Last updated: August 18, 2016

Note: if you already know you’re not going to master email marketing after 1 (monster) blog post and are ready to steal some shortcuts… check out my upcoming projectEmail For Startups.

I’ve generated millions of revenue dollars through email marketing, helped dozens of startups get positive ROI on their email campaigns, given lots of talks about email…

and made a lot of dumb mistakes.

Today I’m going to share the NEW rules of email marketing that I’ve discovered through recent experiments of my own, and through my advisory work with pre-A startups in the 500 portfolio.

First, a little context.


Have we reached PEAK EMAIL?

Some quick stats:

  • 4 billion accounts worldwide
  • 25% of these are business/work accounts
  • ~3 accounts per person
  • 20-25% average open rate for marketing emails
  • average person receives 500 marketing messages / month

I’ll dive into each of these stats briefly later on, but for now, here’s the takeaway:

Email is STILL the most effective, highest ROI way to communicate with an audience — of ANY size — and email is the foundation of all other channels.

You have to have an email address to sign up as a  Facebook user, and while there are almost ONE AND A HALF BILLION monthly active Facebook users around the world…

there are nearly 3 times as many email accounts.

Email = reach.

Every consumer on the planet — including b2b “consumers” — has an email account. And, everyone accesses their primary email account almost daily.

But despite this considerable promise…

There are BIG challenges.

Email is a mature channel.

This means that there are many players — from local businesses, to info marketers, to big brands, to startups.

In the rest of this post, I’m going explain 7 techniques from the NEW email marketing, which I hope will give you an unfair advantage in turning more prospects into leads into customers into fans.

7 Little Known Techniques in the “ New Email Marketing”

1. De-Personalization

No personalization is the new personalization.

We’re not only desensitized to {firstname} in the subject line of emails we receive from marketers. We’re actually repelled by it.

Personalization was originally ‘invented’ as a way to flag someone’s attention, based on the old truism that “there’s no sound sweeter to someone than his own name.”

But, then the marketers got their hands on it (doh!) and now it’s a signal that you’re being marketed to.

People who really know me, and whom it’s my priority to read and respond to, would never put my {firstname} in the Subject line.

It’s now a marketing flag, and just as they do to all other marketing flags, audiences quickly develop banner-blindness to protect themselves to protect themselves from the noise.

Instead of clunky and unnatural {firstname} personalization, Technique #1 in the NEW EMAIL MARKETING is about NO personalization:


In the above email from Noah Kagan, I actually thought he was writing just to me.

His subject line is short and casual, and doesn’t sell anything or over-describe — common when we’re eager to explain ALL the exciting benefits of our product or service to a defenseless subscriber.

Noah doesn’t use a greeting, and jumps straight into the message, even starting his copy mid-sentence in the preview text (extremely important as it functions as a 2nd subject line).

The subject line and its preview text both feel imperfect and casual as if from a friend, not over-proofed or premeditated like it’s been through the hands of the entire marketing department.

The NO PERSONALIZATION subject line:

— disrupts our natural defenses against marketing,

— gets us to complete the key 1st action: CLICK TO OPEN

— and gives the email copy a chance to work its magic on us.

2. Next-Level Personalization

So {firstname} personalization is completely OVER (side note: ALWAYS RUN YOUR OWN TESTS, never listen to random “experts” named Susan).

But there’s a lot more you can do with personalization.


I forgot I gave Hubspot my work info, so in this email from Hubspot, I was immediately alerted by the “500 Startups” in the subject line.



My little reptile brain went, Oh sh*#! Gotta pay attention to that one cuz it’s about WORK.

I opened it, read all the way to the bottom, clicked on the CTA, and only then realized that I had just been lead-qualified.

People respond to company- and affiliation-level personalization because it’s their JOB to pay attention to those keywords, or because they are otherwise dutifully invested.

FW: / RE:

As I was researching the above point about Hubspot, I remembered another smart email they sent me.

In this message, Hubspot uses “Fwd:” as a personalization flag.


Why does “Fwd:” work as personalization if it doesn’t cite the recipient’s name, company, or any other personal attributes?

“Fwd:” and “Re:” are un-marketing at its best.

“Fwd:” tells me that the message is from someone we know (not a marketer), who thought this message was so important or so relevant that they felt the need to pass it on.

“Re:” tells me that this is a reminder — perhaps for something we forgot about (oh shit! Was I supposed to respond to something??) — or it implies that I myself was the originator of this thread. Now I want to pay attention.

One caveat for ALL next-level personalization:

Remember the 1 truth about banner-blindness — it spreads fast.

If you abuse next-level personalization, your recipients will simply extend their banner blindness to protect themselves from you.

Go ahead and use next-level personalization to get their attention because it works — for now.

But then add value IMMEDIATELY through excellent content, consistent follow-through on offers and promises, and sensitivity to frequency and noisiness.

