Breaking the Rules: Oops or Intentional?

My friend Jason Keath forwarded me this email from President Obama earlier today:

Barak Obama Email Missing Subject Line

Notice anything “interesting” about it?

Two things jump out at me right away.

  1. It’s missing a subject line.
  2. It’s mostly text, with a single call to action (link to donate) that’s the full URL.

My immediate reply to Jason was, “Oops. Looks like they forgot to include the subject line.” Then Jason fired this back to me:

I seriously doubt it was a mistake. Their email strategy is given a lot of attention to detail. I think it is an attempt to make it feel personal. Normal people send emails without subject lines sometimes. Who knows, that was my instinct. It was different. Different gets opens.

Which got me thinking…maybe Jason is right. It got him to open, right? As I dig deeper into the idea of “breaking the rules” of email marketing, Jason’s comments really hit home. “It was different. Different gets opens.”

In 2008, I met the guy in charge of email marketing and social media strategy for the Obama campaign. This was nearly 4 years ago, so I can’t recall the full conversation. However, I do remember him making the point that their email strategy was very deliberate, very planned. Along with social media, they took email marketing very seriously as it generated a ton of campaign contributions.

Assuming that’s still the case in 2012 – which I have no reason to believe it’s not – than maybe Jason was right. Maybe this was not a mistake. Maybe it was an attempt to “make it feel personal” or to “be different.” On top of that, the email was short, to the point, and had a single call to action – the full URL of the link to donate. Instead of a fancy HTML email with a picture of President Obama or the White House; instead of a big “Donate Now” button, Team Obama sent a mostly text email. A no subject line, mostly-text email … from the President of the United States. Certainly their team is not short of resources, right?

Of course, this is all just speculation. If anyone knows the folks in charge of the President’s email marketing campaigns, please let me know. I’d love to learn how effective this email was – opens, clicks, donation dollars, etc. Or, maybe it was a mistake and an “oopsy” apology email will be coming soon.

One thing I was a bit surprised (disappointed?) in was they did not include any social sharing icons. To me, this type of email is very sharable. Chances are if you are an Obama fan, many of your friends on Facebook are. It’s also possible some of your Twitter or Google+ followers support Obama and would donate. I’m curious why they did not include those social sharing icons. Intentional?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I’d also love to hear from Team Obama. Can anyone connect me?

DJ Waldow


Speaking of breaking the rules, Jason Falls and I just wrote a new book on that very topic!

In The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing: Grow Your List, Break the Rules, and Win, we share with you all sorts of email marketing “best practices” individuals and companies are breaking each and every day … and still finding success.

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Free Email Marketing Review: Funny or Die

Funny or Die

I’ve been a fan of Funny or Die for a few years now. Maybe it’s because I love Will Ferrell. True story: My wife I and paid full-price 3 times to see the movie Old School.

I remember watching my first Funny or Die video featuring Mr. Ferrell. Do yourself a favor and take the 2-minutes out of your day to watch The Landlord now. I promise it’s worth it. Amazing. Speaking of Will Ferrell, he made a pretty big announcement on Conan last night.

Disclaimer: What you will find on the Funny or Die stuff is in the “not safe for work” (NSFW) category. Consider yourself officially warned. That being said, it’s awesome. It’s funny. It’s original. It’s timely.

I’ve also been subscribed to the Funny or Die emails for a few years now. You know how email marketing purists will tell you to never (ever) use a popup to collect email addresses? Well, that’s exactly what Funny or Die does – they break this best practice “rule” and, as a result, have grown their list to what it is today. More on that in a later blog post.

The Funny or Die team sends out a weekly email. I open, read, and click-through on nearly every single one of them. Why? Simple. They’ve earned my trust with incredible content.

That being said, I figured I’d take a few minutes (5 to be exact) and review one of their recent emails. As you’ll recall, I do FREE (yes free) email reviews.

Having trouble seeing the video? Try watching directly on Screenr.

