Everybody makes mistakes. Some are big. Some are little. Many are avoidable. In email, there are so many mistakes you can make that to list them all would turn this blog post into a short book.

To help you avoid the worst of the worst email marketing mistakes, we’ve decided to call them out. We’re just listing the worst offenders – and what to do to prevent them… and how to recover if you make them. If you don’t see your favorite error noted here, please add it in the comments section.

I see so many of these that sometimes I wonder if they aren’t deliberate. Like the marketer is resending to non-openers with a different subject line, simply as a trick to get more of us to open. Tip: If you’re sending out a broken link to that landing page you hoped would be a conversion magnet, your campaign will fail and all your time and effort will be for nada. Do check those links.

2. A botched subject line.

After the broken link issue, this has to be the next most common mistake. Here are just a few of the most choice subject line faux pas I have seen:

This is a screenshot of some email marketing mistakes. Read the post to learn 7 classic email marketing mistakes, and how to avoid them.

That last subject line is for an email about meditation, not mediation.

These mistakes tend to fall into two categories: Either a draft of an email gets mistakenly sent, or somehow a typo sneaks in.

Fortunately, these are not the sort of things that tend to get people fired, though they are embarrassing. But unless you really botch it and send out a draft email on a volatile subject, or the typo is just really, really bad, all is not lost. These mistakes happen a lot – even by some of the very best companies. We’re all human.

It’s ironic, too, that for all the spellchecker tools there are, they all focus on the body copy of the email. The subject line doesn’t get spellchecked unless a human does it.

The solution here? Have multiple people checking your emails before they go out. We tend to be blind to our own typos.

By the way… there’s another way to botch a subject line. It’s to not put any thought into it.

Spend at least 10 minutes crafting your subject line, possibly by writing 10-15 different versions of it. Then consider reviewing those with your team, or using a subject line testing tool like Touchstone.

3. Not optimizing your emails for mobile devices.

You’ve heard the news, right? More than half of all email messages are opened on mobile devices.

Not optimizing your emails for mobile devices is one of the most common email marketing mistakes but as you can see in this graph, mobile accounts for more than half of email opens.

That means your emails need to look good on mobile devices. They also need to be user-friendly for your subscribers.

Here’s a short punch list for how to do that. For more details, see our blog post, “10 Best Practices for Mobile-Friendly Emails.”

  • The text needs to be big enough to read.
  • Buttons, links and the call to action need to be big enough to click easily – and far enough away from other links that someone won’t accidentally hit the wrong link.
  • The layout needs to be either “mobile friendly”, aka with a “fluid design” (so that it adjusts to whatever device it’s viewed on) or “responsive” (so that the code of the email is smart enough to show a version of code that’s specifically suited to the device it’s being displayed on).

4. Buying a list.

“But I have to jumpstart my email marketing program!”

Maybe you do, but not with a purchased list. First of all, no reputable email marketing service provider will even let you mail to a purchased list. They don’t want their system dinged by the spam complaints and other issues created by mailing to a purchased list.

But the real reason to not buy a list is the results. They’ll be terrible. So terrible, you’ll probably want your money back.

So take a deep breath. Great email programs were not built in a day. It’s time to start building your list.

Want to know more about the hazards of buying a list? See our blog post, “The Perils of Email List Buying – Rookie Mistakes 101.”

5. Mailing to people who have not given you permission.

This is a mistake that can actually break the law – and Canada’s Anti-Spam Law (CASL) is tougher than the United States’ CAN-SPAM law. It’s also a mistake that in some cases is not necessarily black and white.

Here are the clear-cut situations where you don’t have permission to mail to people:

  • You added their names to your list, even though you’ve never communicated with them and they’ve never communicated with you. You just thought they might like your emails.
  • You “scraped” their names from websites, either by hand or with a software program.

