You’ve probably heard that email is dead. The truth is, email remains a powerful channel for businesses of any size to achieve their goals.
Not sure how to get started? In this guide, we discuss the fundamentals of email marketing – what it is, how it works, and tips to create a campaign that works.
What is Email Marketing?
Email marketing is the use of emails to promote products and services. It’s one of the most cost-effective ways for businesses—most email marketing platforms even allow you to get started for free.
The main purpose of any business using this type of marketing technique is to build brand awareness, increase sales conversions, generate more leads, and retain customers.
How Does Email Marketing Work?
Email marketing is a form of content marketing or inbound marketing that’s typically more promotional in nature. You’ll sometimes find long-form and informational content, but that’s not as common as the many emails you see on a daily basis from companies in the retail space.
In comparison to other forms of digital marketing, like social media marketing and PPC advertising, email marketing is less expensive and more personalized. Plus, it’s one of the best ways for businesses to build rapport with their customers over time.
Emails sent to customers also provide a direct link to sales. In other words, each email you send can help you generate additional revenue.
Why Does Your Business Need Email Marketing?
There’s a strong case for many forms of digital marketing—search ads, social media marketing, SEO, and more, but email marketing has an incredible ROI (think, around $50 for every $1 spent) compared to other channels.
Especially lately—in 2021, anyone who works in the digital marketing space is aware of some of the recent issues and changes surrounding social media. With some of the changes that iOS updates have prompted, along with the higher cost of social media ads in general, ROI on social media has taken a hit.
Compare that to email marketing which, even in a crowded space, can drive sales like no other channel and build meaningful relationships with your customers.
How to Start Your Email Marketing Campaign
So now that we know that, yes, email marketing works (especially in the retail space), how can you go about getting started?
1. Create an email marketing plan.
Email marketing works well enough on its own but should be a part of your overall marketing plan.
What’s the goal of your email marketing plan? What do you hope to accomplish?
Here are some of the most common goals for email marketing campaigns:
Generate more sales leads. When someone submits their contact information at your site, you can add them to a list so that you can send them emails with offers related to your products or services.
Create awareness about your brand or business. This includes any updates or changes in regards to what you offer. Build trust and establish yourself as an authority figure in your industry.
Drive more traffic to your website or landing pages. Driving more traffic is a given—this is what any form of digital marketing can do for you. But to drive more traffic to specific pages on your site, you could send emails with special offers or discounts for users who have visited certain pages.
Generate newsletter subscribers. Subscribe users who are interested in certain types of content and messages from your business. Get their email in the future, even if they don’t purchase anything immediately.
Having a specific goal in mind will help you tailor your email marketing plan and pick an email service provider that best fits your goals, which we’ll cover in the next section.
2. Choose an email marketing software.
Choosing an email marketing software doesn’t have to be too complicated—we’ve outlined the strengths of each platform so you can choose one based on where you’re at with your email marketing.
Most platforms offer the ability to export/import your contacts, so switching platforms is relatively painless unless your switching from a provider that doesn’t support that.
Here are some of our favorites:
Constant Contact is at the top of my recommended email platforms that I recommend to clients because it comes packed with features and it’s probably the easiest to get started with. (Or at least I don’t get quite as many design requests from my clients using this one—it has a very smooth and intuitive visual builder.)
Like most of the other providers on the list, rates are primarily based on the number of subscribers.
The “Email” plan starts at $20/month and offers basic automation, but lacks some of the segmentation and automation features, which are only available on the $45/month plan. (All plans offer basic segmentation, but if you want more ecommerce features, those are all locked behind the $45/month plan.)
Compared to other providers, it’s not the cheapest (but it’s definitely not the most expensive!), but it’s a good “middle” option for businesses new to email marketing. And if design isn’t your strong suit, their intuitive drag-and-drop builder and mobile-friendly templates make it super easy to get started.
Sendinblue is a great option if you’re looking to expand into both email and SMS marketing. Some unique options it offers is a built-in sales CRM, live chat, and the option for SMS. It’s a bit more centralized than some other options here.