For those of you who would rather read, than watch and listen, below are some of the highlights of the video review:

What I Love About the Funny or Die Email

  • From Name: Trusted + recognizable sender means I’m more likely to open.
  • Subject Line: Consistent on a weekly basis. Use recognizable celebrity names to entice an open. I know what to expect in this email.
  • Images Off: Using a bit of alt text, but could use more descriptive words. Good balance of images to text. Email is still readable with images off.
  • Header: Clean and consistent with the Funny or Die site.
  • Copy: Extends the subject line by including the 3 videos that are mentioned.
  • Email Sign Up: Nice to include this option as the email may have been forwarded to a non-subscriber.
  • Footer: Shows me when I was opted in. Nice touch – builds trust.

What’s Missing From the Funny or Die Email

  • Images Off: Take advantage of the alt text! One suggestion is to use humor in the alt text, which would be very consistent with the brand
  • Social Sharing Options: This content is very sharable, yet Funny or Die does not include any Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ options to make it easy to share.

Overall, I really loved this email from Funny or Die. Other than a few suggestions, I would leave it as it. What are your thoughts? Did I cover the main points? What did I miss? Please weigh in below in the comments.

As a reminder, if you want your FREE email review, all you have to do is ask.

DJ Waldow

Do Mostly-Text Emails Work?

If you’ve been reading some of the recent blog posts here, are subscribed to my (semi-regular) email newsletter, or view my presentations on Slideshare on occasion, you know that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about email marketing best practices. Specifically, I’ve been focused on breaking “the rules” of email marketing.

After all, best practices really are practices that are best for you and your subscribers.

I figured it made sense to practice what I preach. So, last week, I sent a mostly-text email to my email subscribers.

How I Set Up The Test

Let’s first take a look at the email (top half only):

As you can see, the one on the left is with images off. The one on the right, images on. When I sent this email, the success metric I choose was opens. Clicks were important as were social shares, but really the main goal of the email was to have my subscribers open (and read) it.

In order to entice my subscribers to turn images on, I included the following note about halfway down the email:

Note: I’ve added a few images (with some “unique” alt text) to see if that will entice some readers to enable images. If you can’t see that alt text, hover your mouse over the image.

This is what the alt text looked like for the Waldow Social logo image:

If a subscriber hovered over the “missing” image, they would see text giving them a reason to turn images on. I had similar alt text for another image further down the email.

Finally, to see if my subscribers were actually reading the email (instead of skimming), I started the email with “Hi [first_name]! This was not a first name personalization FAIL. Instead, I did it intentionally – to see who would read all the way through the email. The 4th bullet included this text:

did you catch what I did with first name personalization in this email? “Hi [first_name]” was intentional. Get it?

The Results (aka, Did it Work?)

Before I dig into the results, a few disclaimers.

  1. I’m not a stats guy. I’m not a math guy. I’m an email marketing guy.
  2. This “study” is just using my data. It’s not necessarily a great sample size (in the hundreds). It’s full of bias. It’s, well, it is what it is.
  3. I’m in no way presenting this as black and white. I’m not outright advocating for sending mostly-text emails. Instead, I’m asking that you look at the data (my data) and come to your own conclusions.


Good, now let’s look at some of the numbers.

My open rate for this “mostly-text” email was 48.4%. To put that number is perspective, my open rates for the previous 5 emails were:

  • 43.5%
  • 47.8%
  • 53.4%
  • 45.0%
  • 47.5%

It’s important to note that my list size has more than doubled since that first email (47.5% open rate). While the open rates are pretty similar across all 6 emails, 48.4% puts this mostly-text email in 2nd place. Not bad. Also, consider the fact that this email was very readable with images turned off. Therefore, I’d suspect that a chunk of my list actually opened the email, yet it was not recorded as an open by my email provider, Infusionsoft (a client). Remember, email service providers record an open if images are downloaded. Some also count opens if a link is clicked. So, it’s quite likely the actual open rate of this email was something north of 48.4%.

