The Number of Items or Links in an Email Message Doesn't Impact Your Deliverability

The Number of Items or Links in an Email Message Doesn’t Impact Your Deliverability

I am also a big fan of the way effective email requires both quantitative and qualitative skills. Gathering the data, calculating the metrics, analyzing the data, using what you learn to drive the strategy and tactics, and then working with the copywriters, designers and programmers to implement. It’s a real mix of science and art.


Our number one goal at mailfloss is to make you a better email marketer. We do this by helping you improve your email deliverability rates with our email list verification service. After all, if an email isn’t going to get delivered, what’s the point of sending it?

Secondly, we work hard to educate email marketers on the various topics relating to running a successful email marketing campaign. From time to time, we chat with some of the biggest names in the email marketing space to help educate you on new, important or tending topics.

Today, we were lucky enough to be able to chat with Jeanne Jennings about her experience in the email marketing niche. Jeanne is the founder and Chief Strategist at Email Optimization Shop, the Programming Chair at Email Innovations Summit, as well as the General Manager at Only Influencers.

We’re excited to have Jeanne with us to share her thoughts, insights and strategies with us today.

If you’re in the email marketing niche, this is an interview that can’t be missed.

Let’s jump in.

The Interview

Hi Jeanne and thanks for joining us today. We appreciate you taking the time to chat with our blog audience today about your experience in the email marketing niche. You have over 20 years of experience as a digital marketer. I know our audience will be thankful for the opportunity to plug into your mind for the next few minutes. So to get things started, please give us a little bit of background about your experience as an email marketer. What was it specifically about email marketing that you grabbed your attention and pulled you in?

Hi Lalaine! Thanks for reaching out to me! It’s an honor to be interviewed!

I kind of fell into the email marketing industry. I’d spent a few years in the digital marketing space and then I was laid off, with all mid-level management, when the dot-com start-up I worked for merged with a competitor.

A former boss who had become a friend had just taken a position with a large traditional publisher. The CEO brought him in to enhance their online presence (this was 2000) and he was building out a team. He had gotten approval to hire a head of email marketing and offered me that position, with the caveat that if I didn’t like it after 6 months, he would find something else for me to do. I loved it!

When I went out on my own, I looked at the other agencies and consultancies that were out there. There were a lot of people focusing on websites but few if any on email marketing strategy. So I started my own boutique consultancy, now called Email Optimization Shop, to help clients make their email marketing efforts more effective and more profitable.

I’ve worked very hard since then and have been very lucky. Most of my clients are medium- to enterprise-sized organizations (AARP, Citibank, Network Solutions, the US General Services Administration), so they have large house email lists, which give us lots of opportunity to do A/B split and/or multi-variate testing. As a result, I have a lot of experience with what works and what doesn’t. When I get a new client, I bring all that experience to the table, and then gain more as we test and learn with their list.

I love email because it’s the #1 channel in terms of ROI, so there’s money to be made for my clients. I also love that it’s a push channel – you proactively send email to your prospects and clients, you don’t wait for them to visit your Website or find you on social media.

I am also a big fan of the way effective email requires both quantitative and qualitative skills. Gathering the data, calculating the metrics, analyzing the data, using what you learn to drive the strategy and tactics, and then working with the copywriters, designers and programmers to implement. It’s a real mix of science and art.

Let’s jump into the interview now by talking about the titles of subject lines. You have some really great content on your blog about the importance of subject lines and one blog post in particular talks about the importance of the first 25 characters. But more specifically, you talk about some case studies where you front-loaded offers into the start of the subject line and you saw an increase in ROI. Is front-loading a subject line with the main hook something that will benefit most types of emails (even outside of marketing emails)? Can you tell us a little bit more about the importance of front-loading email subject lines?

Having an effective subject line is critical to getting your email messages opened – whether they are marketing emails, transactional emails, or some other type of email. Most email clients, be they desktop or mobile, have a limited number of characters which will be seen in the subject line. So, it’s important to get the most important information upfront – don’t bury the lead!

My rule of thumb is to make sure that the most important information appears in the first 25 characters. So in the client case study you’re referencing, we tested the control, “12 Days of Christmas Day 9 – 20% Off Every Order!,” against a test that moved the discount to the first 25 characters – “20% Off Every Order – 12 Days of Christmas Day 9!”

Marketers need to think in terms of what is most engaging to the recipient. Does the recipient care that this is Day 9 of the 12 Days of Christmas Sale? Maybe. But not as much as they care about getting a 20% discount. So put the discount first. This small change showed a nearly 15% increase in revenue-per-email (RPE).

You have another blog post on your site where you debunk the myth that short emails are often better. In your case study, you increased traffic to the target website by sending out a longer email with more clickable options. Can you tell us a little bit more about the theory behind this test? Also, doesn’t including more links to the target website reduce your chances of being delivered? How do you balance providing more options with deliverability?

That was another great test we did for a client, just a month or two ago. The client’s goal was to drive traffic to a partner’s website. We had a control email we sent each month that featured one item – it was always a challenge to choose just one, since the website had literally thousands of items. The email always performed fine, but we wanted to see if we could improve it.

