How to Keep Your Email Marketing from
Being Killed Dead

Email Marketing 101

A new study by the email marketing firm Return Path shows that nearly a quarter of the permission-based email sent to Gmail never gets there.

No, I’m not saying it goes to a junk box. Most of it doesn’t get delivered at all. No bounce message. No spam folder. Just . . . gone.

(This is not spam I’m talking about, either. It’s email you asked to get, which Gmail decided not to give to you.)

This is why people think email marketing is dead. Hotmail, MSN, Comcast, and AOL all have similar practices. They decide what their subscribers should be allowed to request, and delete material that they don’t think you should have asked for in the first place.

A lot of what gets deleted mentions taboo subjects like, say, how to find more customers. How to make money online. How to attract targeted traffic to a web site.

Stuff that, as it happens, I write about all the time in my email newsletter.

But my open rates are great, usually around 75-80%. (I got 96.4% one time, which was neat.)

Not only are my messages getting delivered, they’re getting opened, read, and people are acting on what they read. What makes the difference?

Most bulk email is selfish

Most marketing is self-centered, bragging about how terrific the business is instead of focusing obsessively on what the customer feels, wants, and needs.

My email content (like my blog content, my Twitter content, and any white papers, special reports, or autoresponders I create) is all about the reader. I give lots of advice, links (and not only to my own stuff), and useful information. Once I sent my readers a recipe for chocolate cream pie.

Do I promote? Absolutely. And when I do, it’s effective. But promotion is about 5% of what I do. The other 95% of the time, I’m giving value and solid information.

Most bulk email is boring

This is really the same issue as the previous one.

Self-centered content is dull. It’s like getting cornered by that awful friend of a friend at a party. You know the guy.

“But enough about me. What do you think about me?”

It’s hard to ditch the guy at the party. It’s very, very easy not to read or open an email.

I get dozens of messages every day that are so boring and self-centered I can’t be bothered to unsubscribe. I just set up a rule to automatically throw them in the trash as they come in. Or I let them pile up in the spam filter until I feel like deleting 20 or 30 at a time without looking at them.

And I’m one of the nice ones. Many people will just mark you as a spammer for the crime of being boring.

And my guess is that those are the folks who are getting caught in Gmail limbo — people who failed one too many times to engage their readers, and got unfairly marked as spam.

Now that’s pathetic.

Why you don’t want to give up on email

For awhile, it looked like email was old-fashioned anyway. RSS was where it was at. We were going to create amazing connections with our blogs. Not only could we have terrific conversations, but our content was linkable, findable via search engines, and part of a global dialogue. Who needs boring old email?

But here’s the secret that smart online marketers know: When you want to move from conversation to commerce, email just works better.

Email lists are more responsive than RSS subscribers. They’re more engaged. They’re less likely to drift away and forget you. And they’re more profitable.

Email is a more intimate medium than RSS. If RSS is a networking event, permission-based email is a dinner party. (As opposed to mailing to an email list you purchased, which is some jackass cold-calling you to sell life insurance during your dinner party. Don’t do that.)

The Direct Marketing Association consistently reports that the ROI on email marketing remains far above that of search or other marketing channels. That’s in line with what I see and hear in online business.

And guess what? Smarter email marketing = better results.

Be so good you can’t be stopped

If people have trouble receiving my email, I hear about it.

They use the contact form on my blog. They Tweet me. They try signing up with another email address. They send a carrier pigeon if they have to.

My readers really, really want what I’ve got to send them, because they know it’s going to give them something they desire, and fix problems that are painful to them.

They trust me to send them good stuff. And if they don’t receive it, they’ll do whatever they have to do to fix the problem.

That is the way to address deliverability in 2009. Not with a technology solution or going with a great email provider or avoiding certain words. I use “forbidden” words all the time. (Like “free” and “make money.” Yes, I like to live dangerously.)

Sure, it makes sense to give yourself the best possible shot of getting through the first time. Rewrite a little to make spam filters happier. Use the excellent email service Brian, Jon and I use: Aweber (that’s the Copyblogger affiliate link if you’re interested in signing up).

But if you leave it at that, you’ll probably conclude that email marketing is dead. And you’ll leave a lot of money on the table.

