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The Secret to Effective Email Marketing: Setting Subscriber Expectations

Are your email subscribers clicking through to your websites, ordering your products, or registering for your events as expected? No? Instead are email-secretthey simply unresponsive, unsubscribing or (gasp) complaining? If so, perhaps you’re not clearly establishing mutual expectations.

So how do you manage the high expectations of your subscribers and then compel them to act?

  1. Tell your subscriber EXACTLY what you expect of them.
  2. Tell your subscriber EXACTLY what they can expect of you.
  3. Do EXACTLY what you said you were going to do.

Telling someone what you’re going to do or getting them to do something, just by asking them, is easy and completely obvious, right? Yet most email and web communications don’t do it. Which is why many marketers, despite otherwise well crafted campaigns, end up with less than stellar results and waning subscriber bases.

The term ‘tell them’ may sound a bit callous to most marketers. After all, your subscribers are smart people and they understand your product and what you’re trying to accomplish. But once you’ve gained your subscriber’s attention and trust, and then presented all the benefits of your offerings, the hand-holding has only just begun. Here’s why.

It’s not that your subscribers are dumb. They’re you, your mom, and your brother. But like you they’re busy. There are a lot of near-term tasks competing for their attention. The fact is that your hurried subscribers may not know what they should do next, what to expect, or even who you are or what you want, unless you spell it out with painful clarity. You truly must tell the subscriber exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Here’s how.

When you want your subscriber to take action, be it adding your mailing email address to their safe sender list or buying your service, use highly specific language with concrete details in every communication. Don’t leave any question about what you want to happen. Don’t be afraid to be too obvious. As with any healthy relationship open, two-way communication is the key to success. But it’s a two-way street. So, in exchange you must tell the subscriber what you’ll be doing (or not doing) to nurture or progress said relationship.

There are many ways to set mutual expectations, let your corporate culture be your guide. But here’s an example of a confirmation email that might have been crafted by the late, great copywriter Gary Halbert.

Subject Line/Headline:

“You’re in! Now what?”

Body Content:

“Hi Sue. The custom demo that requested is now ready and waiting for you here. Once you visit ( we’ll ask if you want to test the silver, gold, or platinum plan. Select the platinum; it’s really the best value. The demo will take only a half hour but you’ll be able to clearly make a purchasing decision at that point.

If for some reason you’re unable to view your customized demo today, we will attempt to reschedule every two weeks from this date, unless you tell us otherwise. So, what do you say? There’s no time like the present…click here.”

For most marketers this approach seems a bit over the top (perhaps because they know the product and their processes too well) but for your busy subscriber (because you’re asking them to spend their money and/or time), this level of detail creates a comfortable understanding and a clear call to action.

In other words, if you want to create more a successful email marketing program you must set the expectations for both parties, upfront and on an ongoing basis. First decide what actions you’re going to take; perform only those actions. Then decide what action you want subscriber’s to take; ask them to take that action. State it clearly, succinctly and unmistakably.

Scott Hardigree
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  • by Emily Long
    Posted October 7, 2009 1:44 pm 0Likes

    I think you make some excellent points. As marketers we often strive to be as eloquent as possible when crafting emails. We litter all types of emails (from sales prospecting to order confirmation) with buzz terms that are “hot” in our specific industries at the moment; we often forget that terms we use on a daily basis might mean absolutely nothing to the recipient. I like your idea of simplicity – clearly explain why your sending them an email and what you want them to do with it – just be sure to write the text in terms even the most uninformed recipient can understand.

    • by Scott Hardigree
      Posted October 23, 2009 1:13 pm 0Likes

      Emily – Thanks for your thoughts, which are completely on target. Don’t tell, but I made this post in part to serve as a reminder to myself. :)

      • by Emily Long
        Posted October 23, 2009 1:42 pm 0Likes

        We all need to be reminded of best practices on a regular basis… one of them being to always proof read! A perfect example would be my improper usage of “your” in my previous comment. Please excuse the error – perhaps I need to be reminded more often! :-)

  • by Scott Cohen
    Posted October 16, 2009 12:46 pm 0Likes


    Love the points made here. Setting expectations and then KEEPING them are critical for any marketer, not just email. You never want to sell an empty bag of goods or not keep your word. It’s about people.

    Nice post.

    • by Email Critic
      Posted October 23, 2009 1:14 pm 0Likes

      Thanks Scott…power to the people!

  • by nat014
    Posted October 19, 2009 5:18 pm 0Likes

    Great points. You are right sometime we overlook the expectation of other. We don’t listen enough and that it probably why click rate is sometimes below expectation. Your points as mentioned previously are critical for any marketers and thanks for reminding us.

  • by SEO Concepts Blog
    Posted October 20, 2009 1:37 am 0Likes

    I am new to email marketing, and hoping to learn a lot into this area of online marketing.

    Your post just provided the thrush to go ahead.


    • by Email Critic
      Posted October 23, 2009 1:36 pm 0Likes

      Best of luck!

  • by email marketing expert
    Posted October 27, 2009 3:07 pm 0Likes

    Bulls Eye Scott

    I have been following these steps from the beginning itself.
    And I am very much satisfied with the customer responses.

    Sean Miller

  • by Andrew Kordek
    Posted January 17, 2010 12:51 am 0Likes

    Setting expectations in your email is about the worst thing you can do. I mean..your users should be glad to get email from you, so who cares about telling them what you are going to do.

    Heck..since most people forget stuff anyway, whats the point in telling them since management in most companies is so fickle day in and day out anyway.

    Best thing to do in your email program is to keep your users guessing about what you are going to do next. Hit them 5 days in a row one week with specials to clear inventory and then send another email in like 3 weeks. Then when the company is short on revenue, fire up the email machine and bazooka them with info.

    Setting expectations means you have to stick with them..and who wants to do that anyway.

    Andrew Kordek
    Email Marketing Disaster Tip 531

    • by Scott Hardigree
      Posted January 19, 2010 5:58 pm 0Likes

      Hi Andrew – That’s certainly one way to approach it. What ever works for your org, right?!?!

      Thanks for the antithesis perspective. Love it!

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