Its pricing structure is a bit more accessible to businesses with big lists who might not send as many emails, as it charges based on how many emails you send instead of the size of your list. I would say of the email marketing services on this list, this one is the best for growing your list.
Especially if you’re just getting started, you’re probably not going to be sending more than one email a week. So you might find some savings here, as well as a really nice drag and drop builder.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy to integrate with things like WordPress. I took it for a test run and the process for getting double opt-ins is a bit of a hassle (especially for new accounts).
Obviously, this isn’t an issue for lists that don’t use double opt-in in the first place, but it’s still an important option to have. Just know that if you’re coming over from something like Mailchimp, you’ll probably have to go through some extra documentation or get in touch with support to get everything set up.
HubSpot is better known as a CRM, but they do have an email service for their paid plans. If you’re already using HubSpot, you might also look into their email marketing services to see if it’s something that fits what you’re looking for.
I wouldn’t suggest going to them just for email marketing, as it’s a lot to learn if you’re just building an email list. But if you’re looking for something that allows you to easily integrate your list into a solid CRM, this is your best bet. It has powerful tracking features, extensive reporting, and integrates with just about every other tool you use, HubSpot is definitely the best when it comes to analytics and integration.
And if you want to try it out later (or decide it’s not for you) it’s really easy to move both to and from HubSpot, and even integrate HubSpot into your existing system if you just want it for the tracking features.
ConvertKit was something I initially come across recommended by a lot of bloggers and artists, and they’ve since shifted their focus to a more artistic crowd.
The feature that initially got me to try them out was how easy they make it to segment lists and offer various opt-in freebies. At the time, there wasn’t really another email platform that made it easy to create nice-looking opt-ins with a download attached.
Their drag-and-drop builder for landing pages and emails is also really intuitive and they have a lot of presets that look nice out of the box. So this is another one of those that you don’t have to worry too much if design really isn’t your thing.
MailerLite probably has my favorite email builder and, while it’s not as quick to set up as other providers, is definitely worth a mention.
When I first tried them out, it was at a sort of rocky time where more and more email providers were having to implement some sort of approval process for accounts, so I don’t want to say their process is difficult. It’s just not quite as easy as signing up for Mailchimp.
However, when it comes to everything else, it’s super simple.
MailerLite has a simple and clean interface that makes focusing on content creation easy. With other providers, it’s not always apparent where to start and easy to get overwhelmed by all the different features. This is another one of those that, if you’re new to email marketing, makes it really easy to get started.
You won’t find a lot of the automation and reporting tools you might find from other services, but you’ll find what you need. It’s a great streamlined approach to email marketing without being incredibly limiting.
I always like to look at what analytics and reporting features are available and there’s usually one or two that make me think to myself, “that’s a little creepy.” None of that with them—they pack basic reporting that works well and looks pretty.
I feel like Mailchimp is most people’s point of entry to the email marketing world. It has everything you need in the beginning and integrates with everything. One of the biggest reasons I still recommend it to quite a few clients is because of the amount of outside support it still gets. (If there’s something it doesn’t do, chances are someone has written something to make it do that.)
You’ll find easy integrations for most major ecommerce platforms, particularly WordPress and Shopify. The automation is there, along with in-depth analytics, an easy-to-use email/page builder, and a mobile app that makes it easy to sign people up at events.
And while the editor isn’t my favorite, it’s nice enough and they have some decent templates to help you get started. In general, Mailchimp is a solid choice to get started with.
3. Build an email list.
Once you’ve found an email service provider that fits your needs, it’s time to start your list!
Adding Opt-In Forms to Your Website
After your account is created and set up, you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of opt-in forms throughout your site and content.
The main places to include them are in prominent areas of your home page (often a couple of times, depending on the length of your page), throughout your blog posts (once in the middle and once at the end), at the bottom of contact form pages, and in your footer.
These are just a few ideas of where you can put forms on your website, but you can do just some or even more of them.
If you’re using a page builder like Elementor, the Pro version offers forms that you can easily drop on your page and integrate with just about any email service provider. Other page builders have similar things, such as Elegant Themes’ Bloom plugin. Mailchimp also has a host of plugins that work with WordPress and Shopify and might be one of the most widely supported providers.