3. Getting Past Promotions Tab

Did you know that Mail app doesn’t have priority inbox? 🙂

65% of emails get opened on mobile first. This is great news but has a couple of takeaways:

1. You MUST mobile-optimize all email campaigns.

Watch out for high opens but low clicks.

It could mean your content is not good, but if you are reasonably confident that your content and lead-up are decent, then it could be due to:

  • lack of mobile optimization or
  • simply because most people don’t like to click on things on their devices because it takes them out of the app they’re on.

Mobile can be a huge secret weapon for getting past priority inbox, but only if you create campaigns with a MOBILE-FIRST attitude.

2. Mobile-based followups

Another approach is to do mobile-based followup to signup, because remember there’s no promotions inbox on most mail apps.

If they’ve just signed up, and you are also getting their phone number, you can send them an SMS as an immediate reminder to go check their confirmation from you, right there on the device that they’re already on.

This would be especially worthwhile for your key transactional emails — like your Welcome email or other confirmations.

Once your Welcome email gets through, don’t forget to work it.

You should use your Welcome email to:

  1. Instruct recipients about Priority vs. Promotions Inbox
  1. Set expectations about what emails to expect next (“In the next few days, I’ll be sending you some useful information about XYZ, so please look for those emails.”)

Additionally, the fact that they open the Welcome email is itself a signal to Google to stop putting you in promotions.

3. Use your Thank You page to remind people to look for your Welcome

Don’t forget to use your email signup Thank You page to REMIND recent subscribers / signups that you’ve just sent them a confirmation and that they should look for it now.


On your Thank You page, you can include a link for Gmail users to go straight to a search for your Welcome email to confirm signup, like this:

In the above example, you’re linking them to a GMAIL-ONLY search result for an email from “” and a subject line of “RESPONSE REQUIRED: Confirm your request”

On that Thank You page, you can include some text like “GMAIL USERS, click here to go straight to your WELCOME EMAIL for your goodies that we just sent you –>”

Every small step helps in your uphill fight against the Promotions tab, so it’s important to try multiple approaches and send reminders, which brings me to my next Technique…

4. Pre-targeting and Retargeting

Email pre-targeting is another great way to warm up your list for a major, conversion-oriented email campaign with before you send the campaign.

Yes, I did mean pre-targeting, not just re-targeting.

Here’s how pre-targeting works:

  1. Identify your recipient list and export them for specific targeting in paid campaigns thru FB Custom Audiences, Twitter Tailored Audiences, and/or Gmail Adwords
  1. Focus ads on brand awareness; do not ever make your campaigns about the “hard sell”
  1. Send your email campaign.  

Be sure to use basic common sense about who’s on that recipient list.

You don’t have to go micro with your segmentation. Even creating a few broad categories of recipients will make your ads perform better, and will make the subsequent email campaigns do better too.

As a bonus, you can run further retargeting after your email campaign goes out.

Here are additional ideas for post-campaign retargeting:

  1. to subscribers who never opened  
  1. to subscribers who opened but didn’t click your CTA
  1. to subscribers who opened MULTIPLE times but didn’t click your CTA
  1. to subscribers who opened, clicked the CTA but didn’t convert

5. NO cta / soft sell / zero sell

This goes against one of the biggest “truths” in email marketing — that every marketing email should contain a call-to-action.

I usually advise companies never to send an email if it doesn’t contain some call-to-action.

Your CTA can vary in its commitment level; it doesn’t have to be a hard sell every time.

For example, “Read the rest of this post,” linking to a piece of content you’ve just published, is a low-commitment CTA.

By contrast, “Join the annual subscription now” is a high-commitment CTA where the action involves both monetary exchange and an extended time commitment.

In some cases, however, it works to completely OMIT the call to action.

This means you send a content email or even a teaser / “FYI” email that has no click to a destination. It’s just an FYI.

An email like this functions as a preview to build desire — without offering an outlet for that desire.

You can also think of this sort of like splitting up a single email into two campaigns — one with the psychological hooks that build desire and interest, and the second with the CTA for them to address the desire / tension you built up in the first email.

My friend and 500 Distro Tommie Powers recently put out a message to a small group of 200-ish subscribers with an FYI about an upcoming webinar on YouTube growth.


There was no CTA and nothing to buy or opt-in to. It was just an FYI.

(Side note: although this message didn’t come through email, the same takeaway applies.)

Fully a week later, Tommie went to ‘cash it in’ and this time put out another simple message with attractive copy and a signup link.


A email variation on this is including a very subtle, oblique hyperlinked CTA instead of an obvious link on its own line break or as a button.

Here’s what Tommie has to say about his conversion rate and costs:

What I look at is how much I spent versus total conversion value (how much I made). If I had to guess, the conversion rate was at least 10%. But that’s because most of my sales came from fans who I had already been engaging and setting them up for something coming.

