tips for viral email marketingWhat makes an email go viral? Well, in a way, commonsense and best practices make an email go viral—or at least that’s how I read a Litmus report on the subject.

I’m not trying to be facetious here. Looking at the findings of this report, it really does seem as though viral emails are simply well done emails—those adhering to email marketing best practices. Check out the characteristics that the most viral emails, the ones in the top 99th percentile, have in common:

  • They include a “share with your network” call to action, meaning they ask to be shared.
  • They are much more likely to be segmented or triggered, which means they are more relevant.
  • They are sent to smaller, niche groups (because they are segmented), and therefore—again—they are more relevant.

What do you see in this list? I see commonsense; not an overly complicated strategy, not some kind of crazy stunt, not even a huge discount. No, what I see is email done well. And these are all email marketing best practices we should all be doing already: asking for shares, segmenting and targeting. I would also add making sure the content is shareable content, so that asking for shares makes sense. Although it turns out the content that gets forwarded the most often is typically limited in scope…

And then there’s the content of the “viral” email…
Delving into the content of the emails also offers some insight into what makes an email go viral. And the following might lower your expectations of what you can possibly achieve if you’re thinking there is some kind of magic bullet approach:

  • First off, emails about events—especially events requiring registration—were the most likely to be forwarded. If you’re selling purple purses or pet care products, this is not helpful (unless, of course, you’re hosting an event about purple purses or pet care products). And this makes sense: If I see a conference on marketing automation that I think someone on my team should attend, I will forward the email.
  • The next most forwarded content is newsy or helpful stuff. Now this you can easily do no matter what you’re selling because anyone can create content around relevant news or useful information. So hang on to this idea!
  • The third most common kind of email that is forwarded is transactional at 18%, and for the life of me, I can’t wrap my head around this one. Those emailers in the 50th percentile bracket also get an 18% forward rate with transactional emails. One wouldn’t be forwarding a transactional email such as an order confirmation or an address change confirmation, except for on a rare occasion, so I don’t understand why this number is so high. The only scenarios I can think of are I’ve received an order confirmation to my business email, and I forward it to my personal email to have a record there; or I’ve ordered something agreed upon between me and my wife, and I forward the email to my spouse to let her know the task is done. Or maybe (getting back to the event registration) these emails are forwards to a manager or friend to show that someone signed up to go to an event.

Still, even if I had the forwarding of so many transactional emails figured out to make these viral emails make sense, we’re only talking one forward for every 21 opens at the very highest end of the spectrum (about one-fifth). The 50th percentile folks only see one forward for every 370 opens. That means the very best of the best of the best of the emails are forwarded only one out of five times, and 18% of them are transactional which I really can’t believe is an actual forward that’s going to benefit you as the marketer.

That also means don’t bet everything on email. I love email, and I believe it to be the workhorse that powers almost all marketing in one form or another. But with the average marketer only seeing one forward for every 370 sends, you still need to think cross-channel and even omni-channel, and use email as one part of your whole strategy—not as your whole strategy.

If your email can’t go viral, then what?
It might sound like I am downplaying the potential for a viral email, but really I think there are valuable lessons to be learned from this data. It’s just that these valuable lessons have nothing to do with making your email marketing go viral. The real takeaway here is two-fold:

  • There is no magic bullet to viral emails. In fact, there’s no magic bullet to anything email marketing related. We can spend all kinds of time trying to find the “one thing” that is going to score big for us—kind of like buying lottery tickets—when really we should be focused on the other takeaway which is…
  • We always must be striving to adhere to and refine email marketing best practices. If you’re already segmenting, take it to another level. If you’re already using triggered email, refine it further. If you’re using a welcome email, make it a series. If you’re emailing to an engaged list, take the content up another notch in quality. There is always some way to improve and do better. Refine your frequency. Add a preference center. Use dynamic content. Switch to responsive design. Integrate with social media. There is always, always something you can do to do email better.

Getting better results from your email marketing is similar to what we say about improving deliverability. A marketer might think a 94% deliverability rate is “good enough.” But if that’s to a list of 100,000 people, that means 6,000 people never get the email. If the average rate of return on a campaign is 20% (meaning of the 94,000 people who do get the email, 20% buy something) and the average sale price is $200, that means 1,200 potential buyers don’t get the email, which is equivalent to $240,000 in lost sales opportunities.

Improving that deliverability rate by a mere 1% equals $40,000 in revenue. Yes, a tiny fraction of a number can mean a lot of dollars!

And so it is with the best practices. Rather than trying to figure out how to make an email go viral for a sudden explosion in sales (that probably won’t ever happen), marketers would be better served by continuously tweaking, paying close attention to email analytics, testing religiously, and looking for that 1%…and then the next 1% and the next and so on.

Do I want your emails to go viral? Heck yeah! I want you to succeed, for your email marketing ROI to impress the heck out of your CMO and significantly boost the bottom line for your company. However, that’s not where I want you to focus your energy. Rather than trying to do viral email, I want to see you trying to do very good email…and gaining incremental improvements as a result. And who knows? Those incremental improvements just might put you in that 99th percentile group someday!

Published On: October 1st, 2015Categories: Email marketing best practicesTags:

About the Author: Sharon

Sharon Ernst from is on a mission to improve the business and marketing writing skills of today’s workforce with her blog, newsletter and online classes. Her newest class on intermediate email copywriting covers 19 tips and techniques non-copywriters can put to use right away for better results. The class has real-life examples and before/after comparisons to make the lessons stick. Find her class at When she’s not busy helping employees, managers and marketers master their writing skills, she and her husband are busy raising pigs, cows, chickens and vegetables on their 20-acre farm.

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