Bad Email Marketing (and How to Fix It)

email list no sale

Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass

Is your email marketing doing more harm than good?  Email can be one of the most profitable marketing channels when it’s done correctly.  Bad email marketing can hurt your reputation, and get you blacklisted as a spammer.

Nearly every company has a mailing list. And uses it. But not every company uses it well. Are you one of them?

Signs of bad email marketing

The first key component of successful email marketing is a good list.  If you built your email marketing list the right way, it can be one of your company’s biggest marketing assets.  Imagine, a large built-in audience of people who really want to hear from you, and trust you with their time and email addresses.

Or, it can be a worthless compilation of names, the wrong audience, or people who don’t want to buy anything (and never will).

Signs of a bad email marketing list

  • A bunch of names you scraped from website email and contact pages.

First of all, if it says “info@___” or “service@___” it’s likely to be a low-level person with no authority to buy from you.

Secondly, they didn’t ask you to contact them with your offers. Those addresses are there to help their customers (or potential customers), not to field sales pitches.

Don’t start your relationship off on the wrong foot!

  • Names on business cards you’ve collected from networking events and speaking engagements.

Conversations with real people are great. So is exchanging cards. Follow up when you get them. Do it a year later, and those people will think you’re spamming them (not helping them).

It’s technically legal under CAN-SPAM to do either of these things.  CAN-SPAM isn’t opt-in, it’s opt-out (more about CAN-SPAM rules here). It’s not a good idea though. Do it too often, and your ESP (email service provider, like MailChimp or AWeber) will think you’re a spammer too; and they may threaten to suspend your account.

  • Names that you bought (and now “own”)

This applies especially if they were exceptionally cheap (such as $100 for 10,000 names), think services such as SalesGenie.

None of those people asked to be on those lists. Use them, and you’ll get labelled a spammer. There are some email lists available for rent (one-time use), but they’re expensive ($300 for 1,000 names). If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

  • No personalization

Sending out mass emails without any attempt at making a human connection with the people receiving them. At the very least, address them by name.

Addressing the same email to everyone, rather than separating the names by past purchases, what stage they are in the buying process, or even what topics they’re interested in.

How to build a valuable email marketing list

  • Add people you spoke to personally, who expressly asked to be on your list
  • People who signed up directly from your website, and thereby gave you permission to contact them
  • Your existing customers and prospects: people you already have a relationship with (ask them first!)
  • Attendees at your webinars
  • Make sure you ask everyone for permission to continue to contact them. Offer something in return (a recording, a set of slides, or a white paper).
  • Subscribers to your auto-responders. They’ve said they want to hear from you (repeatedly).

All of this can be a lot to digest. If you want to have a quick conversation about this, email me here (no charge).Inboxes are crowded, and people are pressed for time.  You want to build a relationship. Get them to know you, like you, and trust you.

Once those people are on your list, nurture them (don’t spam them with offers for expensive products right away).  You wouldn’t ask someone you just met to marry you, would you?

Fewer Emails Lead to 225% More Leads

Email Icon

Image via Wikipedia

It sounds counter-intuitive, but it turns out it works: you can make money with a small email list.  You can even earn more with a small list than you can with a large one.

We all tend to think that more is, well, more. But sometimes, less is really more.  It also helps to think through what you’re doing and try to make your emails as helpful and relevant to your readers as possible.

Here’s how one IT company reconfigured and streamlined their list and their marketing strategy.  They ended up earning more, without increasing the size of their list.

Build on personal relationships

The first change they made was a simple one.  They switched the name on the  “from” line from the marketing department to the name of an account manager. This made the messages seem more personal and helpful and less “salesy.”

Consider the customer experience

Then, they streamlined the emails.  They used less HTML and graphics, and more plain text.  This change made the emails easier to read on different devices.  It also reduced page load times.

The next change was to the content.  Instead of a barrage of emails all at once, the messages were staggered in a series. The early messages offered more help, with free guides and webinars.

