How Many Sale Emails Does It Take to Screw an Inbox?

One of the biggest challenges for email marketers is to stand out in today’s typically overcrowded inbox, but if you’re a retailer whose ultimate mission in life is to maximize sales, then your challenge is even more daunting because you face competition from countless other retailers who are just as fierce about their own (identical) agenda. So, what’s a retailer to do when there are legitimate sales or promotions to plug on a regular basis?
The problem with retail emails, is that no matter what industry you’re operating in, it’s reasonable to assume that if someone has subscribed to your newsletter, it’s highly likely they’ve subscribed to your competitors’ newsletters too. And since you’ve all got the exact same idea — which is to sell, sell, sell — imagine the typical subscriber’s inbox on any given day, when they’re being bombarded with frantic “Today only!” or “X% off!” or “Don’t miss out!” emails, not only from you, but from all your competitors AND from retailers in other niches as well, like fashion, beauty, food, electronics, homewares, children-related, business related, and more. The average inbox is an in-your-face parade of brands and businesses relentlessly vying for their subscribers’ attention in the hope they’ll open their email and buy whatever they’re flogging.
It’s enough to make your head spin, and I’ve got a headache just from describing that scenario, so imagine having to actually face it for real every day!
So, because the average inbox is an overwhelming arena of unabashed brands set on luring subscribers to inspect their wares like zealous stall-owners at a Turkish bazaar, subscriber-habits have (understandably) evolved around how they interact with their emails. Most of them now scan their overflowing inboxes with lightning speed and decide within split seconds whether to read an email, save it for later or delete it without even opening it.
There are many factors that influence whether or not someone will open a marketing email, the most common of which, are:
1) What they think — or how fond, or trusting they are — of your brand, a.k.a. your ‘sender reputation’ (in email marketing speak). On a scale of “This brand sucks” to “I adore this brand beyond words”, there are probably a few other possible subscriber attitudes towards the brands whose newsletters they subscribed to at one point or another, but let’s just say that the most logical one besides ‘love’ or ‘hate’, is ‘indifference’ (or, “this brand’s okay, but there are others that I like just as much or even more”).
Whatever their attitude is towards your brand, it can play a huge role in your subscribers’ decision to open, delay opening, or delete your email. If they love your brand (or if they love YOU, if you’re a solopreneur) — they will probably open the email regardless of the its subject line, because it’s important to them to see what you have to say. If they’re indifferent, they may or may not open it depending on other factors (like the ones you’re about to read below). If they don’t really like your brand much (which would be odd, because if that’s the case they wouldn’t have signed up to your newsletter in the first place), because maybe they’ve had a lousy experience with it, or who knows why — it’s unlikely they’ll open your email at all, except to maybe unsubscribe from your mailing list altogether.
If you’re wondering ‘What on earth can I possibly do to influence the subscribers’ attitude towards my brand?” — that’s an excellent question, which I have addressed in factor #3 below.
2) The email’s subject line. The subject line is arguably just as important as the content of the email, because it’s the only visible part of the email before it’s opened so it’s essentially an ad for the content within. If it’s not enticing enough, or if it’s irrelevant to their particular needs at that moment, they probably won’t open it, especially if they can see by glancing at the rest of their inbox that there are other emails from similar brands whose subject lines sound more appealing and worthwhile.
Simply put, the subject line needs to be irresistible, but not in a click-baity or misleading way, because if the subscriber opens an email with an extremely promising subject line only to find that the content within falls short of their expectations (or is completely irrelevant), they’ll not only delete it, but they’ll also feel misled and betrayed, which certainly won’t help that all-important favorable attitude I just talked about above. The subject line must be truthful and accurate, but written masterfully.
3) The subject matter (or ‘content’) of the email. This is linked to the subject line, but it’s not exactly the same which is why it needs to be noted separately. All email marketing programs need to be comprised of a mix of content types. If the content is always the same, it can get boring and predictable, and this is especially true of retail emails that are virtually always one-track minded (meaning, they’re always about selling something). But by constantly sending nothing but sales emails, marketers miss a golden opportunity to develop a relationship with the subscriber that endears the brand to them, which ties back to shaping the ‘favorable attitude’ I mentioned above.
