E-marketing E-ssentials: Three E-mail Truths I Wish I Had Known at Carnegie Hall

January 2010
Russell Feldman, Junior Account Executive

Hi! I’m Russell, the newest Account Executive at Patron Technology. Like everyone here, I have an arts and non-profit administration background. I’ve been a copywriter, a marketing coordinator, a pro-bono consultant, and even a “tele-vampire” for Red Cross blood drives. And for three years I was fortunate enough to work at Carnegie Hall in the Weill Music Institute, the education arm of the storied institution. Having seen all sides of arts marketing—as an avid patron, employee, and now account executive—I’ve observed a few things about e-mail campaigns.

Even if you’re a marketing guru, there’s some fundamental facts about e-mail marketing that you might not know. I didn’t. So I’d like to start off the new year in the Patron Technology newsletter by sharing three truths I’ve learned about e-mail marketing that I wish I had known during my time at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. And no, they’re not “practice, practice, practice!”

These simple, important, and yet not-so-obvious e-mail truths are: the send button isn’t perfect, purchased lists are worse than no lists at all, and your subject line means a lot.

Maybe you’ll recognize yourself and your organization in these.

1. The send button isn’t perfect. 

E-mail’s great. It’s cheap, fast, and reliable. Right? Well, almost. It’s not always quite as reliable as you might think. To illustrate, let me share this scenario, one example drawn from many. This took place at a pre-Patron Technology position at a small non-profit where I did marketing. There was a very important e-mail newsletter that had to go out announcing an event. I sent it through our e-mail service provider at the time (not PatronMail). My boss, not seeing anything in her inbox, asked if I’d sent it. I had, but just to be sure, I sent it again. Still nothing. We checked her Gmail spam filter, and nothing was there. Finally, the third try made it to her inbox.

What happened? Is the Internet really full of “black holes” where things just disappear? If e-mail is so reliable, and all send buttons are created equal, how could the newsletter not be anywhere?

Opt-in e-mail competes with an ocean of spam messages, every single day. Spam makes up about  94% of all e-mails sent, according to Postini, an anti-spam company owned by Google. And as it turns out, the spam filters we have in Outlook or Web-based e-mail services like Hotmail aren’t the only line of defense against this barrage of unwanted e-mail flying across the Internet. E-mail providers like Gmail or Yahoo and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Time Warner’s Roadrunner or Earthlink have their own filters in place to block most of that spam from ever reaching the “junk mail” folder in your inbox—but the bad news is that it’s still not perfect. That’s why, every so often, a legitimate  opt-in e-mail disappears. An overzealous ISP intercepts it  along the way.

According to the e-mail delivery monitor Return Path, on average, 21% of legitimate e-mail sent does not arrive in the inbox. Of that, only 3.3% lands in the spam filter. Where does the remaining 17% go? It’s stopped in its tracks. It disappears into the void.

While a lot of this filtering is seemingly random, today the key to inbox delivery is sender reputation. The actual content of an e-mail doesn’t matter much, if at all. And with thousands of ISPs and e-mail providers in the United States alone, your e-mail service provider may have a sterling reputation with some e-mail addresses, less so with others. In the fight to block scams
and viruses there’s a trade-off between delivery and protection.

But anyone who deserves your business needs to know how to get through to the ISPs to get your e-mails delivered. In fact, that’s a lot of what they offer you as part of your service. And some reputations are better than others. There’s little you can do about this on your own. As a small organization or individual, who would want to? You’re too busy with a million other things. Having an e-mail service provider with a sterling reputation will get your e-mails delivered. If anything goes wrong, it’s their responsibility to go to the ISPs and advocate for you. The result is that you’re free to get that content as compelling and relevant as it can be.

2. Purchased lists are worse than no lists at all.

You may be used to buying or renting direct-mail lists, especially when you have a big campaign coming up and want to reach new audiences. In the offline world, this is standard. One year at Carnegie Hall our number of schools and students registered for a program was way down. So we found a list. State departments of education maintain contact lists for all principals. We downloaded that, created an epic mail merge, and days of effort later from staffers and interns, thousands of letters hit the mail.

This practice is not uncommon. Your organization might buy or rent lists of donors or patrons. But those tend to be publicly available contact information, and they’re always used for sending snail mail, not e-mail.