In total, I had 5 replies. While not a ton, it was about 4 more than my average.

Two of my subscribers replied alerting me of the “Hi [first_name]” error. Clearly, they did not read the entire email (busted)!

One subscriber, Jason Keath, said this in his reply:

Dear [email marketer]:
I read to the end. Not sure I have done that in your past emails. Food for thought.

As I wrote back to him, “VERY good food for thought.”

Do Mostly-Text Emails Work? Some Thoughts

Based on the data presented above, the answer has to be yes. Again, this was my data – not necessarily representative of all email marketers. While this may not work for you, for your industry, for your audience — why not test it? Why not break this “rule” of email marketing and review the results?

Another thing to note – and maybe test for your own email program – is to try different alt text. What I did was pretty simple. I added some humor. I tried to entice folks to enable images. If you want to get a bit more creative, try substituting images with HTML/CSS (great examples here).

The bottom line is simply this: Best practices really are practices that are best for you and your subscribers.

Test. Test. Test. See what works. Report back.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you send mostly-text emails? If so, are you finding they are working for you? Are there other “rules” you are breaking and still finding success? Please share in the comments below.

DJ Waldow

How Often Do You Check Your Spam Folder?

My wife is an Ob/GYN. She is not a marketer. She does not actively participate in social media. She does not have a blog. She mostly consumes content on the web instead of creating and sharing.

In many ways, I consider her the “average” consumer.

Last week, as I was peeking over her shoulder while she was processing email in her Gmail inbox, I noticed something that caused me to pause. She had hundreds (hundreds!) of emails in her spam folder. Hundreds! To put that in perspective, I currently have zero. I clean it out daily – many times per day.

Me: How often do you check your spam folder?
Kristina: Spam folder? Never. Why?
Me: Wait. What? Never? Really?
Kristina: Should I be?

As an email marketing guy, this got me thinking. Do other people – those not living, breathing, sleeping, dreaming, eating email – ever think about their spam folder? Does anyone other than me actually check their spam folder for legitimate email?

I turned to social media to ask my network. Here is what they said:


  • A couple times a day (M-F) and 1 or 2 X on weekends


  • rare and rarer.
  • Do I have a spam folder?
  • almost never or may be only when I am expecting an important message and don’t yet see it in inbox.
  • I check my biz account most every day. I find email of value in it often. I check my personal account rarely because I almost never find anything but true spam in it.
  • never!
  • what spam folder?
  • Fairly frequently. I look for patterns in what my email provider considers spam and try to glean some insight about what to avoid.
  • Once in a while. Some email providers have the tendency to move emails with attachments to spam with out any logic.
  • i never check it but i clear it daily.
  • Daily. Some emails of my bank end up there so I have begun checking it regularly.


Note: The two replies which I’ve bolded are from folks who work in the email marketing industry. It’s not that I discount their answers, it’s just that they are not really the “average” email consumer.

So what does this all mean?

4 Takeaways

First, let me be clear that this is in no way a true survey. There is a ton of bias in the replies, it’s not great sample size, etc. However, it still is interesting and does tell us a bit about how folks think about spam.

Takeaway #1: Most people are like my wife – they rarely check their spam folders. Some don’t because they trust that their email client (such as Gmail) is correctly marking “bad” emails as spam. Others only check it when they are expecting an email and it doesn’t arrive in their inbox.

Takeaway #2: From an email marketer perspective, it’s pretty important to be aware if your emails are landing in the inbox or your subscribers’ spam folder. If most folks never check spam – and your emails are landing there – you are losing potential eyeballs, click-throughs, and conversions.

Takeaway #3: Announcements like this one from Gmail, “Learn why a message ended up in your spam folder,” while interesting to the die-hard email marketers like me, are not all that valuable to the average person (hat tip to my colleague Loren McDonald for sharing).

