Double opt-in. Hard bounce. Authentication. With all the technical terms surrounding email marketing, it’s easy to forget that, at the core, the most effective campaigns follow very simple principles.

Four rules in particular can help you build and keep an audience through email marketing.

The Cooperative Principle

Our guidance comes from an unlikely source: Paul Grice, a British philosopher of linguistics who died decades before email marketing became a favorite tool of both online retailers and brick-and-mortar businesses.

Grice was concerned with the words we use when we’re trying to communicate with each other.

He proposed that all conversations are governed by a shared principle of cooperation between participants. To get to a point of mutual understanding, four guidelines should be followed:

Quantity: Be concise
Quality: Be truthful
Relation: Be relevant
Manner: Be clear

The so-called Gricean Maxims can apply to much more than mere conversations. Lectures, billboards, web content—and yes, email marketing—can benefit from Grice’s simple rules.

#1: Be Concise

To paraphrase Grice, make your emails as informative as required, but don’t write more than necessary.
bath and bodyBath and Body Works could have opened the email with a cautionary tale about waiting too late to buy a Mother’s Day present. They could have taken a cue from Hallmark and included a few lines about honoring your mother, grandmother, wife, sister, aunt, postal carrier, and any other mom you know (the more the merrier!).

They don’t do this, though, because they understand the problem that this email is trying to solve.

It’s the problem of not knowing what gift to get, not having the time to buy it, and not having the budget for something luxurious.

They know that the readers who open the email will scan it, picking out the information that’s important to them. Their eyes will be drawn to clean images and the large headline. No extra copy is needed.

#2: Be Truthful

“Don’t say what you believe to be false,” wrote Grice. “Don’t say what you lack adequate evidence for.”

Marketers sometimes forget that catching readers’ attention with an appealing promise is only part of the equation.

You must fulfill your promises. Consistently.

When visitors signs up for your email list, is it clear what they’re signing up for? If you promise discounts but instead deliver emails that are thinly disguised sales pitches, you will lose your readers’ trust.

Remember that trust is built at various touch points, from the sign-up form to the subject line to the content of the email itself.

#3: Be Relevant

The key to being relevant is knowing what your subscribers want. But how can you know that?

Start by considering how you acquired them. Did they sign up for your newsletter after reading your blog? Did they provide their email in exchange for a downloadable marketing material, like a free guide? Did they opt-in for a sweepstakes or a discount code?

The point of entry will help you understand their level of interest and the type of communication they’re expecting to receive. For example, if they signed up for a one-time coupon code, you may not have engagement success over the long term.

If the benefits of joining your mailing list are numerous (“sign up for new products, exclusive sales, company news, and more!”) or vague, you may not know what interests them. In that case, pay attention to your numbers.

Look at your open rates, clickthrough rates, and conversions to see what types of subject lines and email content are most successful. Segmenting your subscriber list can help you deliver the most relevant content possible.

One last note about relevancy: An estimated 66% of emails are opened on mobile devices, so make sure your emails look good across all screens.

#4: Be Clear

Or as Grice said, “Be perspicuous.” (Clearly, he was a scholar, not a marketer.)

Don’t leave your subscribers guessing about the content of your email. Always let them know what’s going to happen when they click.

To that end, your subject lines and calls-to-action should be direct, descriptive, and crystal clear.

Consider a brand that often gets this right, the skincare company Mario Badescu.

mario badescu
The subject line for this email was, “20% Off + Free Gift Set and Free Shipping!,” which lets the reader know exactly what to expect when they click on the email.

This grabs their attention, saves them time, and builds trust through consistency.

The Limited, on the other hand, isn’t so clear. This email’s subject line, “We’re Betting You’ll Love These Looks!,” does little to inform the reader about the content inside.

That’s too bad, because the email actually offers a nice little discount:
the limited
Just as with building trust, being clear is important at all points in the customer journey, from subject line to email call-to-action to landing page headline.

A Couple of Exceptions

Grice’s Maxims are not absolutes. You may come across certain scenarios that call for different actions.

You might consider breaking these rules…

to be consistent with your tone and voice. Groupon, for example, has built a brand on cheeky copy, so perhaps they violate #1 by writing more than necessary. And that’s OK.

when you have a particular strategy that works. For example, The Limited’s email analytics may show that sly subject lines work much better than straightforward ones for a particular audience. If you know what your audience responds to, or if you’re testing to find out—by all means, break the rules.

Need to launch an effective email marketing campaign, but aren’t sure where to start? We can help you with all stages of the process, from strategy to statistics. Contact us today to get started.