Back in the late 1990s I signed up for an email account with the expectation that my inbox would only be filled with important communiqués. Being the naïf that I was, this plan quickly dissolved and I went on a bender, signing up for nearly every free offer, contest and newsletter known to man.

As the years passed, I’ll admit it: I lost control of this inbox. It grew from a fount of great info to a bloated, Frankensteinian Golem that was part 419 scam, part product hard-sell and part too-good-to-be-true contest offer (does anyone ever win those things?).

Last week I poked my head in and this inbox had 20,000 emails.


After much hand-wringing, I decided I still wanted the email address because it was pure. It had no numbers and no extra letters, just a very common name and domain (a rarity these days). So I did something one might call semi-email bankruptcy: I dumped everything but a hundred or so emails that were so far in the rear-view mirror some of the senders are now deceased.

After what I call “The Great Email Purge of 2011,” I began to rebuild. Here are some of the things I learned while channeling your typical email subscriber:

  • A good design and template will save many a subscription. When people say things like, “Oh, your template doesn’t really matter. Even a fair one will work,” don’t believe them. A good template is not unlike being tight with a friend who just happens to be a master chef. I was more than happy to ogle Lorac’s 3D Liquid Luster eyeliner even though it would completely be age-inappropriate for me to sport it. A clean, sleek template saved lots of emails from getting voted off the island.
  • Familiarity is a very powerful thing. As an email marketing company, we constantly talk about building familiarity, but I never realized how powerful this was until I was scrolling through my slimmed-down email inbox. Even if I got infrequent emails from some senders, I could visualize in my head how good their emails looked and read time and again, and I was far more likely to open them. This is like a semi-reverse on the old military adage that if your superior knows you by name (or sight), you’re pretty much screwed. You want your subscribers to know who you are on sight and good content, a cracking good template and great deals will get you many more eyeballs.
  • Today’s legit senders are much better with unsubscribes. Yes, I know, this might be Captain Obvious. In a span of just a few minutes after I emptied my inbox, a trickle of emails started coming in, from major retailers, co-registration companies, and a smattering of multi-lingual spammers. After an unsubscribe-athon, I found that very few legitimate email companies sent even one email after I asked to be taken off their list. The ones that continued sending, even for a few days, fell out of my good graces. Instant unsubscribe is now the norm. Period.
  • Very few senders tell you where (or why) you signed up. This was a big disappointment. For some of the emails I was completely sure where I signed up and why. For others, I was clueless. Xbox Live? 100% probable. Pep Boys? Dubious at best. Even a little bit of info might have stopped me from dropping the axe on many of these messages.
  • Good tips sheets make great attention grabbers. Of the dozens of emails that I pored through, good tips sheets were almost certain to get an open. For instance, Web MD sent an email with the subject line “5 Unusual Ways to Prevent Heart Disease.” The purpose of the email was to get me to link back to a blog by one of Web MD’s writer/doctors. Not only did it work, but it made me realize how much this email stood out amongst a sea of messages boasting 50% off tank tops and free gift cards.

Although each customer is different, I believe this very unscientific study delivers a reliable barometer of where many customers stand with their inboxes. If you’re not sure how to improve your email campaigns, these observations and tips are certainly a good place to start.