More sales-oriented messages were pushed back later in the series (product demos and free trials).

The result?

  • 225% increase in sales-ready leads
  • 376% more downloads, forms filled in and interaction
  • 27% more of the leads from the emails became customers

Read the full article here (open access until Sept. 16)

Now, all emails and lists and marketing is different.  However, it does suggest that simplifying, adding more useful content, and carefully showing leads along a path to a sale, can make a big difference.

Start with signing them up, add valuable content, helpful videos, ebooks, etc.  Then add in materials that are more directly related to a sale (a demo, a free consultation).  Finally, ask for the sale.


How Big Should Your Mailing List Be?

Postmaster General James A. Farley During Nati...

Image by Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

How big should your mailing list  be? What’s the best list size? 100 names? 1,000? 10,000? More? By list I mean email, Twitter followers, or even (gasp) snail mail.

Someone was asking the other day whether theirs was large enough. And if people would buy things from a free email newsletter.

The answer is that they will buy. Not all of them, but they will, as long as two things happen.  One, you have been sending them relevant, useful information and two, whatever you’re offering for sale in your newsletter is also relevant and useful to them. If your newsletter is all about gardening tips, you’re not likely to sell your subscribers on a set of dental tools (no matter how good a deal they are).

How big should your mailing list be?

There is no perfect list size.  There is a right size for your needs, your market, and your industry.  That just means that your list has to be big enough and responsive enough to support your marketing goals.

If your response rate is low, your list will have to be larger; if it’s high, you can get away with a smaller list and still get the same return.

There are three things (primarily) that affect the response you get.

List cleanliness

Is your list up-to-date?

Long ago, I worked for a company that hadn’t cleaned their list in a very long time. When they finally decided to do something, the guy they hired called me (I was marketing manager at the time) and said, “You have to come see this.” He took me into a room that was about 10 x 6 feet (roughly 3 x 2 meters). It was FULL of returned mail. They were mailing to companies that had closed, people who had left, and people who were deceased. Big waste of time and money!

If it’s an email list, and you’re using  an email service provider (such as AWeber or MailChimp), most of this gets taken care of automagically. New signups are added, and unsubscribers are removed. You’ll still need to check for other things, such as opens and bounce rate.

If you’ve got a snail mail list, when something comes back, go update your list (or get someone else to do it). Don’t wait until the returned mail piles up! And don’t waste your money mailing to dead people.

Think less about size and more about responsiveness, relevance, and permission. Those aren’t size measures, they’re quality measures, which is what really matters, not absolute size.


Some people are buyers, some are not. You can have people who are just at the beginning of looking for something (doing research on a new washing machine, for instance), or people who are ready to buy (my washing machine is broken, I need a new one).

Look to see who’s buying (and who isn’t)— and what they buy.  If you see certain people are buying lots of  gardening tools from your home improvement site start a separate gardening tools list. If you have a separate business that sells dental instruments, don’t try to sell them to your garden lovers.


See my gardening comment. The important thing isn’t the size of the list as much as how relevant your information is to your subscribers’ needs. If you’ve got a list of 2,000 rabid, raving medieval jousting fans, they will want armor, lances, helmets, and banners. And they will want all of it. Find those people (that tribe of 2,000) and they will buy and buy and buy from you.


Your list will do better, regardless of size, if you only add people who want to be added.  Use double opt-in (meaning that subscribing requires two steps, signing up and confirming that sign up).  Don’t add people who you met at conferences, or who attended events where you spoke, unless they request it.

I just unsubscribed from an event invite service.  A newsletter I do subscribe to used this service to create an event that I attended.  That invite service kept the names and started spamming me with more (unwanted) invitations.

When you’re building your mailing list, concentrate on relevance, cleanliness, and, permission, and responsiveness—not size.  Bragging about a list of 150,000 people is fun—but  that list is useless if 95% of them never open your emails or half your messages bounce.

Build a Qualified Opt-in Email List for Free

build your email list for free
Image by Cornell University Library via Flickr

I recently I got not one but two emails from people I never heard of.

