Focus on the Fundamentals

“In the end, it’s extra effort that separates a winner from second place. But winning takes a lot more that, too. It starts with complete command of the fundamentals. Then it takes desire, determination, discipline, and self-sacrifice. And finally, it takes a great deal of love, fairness, and respect for your fellow man. Put all these together, and even if you don’t win, how can you lose?” — Jesse Owens, Olympic champion

I have always been a big fan of professional sports and the athletes that excel at the top of their game. Professional athletes can make their success look easy and effortless, but their achievements usually come from years of hard work and dedication to their sport. While attitude, dedication, a great team, and support structure are certainly important to their success, any athlete or coach will tell you that the foundation of their success comes from practicing and mastering the fundamentals.

For marketers meeting tight deadlines, one of the first things to fall through the cracks is the fundamentals of email marketing. I constantly stress the fundamentals of optimizing an email program with all my clients, no matter how good they are as a sender. It makes the process of identifying and solving issues easier and faster. You can have the best content in the world, but if you neglect the fundamentals then you limit your chances for success.

Whether you are creating an email program from scratch or you’re a seasoned sender, take the time to ensure that you have a constant focus on the fundamentals. If issues arise, the fundamentals can help you get back on track. Or, if you are trying to maximize the impact of your email program, the fundamentals will increase your chances for success and help you give the great service your customers deserve.

Listed below are fundamentals organized by the subscriber lifecycle (Acquisition, Conversion, Engagement & Retention, and Win-Back) as well as Deliverability. Although the categories are separate, the fundamentals within them all work closely together to ensure you are optimizing your email program.


  1. Use opt-in permission methods.
  2. Give your subscribers a compelling reason to sign up for your email program.
  3. Provide a preference center to allow subscribers to choose the content and frequency of the email they receive from you.
  4. Make it easy to get to the preference center and make this landing page fun and interesting to fill out. Leverage your brand personality!
  5. Provide clear disclosure about the email communications the subscriber will receive from you to set the proper expectations.
  6. Send a welcome message series, starting immediately or no later than 24 hours after sign-up.


  1. Use consistent branding in the “friendly from” address and content.
  2. Make your subject lines relevant and engaging.
  3. Make your content skimmable and easy to read.
  4. Clearly display your calls-to-action throughout the message, including the top of the message.
  5. Ensure your content and calls-to-action can be understood with images disabled.
  6. Use a variety of content to help build the relationship with your customer. As much as your customer likes discounts, many appreciate content that complements promotional email.
  7. Use responsive design to optimize viewability on all email clients, but especially for mobile email clients.
  8. Include a brief, interesting, and clickable pre-header summary that differs from your subject line and primary headline.

Engagement & Retention

  1. Send targeted email: Capitalize on local events, weather patterns/forecasts, flu/cold outbreaks, etc.
  2. Use personalization as a means to connect with your customer.
  3. Customize your content to keep it fresh and engaging.
  4. Have a regular testing strategy for subject lines, content, and frequency.
  5. Optimize transactional messages to keep your customers informed as well as to subtly promote other products or services that may interest them. Be careful not to make other product or service promotions the primary focus of the message.


  1. Optimize your unsubscribe page to encourage subscribers to stay engaged and ask questions about why they are unsubscribing.
  2. Promote your participation in social networks on all email messages and all landing pages to give options to help keep your customers engaged with your brand outside of email.
  3. Have a plan for non-responders. Identify when subscribers dis-engage and send them messages to win-back their business.
  4. Send occasional surveys to get additional feedback about how to improve.


  1. Sign up for all available feedback loops and unsubscribe anyone that complains.
  2. Remove unknown users after one bounce.
  3. Don’t send to suppression lists.
  4. Honor unsubscribe requests immediately.
  5. Track and monitor performance across deliverability and response metrics.
  6. Authenticate with SPF and DKIM.
  7. Create a DMARC record with policy set to “none” to monitor for potential domain spoofing activity.

Even the best senders sometimes slip when working diligently to get the next email out the door and the results can be frustrating. When that happens, take a look at your fundamentals as part of your troubleshooting and planning process and make sure they are being followed. Practice and master the fundamentals and you’ll be one step closer to maximizing the return on your email investment.

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