Email marketing is a digital marketing channel that uses an email service provider (ESP) to send large amounts of email to an email list. The goal of email marketing is to persuade the recipient to click or make purchases directly from that email. This action is also known as a conversion, and it is one of the most illuminating metrics of how successful your email program is.
Glancing over your email inbox and the sea of emails in there, you may be wondering: does email marketing work?
Yes. When executed thoughtfully and with best practices in mind, email marketing can convert prospects into customers at an impressive rate. Email marketing produces a high return on investment with a $38 return on every dollar spent.
Following the best practices outlined in this guide will help you avoid the common pitfalls and mistakes of email marketing and establish yourself as a valuable presence in your recipients’ inbox.
Marketing vs. Transactional Email
Understanding the difference between transactional and engagement marketing emails is key to guiding your overall email strategy. Transactional emails are sent on the request of the sender and include password resets, appointment confirmations, and shipping notifications. Marketing emails are promotional emails. Examples include sales promotions and special offers. Both forms of email are crucial to a successful communications channel.
Recipients will opt-in to receive types of promotional email, but they will specifically initiate a transactional email with a link to recover or reset their password.
Email Marketing vs. Email Newsletters
Another important distinction to understand is the difference between email marketing vs email newsletters. The two emails are similar but shouldn’t be confused.
An email newsletter shares a collection of news, stories, or other business updates. The goal of an email newsletter is to maintain the relationship and engage recipients. Although this doesn’t mean newsletters don’t push to a harder sell of a product or service, it’s generally not the primary purpose of the email.
Email marketing can be considered more promotional than newsletters and typically has a primary goal of converting recipients into completing a specific action (for example applying a discount code, or visiting a landing page with the opportunity to make purchases). Marketing emails are also typically shorter than email newsletters and contain fewer CTAs throughout.
Email marketing can sometimes be referred to as an email blast. While that term can carry a negative or spammy connotation, it can be used interchangeably for promotional email.
Before sending an email marketing campaign, first, take a step back and create an email marketing strategy. Although no two email strategies are identical, most include the following:
Email Marketing for Small Businesses
If you run a small business, email marketing is one of the most effective ways you can communicate with your community and customers. Email marketing for small businesses is an excellent idea for numerous reasons:
- Email is much cheaper than online advertising. If a lead has signed up for your email list, you are much closer to a conversion than somebody who sees your online advertisement.
- It’s great for engagement. Keeping in touch with your loyal customers is as simple as pulling a template and customizing your copy with relevant news and promotions.
- Emails can generate website traffic. You will drive additional views to your website resulting in an improvement in your local SEO performance.
If you’re tight on time or resources, prioritizing email campaigns is a great step to getting the most out of your efforts.
If you use an online point of sale system (such as Square) and a customer requests a purchase receipt via email, this DOES NOT mean they have opted-in to marketing emails. Sending them promotional messages will likely annoy them, and they may report your emails as spam.
Growing an email list full of engaged subscribers will be one of the most impactful components of your email program. Keep in mind, though, that the adage ‘more isn’t always better’ is especially true when it comes to your email list. A smaller list full of highly engaged recipients is far better than having a ginormous email list with only a few who actually open the email.
The most effective way to grow your email list is to provide clear, simple, and persuasive signup opportunities across your website (blog, thank you pages, etc.).
How to Create and Optimize Your Opt-In Form
There are a few ways to create an email signup form and, depending on what ESP you are using, it may be available for you right within your dashboard (hint: SendGrid Signup Forms can help you do this).
Once you’ve decided how to build your opt-in form, keep the following best practices in mind:
- Don’t ask for too much information in the initial signup form. The goal is to obtain emails and the more fields one needs to fill out, the less likely they are to complete it. You can always ask further questions once you’ve established a relationship.
- Provide an incentive for signing up. Providing a discount or free resource is a great way to persuade people to give their email.
- Be crystal clear about sending frequency. Let people know what to expect when they submit their email.
- Secure your signup forms. DDOS stands for distributed denial of service, and it typically involves one or multiple bad actors writing scripts to penetrate and overload logins and forms across the internet. Any sort of online form poses some risk of a DDOSed attack. You can avoid a potential Spamhaus deny list listing by securing your forms to avoid this scenario.
Looking to dive in more on this concept? Read more tips to optimize your opt-in pages.
Buying Email Lists…Please No
As you are working on building your email list, you will likely come across the opportunity or solicitation from a third party to buy email lists.
Should you buy an email list?
The frank answer is no. Never should you ever buy, rent, or share any sort of email list.
Sending emails to purchased contacts is risky business. You may fall prey to a spam trap and become listed as a ‘denied’ sender by the ISPs, and then you can’t even email the legitimate people on your list. But just as importantly, buying email lists will rarely help you achieve your email marketing goals. So although you may be tempted to beef up your contact list, doing so will only do more harm than good.
