Email marketing 101

By Tim Priebe on September 1, 2021

By Tim Priebe on September 1, 2021

We’re big fans of all sorts of digital marketing platforms. We’ve been building websites since 2003 and also love social media. But none of those have the potential to be nearly as effective as email marketing, when done right.

If you’re just starting out with email marketing, it can feel a bit overwhelming. I’m going to share an overview of email marketing. While you won’t be an expert after reading this guide, you’ll have a much better understanding if you’re just getting into it. Even if you’ve been doing it for a while, you may learn something.

Create your email list

For email marketing to be effective, you sort of need a list of email addresses to market to, right? Of course!

There are basically two options:

  1. Buy a list
  2. Build a list yourself

Buying vs. building your email list

Buying a list can sound attractive. You pay money, and you get a big list of email addresses to market to. The problem? Those people didn’t specifically ask to hear from you.

When you build your list from the ground up, you’re emailing people you already know and people that have asked you specifically to email them. They’re expecting to hear from you, so it’s not surprising that you’ll have better results.

Now, we’ve had clients buy lists in the past. And while many email platforms specifically prohibit that, our clients are big boys and girls, so we let them decide if they want to break that rule.

However, we have had clients that are part of a franchise, where we sent out almost identical emails. Some of those lists were purchased lists, and others were built lists.

Here’s an example of the results of one email we sent.

Results from a purchased list
Results from a built list

We’ll get more into measuring email campaign effectiveness here in a bit, but you can see that while the opens were a little higher on the list that was not purchased, the clicks were much higher.

How do you build your email list?

So how do you actually build your list? Here are some ideas:

  • Email friends and people you know through business directly and ask them. Mention you’re going to send out helpful information (more on that in a minute), and also let them know it’s easy to unsubscribe if they change their mind.
  • Add a landing page on your website where people can sign up for your email newsletter. Include links or screenshots of past newsletters. Share the link to the sign-up page on social media and in your email signature.
  • Create a downloadable white paper, ebook, or checklist that people must enter their email address to download. Make the content similar to the type of content you’ll be sending out in emails.
  • Run a giveaway that requires people to sign up for your email newsletter to be entered to win. Promote it by emailing people directly, messaging them, posting on social media, etc. You can even do this every month.
  • Get email addresses at an in-person event. If you’re putting on a workshop, speaking, staffing a booth at a conference, or just attending a networking event, gather email addresses there. Be sure you’re transparent about why they’re giving you their email address.

You’ll want to do a lot of email list building at the beginning, but it should be an ongoing activity as well. Keep it up as long as you’re using email marketing. You don’t want your list to grow stale!

Email newsletter content

Okay, so now that you have a list, what should you actually put in your newsletter?

The key here is to provide value. Lots of business owners I’ve talked with over the years have thought they could start an email newsletter where all they did was send out news about their business.

Guess what? People don’t care!

Your recipe for success

All content marketing, email marketing included, is made of some mixture of three different ingredients. I like to use the acronym PIE:

  • Promotional
  • Informational
  • Entertaining

An email newsletter that’s just news about your business is too much P in your PIE! Promotional content is great in moderation, but too much, and your email marketing won’t be effective.

You need to have a good balance of information and some level of entertaining content. Of course, the actual recipe for success differs from industry to industry, and even within an industry, it differs from organization to organization.

One potential exception to the rule of keeping the promotional content is if you’re business-to-consumer—B2C—and people have the option to buy from you frequently. Think of a coffee shop or clothing store. In retail and the lower-end food industry, people will often sign up for your email marketing, assuming you’ll be sending them specials, deals, and coupons. So don’t let them down!

Blog delivery system

Example of a BDS email newsletter

With most of the clients we work with, their email newsletter is either original content, a blog delivery system, or a combination of the two.

Unique content is, well, unique content. It’s written just for the email newsletter and doesn’t exist elsewhere.

A blog delivery system—which we affectionately call a BDS—lets subscribers know that you’ve published a new blog on your website. If you’re already writing blogs for other reasons—usually SEO or sales support—it’s a great way to repurpose content.

With a BDS email newsletter, you simply put the title of the blog as a headline, an enticing expert from the beginning of the blog, the main image you used in a blog, and a Read More link or button. You can also include links to share the blog (not the newsletter!) on social media.

You can send out a BDS email each and every time you blog. Or you can send one out that has all your blogs for the month in it.

And even if your email newsletter is primarily a BDS, you can always include a short introduction at the top of every newsletter with unique content.

Email frequency best practices

In the planning stages, most people ask, ‘How often should I send marketing emails?” Great question!

First, a non-answer: we’ve found that consistency is far more important than the specific frequency. A sure way to tick off your subscribers is to send out 10 one month, then skip a couple of months, then send out 4 in a month, and so on.

According to a study by MarketingSherpa, 61% of people want to receive an email at least weekly, and an overwhelming 86% want to receive emails monthly.

That’s pretty close to what we’ve seen throughout the years. We recommend that our clients email monthly, twice a month, or weekly.

So how do you decide which one of those frequencies you’ll use? Think about how often your subscribers think about the products or services you sell or the problems you solve.

Let’s take a roofing company as an example. People usually only think about their roof when they’re selling or buying a home or right after a storm. A roofing company should usually send out monthly emails.