They were offering me the opportunity to buy targeted opt-in email marketing lists.  They bragged about their high profile, Fortune 500 clients.

Is this a joke?

Do I want to buy their lists?  No, NO, and NO!

You shouldn’t either.

Why you shouldn’t buy email lists

It’s tempting to go out and buy a list from InfoUSA or other vendors that promise thousands or millions (!) of addresses at low rates — (and you own the list).

Sounds good, right? It’s a mistake. The list is probably scraped from website contact information, pulled from directories, or gathered on the sly from pre-checked boxes sneakily added to signup forms.

The permission to contact is questionable, and the data is probably old. You’re likely to be spending time (and money) sending messages that will never reach anyone.

Email costs less than snail mail, but high bounce rates and poor deliverability will not endear you to your email service provider.  And, there are costs in time and effort to develop, write, format, and send the email (since many email providers charge by the size of your list).

What about renting a list?

This can work under certain conditions.  However, high quality rented email lists (particularly business to business lists) tend to be very expensive.

They start at about $100 per thousand names and go up to $300 per thousand names. Be careful about which lists you use and how often you use them.

Build a qualified opt-in email list for free

The best way to build an email list is to grow it organically, starting from scratch.

1. Add a signup offer to your blog. Put them in several different places so readers will see them when they start reading, and while they browse.  Don’t just add the offer, include  a report, an analysis, or some other valuable information in return for signing up.

For instance, if you’re a web site designer, offer a booklet called, “10 Things Your Web Designer Doesn’t Want You to Know.” Or, “Has Your Web Designer Made These Common Web Design Mistakes?” A video editor might offer, “5 Strategies to Minimize Your Video Production Costs.”

Or, create an automated e-mail course. Once you set it up, the messages will be sent out automatically to anyone who signs up.

If you’re stuck for a topic, think about some common questions your customers ask you, or problems you frequently solve and write a guide on how to fix them.

2. Join relevant forums and groups.  Be helpful, not annoying.  Mention the ebook or guide, when it’s useful and appropriate.  Add the link to your signature, profile page, or about page on those sites.

Don’t yell at people, connect with them.  They’re people, not targets. Stop shouting and start listening, then ask them for permission to listen to you.

3. Use social media. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook or other social networking sites, tell your friends and followers about your new newsletter. Don’t spam them with continuous tweets, but share tidbits, relevant quotes, or other information that will raise their interest. Then give them the opportunity to subscribe.

4. Start with the people you already know.  Send an email to current clients or prospects and tell them about your new newsletter. Talk about all the great information they’ll get, the kinds of topics you are going to cover, and include a link to sign up.

Offer them the opportunity to get in first, before anyone else.

5. Hold webinars or Google Hangouts on Air.  This can be a continuing series that you host, or regular guest appearances on others’ events. Give viewers the opportunity to sign up (add a link to the presentation, or ask your host to include one). Make the link simple and easy to remember!

6. Borrow an existing audience.  First, find a newsletter or blog your potential and current clients already read. If they accept guest posts, offer to write one.  If they have a newsletter, see if you can sponsor it or advertise.

Even better, if you have a partner or vendor with a similar audience, ask if you can write an article for their newsletter with a special offer for their readers (make it an exclusive).

Once you have built your own email list, see if you can swap offers: you include their offer in your newsletter and vice versa.

7. Run pay-per-click ads, a Facebook campaign, or ads on LinkedIn. Ads aren’t free, but they are much cheaper than buying thousands of email names. Use AdWords to find people while they’re actively searching for something. Or, get them on LInkedIn or Facebook when they’re networking or relaxing. If your book or guide answers a question your audience is struggling with, they’ll want to read it. Make sure to send them to a targeted landing page, not your home page.

The important thing is to approach building your email list from the perspective of being helpful, not pushy.  Give your readers, viewers, and followers solutions to their problems (not yours).

Focus on building trust first, sales later.