In the crowded, omnichannel landscape that marketers operate in, where attention spans are short and loyalty fleeting, email marketing still stands out like a beacon as one of the most effective channels for engaging and retaining customer attention.
The average person has more than eight social media accounts to check, but 63% of Americans have only one email account. Email marketing offers a direct line to your customer, making it one of the most important revenue drivers for any business, famously generating $42 for every $1 spent. Email is part of your customer’s daily (if not hourly routines), in both B2C and B2B contexts.
But with power comes responsibility. Given that the average office worker receives 121 emails daily, it takes skill, craft, and strategy to stand out in the inbox (if you even reach the inbox). Without an optimized email marketing strategy, you’re missing out on the chance to stay top of inbox and top of mind. If you know your audience like they’re family, it’s time to develop personalized email campaigns to guide them along their customer journey. Execute these optimized campaigns by first understanding the basics of email marketing.
How Email Marketing Has Changed
The business of global email marketing reached a value of $7.5 billion in 2020, and by 2025 there will be 4.6 billion email users worldwide. Yet the basics of email marketing haven’t changed much since the first marketing email was sent in 1978 (and generated $13 million in sales). It’s still a non-disruptive, one-to-one conversation between business and customer, introducing itself with a subject line and leading to a call to action. Because the recipient is in control, email marketing is 40 times more effective than Facebook and Twitter for customer acquisition.
What has changed, however, is the level of regulation around email marketing, partly to address the continual problem of spam, as well as the rising dominance of mobile over desktop. Email marketers today have to be aware of the following regulations:
- The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in 2018, requires any organization that processes data of EU citizens (even if outside the EU) to meet strict requirements on consent, purpose, and privacy.
- CAN-SPAM regulations in the US have required email marketers since 2003 to include a business address in their email, allow recipients to opt out, and avoid any false or misleading header information, among other requirements.
As smartphone adoption has rocketed, email has become a mobile platform. One study claims that 81% of emails are now opened and read on mobile devices. That might not affect the purpose of email marketing, but it does place greater importance on frictionless, concise, fast-loading, thumb-stopping content instead of the long, text-heavy newsletters of old.
Before you even think about sending any emails, you need to make sure you’re set up for success with the basics of email marketing. That’s email marketing 101, and it means having the right tools to create and manage your campaigns, as well as grow your list.
Choosing Your Email Service Provider
Your email service provider (ESP) is the platform where you’ll organize and manage your entire email marketing strategy. Subscription and service fees will vary according to the size of your email list and the frequency of your campaigns. Each one has different advantages, so do your research and choose one based on your needs. The most important criteria to consider when selecting your ESP are price, functionality, integrations, and analytics.
Email marketing automation is one of the hottest areas for innovation and growth, with 92% of agencies investing more time, resources, and budget in integrating automation tools into their strategies. In simple terms, automation allows you to set up personalized sequences that the customer triggers according to behavior or intent, as well as activate pop-ups, SMS marketing, and social media retargeting at predefined stages in the customer journey.
Clearly, automation saves time and eliminates human error, but it’s not simply a set-and-forget resource. Since automation feeds back a significant amount of data into the business, relentless testing is required in order to establish the most effective segments, offers, and frequency. Done right, automated email marketing leads your customer seamlessly from prospect to buyer to advocate.
Growing Your Email List
Any visitor to your business website should be enticed to sign up for your email list, either to receive exclusive discounts or to stay up to date on new releases and launches.
The fastest way to grow your email list is through an email capture pop-up on your website. Capitalize on traffic you’re already generating to earn long-term, valuable subscribers. Like ESPs, there are many email capture platforms out there. Once you’ve chosen one that’s right for you, create your pop-up with consistent branding and a compelling incentive for users to give you their email address.
But you don’t have to use a pop-up. For a less disruptive approach, simply provide text links within blog copy or in the footer. It’s a good way to test if your content marketing is providing genuine value.
Here’s a great example of an engaging, on-brand pop-up:
Additional ways to capture email include:
- Subscription forms on various pages of your website
- Content lockers requiring users to enter their info to access content (e.g., free e-books, white papers, or infographics)
- Checkboxes to subscribe on purchase or account-creation screens
Where data capture is concerned, it’s important to think like a user first and a marketer second. Stuffing a list with users who came for a 50% discount or sweepstake will ultimately deliver low-quality leads and bump up your unsubscribe rates. Building an engaged list organically, on the other hand, will give you a list that opens your emails, increases your deliverability, and meets your engagement benchmarks.
One thing you should never do? Rent or buy lists from third-party companies. If your subscribers haven’t opted in, you could fall foul of regulations.