Next week I’m going to share my best content tip for email (or any other form of content marketing). Hint: it involves treating your readers like dogs. :)

Check out the rest of the Email Marketing 101 series.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is Senior Editor of Copyblogger and the founder of Remarkable Communication. She also offers a pretty darned good free class on email marketing.

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Reader Comments (83)

  1. says

    Aweber is great! I highly recommend it for anyone who’s not a complete dork.

    As for me, I’m a complete dork. (:

    I ended up going with MailChimp (not an affiliate link) simply because the little monkey makes me smile every time I log in. He asks me if I’m wearing pants, and links me to ridiculously stupid YouTube videos. And now they have autoresponders, too.

    I’m excited to hear your next tip! Woof, woof! (:

  2. says

    Ha! It’s hard to argue with a chimp who asks if you’re wearing pants.

    I used to be an Aweber zealot because its deliverability is so good, but lately, because of this realization that deliverability is more about relationship & content than it is about the email provider, I’m less doctrinaire about it. :)

  3. says

    A agree that email marketing works very well. But, I don’t really like subscribing to newsletters in my email. Rather I just use my Google RSS feedreader. There is less hassle and I just seem to like all of my reading material in one place.

  4. says

    I really love this post. I heard you talk about this on one of the Marketing for Nice People calls, but it’s good to have it written somewhere where I can check back. I don’t have a problem writing posts, but somehow whenever I sit down to write an email marketing letter, I get stuck. Thanks for bringing me back to the point: add value.

    Even thought it wasn’t particularly addressed, can I just get on my soapbox for one minute and say I really don’t like getting posts regurgitated as a newsletter. I am an avid RSS reader so I’ve usually already read it. Say new things and just place links to your recent posts in the email sidebar. Ok. *Steps off soapbox*

    I love MailChimp too. The monkey was such a draw that I actually transferred my list over to MailChimp from Aweber. I’m not as impressed with the templates, but here I stay. Monkeys rule. And MailChimp knows marketing.

  5. says

    I really don’t like getting posts regurgitated as a newsletter.

    Amber, I agree. If you have a blog and a separate email newsletter (as opposed to blog posts delivered by email), I believe that content should be unique. OK to provide links to blog content that might have been missed, but there’s got to be more.

  6. says

    Saw a few RT’s of this spot-on article on Twitter, and had to let you know that our CEO just wrote about the same topic on our blog.. “Don’t let your email marketing go extinct.” Here’s the link.

    The same rules apply, create remarkable content FIRST. Thanks for a great piece here, will spread the word on the Twitter side ( @netprospex )

  7. says

    Two months ago I wrote an article about how RSS was go to take over Email as a marketing platform… but I couldn’t publish it because it’s not really true.

    I think RSS is a better concept and it *should* work better than email… but it doesn’t and the smart money is still betting on email.

    (Also, the Mailchimp monkey is hilarious)

  8. says

    Henry, I felt the same way about RSS 4 years ago. It’s clear that at least for now, that’s not going to happen and email still rules in most niches.

    It’s a valuable lesson about not holding on to beliefs that don’t test out in the real world outside of the tech and blogging echo chamber. Someone needs to tell Dave Winer, though. 😉

  9. says

    @Amber, you’ve also got a PDF of my email content class with MFNP, so you get to read it all at once. :) I feel the same — if you’re going to do both, you need to have unique content for both. If you can only do one, there’s always email subscription to your blog.

    I’d never even heard of MailChimp, but clearly I need to go look at what I’m missing!

  10. says

    This is going to sound like a rookie question, and quite frankly, I am fine with that…because I am a rookie.

    Here is the thing, I want to use email marketing in the future. There is a right way to do it, and a wrong way. I prefer to take the high road.

    Since I dont have tons of email contacts, what is the best way to acquire them? Simply ask permission to send info? Keep waiting for newsletter sign-ups?

    I am new to this whole game, but excited to get involved. Any tips, trades, suggestions, or just telling me good luck would help.

    In general, besides generating awesome content, is there a faster track to create awareness? These things take time, any ideas of time frames? How long does it take until you can justifiably say you have a solid list of emails to even market to?

