Here’s a set of email guidelines I’ve been putting together over the past couple of years. There are many great, similar, guides all over the internet. This one’s mine!

While these are good for marketing emails, they’re also extremely good guidelines for your personal correspondence as well.

General guidelines

Be a real person

  • Send from a personal email address that accepts replies and has a name. Obvious for your personal correspondence, often not done by businesses.
  • Be conversational, and write as if you’re emailing only one person.

Let recipients know what’s in it for them

  • Have a very clear reason for sending the email, reinforced (possibly several times) to the recipient.
  • Emphasize benefits, not features. For example, instead of sending “The Class Starts Tomorrow!”, try “Want to [x]? Class starts tomorrow!”
  • Consider whether you would want to do whatever the email is getting the recipient to do, based on what’s in the email.
  • Use social proof. This could mean testimonials from previous attendees, tweets from previous events, photos, etc. Or it could mean information about who you are and why you’re credible.
  • Send emails at the right time, thinking about when it’s most convenient for your audience to act.


  • If you have the volume to test them, write 5 - 10 different subject lines and headlines initially.
  • A/B test templates, tones, content, sending times, etc.


  • If you understand the audience you’re sending to, break it up as much as possible into sub-audiences, with tailored messaging and offers.
  • Send followups to people who were interested in your offer but didn’t actually do what you wanted them to. For example, if someone clicked on a sale item in your email, but didn’t finish their purchase, follow up with a coupon.
  • Find ways to re-engage people who weren’t interested in your offer at all, depending on how much other email you need to send.

Subject Lines

  • Don’t be mysterious, vague, poetic or clever.
  • Don’t use exclamation points or all caps.
  • Use your name and possibly company name in the From line. For example, “Justin at JustinCo”. Be a real person!
  • Keep it short (< 50 characters).
  • Consider:

MailChimp also has a great Subject Line Research Tool that you can use to gauge effectiveness:

Body Copy

  • The headline should immediately say what’s in it for the reader. A majority of readers only read the headline before deciding whether to click or not.
  • What you want the recipient to do should be very clear, and a very easy action to take. Have a single call to action, and repeat it.
  • Keep the message scannable. For example, convert paragraphs to bullet points where possible.
  • Cut as much as possible.
  • Short paragraphs (fewer than 5 lines), short sentences (fewer than 10 words) and short words.
  • Sentence fragments are fine. Even good.
  • Use “you” (the recipient) as much as possible rather than “we”. What’s in it for them?
  • Keep the reader moving to the next sentence (“So…”, “That’s why…”, “And…” etc.).
  • Use images. Preferably ones that add interest to the email and fit with your message (not stock photos).
  • Have a single call to action, clear and repeated.
  • PSs are highly read and could be used for a sweetener (e.g. PS: If you register now, this good thing will happen)
  • Don’t use “maybe”, “hope”, “wish”, “try”, “could”, “perhaps” or the passive voice. Be bold!
  • Consider repeating your call to action.
  • Read copy out loud before sending it.
  • Consider:
    • Asking questions
    • Adding a personal touch
    • Showing what readers will miss if they don’t take you up on your offer
    • Telling a story
    • Presenting a deadline
    • Pulling the main message or call to action completely out of the content into its own area
    • Using the same “action verbs” you might use in resumes, e.g.

PS: This is good advice for web copy in general, too.

What Constitutes Success?

You should have a strategy behind every email you send. In most cases, that’s a specific action you want the recipient to take. That’s how you measure sucess.

More generically, here’s some selected MailChimp data on opens, clicks, bounces, and unsubscribes from early 2014 (from their excellent Email Marketing Benchmark report). This is a useful guideline for figuring out what is achievable:

Industry Open Click Click to Open Soft Bounce Hard Bounce Abuse Unsubscribe
Business and Finance 32.6% 3.1% 9.51% 1% 0.9% 0.041% 0.198%
Computers and Electronics 32.4% 2.7% 8.33% 0.9% 0.8% 0.041% 0.202%
Consulting 37.1% 3.4% 9.16% 1.6% 1.3% 0.038% 0.271%
Education and Training 36.1% 3.4% 9.42% 0.9% 0.7% 0.036% 0.171%
Entertainment and Events 25.4% 2.1% 8.27% 0.5% 0.5% 0.04% 0.175%
Software and Web Apps 32.6% 2.7% 8.28% 1.3% 1.2% 0.058% 0.342%
Average 32.70% 2.90% 8.83% 1.03% 0.90% 0.04% 0.23%
Min 25.40% 2.10% 8.27% 0.50% 0.50% 0.04% 0.17%
Max 37.10% 3.40% 9.51% 1.60% 1.30% 0.06% 0.34%