Home

Product and service reviews are conducted independently by our editorial team, but we sometimes make money when you click on links. Learn more.

Everything You Need to Know About Email Marketing

Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell

Learn how to set marketing goals and achieve them through a targeted email marketing campaign.

Email marketing campaigns are one of the cheapest ways to advertise your business, but email blasts can easily get lost in the inbox shuffle. This guide will take you through the basics, from how to set goals and create a campaign idea to the nitty-gritty details like crafting a subject line and choosing the images that best represent your business.

What is the first step in any successful email campaign?

The first step to creating a successful email marketing campaign is the same as the first step to creating any marketing campaign: outlining a clear goal. Unfocused email campaigns, like unfocused marketing campaigns of any type, are destined to fail.

These are some questions you may ask your team as you figure out your first email campaign:

  • What is our primary goal with this email campaign?
  • Who is our target audience, and what types of language, offers and information do they care about?
  • Is the goal we have set measurable? If not, how will we determine the campaign's success or failure?
  • What action do we want prospective clients to take upon viewing our email?
  • How long are we going to try this campaign before looking at results and reevaluating?

The answers to these questions should help you determine the type of campaign that best suits your needs.

 

Editor's note: Looking for an email marketing service for your business? Fill out the questionnaire below to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

 

Types of email marketing campaigns

There are several types of email campaigns that you may deploy at a given time, depending on the nature of your business and the goal of your marketing campaign. These are the most common types of email campaigns, though there are others.

Sale or promotion

A sale or promotional email campaign alerts current or prospective customers of a time-limited offer. Promotional emails are also used for businesses that are highly seasonal and run regular sales during certain times of year.

Newsletter

Newsletters are not appropriate for all businesses, as they tend not to include a direct call to action (or CTA) aimed at the reader, with the exception of directing them toward more online involvement in the form of communities. The main goal of most newsletter campaigns is to become a source of trusted information for readers and raise the overall profile of the business. 

Reengagement email

When an existing customer stops patronizing your business, you could deploy a reengagement email to win them back. Reengagement emails can help you increase brand awareness and remind former customers of what you do, especially if your business is seasonal in nature.

Transactional email

While not always considered in discussions of email marketing, transactional emails are quite important, especially for online businesses. A transactional email, also called a trigger email or behavioral email, is any email sent to a customer in response to a transaction. A transactional email might be a confirmation of an order, a response to a specific question, or a confirmation of a refund in progress. Another common triggered email scenario is an abandoned cart email, which can be helpful for online retailers looking to reduce the number of abandoned carts at checkout.

Lead nurturing email

A lead nurturing email can be a transactional email or a promotional email. However, lead nurturing emails are usually typed individually by salespeople who are attempting to move leads through the customer journey, rather than being sent en masse as promotional and transactional emails often are. That said, many companies use sets of form emails (which can be customized) for lead nurturing scenarios to both ensure consistency and streamline the communication process for sales staff.

Compiling a mailing list

For transactional and reengagement emails, your mailing list will be self-generated from existing customer contact information. New email campaigns intended to target a new potential customer, rather than existing or past customers, will require a fresh list. Mailing lists can be obtained in several ways.

Buying a mailing list

Lots of companies sell mailing lists. Large companies targeting small businesses, like Vistaprint and DirectMail.com, offer mailing lists at affordable prices. Email marketing services and list broker services like these usually offer somewhat customizable (but not totally unique) lists. So, you may be able to choose between targeting individuals and targeting businesses, specifying ZIP codes, ages, industries, sales volume, gender and the like.

If your business is well suited to cold emailing, these big-box lists are not the worst place to start, but you get what you pay for. Boutique and high-end email marketing and mailing list firms can offer more tailored lists that fit your business more closely, and such firms usually offer other marketing services, such as copywriting and graphic design, as well.

Gathering leads online

If your business's website gets decent traffic, you can gather leads directly online by asking for users' email addresses. Many businesses do this by offering a newsletter or a discount for new customers (e.g., "Sign up for 20% off your first order").

To create a web form that can capture contact information without any coding, you can use a drag-and-drop style builder like the one Mailchimp offers. If you use an easily shareable form, you can link to it in online advertisements, casting a wider net for leads than you would typically get directly from your business's website.

Creating your own mailing list

Some businesses are better suited to smaller, more focused mailing lists for their email campaigns, and such lists can be partially or fully self-compiled. Networking events and trade shows are excellent opportunities to make contacts for your mailing list, but good old-fashioned research works well too.

Market segmentation is the first stop on the path of creating your own mailing list. Many marketing departments begin the process of creating a campaign by identifying one or several profiles of the ideal customer. The thought is that if you cannot describe your potential customer in detail, you cannot sell to them or identify them. [Read related article: 7 Ways to Build a Quality Email List]

Identifying your ideal customers

Your profile or profiles of potential customers should be specific enough to do your market segmentation for you. Let's use a fake lawn company called Great Greens as a case study. The first thing a good marketer would note is that anyone who hires Great Greens is someone with a lawn to maintain, so homeowners and property managers are immediately the main targets. Since one of those groups is B2C and the other is B2B, two profiles may be necessary.