The numbers probably sound great, but you have to remember that most of them that bought were fans already and that’s not counting the money and time I spent on engagement stuff — NOT ctas or selling — before finally putting up a page for people to sign up.

The point here is that sales-free engagement can be great for creating a build-up to your actual conversion event.

That engagement effort can be a Facebook status update like Tommie’s longer initial post (which he promoted even though it didn’t have any CTA or conversion outlet) or a series of educational content emails.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a lengthy drip sequence. Even a short or single preview can work if you’re just running a light experiment.

(Don’t let yourself be paralyzed by the prospect of having to create a long drip sequence! Just try something.)

CAUTION: Use this technique ONLY if you’ve got really good psychological marketing game, because it won’t work if you send a boring or long-winded email with no CTA and no psychological buildup, and then try to cash it in with an abrupt and awkward “hard sell” message later.

6. The “Perfect” Time to Send

People ask me all the time, “What’s the best time to send email campaigns?”

Now, we know that every email list is a unique snowflake, but that said, there are still a few things to know about when to send campaigns for maximum effect.

1. Send time doesn’t matter (that much).

Many email campaigns and lists demonstrate a 24 to 36 hour window in which subscribers open emails.

For example, you might have a subscriber list that’s psychographically uniform (nice work on your lead qualifying!) yet demographically fragmented. That is, they could be in vastly different geographies, or have vastly different schedules.

Thus, when you’re thinking about the best send time, think about it NOT as a single moment where your campaign hits their inboxes, but as a 24 hour open window.  

Instead, ask yourself, “What’s the best-performing 24 hour open window (of the week) based on what we’ve seen?”

2. Peak vs Off-Peak

A lot of marketers still send at peak times — first thing in the morning on weekdays, especially early in the week.

This is why they’re the peak times!

It’s like rush hour on the 101.

You’d think people who have schedule flexibility would get it by now… that if you’re planning to drive on the 101 between 7 am and 9 am, the freeway is going to be clogged with a whole bunch of other people with the same idea (or morning meetings).

Unlike the 101, where rush hour has crept into nearly all hours of the day, there are still off-peak times in email marketing.

To identify what the off-peak times are for your industry, you should be subscribed to ALL the major lists of your peers and competitors (you already knew that of course, right? 🙂

Look for the holes in noise, and use those moments to send your most important campaigns.

It can have a significant impact on your message’s visibility, especially if you are sending to high competition audiences.

3. Mobile and “on-the-go”


Are a lot of your subscribers opening your emails on mobile first (or perhaps mobile only)?

(Your email marketing tool will be able to tell you this.)

Other signs of a mobile-oriented list are lots of opens but few clicks, or many, repeated opens (pixel tracking sometimes gets counted repeated if a subscriber scrolls over your message in-app on their device due).

This is fine, and can actually be part of your bigger plan to target commute or “on-the-go” times, but keep in mind that it’s hard to take action from mobile.

You can retarget to make sure people get reminded, or send behavior-specific follow-up campaigns to your openers and your non-openers to encourage them to take whatever action they dropped off at (either the click or the open itself).

7. The 1-2 Punch

The final Technique (for now!) is a little something I call the “1-2 Punch.”

Like a few of the other Techniques mentioned above, the 1-2 Punch starts with seeing email as ONE part of your multi-channel re-marketing efforts.

That is, email doesn’t stand alone.

After installing the taxi hailing app Cabify, but not “activating” by booking my first ride, I received the following text message:


A few moments later, or perhaps at the same time, I also received this email message from Cabify reiterating the call-to-action: activate, activate, activate.

It doesn’t matter if you start with email and then “re-market” with SMS, or if you start with SMS and then re-market with email — the point here is that we live in a multi-channel world with lots of access points.

Creating campaigns that work means creating messaging that floats across multiple channels and touches your audience in a meaningful and consistent way across more than one access point.

The key to the 1-2 Punch is consistency:

  • same offer
  • same headline
  • same language
  • same CTA
  • one core message that is supported by a chorus in the form of multi-channel followups

Don’t send a bunch of random messages on a bunch of channels with all different asks or CTAs. Instead, keep things focused and tight, and reiterate simple CTAs with the same language.


If you made it this far, good job to both of us 🙂

As you can see from the stats and examples above, email marketing is far from dead.

To the contrary, smart businesses can find lots of green field to explore what’s still the greatest common denominator shared by audiences all over the world.


If you liked this post, please help a girl out by sharing and voting:

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More useful stuff here:

Content Marketing 4 Startups (1-hr webinar on YouTube)

Email Marketing 4 Startups (another bigass webinar on YouTube)

And if you’re tired of reading long blog posts and are ready for some proven shortcuts… check out my upcoming project ==> Email For Startups <==

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