Inbound Now #48 - Debunking Common Email Marketing "Rules"

DJ Waldow, of Waldow Social, joins us for round 2 on Inbound Now to discuss his upcoming book The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing: Grow Your List, Break the Rules, and Win.

In this episode we chat about:

  • Why Email List Building is critical to online marketing success
  • Quick and Easy was to actively grow your email list
  • Common email “rules” that don’t apply to today’s world marketing world
  • Email Newsletter Tips for keeping people engaged
  • Does Email Design Matter?
  • Short vs. Long term future of e-mail marketing

Full Transcript

David: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Inbound Now. I’m your host, David Wells. And we have a special return guest today. Mr. DJ: Waldow of Waldowsocial. Welcome back to the show, DJ:.

DJ: Hey, David. Thank you. Great to be here from a new location today. I’m in San Jose, California where we just moved and so it’s a little bit of a different backdrop supposed to my wall, this is my backyard. I like it. I like it.

David: Yeah. So, DJ:. You’re coming out with a new book that’s launching towards the end of this month in August with Jason Falls calls the Rebel’s Guide to E-mail Marketing. Grow Your List, Break the Rules and Win. So I really wanted to get you on the show to talk about some of the key concepts in the upcoming book and talk about list building.

DJ: Yeah. We’re really excited about it. You know, Jason and I, Jason approached me about 9 months or so ago and, you know, he, for, I don’t know if listeners know this but he wrote a book called No Bullshit Social Media. And so this was kind of like the noble shit e-mail marketing, but little less cursing, I guess.

David: So you’ve kind of censored Jason in his book.

DJ: Slightly. I mean, you know, you still, you can still definitely hear his tone in voice and my tone in voice throughout it, but yeah. It’s the same kind of approach though. It’s not your traditional e-mail marketing book that says “do this, this, this in that order” and, you know, we really try to talk about it. The bulk of the book talks about breaking the rules and really, this idea that the only best practices when it comes to e-mail marketing are practices that are best for your audience. So we try to dispel a lot of the mist that are out there and a lot of, well, frankly would call bad advisory on e-mail marketing, and share examples of companies in such that are breaking those air quote “rules”.

DJ: And actually still finding success or winning, as I guess we say in the title.

David: So that was one of my questions actually. So like, you know, what are some of the “absolutely rules” of e-mail marketing, you know, that aren’t relevant today?

DJ: Yeah. I mean, you know, one of my favorite ones talks about you should never use, first of all, every time you use extreme, anytime you say you should never do this or you should always do this. You’re probably talking about a rule. One that we would recommend at least testing breaking and see what happens.

One of my favorites is always around subject lines. People have said it used to be the case that you could not include the word “free” in a subject line, or use all caps or exclamation points or, god forbid, use “FREE!” in all caps with an exclamation point at the end. But, you know, even if you Google, I actually just did this just the other day for presentation I’m giving next week.

If you Google the phrase “words to avoid in an e-mail subject line”, you’re going to find at the very top several posts that have list of top 100 words to avoid and unfortunately, that advice is just outdated. It was a good advice years ago, but I think this is kind of the challenge, and this is sort of the good and the bad of search. I know you can appreciate this, as well as your audience. That, people sometimes, I don’t think we’re doing as much research as we should be anymore. I mean you’re getting older and stuff in a little crotchety in you know, my beliefs. But it’s like, I think what happens is we’ve got these, you know, somebody said years ago which was true. Those types of words, “free deal”, “limited time”, those tends to go in the spam folder more often, and will get you blocked. Well, that was true 5 years ago but the problem is, people are recycling that content from 5 years ago and saying that’s still true and we’ve evolved in the reality and it’s no longer true. You know, if you look in your inbox today. You know, I challenge everybody out there to go to your inbox and just, if you’re in Google, you can search. It’s really easy. Search for the word “free”. And you can even do “subject line: free”. And you’ll see all subject lines having the word free in them. And there’s a tremendous number of them. It’s incredible. And then now take the word deal. Well, what if you’re in Groupon or what if you’re a deal today site. You know, you typically put deal in the subject line and the reality is those things will not get you blocked, in it of themselves.

