How to make sure subscribers don't read your organization's email messages

As an animal-welfare and marketing professional, every week I receive dozens of call-to-action messages from organizations I care about, e-blasts about important social causes, and newsletters I don't remember having signed up for. These communications from organizations other than the one I work for are a good way to keep up on trends, gauge how effective the different media and messages are, and make comparisons which help to improve my promotional and public-relations work.

One thing I've learned from the wealth of messages I receive daily: There are three surefire ways to make sure subscribers don't read your organization's email messages. Sure, subscribers might open it (online marketing pros know that encouraging subscribers to open an email in the first place is quite a feat itself), but once they open it, if you do the following three things, your call to action - whether a request to donate, buy a product, or share with a friend - will go unheeded.

This message lacks a logo, an image related to the text's content, and an immediately obvious message. (Click to view larger).I'll use a message I received from Lifeline Animal Rescue Network as an example. This post is meant to help organizations improve their marketing, and is not meant as an insult or critique of the organization - to the contrary, Lifeline has a noble cause - to help homeless animals. Though I'm still not 100% sure what they do to help.

But that's not the point of this post - the point is that doing these three things in a business or non-profit's email to customers and supporters will ensure that most people won't read a message if they open it:

1. Use Inconsistent Branding

This email has a generic-looking banner and format. The organization's website has a different one (I'm not sure either is a logo.) Since I'm not familiar with this organization in the first place (and how they got my email address is a separate matter), how can I trust that the message I receive is from the organization itself and not an imposter trying to steal my credit card information?

Anyone can grab a company or non-profit organization's logo, slap it into an email distribution program, and send it out as if it's from the organization. But if the message you're sending out truly is from who you say it's from, it's important to cut down on as many red flags as possible for the reader. If I was familiar with Lifeline and received this message, the lack of consistent, recognizable branding is the first red flag that would make my brain slow down a bit and say "Hey, something's not right here..." The second thing to do to turn people off from your email is:

2. Don't Include Images

There's nothing pretty to look at in this message. Besides the blue banner and the easycontact brand footer, there's no color. There's no photograph, no drawing, no icon. I didn't know what this message was about when I opened it; a photograph of animals would have done wonders to encourage me to read the message.

People are inundated with email, and providing one powerful visual in any electronic communication can make the difference between gaining a new customer or turning someone off for good. Most email marketing programs (Convio, ExactTarget, etc.) allow you to brand your message with your logo and include images, even with free versions.

Even with a powerful image, though, many people wouldn't read this message because the author chose to:

3. Write a Large Block of Tiny Text

This is an easy trap to fall into. I know, because I LOVE to write. Even this post is probably longer than necessary. And many people, when given access to email their organization's supporters, think "I'm going to include every single thing in this message that's important to me about this subject because I KNOW it will be important to the person reading this and they won't have as many questions for me once they read it!" Not true.

E-blasts and electronic newsletters need to be easy to scan (there's plenty of research on e-communication effectiveness, especially from usability expert Jakob Nielsen.) And better yet, the message should fit onto one screen rather than multiple scrolled screens. And most importantly, your audience should be able to figure out what the heck you're trying to make them do within the first few seconds of them opening the message - or else they'll probably delete it right away and lessen the odds that they'll open a message from you again.

The only reason I read the Lifeline email was because I didn't know what it was (besides an email message I don't remember subscribing to) and had thought about writing on this topic for awhile. And the problem with this email wasn't only the fact that there were more paragraphs and more tiny-font words than there needed to be - the biggest issue is that I STILL don't know exactly what Lifeline is or what they do. I know they want to help animals, and somehow they want to help animals by having people eat food and donate money, but the correlation between these things is lost on me.

So if you're responsible for using email to bring customers to your business, encourage supporters of your non-profit cause to donate, or even invite your friends and family to your next big party, consider adding appropriate visuals and cutting the text down to only the most important, easily understandable stuff. With that in mind, I'm done writing for now.

Wait, no I'm not: What's the most effective electronic message you've recently received from a company or non-profit, and did they not do the steps above? Leave your comment below.