The other obvious segmentation is location. A lawn company is probably operating within a certain radius, so collect the applicable ZIP codes and rule out everything outside of that. Identifying all the property management companies within a few ZIP codes is a matter of a little online searching, which leaves the B2C profile to be completed.

The profile of your B2C customer is dependent on the service or product you offer and who you want to offer it to. For example, if you decide you want Great Greens to be a high-end landscaping service, not one that offers small contracts, it makes sense to include that in your customer profile. Then, you need to put yourself in that customer's head to identify how that type of person makes buying decisions and how they like to be sold to.

Here is an example of a fancy Great Greens customer profile, and how such a profile may be used to tailor email marketing campaigns:

Great Greens Individual Client

Age: 40s+

Gender: Irrelevant

Career: White-collar, upper-management or highly skilled service provider (attorney, accountant, doctor), established in career and life

Lifestyle: Has a family or very active social life, works a lot, travels a lot, dines out a lot, used to very high-end services and does not have time or inclination to care for a lawn; not price-sensitive if they feel like they are getting the best of the best

Education: College educated, possibly with a master's degree or Ph.D.

Home: Single-family home with lawn; owned, not rented

Communication preferences: Text and email updates about services in progress is a key for this busy professional, but calls should only be made as a last resort.

Using market segmentation like a marketer

With just a little imagination, it is easy to picture Great Greens' ideal client, and similar profiles can be constructed for any type of client. The information above provides clear guidelines for gathering leads based on home type (detached, with a lawn) and proximity to Great Greens. This ideal client also has relatively high income, so a good marketer would tell you it makes sense to focus on neighborhoods with a high median home price. Median home prices are a matter of public record and easy to find on websites like Trulia and Zillow.

A broad email marketing campaign, targeting high-income homeowners with lawns in your area, is a good way to begin your advertising. You can either purchase email addresses for people in the areas you've identified, do research online by starting with physical addresses and names and working your way back to email addresses (which is time-consuming and requires some digging skills), or consider a well-placed local advertisement or snail mail marketing campaign (since physical addresses are easier to find). Even if you go the purchased list route, you should still create a client profile.

Using market segmentation to determine your marketing strategy

The client profile not only helps you to determine who to target with your email campaign, it can also help you determine your marketing strategy. In the case of a high-end client, for example, hard selling and promoting how cheap your lawn care is not the best marketing strategy; instead, you may want to focus on the convenience and white-glove service factor. These profile features can and should impact the graphic design and images you use in your email campaign as well.

How to write marketing emails that get results

An email is an opportunity to connect, but there's a right and wrong way to write it. If you are going to do your copywriting yourself, you might as well know the best practices for email marketing.

1. Craft a great subject line.

Emails with attention-catching subject lines are more likely to be opened. The key is to keep your subject line short and to the point. Don't exclusively think about what you want to say to your customers; think about what your customers want to hear from you.

If you're writing a subject line to notify possible customers of a sale, for example, focus on the sale itself. There is a tendency among amateur writers to overwrite, but subject lines are short by design. A clear subject line such as "50% off local luxury swimwear line!" is actually much better than "Support local swimwear designers by purchasing luxe swimsuits from Swim Elite, on sale now through August."

Keep it short and focused. Remember that most of your potential customers will read the subject line and nothing else. If you can only sell in one sentence, what do you want to say in that sentence, and how can you increase brand awareness? Always focus on what you can do for the potential customer, not how you want your brand to be seen. You can convey your brand identity in other ways, like through word choice and email design. 

2. Maintain focused clarity.

Focus is the name of the game when it comes to building a workable email marketing strategy. Each email you send should have only one purpose. Do not try to make your customers aware of every service and every promotion you offer in one email.

If you have a lot of ground to cover or your services are complicated to explain, consider doing a full email series with targeted emails covering different topics. Map out the customer journey from the first time they are made aware of your services to the day they finally buy, and plan out your email series accordingly. A long-form email newsletter is another option for businesses that tend to have a longer and more complicated customer journey than the typical B2C retailer. Whichever route you go, just make sure you take a planned and focused approach.

Ideally, targeted emails should be brief and to the point, not unlike cover letters for job applications. What are you offering or showcasing, why is it better than the competition, and how can the customer get it? Oftentimes, small business owners get so caught up in cutesy phrasing and taglines that they forget vital information like where the business is located, links to the business site, or hours of operation.

If you are not a naturally talented writer, you might begin the process by writing the email in laughably simple terms and then add finesse after the fact. This can be extremely helpful for clarifying which information is important and establishing the right order in which to present the information.