David: Got you. Got you. So is it more based off. Instead of a subject line, that seems like it’s more of the spam filters that, you know, some are using really really old e-mail service provider or something, that might apply. But you know, like, Google and all these bigger, newer e-mail service providers are using more like sender score and stuff like that.

DJ: Yeah. Exactly. A lot of it. So I will be clear about something. It doesn’t mean that I mean you could have, you can create any filtering system at your company. I mean a corporate filter, you could say if the subject line contains the word “free”, automatically junk it. I mean you can do that. I’m sure some IT folks do that but really, if they’re going to be really aggressive. But you’re right. The, many ES, or I should ESP’s, really. Many ISP’s are now filtering based on, as you said, sender score which is return pass term term for it. But basically reputation. So how good is the domain that you’re sending from? How reputable is it? Do you, does that IP address or that domain that you’re sending from tend to send a lot of unsolicited mail, or mail that’s marked as spam more often than not. If that’s a case, your mail’s going to have a higher chance of going to the spam folder. But subject line doesn’t have as much of an impact anymore. Even words within the body of a message do not have nearly have much of an impact as it used to be. I mean we also talk about things like all images or, you know, mostly image e-mails or no mostly text. I mean those are just all, they’re just old and outdated. This is not the case anymore.

David: Got you, got you. Cool. So, let’s see here. So, I have a bunch of other e-mail questions but I wanted to dive in the list building first; because that’s really, one of the things that we’re trying to do here about now is grow our list. I know it’s kind of the bread and butter of, you know, your internet marketing. But could you explain to business owners out there watching, you know, why is it so critical to grow your own in house list?

DJ: Yeah. So, I would just say, I mean, we actually just talked about this in the book. I mean the reason we start with growing your list is that, you know, you can have the best Podcast in the world, you can have the best product to offer at the best price that everybody wants, and the best subject line and most creative copy, the most compelling call to action. But if you don’t have anybody to send to, if you’re sending to 2 people, then nothing of it matters, right. So the idea is you have to have a list to, and you have to be constantly building that list.

I mean there’s also stats out there that show unsubscribe rates are close to 30%.

Meaning you’re going to lose close to 30% of your list year over year because of people unsubscribing, marking it as spam, changing e-mail addresses, or just what we would term, actually I think it was Deliquest, a colleague of mine termed “unemotionally subscribed”. Which means people who are on your list but don’t take any kind of action. So you might have a list of 10,000. But 3,000 of them haven’t opened an e-mail from you in 4 years. They’re pretty much dead e-mail addresses, right. David: Right.

DJ: So, I guess the whole idea is that you have to not only have a list but you have to be constantly growing that list in order to be able to do e-mail marketing effectively. There’s really no point.

David: Got you, got you. So growing list, what are some things you’ve seen companies implement that work extremely well in actually growing that list?

DJ: So, still, you know, one of the biggest ones is actually just putting, it just sounds so obvious, it’s almost, I feel awkward even saying that every time. It’s putting an opt in form on your site. I did an exercise in the University of Utah Business School, I taught a class there in e-mail marketing. I had all the students go. I said Okay, just brainstorm in your group 5 companies at the top of your head. Just, any 5. Don’t even think about what they are. And I said now, go to those websites and I want some of your time how long it takes to A, find the opt in form, B, fill out the form, and D, hit submit. Like how long that process is. Now, this is of course not a true study. So let me be very clear about that. But, you know, the sample size was 30 and it was not, you know, unique.

David: That’s good enough, that’s good enough.

DJ: But, the point is, I would say 2 to, at least 2. Average of 2 of those 5 companies didn’t have an opt in form on their website. So there’s people that want to get e-mails from you and you don’t even have that option. At least one of those 5 had it, but it was so hard to find. It was buried all the way at the bottom, it was hidden in the sidebar. And there was only a handful of them that had it, was easy to find and it was just very easy to subscribe. So I know that sounds so obvious but really, the first thing is to make sure that you have your opt in form on your website and it’s easy to find, it’s easy to opt in, you’re not asking for hundreds of different fields. Not to say that you can’t do that. I mean it works for some people. But if you’re putting barriers in front of people who want to get your e-mail, you’re doing it wrong.

