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Activation Emails: How to Make a Positive First Impression

Congratulations! You’ve got a new subscriber – someone who took the time to enroll on your website.  At a minimum, they’ve given you some contact information and permission to communicate with them. They may also have given you details about their preferences and probably a variety of demographic details that you will use for segmentation and targeting.

Now what?

The very next thing you do with email is critical in creating the tone for your online relationship with this new subscriber. So, rather than simply adding their name to the next regularly scheduled product/service emails, take this opportunity to create a truly positive first impression: it’s time to confirm and activate the subscriber. This focused approach to news subscribers is, what we at ThinData call an activation email.

Key Components of Activation Email

Activation emails achieve several purposes in your efforts to create a strong first impression. And, as such, you need to include several key components in your activation emails including the following:

Key Component: Include a sincere "thank you" message.
Purpose: Demonstrates your appreciation for the new subscriber.

Key Components: Include a description of the content, frequency and timing of emails subscribers can expect to receive, a clear instruction to add the "from address" to their address book/safe list and a link prompting subscribers to confirm and activate their subscription (i.e. double opt-in).
Purpose: Sets clear expectations of forthcoming messages, which can dramatically reduce incidences of subscribers deleting/mislabeling messages as spam.

Key Component: Activation emails should be sent within 48 hours of the initial subscription.
Purpose: Demonstrates a commitment to responsiveness.

Key Component:
Include the subscriber’s name, details about the subscription process such as when the subscription was initiated and the point of registration (e.g. specific website, specific product/offer, specific point-of-sale location, etc.). If additional data is known about the subscriber – e.g. gathered through a loyalty program or contained in a CRM system – use this information to further customize the content of the activation email.
Purpose: Demonstrates a commitment to ensuring email is relevant and personalized.

Activation emails also adhere to the most current Best Practices established by the Messaging Anti-Abuse Work Group (MAAWG) (pdf). These best practices recommend that when collecting subscriber information, email senders should always:

  • Seek out and verify consent/permission; and
  • Validate email addresses

Finally, an activation email provides another opportunity to highlight product information and/or provide rewards for subscribing. At the end of the day, there is only one opportunity to make a strong and positive first impression – and a well-considered, well-timed, targeted activation email plays a vital role.


  1. Phil Barrett
    Phil Barrett January 28, 2008

    Great overview! We’ve seen tangible results when we employ an activation strategy vs. not
    It would be great to see your POV on how driving for current best practices in deliverability, open rates, and clickthrough have impacted email design.

  2. Saporito
    Saporito January 30, 2008

    Awesome overview. This is the second list of its kind that I’ve read lately expressing the importance of using people’s names, having a prominent call to action, applying frequency and being sincere. This internet marketing blog has the other: You’d think that these things would be obvious, but so often they are lacking. Good business comes from customer service – which today means the company needs to get involved, be social and let consumers know they are listening.

  3. Matthew Vernhout
    Matthew Vernhout January 30, 2008

    The point you raise is insightful: The drive for enhancing deliverability has wide implication for marketers’ emails – everything from strategy through to day-to-day tactics.
    With regards to design, we were recently approached by an industry leader who wanted to ensure that their design would be ‘delivery-friendly’. They said, “we realize that a small percentage of email messages can have their images blocked by Internet Service Providers or software applications. But, we want to make sure that every message arrives and has as much impact as possible.” They also wanted design tips for emails whose images may be blocked – keeping in-mind the need to maintain corporate identity, layout and messages.
    This is an excerpt of some of our advice:
    The latest statistics tell us that one-third of all email clients automatically turn images off. With that in mind, you should assume your subscribers are receiving your email without images. Your options are to: a) do your best to convince them to add you to their ‘safe list’ which will ensure that all future emails will come complete with images; or b) create a readable, useable email that works even without images.
    Obviously, the ideal scenario is that your subscribers will choose to turn images on. But if they don’t – there are ways to ensure your brand identity and critical messages are maintained.
    Alt-text (the text that appears in place of the blocked image) plays an important role in effective images-off email design. Here are six alt-text tips to optimize your impact:
    1) Corporate Logos. Your alt-text should include your brand/company name and tagline. For example, “ThinData. The Email Authority. Corporate Logo.”
    2) Charts and Graphs. Describe the key lesson from your chart or graph. For example, “ThinData’s email open rate has remained consistently over 99% for the last 10 years. Chart.”
    3) Navigation. If your images are used for navigation, replicate the instructions exactly. For example, “Visit us at“.
    4) Decoration. Emails often include images for purely decorative reasons – e.g. spacer GIFs, shadow effects, etc. If you have images that are being used as decoration, leave the alt-text attributes empty.
    5) Bullet Points. If you are using an image as a customized bullet, use a single asterisk in the alt-text.
    6) Background Colour. To reinforce your brand, use corporate identity colours to fill areas when images cannot be displayed.
    Phil, you can also get some tools that will help enhance deliverability in The Marketer’s Guide to Successful Email Delivery, . This focused guide addresses the five central challenges to email deliverability and provides an action checklist to help you lead discussions with I.T. departments or ESPs and ISPs.

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