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11 common email marketing mistakes (and how to avoid making them)

Email marketing used to be a nice-to-have for businesses. Now, it’s a must-do.

According to Litmus, more than 90% of survey respondents say email marketing is at least somewhat critical to their company’s overall success. Around 41% say it’s very critical, which has grown by nearly one-third since pre-pandemic levels.

Get email marketing wrong, however, and it can have the opposite effect. Poor communication can harm your brand’s reputation, negatively impact email health and even directly jeopardize sales.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the most costly and common email marketing mistakes to avoid. You’ll learn how to increase open rates, grow your subscriber list and boost customer retention using this invaluable channel.

Table of contents

  1. Getting off on the wrong foot
  2. Relying on generic email blasts
  3. Underestimating the importance of a great email subject line
  4. Sending large blocks of text
  5. Not formatting your email messages for mobile
  6. Sending marketing emails manually (and not knowing when to stop automating)
  7. Being overly promotional
  8. Not testing before sending
  9. Using words on spam trigger lists
  10. Ignoring email marketing compliance legislation
  11. Signing off without a CTA


1. Getting off on the wrong foot

First impressions count as much in email as they do in person. Building trust with new subscribers takes time, so starting off on the wrong foot can lead to inactivity or immediate unsubscribes.

Your opening contact will most likely be an automated welcome email or confirmation of an order or other action. Whatever the purpose, this is a make-or-break moment where your audience needs to feel welcomed and important.

A highly personalized, value-packed email will show new subscribers that this new relationship with your brand is worthwhile, reducing unsubscribe rates.

The value you provide will depend on the type of email you’re sending. In welcome messages, consider telling the reader exactly why they made the right decision to sign up. For example, you can share the kind of content they’ll receive in the future and tell them how they’ll benefit from it. For order confirmation emails, add value to the purchase by providing helpful information relating to the product.

This order confirmation email from browser plug-in GoFullPage provides important payment information and follows up immediately with some helpful links relating to the product:


Send content that reflects your wider brand messaging so it feels familiar to your audience. If your opening email doesn’t match the tone or design of your website, for example, it could throw the reader off and make them more likely to click the unsubscribe button.


2. Relying on generic email blasts

Do email blasts work? Yes, if executed correctly. Blasts allow you to reach large audiences with minimal investment. However, there’s no excuse for putting quantity before quality.

Relevance is what separates high-quality bulk email content from the catch-all messages spammers will send to anyone with an email address. To create relevant email marketing content, you’ll need to segment your audience so you can deliver email content they want to open and engage with.

Fortunately, you can use marketing automation tools to segment audiences based on factors such as:

  • Purchase history

  • Demographics

  • Sales pipeline stage

  • Geolocation

  • Website browsing activity

  • Previous content engagement

Segmenting your audience optimizes the recipient’s experience, as well as optimizing your campaigns for conversions. By segmenting your audience for important email blasts, like promotions on specific products they’ve already viewed, prospects are more likely to engage.

Below is part of a bulk email that Airtable used to announce a new product. This may have been sent to subscribers who have attended webinars in the past or who regularly engage with their platform.


3. Underestimating the importance of a great email subject line

When measuring the success of email marketing campaigns, the first metric to consider is your open rate (the percentage of recipients who opened your message in their inbox). A high open rate means you’re reaching your audience. A low one means you’re wasting time, money and effort.

Until they open your email, recipients only have two ways to judge its value: the sender name and subject line.

With trust in your name (built through several factors, such as opt-in consent, consistent branding and brand equity), your next step in standing out is to craft meaningful, attention-grabbing subject lines. Fail to do that and your email is likely to be ignored, lost or deleted.

Look through your own inbox and you’ll find that all the best subject lines have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Short

  • Personal

  • Direct

  • Casual

  • Relevant

  • Include numbers

  • Emotion-driven

The subject line on this Trustpilot email below might be just six words long but it manages to address the reader directly (“your”), come across as casual (“!”) and offer relevant information about a specific activity (the user’s review). What’s more, Trustpilot has likely achieved this specificity through automation.


4. Sending large blocks of text

Email is better suited to round-ups, newsletters and other easy-to-digest updates than long essays. Often senders try to put too much information in their email content, but it’s better to keep the email body concise to get engagement from busy readers. You can always link to further reading.