David: Got you, got you. So what are your thoughts on pop up, you know, lightbox pop ups that say hey, subscribe to our list or stuff like that?

DJ: I hate them.

David: Hate them? It works though.

DJ: I hate them. But, so, that’s the whole point we’re making the book. That was actually like a good, it was a good exchange there. No, I hate them. I honestly hated it. To me, they bother me. I rarely opt in to something when it pops up on the screen. I want to close them just, you know, think about back in the day when this is like move your mouse around the screen, trying to find the box to close them, like 16 other screens pop up. But, you know, we talked about this in the book. That’s a no-no in the e-mail marketing world is to do a pop up to collect e-mail addresses, yet for many many people, it works. And we give examples of a fellow Bostonian, Chris Penn, who has used pop ups on his site for over a year now. And he’s seen tremendous list growth. In fact, just recently, you might be able to find these blog to blog to post on this, it’s The title of the blog post is pop ups are back. And he tried an experiment for I think it lasted 3 weeks. He removed the pop up. I think his terminology, he said opt ins went off the clip. Completely dropped off. So for him it works. We gave an example on the book about the company Funny or Die which is one of my absolutely favorite websites. And they have a pop up. And what they do that’s very unique about there is that it doesn’t show until you go 3 different pages deep into their web. So their point is hey, you’ve got to be committed to this content a little bit. We’re not going to throw it up in your face until you’re actually showing that you’re somewhat invested in the content.

David:  I think that would actually be a good best practice to implement. I have a delay on mine. I’ve been going back and forth, I’ve seen the exact same thing that Chris Penn saw and then what he did is to study on it as well. Like, when you take it off, like it just goes off a cliff. It’s very noticeable. And some people do complain. But, you know.

DJ: Well, you know, it’s interesting because you have to, I think with all the marketing that you do, you have to be aware of a couple of things. One, you’re definitely not going to please everybody. Two, there’s going to be people that hate your site, and the far majority or hate something about your site, they’re never going to tell you. And you have no idea. So it’s possible, there’s a ton of people that hate Chris Penn’s pop up. But it’s also possible that, you know, for him it’s working because he’s getting more e-mail subscriptions which is one of his goals of his websites.

David: Got you, got you. So, you know, once you, you know, implement. And it’s very simple. It seems so, you know, no brain or out of form for your site. Once you add that, you’re going to start seeing an increase obviously in subscriptions.

DJ: Yup.

David: Once those people are in the door though, you know, what are some key things that you need to do to kinda keep them engaged on that list? You know, is it e-mail newsletters, is it…

DJ: For me, first and foremost, I think you have to in that opt-in form.

You have to provide them something of like what’s in it for me or some kind of value, set some expectations. What should they expect when they get your e-mail.

So, on my opt in form, for example, I actually give a quote from somebody I used to work it that shares why she opted in for this e-mail. and why she looks forward to getting it in her in-box every morning. So I have a little bit of a value, you know, value poll there. But also, I’ll tell you what you’re going to get. You’re going to get the best of the best e-mail marketing content delivered every Friday morning. Then, when you opt in, I send a welcome e-mail out, and the welcome e-mail doesn’t have to be crazy but it’s something, it at least says “hey, we’re glad to have you. Thanks for subscribing” and it just reiterates here’s what to expect, here’s what you’re going to get. Look for that next e-mail on whatever day. So I think that’s really important.

Then, you know, the third big thing is providing value. In fact, on, just this morning, I wrote a blog post. I think I titled it The Least Valuable E-mail of all Time. So I got an e-mail from Amazon Payments recently and it basically said your payment to Yon Eric, who’s my brother in law, was denied. Then in the body of the e-mail, it said your payment of $80 to Yon Eric was denied. For help, click on this link and it was a link to their generic help. So it didn’t tell me why, it didn’t tell me I couldn’t reply to it, because it was a no reply e-mail address. So basically, you know, there was absolutely zero value in that. I wrote, well said, I know you know this stuff but, you know, they could have at least said “here is a link to a blog post of the top 5 reasons why payments get denied or here’s an FAQ section on our site”, for, you know, make it, give me some kind of value. So I think in general, you have to make sure that what you’re providing your audience has some value to them. That’s the key.