    PS> Looking into MailChimp

  11. says

    @Phil, the quickest way to get new followers is to create a really nice “bribe” for them in the form of a special report, a manifesto, a white paper, or an e-course that’s delivered by autoresponder. (The last one is sort of an old school technique that’s enjoying a renaissance, and it’s the one I happen to like the best.)

    It took me about 6 months to develop a list of any size, but it can happen more quickly if you devote more time and focus to it.

    You could certainly do a “campaign” of guest posting on blogs to promote the new “free bribe.” Create posts on your own blog that talk about why you created the free item, who it’s intended for, and what it will do for them. You can do interviews with blogging friends and talk about the freebie you’ve created.

    Keep focusing obsessively on the reader. What does he want? What’s missing that he’s not getting now? Keep filling in those missing spots for people. That way when you do attract attention, you can actually snag those readers for the long haul, because you’re promising long-term value.

  12. says

    Many people will just mark you as a spammer for the crime of being boring.

    This reminds me of the time a couple months ago that I randomly looked in my spambox and discovered a bulk email with the subject line: “How to avoid falling in the spambox” :)

  13. Les says

    Great tips, Sonia — thank you! Can we talk examples of some really good email newsletters? I’m specifically interested in how to do one that is somewhat focused on conversion (like that of an retail shopping site) but still provides unique, helpful content that make readers trust (and open) it …. not to mention keep reading (and possibly buying).

    I like some of the RealSimple newsletters, which have manageable, bite-sized pieces of info/advice and soft-sell a few related products. What other good ones are out there in that realm? Also, does being an online retailer change any of the rules (i.e., for subject lines, presentation, content, etc.)?

  14. says

    A terrific one that I just found is on It’s tips for women on buying jeans, and it’s just about perfect. It even has really crucial information contained in images, so the subscriber is highly motivated to tell their email service to go ahead and display the images (and thus activate the trackability of the message).

    I would say that the one factor an online retailer would need to keep in mind would be that the appearance has to be good, and appealing product images will be important.

  15. says

    I know, “I am not my customer,” but I never, EVER, opt-in to email. I’m conTENT with the CONtent I pull via Google alerts, RSS, Tweetdeck hashtag search, retweets and the like.

  16. says

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your 95% vs %5 rule. Email has to deliver value, not specials or savings, but value. We do a monthly (sort of monthly) newsletter and I have actually had clients tell me they print them and keep them on file for future reference. Not very green but telling in the sense that we are giving them something that they find useful. Thanks for this post. I think people are far too eager to bury email as a marketing tool and it is just not a good idea.

  17. says

    Must have missed the memo. Never knew email marketing died. As long as you do it the right way (and remains “for free”) email marketing will never die.

  18. says

    “Email is a more intimate medium than RSS. If RSS is a networking event, permission-based email is a dinner party. (As opposed to mailing to an email list you purchased, which is some jackass cold-calling you to sell life insurance during your dinner party. Don’t do that.)”

    Excellent metaphor, Sonia!

  19. says

    For me personally, email works better than RSS marketing because I may not see all RSS posts before deleting them or cleaning out my Google Reader. I have been neglecting email marketing over the past few months because I’ve been so focused on blogging, but this post is getting me back in gear!

  20. says

    @Carla, I’m the same way, it’s much easier for me to forget the reader.

    @Jon, it sounds like you are on exactly the right track. That’s the kind of content that actually works.

    @Mark, you’re 100% right. You are not your customer. :)

  21. says

    Note, however, that there’s one kind of “email marketing” that is still successful: Spam. Although most people don’t like Spam, the hard-core spammers still reach their target group: idiots who buy their crap.

    So what’s really depressing is that dumb spamming still performs better than almost all so-called “email marketing”.

    There are good companies with great email newsletters loved by their customers. Too sad that those are still individual cases rather than the norm – in 2009, many years after the DotCom bubble. :-(

  22. says

    i have no money for aweber, getrespons or another autoresponder, it’s still to expensive for me…it’s better using the free rss to give the update post to my customer

  23. says

    I am new to RSS and actually have only started to subscribing because I wanted to know what the heck RSS was and why everyone had it on their blogs…LOL.

    I am one of the “customers” that signs up for the autoresponder email courses, free reports, etc. Why? Because I want to learn.

