Email may be old, but let us assure you one thing:
Email is NOT dead.
It’s come a long way since chain mails and text-only messages. Now, email offers a beautiful and effective means of communication, despite the ever-rising popularity of chat apps and social media.
Marketers have capitalized on email’s communicative power for decades, and indeed, email marketing was among the first forms of digital marketing to develop. Today, though, customers are pressed for time and short in their attention spans, which means that email marketers have to: (a) convince recipients to open their email from among hundreds and (b) make an immediate impact on the reader. Easier said than done.
The good news is that email marketers have refined their strategies over the years, and there are now dozens of programs to help them perfect their pitch. In our guide to email marketing, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know, from tactics to tools. Let’s get started.
The Basics: What is Email Marketing?
Email marketing is just what it sounds like: using email messages to advertise products or services. Most contemporary email marketers have learned that their audience appreciates valuable information, which is why the most effective email marketing strategies involve a mix of advertising with engaging content that’s not overly promotional. Technically, any email sent by a company to encourage sales or boost customer retention is a marketing email, from cold pitches of a product to how-to newsletters and company updates.
Email marketing providers include Mailchimp and HubSpot, which allow marketers to craft and send messages to their desired recipients. A pool of recipients, aka an “audience,” may come from a lead capture tool (more on that in a moment), customer information from purchases, or a scribbled-down list created at an expo booth. In advanced email marketing, one can design various automated campaigns that target different segments of the audience. The platform can track recipients’ activity to guide future campaigns.
To Spam Or Not To Spam
As customers have gotten savvier, email marketing has come under scrutiny. Although some skeptical customers view any unwanted email as “spam,” marketing emails are quite merely a promotional message from a company. Spam typically carries a virus or seeks to “phish” information from recipients; however, unsolicited “marketing” messages can easily be construed as spam. Regulations vary by country, but in the United States, a marketer can legally send messages with promotional content to anyone. The key is to allow recipients to opt-out. This loophole has encouraged many marketers to purchase lists of email addresses. The problem with this approach is that such cold messages are unexpected — and therefore, more likely to be perceived as spam. Multiple spam reports can not only get you banned from your email provider, but they can also permanently damage your brand reputation.
True marketing messages follow from an initial touch with a customer, then nurture what will hopefully be a lasting customer relationship. That’s why it’s crucial to use creative lead generation strategies so that people will willingly opt-in. Once they’re in, they’ll expect your messages and can gain an appreciation of your brand. If you email people who have never heard of you, you’re certain to see a high unsubscribe rate — and that’s a waste of time and money.
So, you’ve decided to skip the purchased lists (good call!) and grow your list organically. How can you do this? The practice of encouraging people to give you information is a form of lead generation. Let’s say you have a form on your website for prospective customers to request a quote. That’s a way to generate leads, i.e., to convert them from website visitors into potential customers. With some exceptions, your leads should always be added to your email list. That way, if you send someone a quote and don’t hear back from them, you can make another touchpoint through email.
Of course, you don’t even have to get people thinking about a purchase before adding them to your list. Several powerful opt-in strategies will get people excited about your brand, even if they have no intention of giving you money. Why worry about these folks, you ask? Because every relationship you nurture with a qualified lead could lead to a purchase down the line. People’s situations change. While they may sign up for your beauty tips newsletter or weekly gadget update with zero intention of buying, they may very well be ready to purchase in a few months — especially if you lure them in with great content.
Here are those powerful opt-in strategies we mentioned:
A lead magnet does what it says: it attracts leads to your brand with something compelling, usually a high-value piece of content that your target audience can’t get anywhere else. Merely asking people to give you their email address for free won’t fly anymore. Even if they’re not hyper-protective of their personal information, folks just don’t want clogged inboxes. That’s why a lead magnet works so well: people will give away their email address for something valuable. This might be:
- an e-book addressing a topic that appeals to your audience
- a white paper covering a topic on which you are an authority
- a webinar offering education in your area of expertise
- a tool or template to make your audience’s lives easier
Of course, there will always be tire-kickers who hand over their email address just to get the freebie, then immediately unsubscribe. The way to fix this is to demonstrate what type of content you’ll be emailing them. Start things off on the right foot and avoid jumping right into a sales pitch. A lead magnet can, well, lead people into a trusting relationship with your brand if you follow up with more valuable content that meets their interests.
