We Asked the Experts: Is The Email Blast a Bust?

Chanelle Smith
Chanelle Smith

Last updated on

November 25, 2021

As a marketing strategy the email blast is divisive, to put it mildly. In fact, it’s somewhat akin to using cilantro in your cooking: either you love it or you hate it (and if you hate it, you really hate it). Some marketers have written off the email blast completely as an outdated strategy, some swear by it, and others find it cringe-worthy but still use it because it gets results.

So should you be using email blasts? If you do use them, should you really be calling them email blasts? And if you don’t use them, what strategies should you be using instead? We set out to find the answers by asking top email marketing experts for their frankest advice on the subject. But first, let’s talk about what an email blast actually is.

What is an email blast?

An email blast, or e-blast, is simply a bulk email that goes out to an entire email list without the list being segmented in any way to accommodate the various audience groups that might receive it.

The term originated in the early days of email marketing when sending a mass mailing (read: blasting) was a new idea that contrasted with the more familiar way of using email as two-way correspondence. At the time, the internet was a lawless wasteland didn’t have many regulations, so once the wrong person got ahold of your email address, they could and would spam you with whatever they pleased. It was completely free advertising!

Spam to buy lists to spam
A classic spam email caught by the filter

Over time, we developed marketing regulations and spam-catching software to help alleviate some of the problem, but the email blast persisted. Once you opt-in to an email list, you agree to receive any message from that sender until you unsubscribe.

As email marketing has blossomed and matured over the years, the terms email blast and e-blast have declined in popularity due to their negative connotations, being replaced with more palatable terms like newsletter or email campaign. And along with the new names have come innovations that allow marketers to create email blasts that are more personalized, better segmented, and thankfully less aggressive. We’ll talk about those innovations a little later.

What are email blasts used for?

Most often, companies use email blasts to communicate an announcement to their audience all at once: a sale, a limited time offer, or a digest of updates. In any of these cases, the intent of the email blast is to encourage the recipient to do something via a call to action.

The call to action may not necessarily be “buy right now”. Instead, it could encourage the recipient to read a blog post, review a product they purchased, or watch a tutorial to learn more about the thing they just signed up for. If it doesn’t drive action, an email blast is a waste of the sender’s time.

What are the pros and cons of email blasts?

Brand recognition: pro!

Think of an email blast like a television commercial. If you subscribe to cable, you see commercials. If you’re on the email list, you get the email blast. Neither tv commercials nor email blasts care about your specific demographics, they’re just trying to put a message in front of you.

So an email blast is a way of getting the word out to as many people as possible all at the same time without a significant amount of effort on your part. If you send e-blasts regularly, you’ll keep your brand at the forefront of your customers’ minds by bobbing up to the surface of their inbox from time to time -- that is, as long as they don’t feel bombarded and unsubscribe.

Numbers in your favor: pro!

Besides increasing brand recognition through consistent reinforcement, another reason commercials and e-blasts are effective is by sheer number: the more people that see them, the greater the chances of conversion.

One size doesn’t fit all: con

However, a scattershot approach, Julie Ewald, CEO and Creative Director at Impressa Solutions reminds us, isn’t always in your best interest. Sending the same email to hundreds or thousands of subscribers can seem impersonal.

For example, subscribers who follow your latest blog posts may not care at all about what you’re selling, and loyal customers who love hearing about the latest upgrades to your product may not want to read your blog posts. When you e-blast the same message to both of these groups of customers, one of the groups is probably going to feel put off.

Marissa Petteruti at Klaviyo puts it this way:

...email blasts are, frankly, inconsiderate from a recipient's standpoint. We define spam as any unwanted email, and most of the time irrelevant emails are unwanted. Email blasts by definition are irrelevant since you can't possibly send the same exact message to hundreds of thousands (or even millions!) of subscribers and expect it to resonate personally with each one.

The money’s not there: con

Besides the fact that email blasts can be spammy and impersonal, they’re also not the most effective way to make money. Although a large-scale email blast is sure to convert, it’s not because sending it was a strategic move -- it’s because you cast a wide net. If you crafted a targeted newsletter instead, you’d see a better conversion rate and you’d be able to replicate the strategy many times over. Marissa Petteruti calls email blasts a wasted opportunity to generate more revenue, citing:

While each email individually might not generate as much revenue as a blast, the sum of all of them will generate more. A 2016 benchmark report from Demac Media revealed that targeted emails accounted for only 5% of emails sent, but generated 32% of email revenue.

Breaking the law: con

The law in some countries considers unwanted email blasts a form of solicitation, just like telemarketing calls or junk mail. In Canada, marketing pro R. Timothy Taylor reminds us, it’s illegal to send commercial electronic messages without the recipient’s permission -- a marketing email that lands in the wrong inbox could mean fines upwards of $1 million. Legality challenges like this are forcing many growing companies to rethink their marketing strategies as their audience goes international.

If you do use email blasts, how can you make the most of them?

We all get dozens of emails per day, and when a handful of them happen to be email blasts, what sets them apart from one another? As Raquel Almazán of Viwom.com points out, often, not a lot.

One of Raquel’s suggestions is to make sure the email contains a clear call to action. The recipient should be able to tell right away what you’re asking them to do, and when they click through, they should be taken to the exact page they need, not just your homepage. If you ask them to click on a video thumbnail to watch a video, you need to link them directly to the video. If you’re asking them to read your latest blog post, link them right to it.

Clear CTA
In this email, it's obvious what Target is asking you to do and how to do it.

