If you want to learn how to do email marketing effectively, then understand there is no one thing that will ensure success. It’s a balance of strategy, techniques and execution. Here is an overview specifically designed for 1- to 3-person marketing departments.

Email is such an ubiquitous part of our lives that it’s often overlooked by marketers. There are bigger, shinier strategies and tactics that always seem to command the lion’s share of attention.

But email marketing should be an integral part of your approach — the numbers say it’s the most important.  Let’s shed some light on why email is so critical, and the steps a small marketing department can take to make your approach effective.

For this post, I received some great insights from folks who really know their email marketing (listed in order of appearance):

Jessica Best, Director of Data-Driven Marketing, Barkley
Gini Dietrich, Founder and author of Spin Sucks
Megan Robinson, VP Marketing of @revenue

How effective is email marketing?

Throughout this post, we’re going to use the word “effective.”  That’s because “effective” is defined as “successful at producing a desired or intended result.”  And that’s what this stuff called marketing is all about — results, right?

Consider some of the industry statistics that reveal how widespread email usage is, and how effective email marketing can be:

  • According to Statista, a total of 96% of agencies were going to either increase (48%) or maintain (48%) their spending on email in 2017.
  • The number of email users worldwide is expected to rise to 2.9 billion users by 2019, according to Statisa.  (In comparison, there are 2 billion Facebook users as of Q3 2017.)

When agencies increase spending, you know it's working.

What do the numbers tell me?  When 96% of agencies increase or maintain their spending on email marketing, you know it’s working.  And when a medium is 2.9 times bigger than Facebook, that tells you that it is still the biggest game in town.

Effective strategies, tips and techniques for email marketing

In creating a post about how to do email marketing effectively, you can’t possibly include everything. What we’ve attempted to do in this post is focus on the critical elements a small marketing department should focus on; you can build on this to refine your approach.

1. Don’t buy a list — EVER

Let’s cross off the first thing that comes to many marketers’ minds:  Should I buy a list of email addresses and email them?

According to Jessica Best, the answer is quite simple: NO. Besides this being ridiculously intrusive for the end user, you also run a big risk of being labeled a spammer by email service providers, which means you could be blacklisted and your emails will go NOWHERE.

The spammer threshold is .1%

(Read more from Jessica in What Email Marketers (Still) Don’t Know They Don’t Know.)

If you really want to build a list, provide content and information that is of value to the customer.  Share with them how you’ll solve their problems. People want answers, not SPAM.

2. Don’t just say “subscribe” or “get updates”

How many websites have you seen that ask for your email for “updates,” but don’t tell you what you’ll get in return?

Be sure you give them a solid reason to sign up, especially telling them the frequency of the emails. People like to get their Sunday morning paper on Sunday, after all. (I’m referring to newspapers – do people get newspapers anymore?)

Give them a reason to subscribe

3. If you automate, use “value forward” content to aid in the buying decision and stay in front of prospects

If someone signed up for an email, it’s likely that they are in the early stages of the buying process.  You can use automation to set up a string of emails that will go out right after someone signs up for a download.

However, these emails need to be “value forward,” as Jessica Best puts it. Sure you can sell product, but think about your customer and their buying process.  What would add value to their decision?  Knowing more about you?  Seeing customer reviews, or comparisons to your competition?

Any types of follow-ups should lead them through their Customer Journey, ultimately to a purchase. But you have to present something of value each step of the way.

You also can’t wait to follow up, as Gini Dietrich tells us:

A good majority of organizations have an email sign-up on their site without a single email that follows. Sure, you may send a monthly email, but what if that’s 29 days from now? Will the person remember who you are 29 days from now? It’s doubtful. Create a 7- or 10-day email campaign for your new subscribers. The first one should be delivered immediately after they subscribe.

Create a new subscriber email campaign.

4. Segment your list and personalize your messages

Different offers on your website can mean different things.  Create different email lists based on the reason why people signed up.  Do they just want to read your new blog posts?  Are they interested in buying your product or service?

If you have different segments, you can tailor your emails to those segments.  For a small marketing department, this is the first step toward speaking directly to what your target needs.

Segmentation is different than personalization, as noted in this great post by Jason Grunberg, who explains the difference between personalization and segmentation.

