5 Embarrassing Habits That Keep Your Emails From Getting Clicked

Email Marketing: Don't Be That Guy
Don’t be the embarrassing uncle; get your email marketing act together. Image source.

Everyone has a crazy uncle. He’s the one that keeps you guessing. You never know what he’s going to do and oftentimes, you and your family are more than a little embarrassed by his bizarre behavior. (By the way, if you can’t identify a crazy uncle in your family, it may be you. Ask someone you trust.)

As much as I would love to help you cope with your extended family, I think that there’s an even more embarrassing situation at hand. There seems to be an explosion of bad habits in marketing emails bombarding inboxes around the globe that would make any savvy marketer blush.

My guess is that some marketers are so desperate to get their email opened that they’ve forgotten what an effective marketing email is supposed to accomplish.

Getting your email opened isn’t the goal. Getting your reader to take action is.

That’s why it’s critical to track clicks rather than opens. A better metric to track at the email level is the click to open rate. That helps you see what’s really working with your email marketing. (Of course, an even better metric would be the actual revenue generated by such activity, but we’ll leave that for another discussion.)

In this chart from Marketing Land, we’re actually tracking three things:

  1. Open rate (the blue bar);
  2. Click rate (the green bar and the most important metric);
  3. Click to open rate (the orange line).

From the chart, you can see that while the third email had the highest click rate, the second email actually had a strong click to open rate. That means that the contents of the email, the copy and the call to action worked well together to get the user to take action.

Email Marketing: Clickthrough Open Rate Chart
Image via Marketing Land

So, what kind of embarrassing habits are keeping your reader’s finger from clicking? For starters, see if any of these sound familiar.

1. Your subject line makes a promise your email can’t keep

It’s tempting to do whatever it takes to get your email opened. I mean, your reader can’t click if they don’t open, right? You’ve studied the charts,  and you know what’s going to work. Maybe it’s just as simple as using words proven to lead to opens and clicks and you’ll have a winner.

Email Marketing: Keyword Effectiveness

I guess it’s time to try the old, “Alert: Fraudulent Activity Detected In Your Bank Account” subject line. That’ll get that email opened.

Well, hold on there, young buck.

In your eagerness to get your email opened, you’ve lost sight of the real goal: to get your reader to click. You don’t want your reader to feel duped into opening your email, unless you just love getting reported as spam and getting hateful email responses.

Of course, you’re not crazy enough to actually try that. But sometimes, we do allow our cleverness to get the best of us. And once our readers open, they are sorely disappointed in the content. They’re so uninspired, they don’t even have the motivation to click.

So, what’s a smart marketer to do?

I love how Mailchimp cuts through the clutter with this common sense advice:

“Your subject line should (drum roll please): Describe the subject of your email.”

Now that’s real genius.

2. Your email is garishly over-dressed

Let’s revisit our goal: get a reader to click. It’s not to impress your reader, or wow them with animation.

Anything that gets in the way of a click is working against you.

Before you go to work creating graphics for your email, make sure the copy can deliver a click. Then, only use graphics that support that copy.

I think Lands’ End did a pretty nice job with this email that landed in my inbox. They have chosen a singular topic and their goal is to get me to explore more about their shirts. Nice.

Email Marketing: Landsend Example
The subject line for this email, “Made to Work dress shirts + 25% off Men’s” delivered exactly what it promised.

Use images wisely and don’t get all crazy with them. About half of your users are looking at your email on a mobile device now, so make sure that your email masterpiece works well everywhere. Make your design only as complicated as it needs to be to accomplish your goal.

Some of the most effective marketing emails out there are drop-dead simple. (I personally think that the fancy email marketing templates provided by email marketing companies are really a part of some grand conspiracy.) For instance, some marketers have discovered that using an HTML email that looks like a plain text email performs well. By using an HTML email, you still are able to track the metrics that you need. And by sending a plain-looking email, you’re able to communicate personally in a personal space: your reader’s inbox.

Here’s one email that I’ve sent to my users that appears to be a plain text email, but is actually just simple HTML, allowing me to track opens and clicks.

Email Marketing: HTML email appearing like plaintext

3. Your email goes off on rabbit trails

This bad habit appears to be an epidemic in marketing emails. Instead of doing the hard work it takes to choose just a few important morsels, some hapless marketers throw as many things as possible against the wall just to see what will click. Please stop the madness.

Based on studies of human cognitive function, you don’t want to provide more than three or four options in any one email. Too many choices can sink your chances of your reader taking action. You may actually see an increase in clicks if you can compress that down into one singular topic for your email.

Take a look at what Wistia does with this email.

Email Marketing: Wistia Example
Subject line: “A new way to organize your Wistia account.”

Etsy gets it with this promotional email. Three choices. Not 70.

Email Marketing: Etsy Example

But what if you have more to say than three things? Send a separate email to a segmented list. That way you’re talking about the right things to the right readers.

4. Your email gives away the punch line

You’ve worked hard at crafting the perfect subject line and you’ve got your reader engaged. So far, so good. Now, remember that the point of your email is to get the reader to click through to your site. It’s not your email’s job to deliver the goods. It just points to where the goods are.

That’s where intrigue comes in. Develop your reader’s curiosity. This email from The Heist does a great job of this. By the time you’ve made it to the link, you’re ready to go.