    But here is one thing I will say that maybe the veterans have forgotten about.

    I am so inundated with “knowledge” that I don’t have time to read the long-ass emails! And why does the autoresponder have to email me 3 times a day for the first week?

    Wanna know what determines which email I read? It isn’t necessarily the headline. It is how long it is when I open it.

    If it fits above the fold, I will usually read it. If it is full of type and I have to scroll more than once to see the bottom, I close it with the intent of reading it later.

    Let me tell you….later hardly comes.

    The best email series I received was from a person I actually signed up under. His emails were short and sweet and to the point with the link to the free video series. After that, he dripped on me once a week. Twice maybe.

    Because he didn’t bombard me, I opened, and I read, and more importantly, I BOUGHT.

    Hope this helps (from a newbie).

  24. says

    Another rookie question:

    I see that I have a few people subscribed to email through Feedburner on my blog.
    Can you please tell me if it is alright for me to use these emails to send email newsletters or do I need to create a separate list of people who get email newsletters?

  25. says

    Thanks for this post Sonia!

    I write a once-monthly newsletter for my readers, which contains nothing other than free marketing advice for small businesses. No ads – just free, valuable content; with my contact details below. My blog’s the same – no ads, just free marketing content.

    Over the past 3 years, our newsletter has consistently generated high quality business. Interestingly, it’s effectiveness has increased each year / quarter too.

    Our recipe for newlsetter marketing has always been the same: Give great value, become known as a source of reliable, non-generic information and make it super-easy for people to connect with you.

    Thanks again for an inspiring post Sonia!

  26. says


    I never go bulk with my emails, but I do
    consider my list to be very valuable therefore
    I do my best to keep them happy by providing
    value, etc.

    But I do admit I am guilty of being boring and it is
    something I am most definitely going to work on.


  27. says

    Definitely want to learn more about what you do. We have a tool for emarketing that ties into various CRM applications and is very sales person friendly.

  28. says

    You say you “Most marketing is self-centered, bragging about how terrific the business is instead of focusing obsessively on what the customer feels, wants, and needs.”

    Is not the marketing that is self-centered but the marketers, marketing is an invisible method and it’s only visible when a marketer implant it.

  29. says

    Great article. I think I will have to make sure and continue using my email as a way to generate traffic. Not that i stopped. I had wondered how effective it could still be though. Thanks.

  30. says

    Great article. It really demonstrates how counterproductive being selfish (me-focused) is. Not just counterproductive, but plain dumb, stupid and lazy.

    Tell me about all those “me, me, me” messages that just never get read… Just like all those automated “thank you for following me on Twitter, click here for xyz” Argh!

    I like your 95/5% ratio for value/promotion on Twitter and elsewhere. Interestingly, it is similar in ratio to the often quoted failure/success rate for online business start ups. Could this be more than just a coincidence?

  31. says

    I must admit that my email campaign has gotten stale and boring. You work hard to grow the list and then let the autoresponder do the rest.

    I think I need to go back and revisit my messages and spruce things upp a little.


  32. says

    Lately I have been hearing that e-mail marketing is dead, or at least dying, however you make some compelling arguments as to why it’s stronger than other formats (such as RSS).

    This is my first time visiting Copyblogger as I had just read about your site in Seth Godin’s “Meatball Sundae.” I am glad I stopped by and look forward to reading more in the future!

  33. says

    Deliverability is HUGE when it comes to email marketing. Aweber and InfusionSoft have very good deliver rates. You also want to intertwine links to video in the email copy. People are much more likely to watch a video than read text these days.

    Email marketing is not dead by any means, especially if you’ve built an audience that knows, likes, and trusts you :)

  34. says

    I agree email has definitely become more intimate for both business and personal reasons and SO true how people will go chasing you down for missed emails when they actually love to hear what you gotta say. It blows me away how many ecommerce marketers neglect the true power and effectiveness of email marketing campaigns!

  35. says

    Bulk emails as you said is selfish,

    If you are targeted in an email as a person you feel more respected and most of the time you will reply to this ..

    Hence spending more time in targeting each individual that you will think is interested, will definitely give you great results..

    Same goes with facebook,

    you can send a link to 30 or 50 to your friends.. once your friends think or feel they’ve been bulked they will delete or ignore the message.

