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Why people don’t read your emails (and what to do about it)

With an average Brit checking her phone 221 times per day and getting over 1,500 irrelevant emails per year, it is becoming increasingly difficult for a digital marketer to engage with their target audience. Your customers 24/7 are overloaded with information, most of which is useless and irrelevant. In the age when everyone is shouting out about themselves, a non-invasive, or “flower” marketing is a great way to stand out – but it requires a very different skill set and lots of courage. Channels deteriorating When we go online, our brain gets excessive stimulation it’s not designed to cope with. Flashy ads, pop-up windows, notifications, reminders etc interrupt our thinking process and overload our working memory – a part of short-term memory that’s responsible for processing and arranging information in our brain. It’s a bit like a librarian in the library who puts books into shelves, and all of sudden gets 100 books to arrange – she just can’t cope with it (our working memory can only process 2-4 things at a time). The human brain isn’t designed to multitask, as was shown in a famous Stanford experiment. The more you switch between different windows online, or between various devices, the more you untrain your brain to multitask. As a result, our attention span is getting shorter and digital marketing channels are increasingly deteriorating. In the late 1990s, over 80% (!) of the customers opened email newsletters. Today, an average opening rate varies between 13 and 25% across different industries and an average CTR varies between 1.29% and 5.47%, according to Mailchimp. Paid search CTR on Adwords is decreasing year on year according to Google; and on average is around 2%. Social media average CTR is 2.5-3% (ads on Facebook newsfeed; ads on the right side of the panel score far less). Mobile advertising is still strong compared to desktop one, as it’s relatively new, but if the latest conversations about ad-blocking are implemented, marketers will be left with no easy channel to get to their customers. Are you doomed to fight for an extra percentage, or could you do find a non-invasive way to truly engage with your customers online?

Are you a bee or a flower? In coaching we use two approaches to marketing - a bee or a flower. A bee is active and busy all day. In marketing terms, she is pushing hard her message across – posting links, sending lots of emails, chasing potential clients, and pitching and pitching and pitching (talking about herself and her business). That’s how most businesses operate, and what worked quite well until recently. A flower, on the other hand, just stays where it has grown, beautiful and smelling nicely, attracting the insects. In marketing terms, being a flower means creating value and more value for people first, before asking them for a deal. Being a flower means telling amazing stories, so that people come to you over and over again; creating communities and talking about people’s problems, not yours; getting others to speak about you instead of speaking yourself. Being a flower requires great storytelling skills. We are all first and foremost in media business today, and great storytelling is the main currency these days. It has been recently proven that storytelling develop in people's brain oxytocin, the hormone of bonding and relationships. So the more great stories you tell your customers, the more bonded they feel to you. These stories need to be about them or very relevant to them. People generally like to talk about themselves, but when they are online, they tend to talk twice as much about themselves. Stories also need to be sharable. Another important hormone, dopamine (sometimes called a hormone of pleasure) is generated in our brain when we discover great new info and/or gain social approval (i.e. likes on Facebook or Instagram). If you create something that people really want to share and that makes them feel good about themselves when they do so, they will come back to you to buy your stuff. For example, Redbull does an awesome job in it, and so does GoPro – both create great videos of adrenaline experiences of their customers and guest stars. Expect that people will be talking about your content and your value, and you need to be willing got let go of control, because you really don’t have any influence around how it’s going to end up. If you are not – flower, or non-invasive marketing is not for you just yet.


10 reasons why they might not be reading your emails (listed in no particular order):

  1. They are overwhelmed and have too many distractions

  2. You are talking about yourself/your product and not their concerns

  3. You aren’t providing value in your emails

  4. They can’t relate to what you’re saying (wrong audience, wrong content, wrong way of saying it), not enough examples or stories

  5. You sound “salesy” – i.e. have company name instead of yours, use too many commercial terms, and just aren’t being you

  6. You suggest too many things for them to do (i.e. subscribe, share, buy, reply etc)

  7. You have shared too many things in one email – too much choice/distraction

  8. Your subject line is boring/too commercial/irrelevant and you didn’t test it

  9. You are sending it at a wrong time (i.e. when they are away from computer, on a weekend etc)

  10. Your call to action isn’t clear/you have multiple calls to actions


What can you do? If you decide to be a “flower”, first and foremost, have a clear strategy of how you are going to provide value, not how you will sell your stuff. One way to do that is to answer this question: What is one question your audience is dying to find an answer to? Aren’t sure yet? Go out and ask them about their concerns and troubles! Seriously, it’s so simple, but amazingly few businesses do that. Second, remember that our brain can’t multitask, we can only focus on one thing at a time. This means:

  • Try to avoid distracting elements in your emails or website (i.e. flashy ads, lots of different fonts – these also put you at the risk of getting to spam filters, pop-up windows). On the latter – pop-up windows do work, but they don’t drive engagement (people hate them, and you do, too – so don’t overuse them, or if you do, make sure you are really providing some value through it).

  • Minimize the number of links in your emails and texts. When we see links, our brain stops processing information to take a subconscious decision – should you click on it or not? Get too many links in the email – and you’ve lost the attention of your customer (and spam filters don’t like too many links anyways).

Third, write shorter texts, nobody really reads them anyways. It’s been proven – people don’t read online, they just scan through texts, similar to the letter F. Put the keywords in your text/email do make scanning easier. Fourth, use the data whenever you can! A/B test your subject lines (any decent mailing program does that for you). Professional journalists spend half of the time they work on an article on writing amazing headlines – and you must, too. Write 30 subject lines, choose 3 of them you like most, send the winner to the rest. A great subject line can increase your opening rates two times. Fifth, personalize your communication. In emails, you can use the name of the person you’re writing to across different places. Gary Vaynerchuk, a US businessman and founder of a social media agency VaynerMedia, tried responding to his Twitter fans not by text, but by recording a quick video where he says thank you and calls his names. He says his response has been retweeted hundreds of times, and it only took him an extra 30 seconds of his time to do that. Sixth, take a light approach – use humour and entertain your audience. Innocent does a great job of leading their Facebook group with jokes, and very occasionally discusses their products, also in a humorous and engaging way. Seventh, keep it simple! An email should have one idea and one call to action. Not two, five or ten, not “buy, share, subscribe, reply”. Just one. Remember, people are overloaded, you need to clearly tell them what you expect them to do. ​And lastly, if you don’t have anything to say – please, don’t! Internet is already full of useless crappy info, you are not doing any good to yourself if you are mailing people or posting on social media just for the sake of doing that. Be consistent, but only share something when you really have it. PS I occasionally mentor start-ups and established brands on innovative non-invasive digital marketing. If you'd like to explore how non-invasive marketing could work for your business, please, get in touch. If you are a media person and want a comment on the subject, please do the same.

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