Let me tell you a story about my first (and still so far worst) major email marketing mistake.
When I was about two months into my first marketing job, I sent an email with a comedically inappropriate subject line. My important news alert about coverage of Metabolic Surgery instead alerted people to the latest stories on “Meatbolic” surgery. And thus an email list of about 5,000 people got to have a good laugh at my terror and misfortune.
It happens. Your normally meticulous proofing, review, and pre-approval process for sending out a mass email fails, and some sort of serious mistake has slipped through. These sorts of email marketing mistakes are common enough that Mailchimp has a very sympathetic help page explaining why you can’t recall an email campaign. I don’t have to imagine the heart-sinking feeling of getting that final confirmation that you’re screwed – I’ve felt it firsthand.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably sent over 200 mass emails this year. That’s up to 200 subject lines, 200 email bodies, and 200 messages to review, analyze and learn from for the next batch. In a small office, you may be the sole person responsible for this task, along with probably a few dozen other things.
The best way to avoid mistakes is to build an effective routine for reviewing your marketing pieces before sending. Just like pilots have a pre-flight checklists that they run through before every flight, you should have a pre-sending checklist for your email marketing pieces. This will cut down on mistakes and give yourself the brain space needed to catch problems before you hit that irreversible “Send” button.
Creating a pre-flight checklist
I have a few basic tasks I aim to complete for every marketing email I send. Some of these won’t be feasible on every email you send (especially if you’re on a time crunch), but doing as much of this as possible before sending will help you avoid having your own “Meatbolic” moment.
1. Put it in a (metaphorical) drawer
If possible, I prefer to put my semi-finished drafts in storage for a day or two before conducting a final review. This makes approaching an ad with fresh eyes a lot easier. Often times I’ll be able to think of better ways to phrase a certain passage, or can think of a new angle that will better target our potential customers.
Letting your brain stew on something passively can be a powerful tool. We can spend hours staring at a puzzle, racking our minds for the solution, just to give up in frustration. Then, a few hours later, we sit down and the answer is plain as day. Writing good marketing copy is not unlike a puzzle – you have to find the most attractive way to fit your information into as little text as possible. Walking away for a few hours or days can make streamlining your content much easier.
The real secret to this tip is planning things so that you actually have time to set things aside for a while. Call it what you want – a marketing calendar, your content strategy, whatever. I just call it having things planned out. If you have a message you know has to go out on Thursday, don’t wait until 3pm on Wednesday to write it. Get things queued up in advance so you have time to let your passive brain find solutions to your problems.
Sometimes the best gift you can give yourself is more time. Most of my worst email marketing mistakes were found just because I gave myself an extra day, or even an extra few hours. That’s why the first item on my checklist is usually to let things sit, and go to work on something else in the meantime.
2. Read everything out loud
Now that we’ve gone over everything after letting it sit for a while, it’s time to go into bug-fixing mode. There’s no better place to start than the classic writing standby – read everything out loud.
It worked for your middle school essays, and it works for your professional marketing pieces. Reading everything out loud makes it easy to catch if you’ve left a sentence incomplete, transposed some words or simply used an awkward phrase.
Take a minute to clear our all distractions and focus exclusively on your marketing piece. Close out all your other windows or, if you prefer the physical realm, print out your message and clear everything else off your desk. Read it like you’re actually reading the content to another person, not just burning through it. You have to give your brain time to process what you’re actually sayings; speed-mumbling through it won’t cut it.
The only downside is that your coworkers will probably think you’re a little crazy. You can always cheat and put a phone to your ear so it sounds like you’re reading to someone else, if you’re worried about looking like a nut. But let’s be honest – marketing people are a little out there to begin with, so you may as well roll with it.
3. Send preview emails to your inbox
This is probably obvious to most people, but it’s amazing how long I spent without having this as a normal part of my workflow. Services like Mailchimp have a built-in email previewer, and that’s great for while you’re working. However, I’ve generally found that the relationship isn’t quite 1:1 with how the email will look in someone’s inbox. Sometimes the HTML/CSS you’ve meticulously designed gets scrambled in translation, and you want to know if anything comes out wrong on the other side.
This also makes it easier to proof your subject lines. Nothing makes an awkward subject line stand out more than seeing it front and center in your inbox. I’ve caught many bad subject lines at the last second my previewing it in my inbox.