Here are the less clear-cut situations:

  • You’re connected with them on LinkedIn. So you can send them your email newsletters, right? Nope. LinkedIn is a separate system. And LinkedIn will be very unhappy with you if they find out you’re doing this.
  • You got their business card at a conference. It’s great they’ve offered this information, but it’s not permission to add them to your list.
  • They placed an order. Surprise! Many consumers actually get annoyed when they are automatically added to weekly newsletter lists after they place an order. A better practice is to add a checkbox that asks if you can send them emails. Make it opt-in, not opt-out.
  • They signed up for a webinar. Same principle here: Lots of marketers just put everyone who signed up for a webinar on to their general email list. But you can do better. Add that checkbox to get permission to mail to people after the event. It’s polite, and will get you a higher-quality list.

6. You’ve never cleaned up your list.

By “cleaned up,” I mean you’ve got subscribers on your list who have never, ever opened or clicked an email. Or you’ve got people on your list who haven’t done that in the last year or so.

The time frame for when to “purge” inactive subscribers can vary – anywhere from six months to 18 months seems to be about the norm. But you do need to clean up your list every so often. Otherwise, your deliverability rates will get hurt, and you’ll just get poor results. It’s better to have a smaller, more engaged list than a huge list of people who don’t care.

To learn more about how to keep your list clean and your deliverability rates high, see our blog post, “How to Protect Your Email List Health and Deliverability.”

7. Not sending emails at all.

There are two levels of this.

  • Having a list and gathering email addresses, but not mailing to them.
  • Not having a list and not gathering email addresses.

The first one is obviously easier to correct. But be aware: When you mail to those people for the first time, you’re going to get a wave of unsubscribes, and possibly even a couple of spam complaints.

Why? Because they’ve forgotten who you are. Many of them will have forgotten they ever even signed up.

You can overcome this by offering them something extra-great in your first email. Or by just saying something like this

“You signed up for our mailing list a long time ago, but we weren’t quite ready to send great emails back then. We’ve finally got some great stuff for you – information to help you do your job better and to make your work much easier. So here’s your first email. Expect to hear from us about once a week from now on.”

What about the second situation, where you have no list and aren’t collecting email addresses? Well, it’s time to start trying. Add opt-in boxes to:

  • The top of the navigation column on your website (and blog).
  • To the footer area of your website.
  • To a “pop-up” or overlay that appears after people have been on your site for two minutes or more. Set it to show only once a week.
  • Your Facebook page.
  • At the close of blog posts.
  • Possibly to a “feature box” – a full-width opt-in box that fills the first screen when someone comes to the home page of your website.

There are plenty of other places, but that will cover the bulk of it. See our white paper, Best Practices for Building a Subscriber List for more information.

And when you (inevitably) make that mistake:

I’ll never know if this is true or not, but it does appear that about half of marketers are sending apology emails at least once a year. Many send them more often.

As this illustration shows, nearly half of email marketers do not send out correction emails if they've made a mistake.

Here’s an email I just got from a major manufacturer; it’s less an apology than an acknowledgement, but it’s mildly funny and very human, leaving me with a good feeling about the company.

This image is an example apology email from a major manufacturer.

So depending on the mistake, consider at least admitting it, or apologizing if that’s called for.


Mistakes happen. Unfortunately, making a mistake with your email marketing is not an “if,” but a “when.” So prepare for it. Do you have a plan (that your boss has approved) in case you botch a subject line or send out a draft email? What if an email meant for just a portion of your list gets sent to everyone?

There’s no need to brood over this for months, fearing when it will happen. Write down a plan of how to deal with it if it happens, AND create a reasonable checklist of things you can do to prevent it from happening. Then stick with that checklist. Pin it to your wall if you have to – even tape it to the edge of your computer screen.

One thing that does seem to prevent mistakes is having a system – a planned-out workflow that doesn’t change. So if you don’t have one of those, consider making one. Fast. Here are a few things to go on it, to get you started:

  • Double-check the list segment
  • Suppress whatever is needed
  • Email send address
  • Subject line
  • Personalization
  • Check all links
  • Check copy for typos
  • A/B test the CTA
  • Check any tracking code
  • Physical address
  • Unsubscribe link

And then, check your emails before you send. By “check”, I mean

  • Read them carefully (preferably out loud)
  • Click all the links
  • See how they look on a smartphone
  • Have at least two other people check the email before you send it

What do you think?

Have you ever made a significant mistake with your email marketing? What did you do to fix it? Did you change your workflow after that? Tell us about it in the comments.