  36. says

    Great point about the bulk email. I agree that people don’t want to read about you, they want to know what can be done for them. It’s all about interaction. Self promotion may seem like the only way to get attention but it may not be the best way to get customers.

  37. says

    Hey good people. I have learnt a lot from this post…
    There are some things that I never thought about regarding email marketing even after depending on emails entirely for my business.

    Thanks for sharing!

  38. says

    I can see some value in email marketing still. I will admit I did give up on it for a good while. Early 2000’s it was still doing great, but keeping my same tactics I saw a huge decline. Spam, Junk folder, and a huge flood of new content by the tons to compete against… Clearly one of my issues has been the self-promotion. Will implement some more of what users need and want to hear.

  39. says

    Thanks for your continued faith in email ! A lot of folks have mentioned Mailchimp, and they are a solid product. However, you can’t call Mailchimp if you need service. Check out Contactology if you need great service. Dedicated account managers and no call queues.

  40. says

    Hi Sonia, Brian:

    Is it necessary for a blog to have a newsletter to make it profitable? I admire the Copyblogger’s success of not utilizing advertising (e.g., Adsense, Kontera, etc.) as a means to monetize. It also seems that you guys don’t have a newsletter but a FeedBlitz account which seems steep in price (probably going for Aweber here). So will a newsletter promoted in a blog help in a blog/site’s communication strategy?

  41. says

    Kaleb, as you’ve noticed, Copyblogger doesn’t have a newsletter. And yet Copyblogger LLC is a profitable company. So no, you don’t need a newsletter per se to be profitable.

    However, a newsletter, or some form of a newsletter (it might be called something different), is an excellent tool that I (and others) have seen create some pretty significant financial rewards.

  42. says

    Thanks for this post, I really love it. I’ve been looking for ways to improve e-mail send-outs for an event I volunteer for, and I think this is just the thing to get my mind on the right track. I’ll have to check out AWeber. :)

  43. says

    WOW! I’ve never seen 96.4% open rate in my life. I take my hat off to you…

    You really taught me something here. It’s about delivering tremendous value that they look forward to hearing from you every single time.

    Thanks Sonia!

  44. says

    Hi Sonia!

    I just wanted to say that I really appreciated this article. You are spot-on. E-newsletters are wonderful if they are full of relevant, useful, and new content. Otherwise, they go right into my “trash can.”

    Congrats on your amazing “open rates,” by the way. Now, I want to subscribe to your e-newsletter… 😉


  45. says

    Hi, I’ve been reading about blogging and Internet Marketing for over a year, but now finally launching into actually doing it, so forgive me if I’m not understanding something.

    So, I see that you are advocating Aweber, but your email feeds are coming to me via Feedblitz. I wonder if you have changed your autoresponder or if you are just using Feedblitz for RSS feeds?

    I ask as I’m trying to decide which way to go for my autoresponder. Thanks for your input.

  46. says

    Email marketing and list building is a core component of an online business. Once you have the customers details then you can market to them on an ongoing basis (unless of course they unsubscribe!) and build a solid relationship which should yield results and a mutually beneficial relationship.

  47. says

    Email is where it’s at, for me, I’m a senior citizen, just getting into this internet, like all my friends, email is it! RSS I do not know, but we are new and trust has to be earned. Videos take so much time to upload. Emails are the bomb!

  48. says

    Hi Sonia,

    Great post, as always! Thank you.

    I’ve been using Aweber for the last couple of months and while there are many things I like about it (including awesome customer service), more and more I find myself annoyed by the editing interface as I construct and e-course in the form of follow-up messages. I’ve been finding the font changes by itself even after I save it, and many other quirky, annoying things. This is one area the customer service folks at Aweber didn’t have a satisfactory answer for me, even though their intentions were good.

    Just wondering if you or others have encountered this problem as well.


  49. says

    Thanks for the nice information email marketing is a nice opportunity it make very easy to earn money to be rich.I think every body should go through this once they will definitely feel unique.

  50. says

    I send out quality information, a free ecourse, free ebooks, rarely promote, and other great stuff yet I still can’t get my list to do anything. They don’t buy. They don’t engage. They don’t do anything.

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