If you’ve ever shopped online, you’ve probably seen e-commerce stores that offer a discount code if you make a user account. This is one of the simplest ways to generate leads for your mailing list, and if you play your cards right, you can keep people on that list and continue sending them highly targeted offers. The key is to phrase it as a reward, then promise them continued discounts and special offers if they stay on the list.
Marketing automation is your friend here. These platforms link to your email provider (or you can use an all-in-one solution) so that you can generate campaigns based on people’s shopping activity. The initial discount code pays for itself by luring customers into a reward-oriented program that encourages more sales. Let’s face it: everyone likes to feel special, and everyone experiences FOMO (fear of missing out). Reward-driven opt-ins make people feel anxious about what will happen if they don’t sign up. Will they have to pay the full price for the product they want? Will they miss their shot at a 50% flash sale? To avoid unsubscribes with this strategy, send highly targeted messages that make the recipient feel like they’re getting a special deal.
Who says you have to dangle a freebie in front of a lead’s face? Sometimes, a well-designed opt-in form is compelling enough. You’ve probably seen lead capture forms pop up when you land on a page or as you navigate away from a site (the latter are called “exit intent pop-ups”). They may also appear as a banner or footer widget on a webpage. As you may have noticed, opt-in forms work best when visitors have already gained some familiarity with your brand. Exit-intent pop-ups are particularly effective because the reader has already (hopefully) consumed some valuable content. Use language such as “Get tips like this in your inbox” to follow up on the blog or article they just read. We find that this approach works better than a pop-up that appears before a visitor has had a chance to engage with your site. They will likely close the pop-up to read the page, and the opportunity has then vanished.
Opt-in forms can also be used in conjunction with social media marketing. Your social content helps build a community around your brand, so it makes sense to encourage email opt-ins. Landing page builders such as Linktree allow you to create a short, mobile-friendly page to use in your social media bio. Try including an opt-in form here. Just make sure that you plan your content so that people who follow you via email and social media won’t see duplicate content.
So, you’ve built your list, and you’re ready to start sending messages. Great! Different marketers have different formulas for the perfect mix of content, but in general, it’s a good idea to minimize your calls-to-action (CTAs). You don’t want your email campaigns to be too promotional. Most consumers are perfectly happy searching for products on their own time. If you’re taking up space in their inbox, they’ll want to know that they’re getting good stuff from you rather than constant requests to buy things. Remember, people like to feel special, so make sure your email campaigns speak to that.
Take some time to map out your content: how often you’ll send messages, how long the messages will be, what types of content will appear in each message. Decide which topics you’ll cover, any sales or specials you want to promote and if you’re going to direct traffic to your blog or social media channels.
Then, start planning campaigns. You can have dozens or even hundreds of different campaigns, depending on the audience segment you want to target and what goals you want to achieve. Again, marketing automation can help you develop your strategy. If you’re just starting, keep it simple. Perhaps this includes a weekly newsletter that consists of a blog highlight, a featured product, or a recent video. As you gain more leads, you can run concurrent campaigns, such as flash sale messages or weekly tips.
Most campaigns involve multiple emails so that you can build on a topic and nudge customers toward action. A string of related emails in a campaign is called a sequence. Sequences can be released on either a set schedule or once a recipient takes action. (Get some tips on beating email fatigue.) For example, a sequence may start out going to everyone on your list, then split into two different messaging strategies depending on who opened the first email and who did not.
Some email sequences are relatively straightforward. Here are a couple of basic sequences that every marketer should use:
- Welcome Sequence: This type of sequence can be sent to new subscribers on the list. It typically involves a welcome message (hence the name), followed by a teaser of upcoming content and possibly a step into the sales funnel (a discount code, free trial, etc.).
- Post-Purchase Sequence: As it sounds like, post-purchase sequences are sent to a customer right after the purchase. The first email is usually an order confirmation or thank-you message. Smart marketers use this sequence as a chance to further nurture the relationship, perhaps with instructional videos for the gadget that was purchased or an email that features complementary products.
Email sequences can get complicated quickly, so test, test, test before sending them out.
As the saying goes, if a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? You might be sending out the best emails in the world, but if no one is reading them, you’re wasting time and effort. Finding the right blend of copy and design is like art: even a technically correct masterpiece might not resonate with the viewer. Therefore, all email marketing involves a bit of trial-and-error. There’s simply not one subject line or image that’s going to work for everyone.