True personalization, beyond just inserting a contact’s name, involves delivering email content based on a client’s past actions, as explained by Active Campaign’s Brian Gadu in this post. Ultimately, this improves your deliverability and your standing in the eyes of email providers.

Grunberg and Gadu both indicate that personalized emails (one version for one person) are going to overtake grouped segmented emails.

For a small marketing department, this granularity should be the ultimate goal, but it won’t happen overnight. Start by segmenting your list, then work toward personalization.

(Check out more examples in Jessica’s post on 6 Steps to Putting Data to Work in Email Marketing.)

5. Let unsubscribe rates dictate how much you should send

A common question among marketers: How much email is too much?  We’re all inundated with email, and you want to be sure your email gets opened and that you’re not annoying.

Whatever you do, don’t make your decision based on what YOU think is too much.  Let your prospects make the decision.

Reevaluate if unsubscribes get too high.

You can do this by focusing on your unsubscribe rate.  You want your unsubscribe rates to be below 1% of your list. If your rates creep north of that number, it’s time to reevaluate your content and the rate at which you’re emailing.

6. Use your blog content to make an eNewsletter

Creating a monthly eNewsletter can produce numerous benefits.  As Megan Robinson of @revenue details in this post (with stats to back up her point), those benefits include:

  • Keeps your business top of mind
  • Engages your audience
  • Deepens your relationship with customers

But sending out regular emails — at the very least, once a month — can seem tedious if you’re trying to create new content all the time.

One method that’s effective is to turn off the auto notification from your blog, and instead route sign-ups to a special list on your email service.  Then, once a month, compile your blog posts into a newsletter and send it to prospects.

It’s a great way to share content for prospects just entering the sales funnel, or add in some new product promos to keep them posted on new sales.

An eNewsletter is a great way to share content.

7. Deliver your downloadable offer via email

Let’s say you’re providing a piece of content for a visitor to download, like a PDF guide. Should you make that available on a thank you page, after the person signs up for the offer?

Jessica recommends sending it out via your follow-up email.  The recipient is very likely to open and engage with your email, and that helps Google recognize that the recipient wants your content. They’ll more likely “green light” your future emails, so always deliver your offers by email!

8. Build your list using different techniques

There are a million ways to build your list, but here are a few that have proven effective for us:

Feature a downloadable offer with a sign-up form as well: Many will argue that all your content should be ungated, but Jessica believes that you still should have lead forms in front of a valuable piece.  “As long as it’s valuable, it doesn’t cost that person a whole lot to give up their email in exchange for the content,” she said.

Co-Op/Ad Swap: Partner with a relevant/complementary business or product. Create an email for a partner or complementary business. They will mail your message to their email list, then you respond in-kind.

These are just foundational suggestions.  To really drive email sign-ups, check out this amazing post from Robbie Richards.

9. Feature an email sign-up in your website’s footer

We get a surprising amount of sign-ups with our email subscriber box in the footer, and it’s pretty logical when you think about it. A person reads the page, likes the content, and when they scroll to the bottom, BLAM, you’ve got the sign-up form.

Because it’s in the footer, you also have an automatic guarantee it’s on every page of your site.

Feature email sign-up in your site's footer

10. Include an opt-in checkbox on your contact form

Besides the sign-up forms on your site, you can also add an opt-in checkbox to your contact forms. You may think these people want info. right away, but this gives you a method to follow up with them and keep them on the list. It also puts them in control of whether or not they want to receive more information.

opt-in form

(Opt-in form courtesy of Pinpointe.com.)

11. Control when notifications are sent out about a new blog post

When your developer sets up your blog subscription form, don’t use a plug-in from the content management system. Keep all of your subscribers in your email marketing platform so you can control when and how they see your latest.

Auto-notification plug-ins just grab the headline of your post and make it the headline of the article. But your article headline might not make for a good email headline, and you may also want to include a teaser message to your readers to get them to check it out.

Andy Crestodina does a great job with this. Notice his email has a headline written specifically for email. His blog post title, which likely includes very specific keywords and structure, probably would not be as effective.

Article headline may not match email headline

12. Avoid getting labeled a SPAMMER

It’s very easy for someone to label you a SPAMMER, and as we touched on earlier, that’s someplace you definitely don’t want to go.

