More prominent email signup forms and links perform better. In-your-face lightboxes take this logic to the far end of spectrum and are enjoying growing popularity, particularly among retailers.

Ann Taylor email signup lightbox

Unlikely the justly vilified pop-up and pop-under, lightboxes or popovers don’t launch a new window. They are a part of the page you’re already viewing and require you to complete the form or close the lightbox to regain access to the rest of the webpage, which is usually greyed out in the background, as you can see in this Ann Taylor example.

Ten percent of marketers are using lightboxes for email signups, according to ExactTarget research involving more than 160 B2C brands, including retailers, restaurants, manufacturers, travel and hospitality, and nonprofits. With more than 13% of retailers using an email signup lightbox, they are more than three times more likely to use this tactic than non-retailers. A few years ago hardly any marketers were using lightboxes.

Brooks Brothers post-signup lightbox

The risk with lightboxes is that they are interruptive and therefore potentially annoying if they pop up too often. To minimize this risk, most brands set limits on how often lightboxes can be triggered for a particular visitor and some only trigger them for first-time visitors. Some also delay the launch of the lightbox for five or more seconds to give visitors a chance to start engaging with the site.

While all the talk lately has been about lightboxes for email signups, roughly as many marketers use them for post-signup confirmation instead. This is particularly true of brands like Brooks Brothers that have an email signup form in the footer of all their webpages. Their post-signup lightbox thanks the new subscriber for signing up and also asks for some additional information and preferences to improve their email experience.

Not only are more B2C marketers sending welcome emails, more are sending welcome email series. The first weeks of an email marketing relationship are the most critical, so they deserve the extra attention that a welcome email series can provide.

Twenty-five percent of marketers send a welcome email series, according to ExactTarget research involving more than 160 B2C brands, including retailers, restaurants, manufacturers, travel and hospitality, and nonprofits. Of those marketers that send welcomes, 31% send a welcome email series rather than a single welcome email.

With 30% of retailers sending a welcome email series, they are nearly twice as likely as non-retailers to do so. And the percentage of retailers sending a welcome email series has tripled since 2009.

Many welcome email series included three emails, but a few included as many as five. Most of the emails in these series were interspersed with the brand’s usual promotional emails rather than all sent sequentially.

The messaging in each of the emails generally was one of the following:

  • Promotional welcome offer, which tended to be a percentage-off or free shipping offer
  • Reminder of soon-to-expire welcome offer
  • Touting private label goods
  • Follow us on social media
  • Download our mobile app
  • Explanation of website features and tools
  • Introduction of store services

Welcome email series are even more powerful when you tailor them to different subscribers based on how they joined your email list (homepage, store, etc.) or their previous interactions with your brand.

Below are six of my favorite welcome email series from Barney’s, Crate & Barrel, eBags, Target, Vera Bradley and Zulily.

Barneys welcome email seriesCrate & Barrel welcome email serieseBags welcome email seriesTarget welcome email seriesVera Bradley welcome email seriesZulily welcome email series


Welcome emails are among the top-performing emails that a marketer can send, so I was happy when my latest research found that more brands than ever are sending them. However, a closer look uncovered that there are still big opportunities for marketers to get better performance from their welcome emails.

Victoria's Secret welcome emailNearly 81% of B2C marketers send welcome emails to their new subscribers, according to ExactTarget research involving more than 160 B2C brands, including retailers, restaurants, manufacturers, travel and hospitality, and nonprofits.

Retailers are considerably more likely than non-retailers to send a welcome email, with nearly 87% of retailers sending one versus only 70% of non-retailers. When I last looked at retailers’ welcome email practices in 2009, more than 74% were sending welcome emails, so adoption has grown significantly among that group.

Although adoption has increased, the effectiveness of welcome emails is still dampened by a couple of factors.

First, some marketers don’t send their welcome emails immediately after signup, when subscribers are most likely to open and act on them. For example, welcome emails from Applebee’s, West Elm and several other brands took 3 or more days to arrive. And Victoria’s Secret’s welcome email didn’t arrive until 2 weeks after signup. Delaying the delivery of your welcome email drastically reduces its effectiveness.

And second, a number of marketers also sent welcome emails that rendered poorly, including the ones from Tide and Drs. Foster & Smith. Because welcome emails are key to delivering a good first impression, make sure that yours renders well—with and without images enabled. Because ISPs change their coding support without notice, it’s wise to periodically confirm that your welcome and other triggered emails are still displaying as intended.

Tide welcome emailOn the plus side, marketers have gotten much better at using their welcome emails to drive action, whether it’s trying to ring up a sale, doing progressive profiling, or exposing new subscribers to their mobile app or social media presence.

Marketers are also making their unsubscribe links more prominent in their welcome emails, in case a new subscriber has second thoughts. Recognizing that unsubscribes are way preferred over spam complaints, brands like Victoria’s Secret include opt-out links in the preheader and the primary message block. I was relieved to see that only one brand sent a welcome email that wasn’t CAN-SPAM compliant.