The hypothesis here was that if we included more items, more recipients would find at least one that was of interest to them and click-through to the website. So we had the control, with one item, and we created 3 test versions – with two, four and six items, respectively. We started with the control and built from there, so the first item in every email was the same, and the second item was the same on all the test versions and the third and fourth items were the same for the four- and six-item versions.

The emails with fewer items had higher open rates, but the emails with four and six items had higher click-through rates (clicks/non-bounce emails) and much higher click-to-open rates (clicks/opens). The 4- and 6-item emails performed pretty much the same, so our new control email features 4-items. The test confirmed our hypothesis that more items would engage more people.

As far as deliverability… in my experience, the number of items or links in an email message doesn’t impact your deliverability. Getting to the inbox is really about your email reputation; it’s about how your recipients do, or do not, engage with your messages. In fact, because the higher number of item tests showed increased click rates, that will help the client’s deliverability going forward, not hurt it.

That’s very interesting. Let’s talk a little bit more about how email marketers can sequence their emails to align with their visitor journey. What effective strategies have you seen used that help email marketers map out their work to best align with their visitor journey? Let’s imagine a new business doesn’t quite understand their visitor journey yet. They might not have the data yet to make informed decisions. But they need to start somewhere. Is there some type of email sequence automation “template” which acts as a good starting point? Can you explain how you would approach such a situation in more detail?

Visitor journeys are very important; they are one of the foundations of effective marketing in any channel. Even if you’re a new business you should have put some thought into who your customer is and what their journey might look like. One thing that can help with this is starting with some standard journey phases.

For instance, a 3-phase awareness-consideration-decision model can help you think about each phase (gaining awareness, considering options and making a decision) individually and come up with questions/thoughts, actions and touchpoints for each phase. Data plays a role in a journey, but really, it’s a story – you’ve got to go beyond the quantitative into the qualitative to be effective.

Don’t get too hung up on creating absolute journeys – the ideas of journeys are representational. It’s just to allow you to consider and address aspects and elements of the process your potential customer might go through, not to definitively define a process they must take.

What role does educational content play in a drip email sequence?

Non-promotional, or editorial or educational, email is critical to long-term marketing success. If your emails are all just ‘buy, buy, buy’ people will only open them when they’re in the market for your product. Email is so inexpensive that you can probably make a profit doing this, but you’re leaving money on the table.

By including content that provides value without a purchase, you will not only get more people to open your email, you’ll have the chance to influence their behavior. Let’s say someone is an avid hiker and you sell hiking gear. You could just send them email after email offering hiking gear for sale. And after a while they would know this and if they were in the market for a new day pack or wanted to buy some hiking poles they would open and buy.

But if you start mixing in some non-promotional content, like stories about popular day-hikes in their local area or tips for avoiding blisters, that same person would open your email even if they weren’t in the market to purchase anything. You would definitely keep your brand top of mind, for when they are looking to buy something, and you might even influence a purchase they hadn’t previously considered or hasten the purchase of something they had thought about but hadn’t really researched.

Email marketing is really about relationships – and relationships involve more than just ‘buy now’ messaging.

You’re deeply involved in the email marketing community. In addition to being founder and chief strategist of your own consultancy, Email Optimization Shop, You are the Programming Chair of the annual Email Innovations Summit, and General Manager of Only Influencers, a community for email marketing professionals. You also serve as Vice President of Client Strategy and Creative Services for Red Pill Email, a full-service front and back-end email marketing agency. This broad exposure gives you a perspective that not many people have. What would you say are the three biggest challenges that email marketers that you speak to face? How would you suggest they start to overcome those email marketing obstacles?

I do wear a lot of hats! And it’s very busy, but it’s very fun! I love my job(s)!

In a way, email marketing is its own worst enemy. It’s so cost-effective to send email that it’s not difficult to make a profit. So, companies get complacent; their email marketing program is bringing in money, so they don’t pay much attention to it. They just let it roll along.

What many organizations don’t realize is that with just a small investment of time, money, or both they could dramatically improve their ROI in the channel. So I think that’s the first challenge – to think beyond the returns you’re getting now, realize that you’re leaving money on the table and implement a strategic A/B split or multi-variate testing plan to boost performance.

The second has to do with the value organizations place on email marketing technology versus people with solid email marketing experience.

I see so many companies that happily invest in expensive email marketing automation programs, artificial intelligence (AI) tools and other whiz bang stuff. But those same C-level executives don’t understand why they should hire people with high level email marketing experience, send their lower-level email marketing staff to conferences and training workshops or bring in an outside consultant to help them improve their email marketing. It’s a shame, because the technology alone isn’t enough to really optimize a marketing program.

The third challenge is new regulations around data, privacy and consent. The California Consumer Privacy Act went into effect on January 1, 2020. It, along with the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR), are changing the balance of power.

Suddenly consumers are being given the right to determine what data organizations collect and maintain on them, as well as how it’s used. And we’re not done yet. Many other states have CCPA-like regulation under consideration and there’s a feeling that something will be done at the national level soon.