Creating Lead Magnets
Lead magnets are a great way to get visitors to opt-in to your list.
In this case, what you are going to do is offer the visitors an irresistible reason for them to give you their email address. For example, you could offer to give them a special report that they won’t be able to get anywhere else.
You could offer to let them know when you have posted something new on your website. Or you could simply say you will immediately send them valuable tips about how to increase website profits. The options are endless.
The important thing is you must give your visitors a compelling reason for them to give you their email address. (And don’t disappoint them!)
4. Create and design your email templates.
You don’t have to be a designer to send a nice-looking email. While design still plays a big part in the email marketing world, email service providers have made things more accessible by providing a gold mine of templates to help you get started.
You can choose a more image-heavy layout, like the kind that’s typical of e-commerce/retail newsletters, or stick with plain text for more informational emails designed to update your audience on your blog or other info products. Both of these perform well with the right audience and text-based emails are increasingly popular among many companies.
5. Set up an introduction email for new subscribers.
So, you have your email list, some opt-in forms on your site, and have felt your way around the template library…now what?
The best way to welcome your subscribers is with a “welcome” email that introduces them to your list and what your company has to offer. (Remind them why they signed up!)
If you’re using double opt-in, this is the email that gets sent to them when they sign up. If your list is open, they’ll immediately get this email on signup. All you have to do is set up a response (or in Mailchimp and other similar providers, there’s a pre-existing template you can edit).
Here, you should use this opportunity to point them towards your blog or other resources on your site, tell them a bit about your company (keep it short and link to your “about” page), and maybe include a discount or other offer. Let them know what to expect in future emails.
Make sure to give them a warm welcome, rather than treating it like a hard sales pitch.
6. Craft your email copy.
You’re probably already somewhat familiar with copywriting, but some knowledge of direct response copywriting (the type of copy designed to get people to take action) will be a huge help in running an email list, especially if it’s for an e-commerce/retail business.
The single most important element of any successful email is the subject line. Getting them to open your email in the first place is half the battle.
But if you fail to deliver in the body of your copy, you can have the best subject line in the world and it won’t help you get them to your website.
And if your copy on your landing page fails to deliver, then… well, you get the idea. So how do you ensure that you write great copy that converts?
The idea is to write your copy in a way that naturally guides them from one place to the next, never making things feel out of place or losing their attention. For most audiences, short and conversational copy is the way to go, like you’re talking to a friend over a cup of coffee.
7. Optimize for open rate, clicks, and conversions.
There’s more to email than just copy and getting people to read your emails, though. Once you start writing your emails, you’ll want to start measuring how they perform.
Certainly, one of the main goals is to make sure you have lots of opens, but equally (or even more) important is to make sure people are reading your email, paying attention to what you have to say, and taking the action you want them to take.
Here are some things you can do to get your emails read and make sure they deliver the results your business needs:
Use an easily recognizable sender name and address.
On this occasion, you can use your own name, your company name, or some other “brandable” name. Whatever you do, you want to make sure both the sender’s name and email address are easy to recognize. It needs to be clear that they’re from your company.
Between the amount of noise in people’s inboxes and frequent fishing attempts, it’s easy to get overlooked. If they don’t recognize the information on the email at a glance, it’s likely to get ignored or canned (or worse, sent to spam).
Write a compelling email subject line.
As we talked about earlier, the subject line is a critical piece to your email. If you can’t even get the email opened, you’ve already lost and all that work of crafting emails is down the drain.
So, what’s the first thing you should think about when you’re creating a great subject line?
First, think about words or phrases that would most likely draw an interesting and responsive reader to your email. Numbers tend to stand out, as well as statistics, just like in normal headlines.
But in emails, if you want to grab attention, ask a question. “Have you seen this yet?” “Is this the hottest X in X industry?” “Did you forget something?”
They’ll have to think about it for a second…and then open your email to find out.
Optimize your email preheader/preview text.
One thing that often gets overlooked is the preheader (or preview) text in an email. This is a short summary of your email and can help pique people’s curiosity…or at least get their “buy-in.”