Takeaway #4: Most spam, at least from my experience, looks like the image below. If that’s the case, who cares that providers like Gmail are now “showing a brief explanation at the top of each of your spam messages.” (see example)? If nobody looks at the their spam folder, does it really matter?

Where do you stand on spam? Are you like most people I asked and don’t check it often? What if you are an email marketer? Does this change your perspective on spam at all? Will you begin paying a bit more attention to your inbox deliverability?

As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

DJ Waldow

Are Email Marketing Best Practices Best For You?

Break the Rules
I’ve been contemplating this idea of “email marketing best practices” for some time now. I’ve seen plenty of examples of individuals and companies (in both B2C & B2B) “breaking the rules” when it comes to email marketing … and still finding success.

In fact, last month at Explore Dallas (a killer event hosted by Jason Falls & Aaron Marshall) my topic was titled “Breaking the Rules of Email Marketing.” In that presentation (view slides here), I examined several folks who broke the rules. Specifically, I shared examples of people who:

  1. Sent “ugly” emails
  2. Used ALL CAPS or the word  free” in a subject line
  3. Used popups to collect email addresses

I believe strongly that email marketing best practices are practices that are best for you … and your audience/subscribers.

I’m looking to prove the point that you can bend or even break some of the email marketing rules and still be very successful. I need your help to continue making the case.

How Can You Help & What’s In It For You?

If you are interested in helping, please post a comment below (or email me – djwaldow at waldowsocial dot com) with examples of the following:

  • Emails that are mostly images (or one big image)
  • “Ugly” emails
  • Emails that have the unsubscribe in a prominent place (not in the footer)
  • Email marketers who deploy their campaigns at “odd/off” hours – late at night, on the weekends, etc.
  • Companies who use single vs. double opt-in
  • Organizations who send email without explicit permission
  • Email marketers who buy lists (come on – I know there are some of you out there!)

What’s in it for you? I’m looking to write a series of blog posts showcasing these “rule breakers.” If you provide me the example, I’ll mention you in the blog post and link back to whatever URL you’d like. While I can’t guarantee fame and fortune, this is the next best thing. Right?

Thanks! Looking forward to hearing back from you.

DJ Waldow

Words to Avoid in a Subject Line

words to avoid in a subject lineNearly every non-insider event I speak at about email marketing, the topic of “words to avoid in a subject line” inevitably comes up. In fact, a friend of mine just asked me yesterday, “I had heard that using things like ‘win’ in a subject line can certainly trip [spam filters]. Is that true?”

The short answer is no.

However, as Laura Atkins says in her Content, trigger words and subject lines post:

Naive content filtering hasn’t been a big component for nearly a decade (bolding mine), but content filtering is where filtering is going. IP based filtering is good for some things but content filtering allows for much finer grained sorting and filtering. I think content filtering is where the industry is going. Too many spammers have created too many ways to avoid and subvert IP based filters for them to be the full solution to protecting users.

UPDATE: Laura clarified her thoughts on “naive content filtering” by saying, “I consider filtering on “FREE!!” in the subject line to be naive content filtering. When I’m talking about content filtering I’m talking about a much more complex and subtle style of content filtering. One that looks at the words in the subject lines and how they relate to the words in the body.”

As someone I have the upmost respect for in the industry, I take her words to heart and advise you to as well. However, based on my inbox today, I’m not sure the industry is moving back to content filtering … yet. More on that below.

So why are we still talking about this? Why am I dedicating an entire post to “spammy subject line words?”

First, I still get asked about this all the time. Also, the internet is filled with misinformation and old, outdated blog posts/advice. Do a quick search in Google for “words to avoid in a subject line” (or you can just let me google that for you), and you’ll find thousands of articles listing words to avoid. In fact, the top search result (for me, at least) is titled, “Top 100 words to NOT use in your subject lines.” Of the 100 words on their list, two of them are “FREE” and “free.”