Organizations that have strong positive relationships with their customers and prospects are likely to flourish under these new rules, while organizations with neutral to negative relationships will suffer. Think about it. There’s probably at least one brand you trust that delivers you customized or personalized content that you value – and you’ll be fine with that continuing.

But the thought of a brand you don’t know or trust have all sorts of personal information on you –- these new regulations will give consumers the power to stop not just the sale and use of their data, it will allow them to demand that organizations ‘forget’ about them by deleting it all.

This shift in power isn’t going to end anytime soon and the marketers who have strong positive relationships with their customers and prospects will flourish, while those who don’t will suffer.

As Programming Chair of the Email Innovations Summit, you’ll also be moderating that event. You’ll be speaking at the Email Innovation Summit this year. Speaking of innovation, which companies do you believe are doing an exceptional job of staying innovative within the email marketing space? What about them makes them so innovative?

There’s a lot of innovative stuff going on in email marketing right now, in the technology arena but also in process and approach.

BIMI holds a lot of promise, both for improving deliverability and for more strongly branding email messages. Matt Vernhout, from 250ok, is part of the working group for BIMI so he and his team are doing a lot of innovative things there (it’s still in beta) and he’ll be at the Summit to share his knowledge with attendees. He spoke about BIMI at the Summit last year (here’s a blog post he wrote based on that presentation), but there’s a lot of new information now that we’re closer to launch so I’m psyched he’s coming back to update us.

AWeber is doing some innovative things, like sentiment widgets, quizzes and image carousels, with AMP. They wrote a great article for their blog on it, with lots of real world examples. I don’t yet have a speaker nailed down to talk about AMP at the Summit, but I can promise you there will be one.

Another company I’ve approached to speak at the Summit is Aviation American Gin. Their recent riff on the Peloton commercial was pure brilliance and got a lot of attention, but they had been taking a pretty innovative approach to email even before that. They were sending hilarious emails claiming to be from Ryan Reynolds, one of their founders and one of my favorite actors, to their house list. I am really hoping to get someone from their marketing team in to speak at the Summit (if anyone from Aviation is reading this, please reach out!).

Finally, a lot of email marketing departments are turning to agile development. This is another area we’ll have someone at the Summit speaking on. Redefining the workflow so that a minimum valuable product (yes, I know that it’s traditionally minimum viable product, but after a few years working in agile I think the minimum valuable product is actually a better goal to shoot for) is something that will focus and streamline production processes and help increase ROI.

We’ll also be talking about video and audio in email at the show. The former has been around for years but really hasn’t lived up to its hype (but maybe it will in 2020) and the latter is somewhat new. We’re experimenting with audio in email for one of my clients – I’ve very excited to see how (if?) it boosts response.

Finally, if you had the opportunity to sit down with a younger version of yourself who was just starting out in email marketing today, what piece of advice would you give yourself specifically relating to increasing the ROI of an email marketing campaign?

Wow, you saved the most thoughtful question for last! I would tell younger Jeanne a couple things.

First, email isn’t in its infancy anymore. When I was coming up in the industry we were doing things for the first time, we were trying to figure it out, there was no blueprint to follow. But now all that knowledge is available – for free – on the internet.

Many of us who were involved in the early days of the email marketing industry were very generous about sharing what we were learning. David Daniels, Loren McDonald, Ryan Phelan, Chad White and I, just to name a few – we were all in the thick of it and we were all writing articles and blog posts and being interviewed. And most of that information is as relevant today as it was when it was published (and I believe all of us are still publishing new information).

So when in doubt search the internet for the topic you’re interested in and read up. If you can learn from the mistakes and successes we had back then (and those we’re having now) that will help you increase your ROI.

Second, get involved in the email marketing community. At many organizations, the email marketing team is small, half a dozen people or fewer; sometimes only one person in an organization is dedicated to email. By becoming involved in a community specifically for email marketing professionals, like Only Influencers, you gain a peer group that you can learn from, network with and be supported by. We are one of the few industries that has a community like this – use it.

Third, make sure you carve out time each week to invest in your own career. Often these activities will also positively impact your employer and the email marketing work you’d doing for them, and that’s great. But be sure that at least 10% of your time is spent on building your own skills, thinking about your next career move and staying abreast of changes and innovations in the industry. Getting out of the office to attend a conference at least once a year (more if you can) is critical.

If you can join us in Las Vegas in June 2020 for the Email Innovations Summit, [Editors note: the summit has gone virtual] great! But if not, be sure you get to some type of conference or workshop training this year. If your employer won’t cover the cost, tell them what you’re doing and ask if they will consider the days you’re out of the office as work days (as opposed to vacation or sick days), if you cover the out-of-pocket cost yourself.

Thanks again Lalaine, for the opportunity to share with your blog readers! I always invite people serious about good email marketing to connect with me, either on LinkedIn, via my Email Optimization Shop blog and email newsletter or through the Only Influencers community. Hope to see you all somewhere soon!

Thank you Jeanne! It was a pleasure having you speak with the mailfloss blog audience today. We learned a lot!