Using the local swimwear line example, you could write something like this:

Our swimwear is a luxury product. Our brand is Swim Elite. Our swimwear is locally designed and handcrafted. We are having a 50% off sale. The sale lasts through August. You can order items on our website link listed here. People should order soon, while they can.

Obviously, that is not much of a sales pitch, but it illuminates a lot. For example, the mention of the 50% sale should happen earlier, since that is the main purpose of the email. Plus, customers need to know the product is both high-end and local, and we want to promote the name of the brand. So, using that information, you can now finesse the message, writing something like this:

Swim Elite is offering 50% off our luxury swimwear line! Our sale on locally designed swimwear only lasts through August. Order now!

It is usually easier for inexperienced writers to bulk out a salesy message than to streamline it, which is why the approach of starting with stripped-down language works so well.

3. Include a call to action.

One of the most common mistakes novices writing targeted emails make is not including a call to action, or CTA. The CTA is a staple of copywriting and exactly what it sounds like: a call for the reader to take an action.

A CTA can be as simple as "order now!" or "register for this event today" or "request a price quote now!" Keep your CTA short and clear. If you cannot figure out what your CTA should be, it may indicate that your marketing strategy is unclear. Without an obvious goal, it is impossible to assess the success of any marketing campaign.  

When should you hire a copywriter?

If the only emails you intended to send are transactional emails, like abandoned cart emails and order confirmation emails, you can likely handle that yourself. That said, copywriting is a profession for a reason. While everyone technically can write an advertisement or even an email campaign, people who write for a living (and do it successfully) tend to be more skilled with language than the average professional, as well as being aware of best practices in terms of branding and marketing.

The more marketing you intend to do via email and newsletter, and the more sophisticated your audience is, the more strongly you should consider hiring a copywriter. If you do decide to hire someone, keep in mind that copywriters are just like other professionals: 90% of copywriters are not in the top 10% of their field. If you hire someone fresh out of school or who charges very low rates compared to other copywriters, expect the work to reflect that.

One alternative to hiring a high-priced copywriter is to cultivate internal talent instead. You may already have a receptionist with a marketing or writing degree who would love the chance to hone her skills, or a moonlighting graphic designer who is usually busy answering basic IT questions all day. Get to know your team and see if there is any internal potential.

Choosing images for marketing emails

Words are only part of the marketing email equation. Effective images for email campaigns can be simple or sophisticated, original, or available through a paid image service. So long as the images you include are not violating any copyright laws, are of high quality, add to the overall message of the email and identity of the brand, and look good on mobile devices as well as laptops and desktops, you should be set.

These are the main ways to get images that support your email message, as well as their pros and cons: 

  • Hire a graphic designer. Good graphic designers can be pricey, but a real pro should be able to create a beautiful finished product for you. Graphic designers can do anything from marketing email layout to logo design, and they can work with you to create a consistent image across your brand, which is invaluable in highly image-conscious industries.

  • Hire a photographer. Hiring a photographer to take pictures of your product is a good way to ensure you get great, original images. Photographers often include retouching and resizing in their packages. If you only need general images of your business or a one-off, it's not even that expensive. However, if you will consistently need a photographer to create new images for you, it might be worthwhile to hire someone in-house rather than relying on freelancers. Many photographers don't do layout or general design work, so that's also something to consider.

  • Do it yourself. Going the DIY route is not the worst idea if you have a creative and skilled workforce at your disposal. Even someone with a minor in photography can usually manage to take decent pictures of a pizza restaurant or an event venue, and thanks to social media, lots of people are pretty design savvy. Unless you are marketing your services exclusively to creative professionals or very high-end clientele, DIY email marketing design is probably just fine.

  • Buy a subscription to an image service. A great in-between option if you want to partially DIY your marketing email design work, buying a subscription to an image service is affordable and simple. With a subscription to a service like Shutterstock or Getty Images, you get access to professionally shot stock images to use in your emails.

Email marketing automation 101

Once your marketing strategy is established and your first email is complete, you may want to consider using marketing automation software to streamline your future email campaigns. Email templates, including design templates, are a staple of many SaaS marketing products. Another useful feature many such solutions offer is the ability to schedule emails, customize emails with customer names, track deliverability and open rates, track click-through rates, and automatically send trigger emails for you. Popular small business marketing automation products include Mailchimp and Constant Contact, but there are dozens of others.

Some email marketing automation tools are also linked to larger CRM systems (like in the case of HubSpot and Salesforce), which can be helpful for your sales staff when it comes to tracking the customer journey through your sales pipeline. If your company already uses a dedicated CRM, see if it offers any add-on tools to streamline your email marketing.

Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell,
business.com Writer
See Mona Bushnell's Profile
I'm a Staff Writer for business.com and Business News Daily.