So how do you do it?  First of all, play nice. Use common sense tactics not to SPAM. If someone gives you a business card at a lunch, that’s not an automatic OK to add them to your eNewsletter list.  Send them the link to subscribe, and let them take it from there.

Some other tactics include:

Always include an unsubscribe link and a physical mailing address with your emails. Most email services will build this into your template, in compliance with CAN-SPAM law.

Be sure you’re sending from a professional SMTP server. Any email marketing platform like Active Campaign, MailChimp, Constant Contact will be compliant.

Easy on the images: Include enough text that a spam filter can “read” what your email is about. Too many images can get a can of SPAM thrown at you.

Avoid the SPAMMY words:  Using these words in moderation won’t get you labeled a spammer, but too many can land you in trouble.  Here’s a great list from Karen Rubin of HubSpot.

13. Ensure it’s mobile-friendly

Litmus’ Email Analytics tracks open emails from over 1.4 billion sent emails. They reported that emails opened on mobile devices was 56% of all emails sent.  Make sure your emails, and the service you’re sending them from, are mobile-friendly!

Megan Robinson, @revenue

Check out Megan’s article on Google’s Mobile First Initiative:

14. Create a great email – include excellent content

Oh yeah!  That stuff.  What you want to, you know, say to people. I guess that matters too, right?

Back in the days of direct mail, there was a 40-40-20 rule. Your success was determined by: 40% by the list; 40% by the offer; and 20% by the creative. Here’s a great post by Eunice Brownlee that refines that formula for email marketing today, but essentially the idea remains the same.

So what makes for an effective email?

Focus on the subject line:  If you want people to get into your email, you need to open that front door. So create an excellent subject line. Check out insights from Charlie Meyerson on how to do it right!

Keep it short and focused: You want a clear intent with your email, and you want someone to take an action as a result of it. Keep your content skimmable; 1-3 lines of copy, and avoid the bulky paragraphs.

These shorter segments can then link out to longer content.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make with email is sending all of the content in the email. Don’t do that! It doesn’t encourage engagement, nor can you track effectiveness,” says Gini Dietrich.

“And always remember: Your email content is about THEM, not you. No one cares about your new hires, your new contracts, or your awards. What they do care about is how you can help them.”

15. Make Call-To-Action prominent

You want to take them somewhere, give them a big, bold CTA.  And use a contrasting color, so it really stands out.

Make the CTA button big and bold

16. Metrics: How do you measure email marketing success

Here are the big ones we really keep an eye on:

Click-through rates: Really, at the end of the day, it’s all about sales, right?  So you’d ultimately want to see how many people are clicking through to your site.  Open rates are great and could potentially generate some brand equity, but you want people to get to your site.

If you can track the email traffic all the way to a conversion in the form of a lead or purchase, that’s the ultimate goal!

Unsubscribe rates:  You definitely don’t want that number to incline. It’s a good indication you’re either sending out too frequently, or your content quality is off.  According to Jessica Best, the average unsubscribe rate is .5%, and just make sure you don’t creep north of 1%.

Track through UTM tagging:  This isn’t a metric, but a methodology to track your email visits from Google analytics. If you don’t use UTM tagging on your links, then GA will count the visit as “Direct” and not an email.

17. Test, test and test some more

Hate to date myself (someone’s got to), but when I was writing direct mail copy for a big insurance company, we would roll out $10,000 tests on a changed headline.  That’s still done today, but with email, you can make instant changes and improve your open rate.

Megan Robinson digs deeper into the subject for us:

Most email service providers have subject line testing already built in and can be one of the best ways to immediately improve your email. A/B Testing is when you send a percentage of your audience 2 different subject lines. After a predetermined time (~4 hours) the subject line that received the highest open rate within the test group will be sent automatically to the remaining audience.

Subject line testing is powerful.

Subject line testing allows for instant optimization, but can also teach a lot about your audience. Try testing with a specific hypothesis in mind. Does your audience like it when you use emojis? Are they more offer- or relationship-focused?”

Email marketing is a journey

Like everything in this digital marketing game, your success rate will be a function of time. No one expects you to hit it right out of the park, right from the start.

Use these foundations as your launchpad, then tap into the experts in this article to learn more and improve your efforts.  Effective emails are all about results — follow these tips, techniques and strategies and you’ll be on your way.

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