Five Ways to OPTIMIZE Email for Better Results

“We do not believe in optimizing emails. We optimize thought sequences.”

-Dr. Flint McGlaughlin

Editor’s note: This information was adapted from an article by Adam T. Sutton originally published at Marketing Sherpa in March, 2011. The article is based on advice from Dr. Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director (CEO) at MECLABS. Access the original article here (paid subscription required).

Insight #1: Emails should sell clicks, not products.

The goal of a marketing email should not be to promote a product, register attendees, or encourage downloads. Instead, its goal is to get a click.

  • The email has to convince readers to click through to a custom landing page where the real promotion takes place.
  • Signs that you are doing too much selling in your email include:
    • Email says exactly what’s on the landing page
    • Email takes more than 30 seconds to read (or is longer than 90 words)
    • Email looks and feels like a web page or a print ad
    • Email has more than one central call-to-action (an email should have one goal and one central call-to-action)
      • The more you multiply the options, the more you will slow down the conversion process.
      • There is an inverse relationship between the number of options and the speed to decision. And the speed to decision has a lot to do with the conversion rate.


Insight #2: Improve internal and external relevance.

Improving the relevance (the compatibility of the email message to the donor’s motivations) of your email to each subscriber can improve results.

An email’s relevance can be based on two types of factors: internal and external.

  • Internal factors are based on the motivations of the recipient, such as:
    • Demographics
    • Personal interests
    • Level of engagement
  • Tactics for incorporating internal relevance include:
    • Personal first-name greeting, e.g., “Hello Janet”
    • Reference level of engagement, e.g., “Thank you for your support as a monthly partner.”
  • External factors are based on events surrounding recipient, such as:
    • Seasonality
    • News events
    • Special discounts
    • Limited-time offers
  • Tactics for incorporating external relevance include:
    • Incorporate seasonal events, e.g., “The end of our financial year is just around the corner”
    • Limited-time offers, e.g., “This offer will expire in three days”


Insight #3: Provide valuable offers and incentives.

There are positive factors that contribute to a message’s performance and negative factors that detract from it. Relevance is a positive factor. Two others are the offer and the incentive.

  • Offer – the value you promise in exchange for a click
    • Since emails sell clicks, not products, we should be offering additional information in exchange for a click. We must make a good offer that provides obvious value.
    • For example, if you’re trying to get readers to request a booklet, show part of the booklet in the email to pique their interest. This shows readers the value they could receive. Then, encourage them to click to request the full booklet. Your offer is that they can “request the booklet now” in exchange for their click.
    • If you’re promoting a product, look to the core reason why donors should request the product. If the product will help them understand God’s Word better, say that. Tell them to “click to start understanding the Bible better today.” This offers the chance to understand the Bible better in exchange for their click.
    • If you were to encourage them to “click to read more about understanding the Bible better,” you would be offering to make them work (by reading) in exchange for their click. They will decline your offer by deleting your message.
  • Incentive – an appealing element intended to incite the click
    • Your email should offer an incentive that adds value to your offer and helps outweigh friction and anxiety (discussed below). An incentive can be a discount, a free download, or another motivating factor.
    • Donors’ responses to incentives are not always logical, which is why it’s important to test them.


Insight #4: Minimize friction and anxiety.

These two negative factors are present in every marketing email. They push readers toward ignoring or deleting a message instead of clicking through.

  • Friction – the psychological resistance to elements in the email
    • Caused by forcing donors to think or act
    • Longer copy takes longer to read and therefore increases friction
    • Using several calls-to-action (instead of one) increases friction by forcing donors to weigh several options
    • Every email has friction (donors have to read and click on something), but it must be minimized. An email with too much friction will be deleted
    • Common causes of “friction overload” in emails include:
      • Multiple images that compete for attention
      • Non-linear eye path in the layout
      • Multiple calls-to-action from which to choose
      • Long or confusing copy
    • Excessive friction is also generated by emails that do not follow the typical donor’s thought process.
      • For example, the call-to-action should not be presented until the donor understands why they’ve received the message and why they should respond to the offer. Otherwise, the email is calling them to act before they see a clear benefit.
  • Anxiety is concern caused by something in an email
    • Donors have a heightened sense of anxiety when going through their inboxes. They receive emails every day, some of which are malicious. You have to put them at ease and convince them that you are offering a good, safe deal.
    • The best marketing emails do not look like magazine ads or read like sales copy. The best emails instill trust and read like simple, personal letters.
    • Emails should personally address recipients, quickly explain why they’ve been sent, and provide a relevant offer and incentive.
    • Email is mail. It’s a message. It’s communication. In most cases, it will produce much better if it’s not treated as just an ad.
    • To over-correct for anxiety, leave no concern unanswered.


Insight #5: Test radically different emails.

Adequacy is the enemy of excellence. Test completely different designs in hopes of dramatically improving results.


More Insights from Dunham+Company: ‘Three Tips that Will Make Your Communication More Effective’ by Rick Dunham

 Find out how to avoid the mistakes most organizations make when drafting and designing newsletters, as Derek Scott, Chief Creative Officer, shows you how to maximize your impact – Watch ‘How to Create an Effective Fundraising Newsletter’ from the Dunham Institute.