When’s the last time you reviewed and updated your welcome email?

I’m very pleased to share with you the introduction to my new book, Email Marketing Rules: How to Wear a White Hat, Shoot Straight, and Win Hearts, which is about the best practices that lead to spectacular results, while steering you clear of trouble. I feel that too many people don’t understand what best practices really are, which is understandable given the increasing amount of misinformation and misdirection out there from those who are against best practices. Here is where I stand on the issue:

>>To preview even more of the book, visit the book’s product page on and click on the book cover to LOOK INSIDE.

I’m happy to announce the release of Email Marketing Rules: How to Wear a White Hat, Shoot Straight, and Win Hearts. It’s available now around the world exclusively on in the Kindle Store. (Download free Kindle Reader app for your smartphone, tablet or computer.)

Through 108 easy-to-understand rules, Email Marketing Rules is your guide to understanding the practices that lead to spectacular results, while steering you clear of potential trouble. While beginner-friendly and a great training tool, the book’s crisp dissection of best practices will help even seasoned veterans make tactical improvements that boost the performance of their email programs.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my amazing editors, Email Marketing Reports publisher Mark Brownlow and Smith-Harmon co-founder Aaron Smith. Their sage advice and expert guidance was absolutely invaluable.

I’d also like to thank all my other friends in the industry. Email Marketing Rules is really the culmination of the thousands of conversations I’ve had with all of you over the years. Thank you for shaping, confirming and challenging my views.

Get the Book

Download the free Kindle Reader app for your smartphone, tablet or computer.

The Last Word on February 2013

The Last WordA roundup of articles, posts, tweets and emails you might have missed last month…

Must-read articles, posts & whitepapers

Email Engagement: Often Talked About, Rarely Defined

Mini posts cans of spam in apology for email blunder

Ignore Droid at Your Own Risk (infographic)

Winter Storm Nemo: Newsjacking & Ad-Hoc Email Templates

In Defense Of Email

Insightful & entertaining tweets

@K_Hamerstadt: Segmentation from my fav retailers should make me feel like I have an online personal shopper. I don’t get that experience today. #ETCafe

@martinlieberman: “Anyone without an email address is the digital equivalent of a homeless person.” (via @DelaQuist)

@EmailErika : You only have 20 words to make an impact. From, subject line and pre header. Organic search terms make gd subject lines. #EEC13

@mitchdf: RT @indystar: Editorial cartoonist Gary @Varvel on U.S. Postal Service stopping mail delivery on Saturdays:

@jcohen808: .@SeinfeldToday – Kramer gets into the spam game, pretends to be a Nigerian widow. Jerry: “What’s the big deal with using a hyphen?” #eec13

Noteworthy subject lines

Victoria’s Secret, 2/23 — One way to live #TheFabLife…
Mercedes, 2/22 — #Untamed. A digital photo installation.‏
Adidas, 2/16 — #allin4allstar‏
Bluefly, 2/8 — Shop So Hard…#ThatSaleCray, 2/5 — #ShameOnCantor
Crate & Barrel, 2/24 — Easter&Sunday‏
MAC Cosmetics, 2/23 — Dress your lips Red Carpet Red with Gregory Arlt‏
Walmart, 2/20 — Make the most of your tax refund – Save on TVs, laptops, bedding, tires & more‏
Michael’s, 2/18 — Technology-free with your family‏
Aeropostale, 2/18 — Day Off? Let’s Shop! Everything 50% – 70% Off‏
Threadless, 2/13 — 24 hours only: Tees for just one honest Abe (that’s $5).‏
The Container Store, 2/2 — Groundhog predicts: SPRING IS NEAR!‏ [promoting spring wardrobe organization]
The Children’s Place, 2/2 — Groundhog Says… Stock Up for an Early Spring with 25% Off!
The Container Store, 2/28 — Made in the USA with American ingenuity‏
ModCloth, 2/27 — These cute clothes give baby sloths a run for their money!
Home Depot, 2/24 — Get Curb Appeal At An Appealing Price‏
ThinkGeek, 2/12 — ThinkGeek’s new…*sniff* What is that!? [promoting Geeky Candle Set]
The Crutchfield Team, 2/6 — Four steps take your car stereo system from blah to BAM!
ModCloth, 2/4 — *Ding Dong Ding* Hearing wedding bells?

A “swipe file” is a collection of tested and proven marketing communications that you keep to inspire and inform your future messaging. We love this concept so much that we’ve created a series of Pinterest boards where we’re pinning marketing campaigns that inspire us.

Today we unveiled the Email Swipe File, where you’ll find inspiring examples of email design and messaging—including full emails, series of emails, emails and their landing pages, preference centers, and even small email elements like headers, footers and secondary message banners. The Email Swipe File is home to outstanding examples dating all the way back to 2006 and we’ll be updating it every week with new examples, so please follow the board to stay up to date.

And we’ll be launching more Swipe File boards in the weeks to come, so keep a close eye on the ExactTarget Pinterest page for more marketing inspiration.