Growing Your Email List the Right Way With Lead Magnets
Instead of purchasing an email list, think about how to create and use lead magnets to organically grow your email list. Lead magnets are some sort of incentive that you provide to acquire a lead (i.e. email address).
Some examples of lead magnets include:
- Best practice guides, white-papers, or case studies
- Data-rich infographics
- Downloadable PDF checklists
- Other sales incentives or promotional discounts
You could promote your lead magnets across your website, social media channels, or with display advertising. When creating and promoting lead magnets try to keep them super-specific and easy to act on. The more friction involved in the process (such as lengthy form fills), the more likely you will lose your audience’s attention.
Segmenting Your Email List
After you’ve built your email list, think about how you can segment your email list to provide more personalized content and increase engagement. For example, you may want to create a segment of recipients who always open your email and consider sending them additional email campaigns with special offers or VIP experiences.
Some of the most efficient ways to segment your list include:
- Demographics: Can you group people by region, age, or gender?
- Customer Information: What service plan/level do they use, how much are they spending, and when did they join?
- Email Types: What types of email, transactional or marketing, are you sending?
- Engagement: Who is opening all of your emails, just some, or hardly any?
- Activity: How often are your recipients logging in, buying, or using your product or service?
Manage email list segments to ensure they are up to date.
After you’ve developed an email strategy, set goals, and started to grow your email list the right way, you’re ready to start building and creating your marketing email. Read on to learn more about creating the copy and design components of a marketing email, along with tips on how to optimize each so they work together.
How To Use or Create an Email Template
Unless you have an in-house developer dedicated to building emails, using a template will likely the best choice for your program. Email templates allow you to pull together email campaigns quickly.
A template doesn’t have to be set in stone though. If you want to make some changes to a template, check out the blog post How to Customize an Email Marketing Template.
From Line, Subject Line, and Pre-header Text
The from line, subject line, and pre-header text provide the first chance to make an impression on your recipient.
The from line is usually the brand name. Whatever you decide to use in this spot, it should be consistent so your recipients know exactly who the email is from and there is no surprise after opening.
Subject lines follow the sender name and are your first spot to leverage your creativity. We’ve found that shorter subject lines tend to perform better (think 3-5 words) than longer subject lines. A great A/B test you can run is trying out different subject lines to see which version gets a better open rate. Check out 29 super steller subject lines.
Pre-header text is the copy that follows the subject line. Many times, if there is no specified pre-header text, the ESP will pull body copy into this space. Instead, take advantage of the real estate and write in specialized copy that will unite the from name, subject line, and pre-header text together and persuade the recipient to open the email.
Email Body Copy
The body copy of an email allows you to go into the details of your promotion or story. While copy elements such as CTAs and subject lines need to be intriguing and persuasive, the body copy allows you to provide more pertinent details needed for the story or promotion. Learn more about making the most of your email copy with examples of some inspiring emails.
And for a deeper dive into email copywriting best practices, check out Data-Backed Strategies for More Effective Email Copy.
Images enhance your message and bring more life to your emails. Although you don’t want too many images, the right image can elevate and add color to your emails. You don’t have to shell out lots of money for a stock image library. There are plenty of free resources for images out there, check out some of our favorites.
Call to Action
A call to action (CTA) is going to be one of the most critical aspects of your email copy. In most cases, it will come at the end of your email copy. The CTA could be styled as a button or just be a linked piece of text, but it is the last chance you have to convince your recipient to click through the email nto your targeted web page.
Learn more about CTAs by heading over to a Q&A dedicated to answering your CTA answers.
Measuring email metrics helps you decide what changes you should make to your emails over time. Key email marketing metrics to start measuring include opens, clicks, unsubscribes/spam reports, and email list growth over time.
Try waiting about 48 hours before tabulating email metrics. Doing so allows all recipients to see your email and accounts for those in other time zones.
The open rate for an email is calculated by dividing the number of people who opened an email by the total amount of emails sent.
What’s a Good Open Rate?
Open rates vary across industries so it’s hard to provide one hard number to measure against. According to our 2018 Email Benchmark Report, which analyzed open rates across industries, the aggregate average open rate is 18%.
If you’re doing way better than that, nice work–keep at it! If your open rate is below that, it might be time to reevaluate your send frequency, content, and segmentation strategies.
Clickthrough Rate (CTR)
Our email benchmark report found that the aggregate click rate for senders is 2%. Also consider tracking click-to-open rate which will give you a better view of the quality of content once somebody opens your email. The click-to-open rate is calculated by comparing the percentage of clicks compared to total open rates.
The higher your unsubscribe rate, the more likely you aren’t providing relevant and valuable content for your recipients. Some attrition is expected. But if unsubscribe rates start to spike, it may be worth reviewing your email content and making some strategy changes.
Learn more about interpreting your email metrics and what to do if they do start to slip.
Finally, it’s important to keep a close eye on your delivery metrics. These metrics include delivery rate (percent of emails that make it into the inbox), bounce rates, unsubscribes, and spam reports.