More email service providers are moving towards letting you easily add this to your emails without code. Before that, you’d often see lots of things going wrong with email preheaders. (The worst I’ve had is an email with the “unsubscribe” message in the preheader!)
Use this to give a little more information—but not too much! You still want them to read the rest of your email.
You often see emails littered with preheader text like “one day only” and “grab this deal” and all manner of other “don’t miss out”-style emails…and these work for some businesses. (I personally like to put questions here, if I don’t ask one in the subject line.)
You can also add emojis here, but I wouldn’t make it a habit. It gets redundant (especially if everyone else is doing it at the time) but again, it’s all about testing and seeing what works.
Speaking of which:
8. Test your emails.
Test. Test. Test.
Before you send your emails, test them. I’ve seen crazy bad emails that could have easily been avoided by sending them to yourself first and giving it another read.
Alternatively, you might have a small group of employees or “early access” customers that you can send these emails to in small batches, making content available to them first before you send it out to your main list.
Regardless of how you do this, just make sure they work first. Preferably in different browsers and on different devices if you can. (If nothing else, at least make sure they look good on mobile, which is where most people will be reading them.)
9. Monitor your email marketing campaign results.
Last, but certainly not least: measuring results.
A lot of things have an impact on these metrics, such as what time you send them, email copy, relevance, and other factors. As with most things in the marketing world, it all comes down to what works for your audience.
You can rely on industry statistics in the beginning, but eventually, you’ll want to do your own testing to really get these metrics where you want them. Here are some of the main metrics to look for:
This is the number of people who actually read your email. If your open rate is low, consider why. Maybe your message was not sent at the optimal time. People are much less likely to open an email during busy hours and tend to read in the mornings or while they’re winding down in the evenings.
Or, maybe you have a lot of spam contacts. Especially if you don’t use a double opt-in, you might get a lot of contacts who never intended to open your emails in the first place (or it hit the spam filter).
And there’s always the issue of copy. If your email subject line is offputting or isn’t compelling enough, people just won’t open your emails!
Click-Through Rate (CTR)
Click-through rate (CTR) is the percentage of website visitors who take some action after viewing a link. For instance, 12 out of about 100 people clicked one of the links to visit a product on your website, giving you a 12% click-through rate.
Rates vary considerably by industry and audience. While it’s not uncommon for me to sit at around 35% CTR on any given month for my personal email list, larger more, general lists might see 12% on a good day.
So it’s important not to beat yourself up over CTR if you’re not consistently hitting 20%, especially in the beginning. Research averages for your industry and focus on what you can do to improve.
Unsubscribe rate is much more predictable and easier to manage than click-through rate. If someone has opted in to receive your emails, they’ve told you they are interested in your offer.
Therefore, it stands to reason they are also interested in whatever you have to say about other related matters. But that doesn’t mean they are interested in everything you have to say. In fact, it’s quite likely they are uninterested in at least some of it.
You can reduce unsubscribe rates by asking for complete information (even if it’s a little bit more effort up-front), and using a double opt-in process. This way you know they’re getting your emails and they’re probably interested in your content.
Another way to reduce unsubscribe rates is to email them consistently.
If someone signs up and then you don’t email them for a month or two, they might not remember signing up in the first place. They’ll hit the unsubscribe button and move on.
Make sure to send them a welcome email, let them know when they can expect to hear from you, and stick to that schedule!
Every email marketer’s worst nightmare: bounced emails.
The main thing you can do is be absolutely sure they gave you permission to use their email.
There are lots of times people put in random emails in an attempt to get downloads/other freebies, put their email in incorrectly, or someone has maliciously added their email to as many lists as possible (a little more rare).
By using a double opt-in, you don’t run into this issue as much.
Emails might also bounce if there are issues with the receiver’s email server (soft bounce), if the email address has been retired, or if you’ve been blocked (these last two are hard bounces).
Typically, email service providers will suspend hard bounces so that no additional emails are sent to that address. For soft bounces, they’ll attempt a few deliveries. How many times (or for how long) depends on your provider.