Echoing these sentiments is Jonathan Herrick, Co-Founder and Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at Hatchbuck:

Email builds trust with readers, propels relationships forward, and generates sales. At the same time, both B2B and B2C audiences are savvier than ever. A generic, one-size-fits-all email blast won’t cut through the noise of an already crowded inbox.

Email marketing tools, when integrated with a CRM and marketing automation, can send relevant, timely and personalized emails that engage and convert. Instead of sending a blast to everyone on your list, you can send targeted messages based on the web pages contacts visit, the forms they fill out, and how engaged they are in the sales process.

The research backs it up. Aberdeen Group reported that personalized email messages improve the chances that the recipient will click through on a call to action by an average of 14% and conversions by 10%.

If you have an email marketing tool at your disposal, the personalization Herrick refers to here can take many forms. The simplest way to personalize an email is to use personalization tags to refer to the recipient by their first name in the salutation.

Why does personalization matter so much? Julie Ewald sums it up:

I'm much more likely to pay attention to an email that calls me by name than one that addresses me as "sir" or, even worse, "business owner."

non-custom salutation
A non-customized salutation like this one is a no-no

You can also use the recipient’s name in the subject line to make your message stand out to them as they scroll through their inbox. If you’re feeling bold, use it in both places.

personalization tag in subject line (1)
This email referred to me by name in the subject line

Speaking of subject lines, there’s no faster way to get your email deleted than by using a long, cumbersome, or lackluster subject line. Subject lines are the gateway to engagement; none of the content inside your email matters if you can’t even get the recipient to open it up.

So even if you do decide to send the same message to everyone on your list, try to at least spice up the subject line. Personalize it with customization tags like we’ve mentioned here, or try some of the other tips from our brilliant subject lines post.

A different approach

Julie Ewald recommends moving away from sending generic content to your whole email list via e-blast entirely. With a little elbow grease, you can utilize segmentation and start sending off tailored messages to each of your lists with content that's relevant, valuable, and designed to resonate with the kind of recipients that make up each segment.

Earlier, we talked about sending the same email to people who come to your site for the blog posts versus people who come to your site for the latest on upgrades to your product. Instead of alienating one of those groups by sending a generic email, with list segmentation you can give them both what they want.

There are many ways you can segment your list to parse out the specific needs of your subscribers. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Age and gender. These may or may not be things you ask your subscribers directly. If you don’t, several email marketing services offer demographics prediction tools that will help you segment your list based on these two criteria.
  • Geography. If at some point in your business process you collect your customers’ addresses, you can segment your list geographically. Customers on the East Coast have different needs (and time zones) than those on the West Coast, so plan accordingly.

Geographic segmentation
Checking on me during Hurricane Matthew based on my zip code

  • Purchase history. Based on what the customer has purchased in the past, you may email them about other products they might be interested in.

Purchase History
Groupon suggested some other items I might like based on my previous purchases

  • Shopping patterns. If a customer typically purchases your product at regular intervals or at certain times of the year, you can use that information to remind them to re-up.

Refill reminder and order history
This email reminds me what I bought last time and suggests that it might be time to re-order

  • Abandoned shopping cart. A very effective classic. If they added items to their shopping cart but didn’t check out, email them to remind them to do so. Bonus idea: send a discount code to really seal the deal.

Abandoned cart
I added some items to my cart but didn't check out, and Dancewear Solutions noticed

  • Industry. If your company is B2B, you can segment by industry. For example, if you sell technology solutions for businesses, you know that law firms and schools have completely different needs. Market accordingly.
  • Role within the company. Again, in a B2B situation, you may want to collect subscribers’ job titles or departments. Using a dropdown to collect this information is your best bet.

Expert marketer Ramit Sethi of GrowthLab agrees with Julie about saying goodbye to the email blast, going as far as to publish a blog post entitled “Stop sending email blasts! Do this instead”. The post takes the recommendation to segment even further by suggesting “hotlists” -- sub-segments of your email list that subscribers can opt into based on their interest in a specific project of yours.

How do you execute a hotlist? Simple. Just ask the question.

Great example of how to get subscribers to opt into a hotlist

Say you’re launching a beta test soon or collaborating with someone on a side project outside your typical newsletter scope. In an installment of the newsletter you usually send, briefly mention the project and provide a link where interested parties can go to sign up for updates about it. This way, those who aren’t interested only had to hear about it once and in a non-invasive way. A user experience win and a win for you, the guy who has two thumbs and a super-engaged email list sub-segment.

Now, no matter how you choose to segment, you won’t be able to predict what will please everyone within each segment. That’s why it’s so important to A/B test.

A/B testing is trying two different techniques that communicate the same message on a small percentage of your list, seeing whether A or B performed the best, then using the better performing option when you email the rest of the list. It sounds complicated, but there are plenty of email marketing solutions out there that take all the math and guesswork out of it. (All you have to do is come up with the option A and option B you want to try.)

To blast or not to blast?

While getting the word out to many people at once can seem appealing, it also lacks the personalization that today’s online consumers crave. And with today’s email marketing services that make it simple to segment and personalize your messages, there’s no reason not to dip your toe into the email customization waters, right? Plus, as laws change around the world to make unsolicited electronic messages illegal, one wrong email could land your business squarely in the red.

Another option that works well to engage with your target audience is to create a subscription-based email newsletter. It’s ultimately up to you, now armed with opinions from the experts, to decide which email marketing strategy makes the most sense for your business. If you do decide to keep email blasting, just do us a favor and call it something -- anything -- else.

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