David: Got you, got you. So when putting together your e-mail newsletter, you know, are there any e-mail newsletters out there that are done extremely well? One of the problems that I’m having with my newsletter is coming up with a content, aggregating it all together, making something nice and pretty. I’m very much a perfectionist in that sense. And getting out an e-mail newsletter is a challenge for me right now; but what kind of advice would you give there?

DJ: Yeah. I mean, you know, I used to be that guy that said it’s got to be perfectly designed, it’s got to look nice, all this. But, you know, we’ve got tons of examples in there that people who’s, I mean Chris Penn, going back to Chris. Chris sent out an e-mail every Sunday night. That’s one of the ugliest looking e-mails I’ve ever seen, and he’s redesigned it to look better. I think it’s ugly. It’s formatted, kind of funky, but I can tell you that it performs for him. People click on links. It’s just, I mean it’s a kind of e-mail for you to print it out, it’s 4 pages long, you know. But it works for his audience.

Chris Rogan sends out, another Bostonian, sends out an e-mail that’s almost all text that works for him. It works for his audience. I get also very creative e-mails from a lot of online retailers. That works for, you know, showing a lot of images works for them. I think the key is, you know, you have to have the most, the average person is not going to notice little things. I mean to speak directly what you’re saying, and I’m a perfectionist too. Although I say I’ve gotten older, I’ve soften up, just a little bit that area. You know, you have to hear, most people aren’t going to see that, you know, unless it’s like me. I sent out an e-mail out the other day to my list and my mom replies back and told me I had a typo. But most people don’t notice that stuff, it’s your mom, right. And she’s a teacher and she always tells you that stuff. So I think what you have to do is figure out a way to streamline the process.

One of the things I do with my weekly newsletter is, you know, so my newsletter talks about the best of the best e-mail marketing content from the week. So I write it on Thursday. I block out time on Thursday to write it, takes no more than an hour to write it, and during the week, I use Evernote and every time I see an article that I really like, I just grab the URL for that article, I paste it in to Evernote, and then, when I go to write the newsletter, I’ve got all my content there. So I’m not all of a sudden sitting down on Thursday and saying “what should I write about today?” It’s all there, it’s just a matter of plugging things in.

David: Got you, got you. Yes. So I just need to find that, I just need to aggregate because I re-tweet articles all the time that I read. So I might as well just kind of save on that list, get the best of the best, write. Do you write a quick snippet about what it’s about or?

DJ: I do personalize snippet about what I think, yeah. I mean, you can go to and you could sign up and you could see what I do. But I mean, yeah. I do a little, I do my take on that particular article. So I do a little lead, I do a little out show and I have a little, some sidebar things to talk about my business and smooth things I’m doing. But for the most part, it’s content. I think what you have to remember, people especially, on the social space worry a lot that, well, somebody already saw that. I tweeted that already or I wrote a blog post about that. Well, unless you’re living, breathing social media like you and I do, most people don’t see that. You know, if I tweet something or re-tweet it, 99.999% of my friends don’t ever see it.

David: Right.

DJ: So, e-mail allows that. You can re-purpose that stuff and, I mean, even you just did, I’ve seen people send out e-mails that all they do is show all their tweets. You know, all their re-tweets or whatever it is from the week.

David: Right. DJ: Do that, you know. People don’t see it. It’s just, you know, it’s just like re-imagining content as [inaudible 00:18:19] would say, more Bostonian

David: All the marketers are in Boston. That’s pretty true. Cool. So switching gears back into e-mail marketing, best practices. You know, we’re talking a little bit earlier about subject lines and how, you know, all these older keywords that you can’t use, you’re going to actually use now.

DJ: Yup.

David: But in the book, you talked also about optimization. About like different pieces in the e-mail. What are the main kind of components of the e-mail to optimize an AB test?

