What Makes a Marketing Email Go Viral?

Want more people to forward the emails your association sends? A new study highlights the elements of viral marketing emails.

Have you spent hours, or maybe days, analyzing what it would take to get more of your social media content to go viral?

Well, you might want to spend more time determining how to get your marketing emails to go viral instead, judging by the findings of a new study from email testing and analytics firm Litmus.

“We tend to associate ‘going viral’ with social media—in part because it’s relatively easy to see and measure the very public noise of social sharing in terms of likes, favorites, and retweets,” Chad White, Litmus research director, writes in the study. “However, the much quieter email forward is often a considerably more powerful influencer.”

White suggests a couple of reasons for this theory: One, people tend to take action with email (“inboxes are more like to-do lists”) than with social media posts and referrals, which may float through a person’s timeline without ever being seen. And, two, social connections tend to be weaker and more disparate as opposed to email contact referrals, which are more targeted, personal, and trusted.

So, what does it take to make an email go viral? Litmus analyzed more than 400,000 commercial emails—and took an even deeper look at more than 200 emails among the top 1 percent most forwarded and another 200-plus emails from the median 50th percentile—to determine what elements can be attributed to higher forward-to-open rates.

The research uncovered a handful of indicators:

Audience size. Somewhat not surprisingly, smaller audiences had greater forward-to-open rates. With niche audiences, organizations can better tailor their email content so that it is highly relevant and, in turn, highly shareable. For example, emails with between 500 and 50,000 opens were forwarded 90 percent more than those emails with more than 50,000 opens.

“Email content with mass appeal is clearly viewed by subscribers as less worthy of being forwarded,” the report noted.

Customization. If you happen to have a larger audience, all is not lost. For those organizations with larger email lists, the Litmus study found that segmenting audiences with tailored messages can improve forward-to-open rates.

Along these lines, both the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association and the New Jersey Society of CPAs offer customized email newsletters to members. Depending on their interest areas, geographic location, member type, chapter affiliation, and other differentiating data, members receive individualized emails.

Ask your audience to share. Sometimes it’s easiest to just ask. The Litmus study found that emails in the 99th percentile of forward-to-open rates were 13 percent more likely to have had a “share with your network” call-to-action button than emails in the 50th percentile.

Types of content. As you might imagine, emails with information on events or news, or those that require transactions or action, tend to have the highest forward-to-open rates, as opposed to those that are merely promotional in nature.

For a few more tips on email marketing, check out these resources:

Have any other suggestions or tips on optimizing marketing emails? Please share in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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