Each email campaign offers a new opportunity to make iterations and improve. Adding in A/B testing, automation, and integrating multi-channel marketing into your larger strategy are ways to do just that.
A/B Test Your Emails
Performing A/B testing allows you to see what type of content or messaging is resonating best with your audience. Testing variables will likely fall into either content, design, or timing variables.
Content elements to test:
- Subject lines – Test a short vs. long subject line, different themes, or even consider emojis (if it makes sense for your brand).
- Pre-header text – Test a funny vs. serious version and see if it has any effect on open rates
- Headlines – Test shorter vs. longer headlines or different tones to see what resonates best with your audience.
- Call to action (CTA) – Consider testing emails multiple links vs. one sole CTA, or try swapping out one sole CTA per email.
A/B testing design ideas:
- Template – If you have two versions of a newsletter template, try testing each version to see which one performs better overall
- Images – Try one large image vs. a few smaller images and see if it affects engagement or clicks.
- Plain text vs. HTML – Consider testing a plain text email or even an HTML email that has a “plain text look”
- Time of day – Try sending emails in the morning, afternoon, and evening to see what works best for your program.
- Day of week – Depending on your industry and when your prospects are likely to engage, this could be either during the week or weekend
- Frequency – If you experience high engagement rates, you may want to test out sending more email (just keep a close eye and stop if your engagement starts to dip).
These ideas are just a starting point. As you start to send more email campaigns, you will likely come up with more testing ideas specific to your program.
Looking for additional ideas for what to A/B test? Read a post with email testing ideas from one of our in-house experts. And for a thorough Q&A to email testing read, Your Top Email AB Testing Questions Answered.
Send Your Email at Optimal Times
You may also be wondering when is the best time to send emails? The short answer is that it depends. Since no two email lists are the same, each will respond a bit differently to email campaign times.
Generally, if you send B2B emails, it’s probably better to send during working hours. But if you send e-commerce emails, your audience may be looking to do more online shopping during weekend hours. Testing will provide you with the best send time for your program.
Send Emails With the Appropriate Frequency
Email marketing frequency is going to vary among senders and industries. But one thing is for sure, overdoing it with email is a fast way to lose subscribers. Much like send time, there is no one right answer to how often you should be emailing your subscribers. Start conservatively and test sending frequency until you’ve found the sweet spot for your brand.
Learn more about how to avoid emailing too much.
Keep Users Engaged
Keeping users engaged with your emails will keep your delivery rates high, but also translate into higher converting emails and more value to your brand. At the very highest level, you need to ensure that you are always sending wanted, desired, and valuable email.
If you’re already doing that, the following strategies will help keep users engaged:
- Be consistent with the from name so you establish a consistent and expected relationship.
- Provide valuable content that readers can act on.
- Consider proving a preference center that allows recipients to tailor their experience and choose what emails they want to receive (coupons, newsletters, etc.). And don’t forget to honor those preferences.
- A/B test your campaigns to a smaller portion of your email to see what resonates best with your recipients before sending to your entire list.
- Remove unengaged users from your list. Sometimes people sign up but never open your emails. If they go more than a month or so, it’s time to cut them off so your delivery rates don’t suffer.
Add Email Automation to Your Email Marketing Program
Email marketing automation is the ability to send emails at a set time and cadence. The automations can be predetermined (also referred to as email drip campaigns) or they can be dynamic, based on recipient behavior.
Adding automation to your email marketing program is a great way to help you save time and send more relevant and personalized content to your users. If you’re just starting out, try a simple with a triggered campaign like a welcome email. It can be easy to get carried away with all the different types of workflows and possibilities. But if recipients find themselves on too many automated workflows, you risk losing them.
Learn about more email automation mistakes and how to avoid them. And for a deep dive into all things automation, check out our email marketing automation best practice guide.
Nurture Your Recipients and Provide Personalized Email Content
You don’t always have to send promotions to your email list. Nurture email campaigns allow you to keep in touch with your email recipients without coming off as pushy or demanding. For example, you may want to set up a nurture series for new customers with educational information and tips on product use.
If you consistently send valuable content, your subscribers will come to know and trust that you’re not just sending sales emails.
SMS and Text Marketing – communicating by SMS is a complementary way to engage with your users when sending messages that are more transactional in nature.
Social Media – Social media is an effective way to engage with your community and share news and events.
Display Advertising – Most advertising platforms allow you to create a lookalike audience based on your current email so you can advertise to people likely to be interested in your brand or service and sign up for your emails.
Combining email marketing with the following channels optimizes the customer experiences and reaches them where they want to be reached.
More Resources For Email Marketers
Creating beautiful, engaging, and high-converting emails require a lot of moving parts and constant iterations. The more experience you gain sending email marketing campaigns, the more efficient all the related tasks will be.
Be sure to check out our additional email marketing resources to keep you going as you perfect your email program.