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The three golden rules of sending marketing emails

Posted in Email

Sending emails can be a bit of a minefield. Want to know how to avoid some common pitfalls? Read on!

There are 3 types of emails you can send:

  1. Conversational: These are the type of emails you’ll usually send from your email mailbox. Asking a client or customer a question; that kind of thing. Written by a human being (you!).
  2. Transactional: These are triggered automatically when when a visitor to your website or a user of your service needs them. They’re usually pre-written templates and serve a definite purpose. A good example would be a payment confirmation email when you order something online.
  3. Group: These are emails you send to a group of people. Typically something like a newsletter or promotional email of some sort.

It’s the third type of email—group email—I’ll be homing in on here. We should probably flesh out the description a little bit…

Rarely will you need to send a group email in any context other than marketing. Even if you’re not asking for business directly, it’s likely that you’re sending the emails in order to reinforce your authority in your field and demonstrate value to your customers and clients. The ultimate goal here is repeat business and referrals. And it’s a good idea. I do it: your clients and anyone that has signed up to your mailing list get great value tips and tricks and you keep yourself at the forefront of their minds.

In this article, I’m not going to get into optimal sending frequencies and all that jazz as, really, that depends on your business and your audience. Instead I’m going let you know how to send group/marketing emails and keep your recipients happy.

The law

Let’s start with the legal stuff. It’s against the law to send someone a group/marketing email they didn’t ask for. Unfortunately—and surprisingly—this isn’t the case for physical junk mail that drops through your letterbox!

According to Ofcom there are three rules for ‘marketing’ emails:

  1. the sender must not conceal their identity
  2. they must provide a valid address where you can opt out of receiving further emails
  3. they have to have obtained your explicit permission

The ICO expands on the third point a little, adding:

except where there is a clearly defined customer relationship

This makes sense, as it’s not unheard of to send a group email to ask for customer feedback or make an announcement:

  • I sent out a survey a year or more a go to make sure I had my clients’ most up to date contact details and knew their preferred way of being contacted (phone, email, etc.).
  • It also allows for announcements: “Hi everyone, we’ll be closed for 2 weeks over the Christmas period”; that kind of thing.

Of course, you wouldn’t send those to people who you didn’t have a “clearly defined customer relationship” with.

Three golden rules

It’s unlikely (though entirely possible) that you’ll be fined or taken to court as a result of breaking one of the three rules above. What’s more at stake is your reputation, both on and off-line. I’d amend the rules slightly as the first isn’t really something you’d do – why would you want to conceal your identity? Here are my 3 golden rules:

Rule 1: Always ask permission

I have to be very careful that email doesn’t consume my working day and for that reason I don’t subscribe to any email newsletters. I use other channels like Twitter to keep up with industry news, goings on in other small businesses I care about, and to provide a bit of light entertainment.

So if I receive an email that I didn’t ask for I’ll unsubscribe straight away. Not with any malice or irritation, just with an eye on keeping my working day as efficient as possible. Chances are I’ve got the sender on a list on Twitter anyway.

Even if you believe your marketing email is as useful as they come (and it may well be) you run the risk of your hard work being ignored or being marked as spam if the recipient didn’t explicitly ask to be included on your sending list.

Rule 2: Always offer an easy opt-out

It may be that the recipient was happy to receive your emails at first. They probably signed up to your mailing list. But for some reason they no longer want them (by the way, never take this personally – that’s a dangerous rabbit hole to go down). With a clear unsubscribe link this is easy.

Without an unsubscribe link, what will the recipient do? Well, they could email you to ask you to remove them from the list. But how many people will actually do this? Having to explain themselves will inevitably prove too too much effort or potentially confrontational, and you’ll end up having your email routinely deleted.

Eventually the deletions will get tedious and more drastic measures will be employed. The recipient might create a folder in their mailbox and make a filter so that your email is always stored out of the way. But it’s more likely they’ll hit the Spam/Junk button.

That way their email program will know that they don’t want to see any more emails like that: they consider them spam.

Rule 3: Never pester

Once someone has unsubscribed you should take every care not to send them another marketing email.

So the first thing that must happen is that they’re removed from your mailing list. Send another email out to them and relations could really sour, and that ‘Spam’ or ‘Junk’ button is much more likely to be pressed.

I would advise you automate this process. The best way to do this is to use an online email list management service like Campaign Monitor or Mailchimp: click the unsubscribe link and you’re off the list. Easy.

A final word of warning: even a ‘transactional’ email saying “You have been removed from our mailing list. Sure you don’t want to rejoin?” may get up some people’s noses. Keep all of that as part of the web-based unsubscribe process and let the last email your recipient receives be the one they used to unsubscribe.


Breaking one or more of the three golden rules could have serious consequences. The obvious risk is that the recipient gets annoyed. That’s one relationship tarnished, but what about if they share their frustrations with their friends, colleagues or on Twitter? Not great PR.

The hidden danger, however, is having your emails marked as spam. It might sound pretty harmless, but that might not be the case…

Being marked as spam

Most personal email users use a free email service like Gmail Hotmail/Outlook, Yahoo Mail or the email that comes with their phone/broadband supplier (Virgin Media, EE, BT). Business users will use something more robust and built for business use, like Office 365 of Google Apps. One way or the other, these are all ‘cloud’ services, where the email you’re accessing is stored on a server that belongs to one of these companies. Even if you access your emails from an app on your Mac/PC/tablet/phone, the emails are always processed online.

As part of their service, all of these companies provide automatic junk email filtering. That way they keep more customers happy and using their service.

The easiest way to build their spam filters is to use their own data. So they’ll be looking for any email addresses* that have been marked as spam by their users. It goes a bit deeper than just your email address, but I don’t want to get too techie.

They also purchase spam information from third parties like DNSBL or Spamhaus to make their filters even more accurate.

Every time an email you send is marked as spam the likelihood of your email address appearing on a blacklist somewhere increases. This makes it more likely that your emails will be filtered straight out of people’s inboxes, and this goes for all emails you send, whether group, transactional or conversational.

*It’s a wee bit more complicated than just your email address, but I don’t want to overload/bore you with technical stuff, so, for the purposes of this article, we can get away with ‘email address’.

Best practices

It’s a good idea to make sure you keep recipients of your marketing emails happy. You can do this by following the three golden rules:

  1. Always ask permission
  2. Always offer an easy opt-out
  3. Never pester

Breaking these rules could tarnish your reputation and mean your emails end up getting thrown in more junk folders, even by email addresses you’ve never sent to before.

Have you ever had trouble with your emails being lost in people’s junk folder? I’d love to hear from you on Twitter.

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