Maintaining a low bounce rate is incredibly important, as a high bounce rate can get your account flagged for review and affect your delivery rates. If you make sure to either use a double opt-in, captcha, or another process that deters automated signups, you probably won’t have to worry much about this.
6 Email Marketing Best Practices for Success
Now that you have an idea of how to set up and maintain, here are some tips for improving your success with email marketing.
1. Don’t buy your email list.
Remember that bounce rate we talked about? This is why you don’t want to buy lists.
It can be difficult to legitimately acquire lists that want you to contact them this way. Oftentimes, this data has been sold without the receiver’s knowledge or they’re full of retired or abandoned email addresses.
These types of lists are typically marketed towards people doing cold outreach, which isn’t what most businesses want.
You want a list of people who have seen your products or business, checked out your site or other channels, and decided they wanted to receive content from you. Cold contacts are a no-go in most cases.
2. Segment your email list.
A segment is a specific part of your audience, who you’ve separated by demographics, interests, or their stage in the buyer’s journey.
It’s important to deliver highly specific emails to the right audience. If you’re a larger company with a huge variety of products, you need to segment.
Companies in the fashion industry might segment based on their buyers’ habits and what products they tend to view or buy the most. They might segment by age, gender, or other demographics.
If you sell info products, you could segment your audience by interest or knowledge level. Are they new and needing more information? Experienced and needing a tailored solution?
By making sure you tailor your emails to your readers’ interests, you’ll get better stats across the board. This might not be as relevant to small or niche businesses, but if you have different audiences, you need to segment your list.
3. Personalize your emails.
Make your emails personal, but don’t make your templates so complicated that they’re prone to mistakes.
Simple things like, “Hi [FNAME]!” and “We heard you need help picking out a new [PRODUCT_NAME]” can make all the difference in the world. (Just don’t be too creepy.)
Creating custom tags can be a little tricky depending on your email service provider, but most of the major ones are backed by awesome support teams that can easily help you set this sort of customization up.
4. Optimize your emails for mobile.
Emails opened on mobile devices account for 60% of overall email engagement. Industries like business and education are going to be much lower, but most consumers are going to be checking out your emails on their phones.
So you absolutely need to make sure your emails are optimized for mobile. Mailchimp and other major providers have started offering ways to preview your emails before you send them, so you can make use of these features to get an idea of how they’ll look on a phone.
With that in mind, you also want to make sure the places you’re sending them are also optimized for mobile (like your site), creating a seamless experience for your audience. The last thing you want is for them to get frustrated due to a lack of mobile-friendly content.
5. Clean your email list regularly.
Keep up with your email list! Email service providers offer ways to help you maintain your lists. You can send emails specifically to people who haven’t opened or engaged with your emails in a while and see if they want to stay on your list.
If they don’t respond, remove them! It’s possible they’ve abandoned the email or just don’t want to receive emails from you anymore.
Of course, you’ll have to decide if this is right for your business. If you’re a retail company where they might only engage a couple of times a year, it doesn’t make sense to maintain your list this way.
But if you’re a more business-oriented company (or you’re in another industry that needs to focus on engagement), you might consider cleaning up your list on occasion.
This ensures you’re not paying for contacts who don’t engage or wasting resources sending emails to people who aren’t reading them anyway. If you’re a high-volume sender that needs to maintain your costs, you’ll want to keep an eye on this and make sure your emails only go to the people who really want them.
6. A/B test your emails.
Lastly, utilize A/B testing to help improve things like open and click-through rates. You can send “split” emails that have different headlines, copy, images, and other variations to see what performs the best. (This works in the same way you would split test ads.)
This is starting to become a baseline feature with most email providers, especially with how much businesses rely on email now.
As you measure these types of campaigns, you’ll continuously come out with new “winners” that you can continue testing, measuring, and improving.
Email Marketing Summary & Takeaways
With all this in mind, just know that one of the most important things is to get started.
In this post, we covered:
- An overview of email marketing
- How to start your email marketing campaign
- Our favorite email service providers
- Email marketing “best practices” to help you improve your emails
Don’t worry about perfection. You’ll get there through implementation, testing, and feedback from your audience. And if you have any questions for us, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!