Beyond simple error-catching, this also makes it easier to get into the mindset of my readers. How does the message strike me when it’s in my inbox? How does the subject line look in the bustle of a busy inbox? Where do my eyes jump to when first opening the email? These are all great questions to consider with your emails (and your competition’s emails, for that matter), and they’re much harder to visualize when it’s not actually in your inbox. Even if you’re not catching “mistakes,” this sort of review helps you tighten up your email marketing pieces to maximize their appeal.
4. Grab a second set of eyes (and tell them what you need)
For the sake of this article, I’m assuming you don’t have a professional editor who’s reading through all of your content for spelling and grammatical issues. If you do, then congratulations! You have someone else to blame your mistakes on.
For the rest of us, I still say your emails should be sent to at least one other person before publishing. Maybe your office has a secretary or other non-marketing person who can take a quick look at your email. Find a person you trust to tell you the truth – no brown-nosing interns or yes men allowed. If something sucks, you want them to be willing to tell you that it sucks.
When you’re asking for help, be clear what you’re asking for. If you send something to someone and just ask them “what do you think?” You’re not going to get very focused feedback. Ask more pointed questions, like “Can you check this for any obvious typos?” or “Does this product description make sense to you?” Make sure they’re on the lookout for your weaknesses.
5. Check emails on multiple devices (or use inbox inspection)
The biggest pain about writing email is that there are so many different types of inboxes to worry about. Gmail presents a significantly different-looking email compared to Outlook 2007. Then there’s mobile – which probably accounts for over half of your readership.
Sticking to some standards will solve some of these issues. For example, I won’t use any HTML/CSS not supported by Outlook 2007 or later (which is still a significantly large chunk of inboxes). You can find Outlook 2007’s HTML/CSS rendering capabilities on Microsoft’s website.
However, for the sake of time and thoroughness, there’s a great testing tool built into Mailchimp (and I presume other email services): Inbox Inspector. Inbox Inspection identifies the most frequently used email clients used by your readers and sends you images of how each of these clients render your email.
Inbox Inspection has its downsides. For one, it tends to take a bit of time – generally I find that I can expect it to take around 15-20 minutes before completing. This means that, constantly tweaking and re-inspecting can start to suck up your time, and put you behind schedule. As such, I don’t use it on every email, and bypass it entirely if I’m sending plain-text emails, or if I’m using the default templates in something like Mailchimp. However, if you’re testing out templates or doing anything particularly fancy (especially messing with image positioning, alignment and whatnot), inbox inspection is a great way to make sure things are coming out as expected.
Regardless of whether you’re using Inbox Inspector, at least make sure you’re looking at your email on at least one desktop and one mobile device. Think of this as a more comprehensive version of step #3 – it takes more time, so you can save it for when you’re pretty confident you’re good to go, and you’re just looking for any nasty rendering errors.
6. Keep notes of your mistakes
This doesn’t quite fit into a checklist, but more of something to consider while you’re going through the other steps. We all have bad habits and recurring mistakes we keep making. Instead of being embarrassed or ashamed by these, the best thing we can do is put our faults front-and-center, forcing us to acknowledge and deal with our faults.
In my case, I Tend To Capitalize Words That Should Not Be Capitalized. When I’m able to get a second eye on my emails, by far the most common piece of feedback I receive is on capitalization. To fight this, I now include a step in my review process where I highlight every capital letter in an email. It forces me to acknowledge my blind spot.
I keep my error logs in the forms of scribbled Post It notes that I leave around my computer or on a whiteboard. It puts your common email marketing mistakes front and center and forces you to think about your subconscious habits. If you don’t make a mistake for a while, you can take down that specific Post It note – usually to make room for a new, hopefully less-bad, flaw in your process.
Everyone makes different mistakes. If you’re lucky, you get to work with people who have a diversity of faults and you’ll all catch each other’s mistakes and make something great. However, if you’re not so lucky, you need to be willing to put your own faults front and center in your consciousness to work to improve them.
These pre-flight tools have significantly cut down the number and severity of my mistakes in an email. Sure some awkward phrasing and improper capitalization still slips through form time to time, but I’ve never had a mistake on the level of the “meatbolics” incident, as it is still referred to around the office.
If you have any must-do’s that you think are missing from my pre-flight checklist, let me know in the comments. I’d be interested to revisit this topic again in the future, and see how my workflow has changed/improved over time.