DJ: Yeah. So we refer to it in the book as the anatomy of an e-mail. The idea is there are several different parts, just like a human body, there are several different parts of an e-mail. And each one of them, you have the power to control, tweak, modify test, etc. So it starts always with the front name and the subject line. Those are 2 things that people see before they even open the e-mail. So, who’s the e-mail from, is it somebody you trust, do you recognize, are you likely to open it, based on that. And then there’s the subject line. The subject line, creative, is it compelling, what is tells or how it sees it. So, Chris Penn, going back to him. His subject line is pretty generic. But it tells exactly what’s in the news letter.

So Chris Penn’s almost timely news letter, then he shows the date. I think it’s boring, but it tells you what exactly the contents are. Then there’s also part of the e-mail called the pre header and that’s literally the space above the header image. And that’s where you put some text in. You usually see from most e-mails. It says view this and, you know, having trouble seeing images, view online. But there’s a great opportunity there to also put a call to action. You could put a link that goes back to. For me, I do my most recent blog post but you could do, if you’re a retailer, you could do, you know, 20% off, buy now, click this link kind of stuff. Then as you go down the message, there’s the header which is usually an image. It might have some navigation. Then the bulk of the image should be your main call to action. What is it that you want people to do? Do you want them to listen to you your podcast? Do you want them to read a blog post? Do you want them to buy a product? Sign up for a webinar? Whatever that main call to action is, that should be prominent and very clear. If you have to, if you read an e-mail and say I don’t know what they want me to do, then the e-mail marketer probably isn’t doing their job. And then as you kinda go down from there, there’s secondary, tertiary calls to action. Those could be on the sidebar; they can be below it. Those are things that for the most part of marketers, want to want people to click on, they want you to click through, but it’s not the main purpose of the e-mail.

David: Got you. So with that being example of like, you know, social media links or like, you know, follow us on, you know, follow us on, you know, Twitter, something like that or?

DJ: That can be. Those typically are more in the footer which we talked about in the book. Actually, one of the rules is like the unsubscribe link is moving it to the top. You know, and giving people the option to unsubscribe. In fact, I put it in my pre-header, you know. If you want off the list, that’s fine with me. Un-subscibe here. Social sharing could be secondary, tertiary calls to action, depending on how your e-mail is set up. So, again, we typically find them in the footer and sometimes, I think, I’m seeing more and more people moving them on the top of the e-mail now.

David: Got you. So with the call to action, the main call of action, do you have that as plain text and just make it, you know, a bigger font size? Or are you actually using like a call to action graphics for this?

DJ: It could be whatever you want. I recommend doing all three. And by all three, I mean putting an image, including a button and a link. And the reason being is, everybody responds to e-mail differently, right? I mean some people see an image and they can’t wait to click on it. Some people, like let’s say if you’re my mom or dad, they don’t necessarily think about images as click-able So they would click on the link. Some people see a button that says “buy now” or “subscribe now” or “opt in”, is that call of action, they’re more apt to do that. And most e-mail service providers will be able to show you what links people are clicking on. So those are all unique URLs. You can tell which of your… which subscribers clicking on which particular links.

David: Got you, got you. So talking about e-mail service providers. Which would you recommend?

DJ: So I, you know, it’s really though recommend one because I mean there’s hundreds of them out there out there. I think it depends on what level of e-

mail marketing needs you have. So if you’re kind of in the basic, you know, just sort of doing things basically, you could do, you know, something like a mail chimp or constant contact or A webber. And as you kind of move up, there’s more features. So Abranta or, where I used to work, or Infusionsoft who happens to be a client of mine. The feature set is going to be a little richer. Silverpop, exact target. But you’re going to pay more and you’re probably going to have a higher level of support and client service help as well. And then you’ve got, you know, I know this is for small businesses. So this probably isn’t relevant but you’ve got the “Cheetah” mail to the world to, you know, your more enterprise type solutions.

David: Got you, got you. So let’s see here. So, Okay. So with e-mail design. You kinda mentioned in a little bit earlier. Are you more of a fan of like a minimalistic, kind of look and feel of an e-mail? because I know if you add in, you know, your site’s navigation at the top and sidebars, all these stuff, you start cluttering up the e-mail. So what’s your kind of take on that?