It’s not just text that impacts an email’s readability. Consider using high-quality images and graphics (but avoid stock images) to break up paragraphs or signpost sections so that readers can quickly skim through. Just remember that unnecessarily large image files could slow loading times and push readers away.

Learn more about user-friendly email design and formatting in our article on nine email design trends within your reach.


5. Not formatting your email messages for mobile

If you’re wondering, “does email marketing still work for a mobile audience?”, research tells us that it definitely does. In fact, mobile is the most commonly used platform for reading emails.

Once you’ve hooked them with a great subject line, mobile email users are more likely to stick around to read content that’s easier to navigate on a smaller screen.

Several factors contribute to mobile-friendliness in emails, including:

  • Formatting. Even on desktop screens, large chunks of text can be hard to read. Shorter paragraphs and sentences fit your mobile reader’s narrow displays more comfortably.

  • Design. Most smartphones are set to automatically flip content from portrait to landscape and back again, depending on how the user is holding their device. Make sure your content looks good in both orientations.

  • Length. Be concise. Mobile readers on the move want key takeaways in the form of short, easy-to-read snippets. If you need your reader to know more, provide a link they can use later.

  • Attachments and links. If you’re sending more than just text and basic imagery, think about what your recipient might be happy (or even able) to access on a mobile device. Large files don’t go well with mobile data limits.

This email from Slack specifically targets mobile users. It’s incredibly short and includes a handy app download link for users of the big three mobile operating systems.


6. Sending marketing emails manually (and not knowing when to stop automating)

Email’s biggest selling point is efficiency. It allows you to reach thousands of people in the time it would take to communicate with one by phone or in person.

Even if you’re already sending messages in bulk to your email list, you could save more time by using the automation features of an email marketing software platform. These tools are cost-effective and can dramatically improve productivity for sales teams and marketers.

Use features like Pipedrive’s Workflow Automation to automatically send emails to contacts whose associated deals reach certain stages in the pipeline. For larger target audiences, the Group Emailing feature simplifies the distribution and personalization of mass emails by allowing you to edit individual elements quickly. Both eliminate mundane tasks to save sales reps and marketers valuable time.


Automation is incredibly effective in digital marketing but knowing when not to use it is as important as knowing when to use it.

If a prospect or customer needs personal attention (e.g., when they’ve had a negative experience), remove them from your automated processes and communicate personally until they’re happy again.


7. Being overly promotional

For an email campaign to be effective, it must provide value. Sometimes that means promoting a product but not always.

Bombarding your audience with sales messages, especially the kind they’d get from unsolicited senders, will likely push your spam complaint rate up and damage your sender reputation, limiting your email reach in the long term.

Aim instead for an even mix of relevant sales messages, brand and industry updates, content promotions, helpful information and personalized offers. Send these at appropriate times based on factors like lifecycle stage and website activity. This balance will help create a meaningful relationship where customers and subscribers feel valued as more than just buyers.

This feeling of being valued is powerful, as author and customer service expert Shep Hyken explains in this blog post:

“​​Avoid transactions. A transaction is a one-time occurrence. An interaction is a relationship that is ongoing. Customers love to feel like they’re part of something. The way to make that happen is to think of them not as a customer, but as a partner.”

Coinbase sent the email below to its mailing list subscribers. It provides helpful information to its cryptocurrency-interested followers without overtly pushing its services.


8. Not testing before sending

This is one of the simplest email mistakes to avoid. You will make typos. Emails will look terrible on some platforms and great on others. Some links will be broken. You might even unwittingly use words on spam trigger lists (more on this below).

It’s crucial that you notice common mistakes like these before your audience does because they can make your brand appear unprofessional or, in the case of a broken link, disrupt a sale.

This is where testing comes in.

Before sending an email to a mass audience, make it a habit to proofread and then send it to a test pool of yourself and a few other people in the business. Have people open it on different devices and check every link. This kind of testing can take ten minutes but save you the embarrassment (and even reputation damage) that comes with a glaring mistake.

If you do still make an error with one of your emails, use it as an opportunity to provide more value to your audience. After sending the wrong message to its subscribers, ecommerce company Gobe (now Urth) owned the mistake and sent the below as a follow-up:


9. Using words on spam trigger lists

Spam trigger lists are lists of words and phrases that email service providers (or at least their algorithms) look for when choosing whether to put a message in the recipient’s inbox or divert it to the junk folder.