On the other extreme, let’s take a business coach as an example. Business owners are often up late at night thinking about various challenges they’re facing in business. They think about it all the time! So a business coach should usually send out weekly emails.

Of course, this all assumes the emails are actually helpful! If you’re spamming people, the frequency won’t matter. Remember to send out emails that provide value to subscribers.

Drip campaigns

While having a regularly scheduled email newsletter is great, you can add additional value for both your subscribers and your business with drip campaigns. At the very least, most email newsletters would benefit from a welcome series.

What is a drip campaign?

You may be asking yourself, “Self, what is a drip campaign?” It’s weird that you asked yourself that question since I assume you don’t know. So I’ll answer on your behalf.

In email marketing, a drip campaign is a series of emails that you set to go out at set intervals over some time. They’re also sometimes called automated email campaigns, lifecycle emails, or autoresponders. And they’re a simple form of marketing automation.

A welcome series of emails

Okay, now that I’ve thrown a bunch of terms at you, let’s look at the welcome series I mentioned as an example. In that case, a drip campaign is triggered when someone signs up for your email newsletter.

First, let’s look at how it works from a technical standpoint. Let’s say you have a welcome series of emails set up, and Clark signs up for your email newsletter on January 1, while Lois signs up on February 1. Both Lois and Clark will get the email newsletter you send out on February 5 at the same time. However, Clark got the first email in the welcome series on January 1, while Lois got the first email in the welcome series on February 1.

Now some examples. The whole point of a welcome series of automated emails is to help people get acquainted with your company, let them know what you’re all about, provide some value, and even promote some specific services or products.

Here are some types of emails to consider including in your series:

  1. Welcome and brand overview
  2. Free gift or special offer
  3. Customer testimonial
  4. Ebook or other packaged content that demonstrates your expertise
  5. Request for future topics to cover
  6. Call to action for social engagement

Note that you can also repeat some of those types. You can have a free gift a couple of different times or a customer testimonial both toward the beginning and toward the end.

We’ve done a deeper dive on this in two different articles in years past, so feel free to read those for even more details on a drip campaign that’s a welcome series, including some examples:

Other types of drip campaigns

Of course, there are plenty of other types of drip campaigns to think about. Types to consider include:

  • Reengagement campaign (for people that aren’t engaging with your email newsletter)
  • E-course
  • Case study series
  • Post-event follow-up
  • Highlighting new product or service
  • Post-purchase series (onboarding clients)
  • Renewal (when an ongoing agreement is about to end)

Measure email campaign effectiveness

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? Well, at least you’ve got your list going, and you are emailing content regularly. Now it’s time to measure how effective your email campaigns have really been!

Now, let me be up-front here. I can go over in-depth marketing analytics reports with the best of them. But boy, does it wear me out! I like to keep things as simple as possible when it comes to reporting and analytics, and email is no exception.

To measure the effectiveness of each email campaign, I typically look at two key metrics:

  1. Open rate
  2. Click rate

Simply put, the open rate is the percentage of subscribers that actually opened your email. Click rate is the percentage of people that clicked on a link in your email.

It’s important to know that the reporting isn’t 100% accurate. The key is to be constantly improving. If someone is scanning through their inbox and they have a preview pane turned on with images enabled by default, your email marketing platform will think they opened your email, when in reality, they may not have read it at all.

Clicks do tend to be much more accurate than opens. At least, if your reporting tool says a specific subscriber clicked on a link in your email, chances are pretty good that they really did.

However, if your email is 100% unique content, people are much less likely to click on it than if your email is a BDS—blog delivery system. That’s another reason why we often encourage clients to use their email newsletter as a BDS, as it gives them another metric to measure.

So what is a good open rate? Reports definitely differ, but if you’re looking for a benchmark, 20% is decent. As far as click rate goes, a decent percentage is 2 to 4 percent.

Follow-up bonus tip if you’re responsible for sales: Look at who has clicked on a link in your email and reach out to them! See why they were interested. I like sending an email something like this:

Clark, I have no clue if this is right or not, but my email newsletter software says you clicked on a link in my recent email. Assuming that’s accurate, what interested you about the topic? Is it anything we should talk about? What would you like us to cover about that topic in the future? Any specific questions?

Email marketing tools

Finally, this overview wouldn’t be complete unless I shared some of the more popular email marketing platforms out there to choose from. We’re big fans of Mailchimp, but we also know it’s not a good fit for every organization, every person, or every situation.

That said, here are twelve popular email marketing services to consider, some of which have plenty of other services too:

  1. ActiveCampaign
  2. aWeber
  3. Constant Contact
  4. ConvertKit
  5. EmailOctopus
  6. GetResponse
  7. HubSpot
  8. iContact
  9. Keap
  10. Mailchimp
  11. MailerLite
  12. Omnisend

Want professional email marketing services?

We’ve been helping clients with email marketing for years. While we’ve been using Mailchimp specifically since 2010, we help clients with other platforms as well. We help with email newsletter design and setup, email newsletter management, training, email list building, drip campaign creation, email service provider migration, and consulting.

If any of that sounds interesting, feel free to reach out. We would be happy to talk and see if we might be a good fit!

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