3 lessons from the ghosts of email marketing past, present, and future

Do you think about the past, present, and future of your business? If you're like my clients and students, you're sorting out what hasn't worked, what's working now, and what will work best for your business in 2020.

But sometimes, it's not the platform, channel, strategy, or tactic that's not working—it's how you use or think about it that needs to evolve. And other times, the platform, channel, strategy, or tactic adapt because the world changes. That's why I recommend getting curious about why before you dismiss, accept, or tweak what you're doing. 

In the case of email marketing, how we use it in the future will evolve to keep pace with our changing world. And you have the opportunity to adopt these practices now and start building your future business today.  

In this post, we'll explore email marketing practices to discard and adopt now, so you succeed in 2020 and beyond. And we'll do it with a little help from the ghosts of email marketing past, present, and future. 

Let's dive in, shall we?

Email marketing past: dead as a doornail #RIP

 Email marketing has lived more lives than a black cat. Since the first marketing email blasted into inboxes in 1978, experts have predicted its demise. And it has not only survived but thrived.

Today, email is the key to downloading apps, site memberships, and all the free recipes the Internet has to offer. It's what we look at when we wake up and repeatedly check throughout our day. And email marketing is simple, affordable, effective, and used by almost everyone and everything (Hello, Internet of Things!). Oh, and most importantly, you own and control it. Mwuhahaha!

But the rise of mobile, overflowing inboxes, and privacy concerns have killed the effectiveness of many email marketing practices still widely used today. 

If you opine that email is too impersonal or ineffective, your email marketing is likely haunted by some or all of these outdated practices:

  • Blasting every contact on your list with the same message
  • Renting, buying, or sharing contact lists
  • Designing campaigns for your desktop
  • Using a role-based or non-business email address
  • Sending something instead of something of value to your contacts
  • Paying zero attention to details like subject lines, preview text, and other bits of email anatomy
  • Being robotic instead of human

Signs your email marketing efforts have flatlined include open and click-through rates well below industry standard, high bounce rates, and abuse complaints.

Email marketing present: Opportunity is knocking

Today, permission, personalization, and relevance are crucial to your email marketing success. Let's break down why.


It's no secret our country is a bit of a mess right now. Email privacy and security issues have weakened our trust, and lax regulation has filled our inboxes with crap we don't want from people we don't know. 

Emailing people without consent or with implied consent may be legal, but it's not a best practice—especially if your brand is all about trust and relationships. Beyond that, there are other risks.

Sender reputation

Your sender reputation is a lot like your credit score. If you have a poor sender reputation, it will impact your ability to deliver campaigns to subscribers' inboxes.

Numerous factors determine your sender reputation, including but not limited to the following:

  • The amount of email you send
  • How many recipients mark your emails as spam or otherwise complain to the ISP about your campaigns
  • How often your emails hit the ISP's spam trap
  • Your inclusion in different blacklists
  • How many of your emails bounce
  • How many recipients open, reply to, forward, and delete your messages, as well as click the links inside them
  • How many recipients unsubscribe from your email list

If your list contains contacts who did not give consent to receive marketing from you—your sender reputation is at risk. People who don't know you are more likely to mark your email as spam or complain to the ISP, and people who do know you (but did not consent to be on your list) are more likely to delete your campaigns. Neither scenario is good for your sender reputation.

Email deliverability

Your sender reputation is an essential part of your email deliverability—the ability to deliver campaigns to subscribers' inboxes.

When your sender reputation is weak, your campaign may be sent directly to recipients' spam folders or rejected outright.

Email Service Providers like Mailchimp require permission as part of their terms of service, and, with enough dings to your sender reputation, you may lose your email privileges. Game over.

Conversely, the better your sender reputation is, the more likely an ISP will deliver your campaigns to your subscribers' inboxes.


If you're playing it loose with your sender reputation and email deliverability, you're likely overlooking essential CAN-SPAM requirements—like honoring unsubscribe requests within ten days.

Violating CAN-SPAM requirements will bust your budget. According to the Federal Trade Commission: "Each separate email in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act is subject to penalties of up to $41,484."

Personalization, Segmentation, and Relevance

In addition to marketing with permission, two other best practices are critical to email marketing success: personalization and relevance.

Personalization is all about using subscriber data to create experiences that feel tailor-made for individuals on your list. Used in conjunction with segmentation—grouping subscribers into smaller clusters based on things like demographics, behavior, and stage of the customer journey—personalization will supercharge your email marketing results.

Relevance is about creating content that has value for your audience, and that's easier to achieve when you segment your contacts. For example, imagine writing an email to a group composed of clients and leads. Gah! It's infinitely easier to write an email to one group or the other, right? And when your email is more relevant, it will add value for your subscriber, and that has a dramatic impact on your results.

Embracing permission, personalization, and relevance as part of your 2020 email marketing is an opportunity to set yourself up for future success. Keep reading to find out why.

Email marketing future: tomorrow starts today

Other countries are leading the charge on email regulation, and it's only a matter of time before the US follows suit.

Can you imagine if you were only able to market to contacts who permitted you to market to them? 

Email privacy and security were addressed overseas (GDPR, CASL) and impact marketers here, but our email laws have yet to change. Many marketers, myself included, think our lax laws will tighten up and put us in step with the rest of the world.

When that happens, permission, personalization, and relevance will become table stakes for marketers. And I'm looking forward to that time because that's when we'll genuinely market by design, not luck.

Today, using permission, personalization, and relevance is an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself now and dominate your competition in the future. 

Now what?!

Permission to market to your contact list is a thing of beauty. You'll see your list as what it truly is—an audience of people who deserve the value only you can add to their lives. This is an amazing responsibility and opportunity. Decide to start when consent is optional, not required.


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