The words and phrases on these lists typically overpromise benefits, prizes or rewards. Look through your junk folder now and you’ll see plenty of examples in the subject lines: words and phrases like “free”, “discount”, “act now”, “you have been selected” and “you have won”.

Using email spam words regularly in email body copy or, worse, in your subject lines can negatively impact your email marketing deliverability in two ways:

  1. Recipients will see these words, assume your message is another value-less email and put it in their junk folder. They may also unsubscribe. Either way, your content doesn’t get through and your spam complaint rate increases (a measurement of how often recipients manually mark a sender’s messages as spam).

  2. Email service providers (ESPs) will start treating you as a regular sender of spam emails (and your domain reputation will suffer). They’ll automatically divert future messages, even genuine ones, to spam folders and your content goes unseen.

To make your emails attractive to readers and their ESPs, take the following steps:

  • Use the active voice in your writing where possible, creating sentences that have power

  • Avoid excessively using punctuation and symbols that spam senders are known for, including too many exclamation points (!!!), question marks (???), ampersands (&) and asterisks (***)

  • Personalize emails with names and account information where possible

  • Segment your audience to ensure everything you send is relevant to its recipients


10. Ignoring email marketing compliance legislation

You risk being fined if you fail to comply with relevant legislation when sending marketing emails.

Two obvious examples are CAN-SPAM (US) and GDPR (EU and UK).

What is CAN-SPAM and how does it affect email marketers?

CAN-SPAM is a US act passed in 2003 that gives email users the right to have businesses stop contacting them and outlines the penalties companies could incur if they don’t comply (up to $46,517 per email). It applies to all commercial emails, including those between businesses (B2B).

You’ll find the rules in full at the FTC’s website, but the key points are:

  1. Don’t use false or misleading header information

  2. Don’t use deceptive subject lines

  3. Identify the message as an ad

  4. Tell recipients where you’re located

  5. Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future email from you

  6. Honor opt-out requests promptly

  7. Monitor what others are doing on your behalf

What is GDPR and how does it affect email marketers?

GDPR stands for “General Data Protection Regulation”. Introduced in 2018, it enhances the protection of EU citizens’ personal data by increasing the obligations of organizations that collect or process it.

GDPR is complex, as you’ll see here in the full legal text. For salespeople and marketers with EU audiences, the three main actions to take are:

  1. Only gather the data you need and make sure you have the legal grounds to process it

  2. Be transparent with your actions and be ready for requests from data subjects

  3. Keep personal data safe and delete it when you’re finished with it

Find out more about how GDPR impacts sales teams, including email contact, in our blog: GDPR compliance: Is your sales team ready?


11. Signing off without a CTA

Great email content won’t drive conversions if the reader doesn’t know how to act on it.

A clear call-to-action (CTA) will clarify what the recipient’s next steps should be and show how they can gain even more value from your business.

Yours should aim to ease prospects towards the next stage of their buying journey, whether that involves visiting a relevant landing page, signing up for a webinar, downloading a more detailed piece of content, like an “ultimate guide” or getting in touch to have that first real chat about requirements.

CTAs work well at the end of marketing emails but you can also use them throughout if the content they complement is relevant enough.

Make sure yours are:

  • Easy to see

  • Clear about the action required

  • Friendly and inviting

  • Clear about the value on offer

  • Consistent with your brand’s tone

Hylo Athletics sent the email below to new subscribers. Its CTA does the following very well:

  • It explains the action required (“Share it with your friends, family, colleagues…”)

  • It reveals the value on offer (“earn yourself awesome rewards”)

  • It’s friendly and humorous (“even the ones you don’t like”)

  • It’s easy to see (large text, highlighted sharing code, direct social media links)

Any readers that act on this CTA will contribute to Hylo’s brand awareness by introducing more people to its community.


Final thoughts

It doesn’t take much for a business to cause itself more harm than good when using bad email marketing tactics.

Unimpressed buyers, strict regulatory bodies and careful ESPs will all put spanners in your email marketing strategy’s works if you fail to provide value, comply with legislation and meet the criteria of spam-filtering algorithms.

Get it right, though, and you’ll soon be getting higher sign-up, click-through and conversion rates.

If you hear the question “is email marketing still effective?” in a marketing strategy meeting soon, you’ll know the answer is a resounding “yes”. Just make sure you don’t make any of the common email marketing mistakes in this article.

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