That said, the more engaging and authentic you make your emails, the better results you’ll get. As we mentioned above, don’t stuff your emails full of CTAs or otherwise drown them in promotional content. That may work for major corporations, but for most companies, it’s the noise that consumers will happily silence.
In order to understand how your emails are performing — and use those insights to improve future campaigns — it’s essential to analyze what happens once they land in people’s inboxes. Here are the key metrics to know:
- Open rate: As you might have guessed, this is simply the number of people who opened your email out of the total number of recipients. A high open rate is a good thing, but not necessarily a great thing. Many people “open” an email when they click on it, which they have to do right before they delete it. Ouch. To understand how many people read the email, you need:
- Read rate: Voila! Many email marketing providers track reading time in your emails. While you can’t know for sure if recipients thoroughly absorbed or appreciated your content, the read rate is still a better metric of an email’s success than the open rate. Of course, nothing is as good as the:
- Clickthrough rate: A clickthrough rate describes the number of people who clicked on a link in your email. Ideally, they clicked your CTA and successfully connected to your landing page, registration form, video, etc. Even in successful campaigns, clickthrough rates are typically low. The sad fact is that most people don’t click. However, that doesn’t mean your emails didn’t make an impact. Again, that’s why smart email campaigns nurture a relationship with the recipient so that eventually, you’ll get those clicks.
- Bounce rate: Email addresses go bad. Inboxes get full, the user account gets deleted, or something goes kerflooey in the pipes. A high bounce rate is usually a sign of a purchased list. Most bounce rates for organically grown lists are relatively low. The main reason to watch your bounce rate is to identify dead addresses and remove them from your list to keep your costs down and prevent your email marketing provider from flagging your account.
- Unsubscribe rate: The saddest metric of them all, the unsubscribe rate, shows how many recipients of a given email unsubscribed after receiving it. While it can be discouraging to see unsubscribes from a campaign you worked hard on, it’s also essential to take this metric with a grain of salt. It’s not always a reflection on the campaign itself, but rather a measure of how many people simply took that opportunity to unsubscribe.
Once you have these numbers, you can make informed decisions about the content and design of future campaigns. The problem is that emails have multiple components. If your open rate is very low, you’d be correct to assume that your subject line needs work. But what if your open rate is average for your industry? Would a different subject line yield better results? That’s where A/B testing comes in. It’s a way of optimizing your campaign results by comparing two versions of an email, then using the best option. Most email marketing providers achieve A/B testing by sending version A to a small portion of the audience, then version B to a different small portion. Whichever variant performs better is then sent to the rest of the audience. A/B testing helps you home in on the copy formulas, design elements, and other attributes that perform best with your audience.
Email Marketing Best Practices
We’ve covered a lot of ground, and we could honestly write several books on the topic of email marketing. However skilled you are, it’s important to remember that email marketing does not happen in a vacuum. There will always be factors beyond your control, such as a down economy with people uninterested in marketing emails to technological hiccups that interrupt your campaigns. And your audience will remain in a state of flux. While your growth rate should outpace your unsubscribe rate, there will always be people who leave your list as others are joining. The audience you have one year may be completely different the following year. That’s why it’s crucial to continually measure your campaigns and integrate your customer data as thoroughly possible. And test, test, test!
Still, some best practices will increase your chances of success in any situation. Here’s our grab bag of tips.
- Use action-oriented subject lines.
- Include emoji in subject lines.
- Avoid obvious stock images and choose header photos that look authentic.
- Keep your email copy short and to the point.
- Remove inactive subscribers from your list.
- Avoid spammy and sales-y language (e.g., “Buy Now,” “Special Offer”) and focus on value (e.g., “Get Healthier” and “Learn a New Language”).
- Include your company’s name and information clearly in the email.
- Avoid cluttered designs and choose a single-column layout.
- Use a real name and email address in the From fields.
- Design emails to be mobile-friendly.
We hope that this article has provided a great crash course in email marketing. With an average return of $38 per $1 spent, email campaigns can be a highly lucrative form of marketing if done well. The key to success is to remember that marketing emails aren’t too dissimilar from personal emails. Remember, they all end up in the same place, and people want to open an email to find valuable, entertaining content and something that makes them feel special. By tapping into this human impulse, you can nurture robust and lasting customer relationships — and ultimately boost your brand and make more money. Happy emailing!
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