E-mail, I’ve learned, is different. Think about it. How do YOU feel when you see an e-mail in your inbox that you aren’t expecting? You might think, “Who is this organization and why are they e-mailing me?? I didn’t sign up for this!” And worst of all, you might hit the spam button and flag that organization as a spammer! People are more sensitive about their e-mail inboxes than about their regular mailbox. A direct- mail piece can be easily trashed, and maybe the recipient mutters about junk mail and getting off your list, but there’s no direct consequence to the sender. But with e-mail’s big red spam button, that trashing reverberates through the ether(net), lowering your reputation as a sender (which is everything) and as an institution, and making it less likely that anyone who actually requested your e-mails will ever see them in the future. Nobody wins.

Accountability is the beauty, and the danger, of electronic communication.

For that reason, sending to purchased or rented lists is worse then sending nothing at all. However tempting it seems, don’t do it. A purchased or rented list will erode your reputation and diminish the effectiveness of the campaign and all those following. An e-mail service provider that cares about its reputation (and your delivery) simply won’t allow it. And for the same reasons, neither should you.

3. Your subject line means a lot.

At Carnegie Hall, our e-mail newsletter went out every other week. It had a two-column format, with a list on the left of upcoming events, and a main column on the right highlighting important concerts (or those that weren’t selling well). My contributions were features highlighting the education department—interviews with jazz legends like Paquito Rivera or Frank London who were performing for families or kids, or a profile of a high school from Idaho coming to New York to participate in the National High School Choral Festival. These articles had headlines, of course. And in them I attempted (with mixed results) to be both clever and engaging. I wanted people to read my words!

Subject lines are the same way, but for your entire newsletter. You want people to read, right? The first thing people see is the subject line, and it’s the main thing that will make them decide whether or not to open the e-mail. As with many e-mail marketing topics, I’ve learned that print rules don’t exactly apply.

Here are some tips:

i. Creativity in e-mail subject lines should only go so far—it’s concision and relevance that rule. But that’s no excuse to be dry. Make it short yet can’t-miss.

Here’s one example from the Morgan Library and Museum. Subject: “Jane Austen Exhibition Now On View.” The Morgan’s style is always simple and direct, which I like. There was a lot more content in that e-mail once you clicked through, but with just 34 characters (including spaces), they caught my attention.

ii. Remember that your subject line field may be truncated (see image on right). Different e-mail platforms have varying screen resolutions, and even then a small window can turn your “This Week at the Museum: Live in the Flesh Meet Vincent Van Gough!” into “This Week at the….” Try to keep your subject line to fifty characters at most to make sure it’s seen.

iii. Develop an identity for your regular mailings. Give them a name that people can easily identify and (with the right content) actually look forward to. At the same time, don’t be redundant. If your sender name is “Laboratory Theatre E-News,” you’ll just be repeating yourself if your subject line also starts with “Laboratory Theatre E-News.”

iv. Don’t try to cram everything in. Find one compelling thing and give it room to breathe. This is copywriting 101. Try to say it all and you end up saying nothing.

Here’s an example from Carnegie Hall: “Subject: Carnegie Hall at a Glance: Tilson Thomas Discovers a Masterpiece.” First comes the sender, then the newsletter identity “At a Glance,” then one highlight that they thought people wanted to know. It could be more concrete (did he find it in someone’s garage?), but at least it creates some interest. It’s better than the subject line of a random announcement taken from another promotional e-mail from my time there, quoted in its entirety: “Jazz in Zankel Hall.” The point gets across, but it’s needlessly vague. Give me a hint about what’s happening!

At this point, you might be saying to yourself—does it really matter? It’s Carnegie Hall. People will open their e-mails no matter what they use for a subject line. Well, that’s probably right. It’s all the non-Carnegie Halls, Lincoln Centers, or LACMAs of the world who have to work harder to get their message heard.

Since subject lines are so critical for your e-mails, A/B testing can work wonders. Try this: Divide your list into a couple small, random groups. Send the exact same e-mail body to both but change the subject. To one half, highlight one particular event in the subject line, and to the other, highlight a different event. Compare your open and click rates, then next time repeat the test for other factors, such as word order or tone (plain, conversational, formal). See what works for your subscribers.

To sum up, I hope you can learn something from my misconceptions. Get (and keep) a good reputation—or even easier, find an e-mail service provider to do that full-time—so your e-mails arrive in inboxes. Keep building your list and never buy or rent lists; your e-mails should only go to people who really want them. Make your subject lines sing clearly and concisely, so people will open them.

From there, it’s up to you!

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