Published: 16 May 2012

Email is dead; long live email

Email. It's been with us in one form or another since 1971, and become ubiquitous both in business and personal communications.

Just as we need a postcode to prove our existence to everyone from telecoms providers to border control, so we need an email address to exist in the virtual world. No email: no Facebook, Skype, iTunes or Amazon. No email: no online bank account and no booking tickets to anything or anywhere. No email: no business, no pleasure.

Technology market researchers Radicati predict that the number of email accounts worldwide will grow from 3.1bn in 2011 to nearly 4.1bn by 2015. Regular research such as Ofcom's annual Communications Market report puts email as the number one use of the web.

Let's consider our relationship with email. While it remains at the top in terms of reasons to be online, if we look at share of time social media eclipses it and all other online activities. Of the 3.4 billion hours spent online in the UK, 800 million were in social. If internet consumption were made into a single hour then it would look like this:

So email as a communications tool is dead, right? Wrong. It might be a maligned and misused one (79% of email is estimated to be spam) but it is a channel that needs to be part of our mix. If we do it well, we’ll get rewarded. According to Sign Up's Email Benchmarking Report, the charity sector outperforms others in terms of email open rates and click throughs – though we have a higher than average unsubscribe rate too:

Charity emails:

  • Open rate – 23.25%
  • Click rate – 3.32%
  • Unsubscribe rate – 0.28%

Average across all sectors/industries:

  • Open rate – 18.35%
  • Click rate – 2.95%
  • Unsubscribe rate – 0.15%

How can we ensure that our supporters stick with us? How can we take advantage of what is a fairly intimate medium in comparison to the mass conversation of social networks or the broadcast of our websites?

Let’s look at how we can work better from targeting to delivery, and how we can make sure that emails are opened, read and positively acted upon.

Thinking about strategy

  • Make it personal. Allow me to decide when and what I want to receive.
  • Make it experiential. Point me to more interactive experiences online, whether that's live chats, video, streaming of events or blogs.
  • Make it exclusive. Give me something I can't get by browsing the main website or looking at your press releases.
  • Make it shareable. I have a big social network, give me the reason and the mechanic to tell them all about you.
  • Make it insightful. There's a wealth we can learn from the raw data. The more we know about each other, the richer the experience will be.

Thinking about design and content

  • Be clear and interesting, from the subject line onwards. Frontload the best bits and avoid too many images at the top (most emails arrive without these showing).
  • Keep email width below 600 pixels and make sure the proposition is somewhere in the top 300 pixels. Many users will be using a preview pane, and if the purpose of the email isn¹t communicated in this space they may not bother reading.
  • This is as much a conversation as other channels. Make the copy either inclusive or about your reader.
  • Make your call to action stand out. And keep it above the fold so it’s easily seen in the first glance.
  • A method to unsubscribe is a legal requirement. Make it easy with one-click.
  • Be mindful that emails that use many images, or large areas of image in proportion to text, are more likely to be flagged as spam by many filters.

Thinking about build

  • Make sure your email service provider is including a plain text version that mirrors the content of your HTML design. Many users will only be set up to view plain text, especially those reading their emails on a mobile device. Lack of a plain text version, or one that appears different from the content of the HTML version, will increase the spam rating.
  • Label images clearly, as some recipients will see this instead of the image when they open their email.
  • Validate your code. Major errors, like incorrectly nested table tags, will likely appear broken or cause your email to be marked as spam.
  • Test for errors in all major desktop and web email services. What looks fine in one may appear broken in another.

OK, so email isn't as fashionable as its social cousins. But it delivers. So let's take advantage of its potential sophistication. Let's take advantage of opportunities to send them, and think beyond the welcome email and the e-newsletter (what about birthdays or donor anniversaries? What about a thank you out of the blue?).

Let's put email where it ought to be: firmly back into the integrated marketing mix.


Charlotte Beckett, head of digital, The Good Agency

Charlotte oversees digital at The Good Agency and is solely responsible for digital planning and strategy for fundraising, campaigning and communications.