Tactics for Growing Your List
For best results, you need to let go of the idea of a master contact list and start thinking in terms of segmented lists that offer greater personalization. It’s rarely a sound strategy to send an email to the entire list, from either a deliverability or a content perspective. Filter your subscribers into segments, however, and you can grow customer loyalty and lifetime value.
Suggested Lists to Create
- VIPs—These are the customers who buy the most and most often.
- 30-, 60- and 90-day engagement—Once a new subscriber has received their first email, set up an automated trigger to move them to less-engaged segments after a certain number of days of inactivity, if necessary. Unengaged customers drive down your open rates and click-through rates.
- Previous buyers—Without a segmented list, you’ll be sending discounts or campaign emails to customers who have already purchased. Show them you know what they like.
Whatever the list segment, remember to use email as a relationship-building tool rather than a sales tool. Good email marketing is about listening as much as broadcasting.
Maintaining Your List
It’s in the nature of email marketing (and today’s busy lifestyles) that subscribers are hard won and easily lost. Churn is inevitable, even if your content is on point. The typical churn rate for a subscriber list is 6-8% (that’s the proportion of subscribers you lose from your overall list within a set period), but it’s no disgrace to lose half your subscriber list over the course of a year in some sectors with high-ticket, long-lasting products.
To ensure that your marketing spend is going to the most engaged, active subscribers, maintain your list to weed out the lapsed subscribers and reward your loyal VIPs.
Building Your Best List
- Set expectations in your automated welcome flow. Tell subscribers how often you’ll be emailing them and urge them to whitelist your emails so that you’re not landing in the spam or promotions folder.
- Segment recent openers or buyers into “most engaged” segments and give them early-bird access to new product launches.
- Encourage buyers to become long-term customers with subscription offers or loyalty rewards.
- Win back those who haven’t opened within the last 90 days. Remind them of your product benefits and offer them a discount or incentive to return.
- Say goodbye to your unengaged subscribers with a sunset email that asks for feedback on why they are no longer interested and leaves the door open for them to return in the future.
Scrubbing your email list of inactive accounts regularly will keep your open rates and deliverability within your target benchmarks.
What and When To Send
Your email campaigns are designed to move customers toward purchase. These campaigns help you build strong relationships over time. Start by considering content, timing, and frequency. In particular, take advantage of the artificial-intelligence tools offered by most of the big email platforms for leveraging smart send times. These will not only deliver emails at the best-performing times according to user behavior but also rule out customers receiving all the emails in an automated flow if they have performed the required action early on.
The golden mantra of effective email marketing is that communication be personalized and relevant. People might scan emails in seconds or open them in a wide range of surrounding contexts, but they have absolute control over when and where they read them (or choose not to).
What content will resonate best with your various user segments? Diving into value propositions is always a good place to start for your welcome series, but your emails should get more specific about your products as you move through your workflows. You can also position your brand as a source of valuable information related to your industry. No matter which direction you choose, always provide value to the recipient.
Whether you’re demonstrating how your products or services are unique or providing lifestyle tips, keep content clear, concise, and engaging. Link back to your website to do the heavy lifting, such as a landing page or social channels whenever possible, without cluttering the copy with hyperlinks. The purpose of the email is to “sell the click,” not close the deal. As always, make sure your messaging and voice are consistent among your emails and all other marketing channels.
Pro tip: Repurpose successful content you’ve created for other marketing channels to make the most of the resources you’ve invested and the assets you’ve already developed.
Timing and Frequency
Once you’ve determined the content of your campaigns, give careful consideration to timing and frequency. The right message at the wrong time might not get opened, or even worse, it could miss the mark and disrupt a potential customer’s progression toward conversion.
When are your users most likely to engage with an email from your brand? If you’re marketing to professionals, maybe 9 am isn’t the best time. How often should you be reaching out to them? Blast them too often, and you’ll see a lot of users unsubscribe from your list. On the flip side, if too much time passes, they might forget you exist.
You don’t have to take a shot in the dark. Every campaign feeds back insight into your strategy, so test consistently, pore over the data, and find what’s working for your brand and your customers. It might not necessarily be what is held up as the standard for your sector or demographic.
Setting Up Your Campaigns
Email marketing is about delivering the right message at the right time. Segmenting your list allows you to personalize your content for the various customer segments of your audience, delivering the right message, while automating your sequences based on various triggers guarantees that your messages hit at the right time.
Your email list is made up of (hopefully) thousands of subscribers, each at various stages of their unique customer journeys. What resonates with customers who have purchased from you will be very different from what resonates with users who have just signed up for your email list after visiting your website for the first time.