So I ask you, is it okay to use FREE in an email subject line? Will your emails get blocked if you use that word (and other “spammy” words) in your subject line?

I searched my inbox for the word free and, lo and behold, found the following:

Subject lines with FREE

As you can see, there are quite a few well known, trusted brands on that list (Starbucks, Lands’ End, Solutions, etc.). They use the word free – sometimes in ALL CAPS – all the time.

Contrast that with my spam folder in Gmail:

DJ's Spam Folder

Notice the difference? Check out the From Names too. What’s actually interesting is none of those subject lines use the word free (Yes, I realize this is not a “true” study).

My favorite quote from Laura’s post is this:

Content matters, don’t think it doesn’t. But don’t let word lists … frighten you off from crafting good subject lines.

I’m not sure I could have said it better. One of the many (many) things I love about email marketing is that all of this stuff is testable. Try sending an email with the word “free” in the subject line and another that omits it. Check your metrics. How do you opens, click-throughs, and conversions compare? What about your inbox placement rates and your unsubscribes? Remember: Best practices are practices that work best for your audience.

Are you using any of the “words to avoid in a subject line?” If so, how effective are they for you? I’d love to hear. Comments are yours!

DJ Waldow

Are You Personalizing Your Emails?

As I’ve said time and time again, the secret to effective email marketing is to send timely, targeted, valuable email to people who have opted in.

If you follow that simple (yet not easy) mantra, it doesn’t matter if you break the “rules” of email marketing. Want to send a not-so-pretty looking email? As long as it’s valuable, go for it. Want to send an email with ALL CAPS in the subject line? Do it, but be sure it’s targeted.

However, if you want to spice up your emails a touch, consider personalizing them for each and every subscriber. To be clear, I’m not talking about simple first name personalization. I don’t really count adding my first name to the subject line or adding “Hey DJ” to the opening of a message. Instead, when I discuss personalization, I mean including content that is specific to me.

Last week, I received an email from Sears with the following subject line: It’s been a while since we’ve seen you online – check out new offers just for you!

When I opened up the email, this is what I saw (below):
Sears Email - Personalization
Note: Click on the image to see the full version (this is just the top half)

4 Reasons Why This Personalized Sears Email Rocks

I love this email for so many reasons (4 of them, actually).

  1. Subject Line: While on the long side at 82 characters (the purists will tell you this is a no-no, but I don’t agree), this subject line drew me into the email. It did what it’s supposed to do … led me to open the email! They played on the fact that I’ve been “gone” for awhile, which was true, as well as “offers just for me.”
  2. Preheader: Notice the “Hey, we remember you” messaging in the preheader. Not only does this sentence extend the subject line, it also adds a bit of “human” to an otherwise large company.
  3. Header: As an email marketing guy, I really love how Sears took advantage of the header space to ask me to subscribe to their “special offers” email list. Using email to … grow your email list. Nice! Additionally, they included a big ‘ol update your preferences button. However, instead of just the button, they added a nice call to action question: Does this email interest you?
  4. Personalized Content: While #1-3 were nice additions to the email, the main guts (body) of this email was dedicated to content that was personalized just for me. A few months ago, I purchased a new dishwasher from They remembered! Well, technically they used customer purchase history to personalize this email based on the data.

Personalization Matters

By personalizing the content of this email, Sears was able to accomplish a few things. First, it gave them an excuse to email me. I’ve been receiving their emails, yet not opening or clicking through on them. Based on the subject line and the personalized content, they sucked me back in. Also, they provided real value in this email. As it turns out, our disposal is quite old. By offering a complimentary product to the dishwasher, it’s quite possible that I’ll buy that disposal too, from Sears of course. They’ve made it easy for me to buy it right now.

Are you taking the time to personalize your email marketing messages beyond the “Hey [first_name]” stuff? If so, how effective has it been for you? If not, what’s holding you back?

As always, I’d love to hear from YOU. Please leave your comments below.

DJ Waldow