DJ: Yeah. I mean, so we give examples in the book to. If you’re somebody who’s an online retailer, mostly text e-mails probably are not going to be as powerful for you. So we give an example on the book of Ibex who’s a clothing retailer based in Vermont. And they pride themselves on imagery. I mean, you know, people want to see what they’re buying. So if they were to do a plain text e-mail, it’s probably going to be less, just less appealing. You know, King Arthur Flower is also, I think in Vermont, you know. They put pictures of food in their e-mail. I mean this would be, won’t be as appealing now. Again, the other extreme of that is somebody like Derek Halpern from Social Triggers. He includes almost all text in his e-mails; and he’s found that working well for him. I actually surveyed my subscribers and I said “which would you rather see?” Overwhelmingly, people said what I would call HTML lite. So, you know, not overwhelming number of images and overwhelming number of buttons. Mostly text still, but enough to kinda not make it just bland and boring.

David: Right, right. Okay.

DJ: But then, I mean, this is, you know, we’re talking about breaking the rules. So, you know, we give examples of both extremes for sure.

David: Yeah. I tried to do the minimalistic approach where it still has some design elements to it, but it’s very text focused as well.

DJ: Yup. I mean if that, you know, and then if you look at your analytics and see what works for you. By the way, my dog wanted to get on Skype. So there she is.

David: So, towards the end of the book. You talked about this short versus long term future of e-mail marketing. So what exactly are you talking about there?

DJ: Yeah. I mean that, I think that, you know, the thing about e-mail marketing is it’s in a lot of ways, e-mail hasn’t changed. If you think about it, for the most part, you write an e-mail, you pick a list of the people you’re going to send to, and you hit send. And yeah, you can track some things . You can see who opened it. But that’s the fundamentals of e-

mail. I think where we’re starting to see e-mail evolve to is that it’s obviously becoming more social. I mean that’s by including social sharing icons, social connecting icons. You’re seeing where you can do a lot of things, you can do e-mail from within social platforms now. I know years ago added an e-mail element. I know Hubspot, you know, has now gotten into e-mail. So there’ s a lot of this blend between, you know, peer play e-mail service providers, and then other solutions as well.

So I really think we’re going to see, I hope we’re going to see a lot more personalization, a lot more targeted e-mails. So, you know, I’d love to see the day when you send an e-mail out to your list and based on, you know, everybody, literally everybody in your list sees a different e-mail. That’s possible today. But it’s not happening all that much. And if you think about it, I mean it’s a sophisticated e-mail marketing but, you know, for your audience for example, maybe based on what, you know, you do some kind of run some metrics on what they’ve clicked the most often, and that’s the kind of content they get. You know, Amazon does that I think, in some ways. You know, you’re purchased, they do in little blocks of contents. So you’ve purchased this, therefore, you might like that, that sort of thing.

David: So yes, maybe, and doing that stuff right now is extremely complicated. Right? So maybe moving into the future, there will be easier to use tools, you know.

DJ: Don’t get me wrong. There’s e-mails that providers today that can do that. You know, if you’re talking to small business owners, you know, you might be, there are might, you know, be a mortgage payment.

David: Exactly. Exactly. Cool. So Thanks for coming on the show. Where can people find you online?

DJ: They can go to search engine of your choice and type in DJ: waldo or my name, DJ: Waldow, pretty much any social handle I’ve owned. That’s one of the advantages of having a name like DJ: Waldow. It’s available.

David: Yeah. I’m sure you’ve gotten your entire life. “Where’s Waldow?”

DJ: Yeah. Since day one. In fact, I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember this but there was the, I think it’s the Van Halen video Hot for Teacher. It’s one of the first MTV videos, early MTV videos. And there’s just, the guys, the scene in the bus. The guy’s name is like this little nerdy guy named Waldo. An it’s this whole black and white video and he’s, and there’s the scene on the bus that he yells sit down, Waldo. And I was about his age when the video came out. So I heard Where’s Waldo and then I used to hear sit down Waldo a lot.

David: Awesome. Awesome.

DJ: Good times.