If most of your competitors send nothing but sale emails all the time, while you — in addition to sale emails — also send content-based emails from time to time that highlight your behind-the-scenes operations, introduce members of your team, talk about the production process and various other activities that showcase your brand’s ‘personality’ — your subscribers will get to see a whole other side to your business that goes beyond ‘just’ the products. If you can consistently come up with great content ideas and execute these content-based emails well, your subscribers will see your brand in a whole new light and it’s this familiarity with your brand’s ‘vibe’, ‘essence’ or ‘personality’ that may give them the extra nudge they need to open more of your emails (as opposed to those of your competitors) even when they are just regular sales emails.
4) Whatever’s going on in the subscriber’s life that day. Sometimes, your email may land in the subscriber’s inbox on a day where they’re tired, or not feeling well, or nervous or agitated about something, or genuinely busy with other things. Their decision on whether or not to open your email will be completely unrelated to your brand or the subject line. It simply isn’t a high enough priority for them on that day, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a shame, because the email you send on that particular day might be truly spectacular, but c’est la vie. You need to get over it, and move on.
Those are just a few of the main factors that influence a subscriber’s decision to open, skip or delete a sales email, but I’d like to elaborate on subject lines, since they are such a critical element.
In order to stand out among emails from other retailers, email marketers must aim to be anything but typical, and do to this they need to up their game to craft subject lines that promote sales more creatively, without always stating the obvious. That’s not to say that Sale Email subject lines should always be overly clever and laboriously witty, but if they are interesting or entertaining enough to pique the subscriber’s curiosity, they can achieve the intended result.
Here are some tips to consider when crafting subject lines and promotional concepts for retail Sale Emails:
1) Try to create a sale ‘theme’ or gimmick. Subject lines that begin with predictable “salesy” terms like “Sale” or “% off” or “Today only” or “Don’t miss out” (you get the picture) are okay to use sparingly from time to time, but unfortunately most email marketers in Retail use them very liberally, and by using them so frequently, the value of their sale emails becomes increasingly meaningless as each email appears to be indistinguishable from the next.
But create a concept that’s a little more out of the ordinary — like these examples from FireboxLoftSmiggle and J.Crew — and the Sale suddenly becomes more interesting almost just by virtue of being different, and therefore more enticing to check out.
Example of sale ‘gimmick’, from Loft (Source: The Best of Email)
NOTE: The email examples provided in this post are from one of my side-hustle websites (currently in hibernation, revival date still unknown) –
The Best of Email (or TBOE for short) is a showcase of standout emails circa 2013–2014 (or so). The site is still live because it’s now a sort of cool time-capsule of standout emails from almost a decade ago (some of the brands featured in it no longer exist) but the elements that made the emails great back then still apply today. Eventually I’ll get around to updating this post by adding more recent examples as well.
2) Choose a specific item to be the “hero” of the sale. Since many Sale promotions usually apply to a whole bunch of products (or even storewide), subscribers can always count on the fact that from time to time they will benefit from reduced prices on everything, so if they miss out on a sale by not opening the email pertaining to it on any particular day, they know that the next one is probably not far behind.
But when you promote reduced prices on a specific highlighted item (even if the sale applies to other items as well) — like these examples from howiesLOFTNine West, and Threadless — it adds an element of interest and urgency to the sale because psychologically, subscribers won’t want to miss out on the limited-time discount for this particular in-demand product.
Example of a sale email ‘starring’ one particular product, from howies (Source: The Best of Email)
3) Make it quirky or funny. Subscribers expect marketers to lure them with sales all the time, so when they see subject lines that look as though they were created to entertain despite their obvious intention (which is to sell), sometimes their appreciation of the marketer’s efforts to spare them from yet another predictable “Sale” announcement is enough to compel them to engage with it. When a subject line makes you smile — like these examples from Rue La LaThreadlessUrban Outfitters and Moosejaw — it’s hard not to reward it with an open.
Excerpt from hilarious sale email by Moosejaw (Source: The Best of Email)
If you’re a B2B marketer who has come this far in the post hoping for some insights on how to craft the ultimate B2B sales email, complete with tips and best practices around funnels, conversion-copywriting techniques and other classic salesy tactics, I’m sorry to tell you that you won’t find it in this post, which was specifically written with the challenges of B2C retail marketers in mind. But if you’re interested in such a post, drop me a comment and I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, for more ideas on how to add ‘oomph’ to your marketing emails (B2C or B2B), subscribe to my newsletter.

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Noya Lizor - I'm all about creating standout content that helps businesses grow

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I’m a marketer and copywriter based in Sydney, Australia. I’m all about creating standout content that helps businesses grow.

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