Email Swipe File pinboard

In Defense of ‘Low’ Open Rates

MediaPostNo one wrings their hands over email marketing’s stellar ROI, but I’m surprised by how often a big deal is made out of “low” open, click and conversion rates. Everything is about perspective. And that’s absolutely the case when looking at open rates, which can be highly misleading, especially when compared over long periods of time or between different companies.

But even when you add in opens when images are blocked and plain text email opens, the resulting “read rate” can still be quite misleading. For example, Return Path recently released fourth quarter 2012 data showing that the percentage of emails from retailers that were read fell to 15.2% from 17% in the fourth quarter of 2011.

On the surface that doesn’t look so great, but if you look deeper there’s much less cause for concern, if indeed any is warranted at all… Read my entire Email Insider column >>

Email Marketing Is Blind in One Eye

Measuring the performance of your email marketing efforts is critical. It’s vital to maximizing program revenue, as well as subscriber happiness.

But email marketing is not nearly as measureable as we like to think it is. Ignoring how unreliable so-called “open” rates are, subscribers react to our emails in a lot of ways that we simply can’t measure.

For instance, receiving an email may prompt subscribers to visit your website by typing in your URL into their browsers instead of clicking through. They may also visit your store and not use any kind of traceable coupon. Or tell a friend about the product or promotion you highlighted in your email. Or use a different email address to make purchases than they use to subscribe to promotional emails.

Depending on your business, you may only be able to measure as little as half of the influence that your email marketing efforts have. And I’m just talking about the positive influence. We’re even worse at measuring negative influence, if we bother to measure it at all.

Our inability to fully measure the positives shouldn’t keep you from enacting customer-friendly initiatives. For instance, today on the #ETcafe Twitter chat, I brought up using discount codes in subject lines as an example of action without opens. I was asked if I had data on how they perform. I don’t and said that the effect would probably be difficult to measure, that it was kind of a leap of faith.

I can’t think of any possible downside to trying this tactic other than the fact that it would be hard to determine whether it was technically a success. That seems like a bad reason to not do something that’s user-friendly. Heck, using promo codes in preheaders is already fairly common, so marketers clearly recognize the benefits of placing codes up high and in snippet text.

On the other hand, our inability to fully measure the negatives should give us serious pause. For instance, a marketer recently told me that they started sending browse-based and cart abandonment emails to non-subscribers and asked if I had any concerns about that, particularly Big Brother concerns.

Whether or not subscribers feel stalked is a very distant second to my concerns that the brand doesn’t have permission to email those customers. And the danger really isn’t spam complaints—although those are guaranteed—so much as this tactic teaches visitors that they are going to get unwanted emails if they visit the brand’s website. The consequence of that is that some customers will do their browsing (and therefore buying) elsewhere. It’s the equivalent of avoiding a store because they have aggressive sales associates. To me, that negative is monumental—and is likely the reason that not a single major retailer that I’m aware of takes this risk.

A Focus Group of One

I’m a big fan of WhichTestWon. It’s a good, regular reminder that while my gut is pretty good at this point, it’s far from reliable—especially when I’m in unfamiliar territory. In the absence of firm knowledge or solid data to draw upon, you are pretty much left with your personal biases.

Marketers From MarsThat’s a dangerous place for marketers to be, since our behaviors are often very different from the average consumer’s. As revealed by Marketers From Mars, the latest report in the Subscribers, Fans and Followers series, marketers are much more tech-savvy than the average person, are more involved in social media, and make more purchases online. It’s also fair to say that marketers are less concerned about their privacy and much more enamored with the next new thing.

One of the most impactful findings is that owning a smartphone made consumers more likely to be a subscriber, fan and follower. Owning a smartphone actually made consumers nearly 3 times more likely to follow at least one brand on Twitter. But while 90% of marketers have a smartphone, only 51% of consumers do. That gap will surely narrow over the coming years, but it will likely remain very significant in terms of how marketers adjust their email and other marketing efforts to smartphone users, while still serving feature phone users.

Another important finding was that there are significant differences between which channels marketers are eager to invest their time and resources in and which ones consumers wish marketers would invest in. The two channels that marketers seem to be underinvesting in are email and in-store help. And the areas where marketers appear to be overinvesting include product content, smartphone apps and Twitter.

It’s always a good idea to be responsive to consumer needs, but there are a couple of considerations to be mindful of:

First, keep an eye on how much of an investment it takes to move the needle on improvements. Consumers may want more in-store help, but depending on your store base it may cost a lot to hire more store reps, improve store rep training and knowledge, and increase the self-service options to the point that it makes a difference. You’re likely to get a much higher return on investment by putting those resources into email or elsewhere.

And second, you should listen more to what your most valuable customers say. I’m a big believer in the 80/20 rule and that you should listen closely to that 20% of your customers who are driving 80% of your sales. For instance, your customer base as a whole may not be all that enthralled by mobile apps, but if your best customers are heavy users or would like to see improvements then you’d be wise to listen to them.