emails.
  • The MailChimp blog often comes up with great insights and stats.
  • eROI’s Dylan Boyd has a super perspective on email marketing in a wider context, which he brings us through The Email Wars.
  • The Bronto bloggers impress with their concerted effort to bring useful, hype-free info to the community. Probably one of the best around at the moment.
  • The Blue Sky Factory blog stands out because the people there are also very clued in to social media and the implications for email. And because it features DJ Waldow, social superhero.
  • Three design-focused blogs to throw at you: Smith-Harmon (lots of examples with commentary), Style Campaign (very detailed, focus on mobile design) and Campaign Monitor (chock full of useful email design resources). Check this post for lots more top design sources.
  • Deliverability blogs are listed here (personal favorite is Word to the Wise, which is about as objective as you’ll get online).
  • AWeber’s Inbox Ideas is very educational and especially useful for small business (see also below).
  • J-P De Clerck writes wisely and regularly on social media, email and the interfaces between the two at Social Email Marketing and Conversionation.
  • Experian CheetahMail’s blog has caught my attention recently. One of the contributors is Jordan Lane, who also has a good blog at
  • The Alchemy Worx newsletter takes common topics and offers a new perspective or advice that challenges what we all thought was true.

Most of the resources mentioned above are for people dealing regularly with email marketing. Here I’d like to point out some resources that address small business and those dealing intermittently with email marketing…

  • If you write an email newsletter and haven’t read the articles by Michael Katz, you should.
  • Janine Popick‘s blog posts at Vertical Response take a small business focus and go beyond the mechanics of email marketing to cover other business aspects relevant to the “small” emailer.
  • Constant Contact has a huge small business user base: see their Learning Center for blog posts, articles, webinars etc.

Twitter accounts

Most of the names scattered throughout this post are worth following on Twitter. However, I’d like to pick out a few extra folk who stand out for being excellent spreaders of useful info or who don’t fit some of the other categories.

Good info hubs:

John Caldwell, Shannon Holato, Andy Thorpe, Jordie van Rijn, Remy Bergsma, Email Institute, The Email Guide, Chris Donald, J-P De Clerck, newzapp, Noah Fournier, Fred Tabsharani, Scott Hardigree

Andrew Kordek, Scott Cohen and robinteractive are three active twitterers from the client side of the equation: always a good perspective to have, since most content producers in this space are vendors.

(I’m sure I forgot many great Twitter accounts to follow: remind me in the comments!)

Asking a question

Finally, the Email Marketer’s Club is probably the biggest networking site out there for email marketers and includes a forum and many other useful resources. It was founded by the wonderful Tamara Gielen.

Now over to your suggestions…

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Permalink | September 14th, 2010 | 24 Comments »
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testing your design
[Go straight to the Litmus review]

iPad, iPhone, Outlook 2007, Outlook 2010, webmail, desktop clients, image suppression, preview panes, snippets, snappets, snoppets…STOP!

You can feel excused for feeling a little frustrated by all the user devices, displays and configurations that can turn your carefully crafted HTML email into a drunken Picasso.

Kimberly Snyder recently outlined a test strategy for checking how your email renders across various software, browser and device combinations.

She advises using “…an inbox rendering service to help alleviate the heavy lifting.”

Inbox rendering services (here’s a list) take your email and show you screenshots of how it looks in common webmail, desktop and mobile email clients.

A popular standalone previewing service is Litmus. Since my own newsletter got a redesign last week, I took the opportunity to run the tool through its paces and write an independent review of its functionality and usefulness. Here are the results.

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Permalink | September 8th, 2010 | 1 Comment »
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long and short pencilsIt’s time for the annual holiday email marketing resources post.

Check back regularly, as I keep this post updated with the best links on the topic.

Of course, this isn’t the first year anyone has celebrated Christmas (Dec 25th), Hanukkah (begins Dec 2nd), Kwanzaa (begins Dec 26th) etc., so there are also links to goodies from previous years…

[P.S. If you have a relevant article to recommend, let me know in the comments.]

Previous “Holiday email marketing” editions:

  • 2009 (last year’s edition with 20+ links)
  • 2008 (another bunch of links from 2008)
  • 2007 (no surprises for guessing what you’ll find here)

Special holiday email blog series featuring top retail experts:

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Permalink | September 3rd, 2010 | 6 Comments »
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