Email Marketing: Heist Example

While the Typecast email below doesn’t necessarily create a compelling story, the combined effect of beautiful layout, clear copy and interesting images make it awfully tempting to click that orange button at the bottom. Am I right?

Email Marketing: Typecast Example

5. Your email shows up in the right place but at the wrong time

Hopefully your email is landing in the right place (your reader’s inbox!), but maybe it just isn’t showing up at the right time. Make sure that you’re experimenting with different times/days for your emails. What has worked for others may or may not work for you. For instance, one study showed that response rates are much higher after 8 pm.

Email Marketing: Adweek Infographic about email delivery hour

Don’t think you have to follow the crowd. In fact, if fewer companies are sending emails on Sunday at 7:30 am, give it a shot and see what kind of push you can get if you do it in an off time.

If your readers are opening and not clicking, it may be that they’re too busy at the moment to click on through. Try sending at times when your readers may have a little more time.

While we’re talking about time, think about your reader’s time. They may love your content and love your site, but they just don’t have time to read right now.

You may be able to increase their willingness to click if you give them an estimate of the time it’ll take them to read. I love how Medium does this with their articles.

Email Marketing: Medium estimated read time feature

Let’s sum it up

The only way to change a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. So, make it a habit to ask yourself the following questions for each marketing email that you send.

  1. Does my subject line match the content of the email?
  2. Is my email design as simple as possible to accomplish my goal?
  3. Am I helping my reader stay focused on a maximum of three or four options?
  4. Does my email copy build curiosity to click?
  5. When is the best time for my marketing emails? When will my readers be most likely to respond?

In no time, you’ll be proud of your emails’ behavior. No more awkwardness. No more justifying your red face.

Now, if only it were this simple to deal with your embarrassing uncle.

— Lance Cummins

About Lance Cummins
Lance is the founder of Nectafy, an inbound marketing agency with a dash of personality. They help businesses turn visitors from leads into real-live paying customers. Read more about Nectafy here.
» More blog posts by Lance Cummins


  1. Duran Drake

    Nice Sharing,
    Enjoyed the post.

  2. Barry Feldman

    What a heap of great advice. Love the KISS approach to subject lines and your advice to limit the choices. Great stuff, Lance.

    Also great to see one of our great online marketing bloggers sprinkle himself around as a guest blogger. Good to see you here at Unbounce, an A+ blog/site/team.

  3. Josh Escusa

    Lately I’ve been keeping my emails to one option and I’m seeing over 50% open rates. I should mention that most of my emails are also not promoting anything to buy. If you mix content giveaway emails with marketing emails people will be happier with being a part of your following.

    • Lance Cummins

      That’s a pretty fantastic open rate, Josh. I think that speaks highly of the value you’re sending out in your emails. Keep up the great work.

  4. Brad Cummins

    Very nice article.

    When a consumer fills out a quote on our site, we have been thinking about making them check their email and confirm their email before we reveal the rates. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    • Lance Cummins

      First of all, it’s nice to hear from another Cummins. :)

      So, are you currently having trouble with users giving you incorrect emails or “free” email addresses, just to see a quote?

      If that’s the case, then it’s definitely worth a try. Just experiment with it, and keep an eye on your conversion rates. We could theorize on what would happen, but give it a shot, and I’d love to hear back on the results!

  5. Vincent Vito Barr

    Good advice. Relevance + concision = focus.

    Also, a good, quick read on subject lines by Nielsen Norman Group: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/email-subject-lines/. Ex: Don’t use recipients’ name in subject line.

  6. Cherry Hidjaja

    Hi this is a very nice article and great insight into what keywords work for subject lines.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this article seems to be B2C-centric (judging from the email open rates diagram, although some people do like reading their work email at night), and would be interesting to find out if this can be applied to B2B as well.

    • Lance Cummins

      All of these concepts can be applied to B2B as well. It’s critical to remember that even if you’re a B2B, your business is really a P2P (Person to Person). There’s always a real person on the other end of that email.

      Sure, they may not be checking their business email in the evening, but there are definitely better times than others to send a business email. The best solution? Try different times and keep an eye on that click-to-open ratio.

      Best of luck!

  7. Adriana

    Great tips! We are struggling at the moment with people not clicking or opening. I think we will try to minimise the choices and try different times when to send it.

    • Lance Cummins

      I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what happens when you minimize choices and make the choice more clear. Just make sure that your offer is something that your readers are really interested in.

  8. Yann Esta

    for sur the worth habits i ever seen ..

  9. LeslieZ

    Lance, it’s seems like common sense. But I know it is all too easy to fall into these traps while email marketing.

    We hear so often about email open rates. Your approach of click rate makes total sense. Thanks for the great tips.


  10. Pawel Kontek

    Remarkable post. I think that the most important is the first point – about the importance of “Click to open rate”. Thanks!

  11. DoReGaMa

    awesome habits about email marketing habits and nice post

  12. Bethany

    Helpful info! Thank you. Going to now read about HTML vs plain emails.

    I recommend being mindful of the word “crazy,” BTW. http://thoughtcatalog.com/parker-marie-molloy/2013/10/15-crazy-examples-of-insanely-ableist-language/

    • Lance Cummins

      Good luck on your HTML vs plain text research. It can be scant.

      And thanks for the link. I love learning other people’s perspectives, whether I reach the same conclusions or not. Have a wonderful day!