By segmenting your list, you’ll be able to deliver more specific content that will reach users where they are in their customer journey, resulting in better engagement. Use demographics, interests, and behaviors to separate out the various groups within your subscriber base. Ultimately, segmentation will reveal and prioritize the 20% of your subscribers who will typically account for 80% of your revenue. Treat them to messaging and offers that acknowledge their support and showcase their needs.
Make technology do the heavy lifting by setting up automated sequences. While every email strategy should feature an automated welcome series that educates new subscribers about your brand and products, the rest of your automated sequences will depend on your industry and on your audience and their habits.
You can set up your workflows based on various triggers, like the length of time since a user visited your website, or behavioral triggers, like an abandoned cart. When setting up your campaigns, always follow these best practices and be sure to avoid these misconceptions.
Be careful not to let an automated sequence come across as automatic. A skilled copywriter can bring the messaging alive, break up the information into scannable blocks, and retain the fun tone and personality of the brand.
Numbers don’t lie. Here are some key data points and metrics to keep an eye on to make sure your email campaigns are moving in the right direction.
Formula: Number of emails delivered/Number of emails sent
This is the percentage of your emails that actually hit inboxes. If a significant portion of your emails are bouncing, email service providers are more likely to tag your messages as spam, which in the email marketing world is akin to a death sentence. Keep your deliverability rate high by cleaning up your list every six months or so and removing addresses that don’t receive your emails (even those who do receive them but consistently ignore them).
You should also take the precaution of “warming up” your list before releasing your big campaigns (e.g., Black Friday/Cyber Monday) or launching your flows. Gmail, Outlook, and others are suspicious of any new domain that starts sending out regular emails to large numbers of cold recipients.
Formula: Number of unique opens/Number of emails delivered
The open rate is not a perfect measure of effectiveness, but nothing happens without an open, so it’s definitely the best way to gauge whether or not your email community is interested in your content. There is no universal standard for a good open rate, as it varies based on industry, audience, and type of email, but you can find some averages by industry here.
No matter what your open rate is, you should always be looking to improve it. Beware of complacency too. If your open rate is conspicuously high (e.g., over 50% when the average in your sector is 15% to 20%), it’s a sign that you need to increase your list size or open up your segments to less-engaged customers. So if you’re just sending to those who opened within the last 30 days, for example, consider extending that segment to 45 days.
Formula: Number of unique clicks/Number of emails delivered
OK, so you’ve got a solid open rate. Your recipients are interested in reading your email content. But is the content effective in getting them to visit your website and landing pages? Realistically, your click-through rate (CTR) is going to be a lot lower than your open rate unless it’s a big sale or explicit request to take an urgent action. But even at 5% or so, that’s still considerably better than engagement rates for social media.
If everyone who opens your emails is clicking through to your website, you’ve got some very good content! If your CTR is low, it’s time to rethink what you’re sending out.
Pay attention to what specific links are getting the most action. This will reveal what your customers are most interested in. Are they only clicking on deals? Or are they more interested in your blog content? By identifying where they’re going, you can reshape the content of your emails to give the people what they want.
It’s structural too. Simply moving your button higher up the screen or changing its size and color can make a big difference to CTR. Find out what works by A/B testing regularly.
Formula: Number of website visitors who leave after visiting only the landing page/Total number of website visitors
This metric measures a user’s behavior once they’ve clicked through to your website or landing page. If a significant portion of users bounce right away, you need to diagnose the problem. There needs to be consistency between your email content and the pages you’re directing your users to. If they don’t find the products or content they’ve been told to expect from the email that brought them there, they won’t stay long. And if you’ve tricked them into getting there, you probably won’t see them ever again. Even if it’s the right stuff, it still has to be compelling. Nobody wants to stick around a boring landing page.
Use conversion-rate optimization to test different versions of a landing page and find out what combination of images and copy in which structure delivers the best numbers. On the email side, be as clear as possible about what users can expect when they click, and aim for them to complete that action in as few clicks as possible.
Although it can be difficult to attribute sales directly to email marketing efforts, looking at your revenue figures in conjunction with the other metrics discussed here can produce some important insights. If your other email statistics are generally strong but sales are weak, you may discover deficiencies in other elements of your marketing strategy. If sales are strong but email figures are ugly, you could be missing out on email-related revenue.
Whatever the case, email marketing is one of the most powerful tools any ecommerce retailer or brand can unleash to drive revenue at a relatively low cost per acquisition. Moreover, other than the subscription costs for your ESP according to your plan, it’s essentially free to run campaigns, with no postage or advertising budget to cover.