Email Marketing: Tools, Strategies and Best Practices

Thursday, January 04th
Content Manager

Mark Wilson

I’m not going to condescend to you and pretend that you don’t know what email marketing is. You’ve been on the internet and found this blog; I’m guessing you’ve had at least three different personal email accounts in your life, and received 5-10 email messages minimum from marketers in the past week.

The question isn’t what it is (though we’ll cover that too). But rather, how do you do it well? What does a great email look like? Should my brand, company or project be using email marketing?

These are better questions to wrestle with, because the answers will help you create results for your company. These are exactly what we’ll tackle in this article. Ready? Good, let’s begin.

What is Email Marketing? Beyond the Basics

Email marketing is a method of digital communication that allows you to send emails individually or in mass quantities to promote or otherwise market your brand, products or services, sending updates or promotions to a list of subscribers. Email marketing allows for quick communication to these subscribers at scale.

That last paragraph is in there for SEO. Like I said, you already know what email is. But if I didn’t define the central topic, our overlords at Google likely wouldn’t take kindly to it.

With that out of the way, though, let’s talk about the real reason you’re probably here: to decide if email marketing is for you, and to learn how to start building great emails.

Why Use Email Marketing?

The case for email marketing makes itself:

  1. It’s just as easy to send one email as it is to send 100,000 with many modern tools, so it’s a marketing channel that can scale with your business.
  2. It allows you to communicate directly with your customers and other interested followers.
  3. More frequent communication with existing customers can lead to higher retention rates among that customer set.
  4. The cost of email marketing tends to be far lower than many other traditional marketing channels, making it a cost-effective way to promote your business.

All of that is dependent on one thing, though: your emails have to provide value to the recipients. If they don’t, email marketing can be less effective or even a net negative.

So how to avoid that? We’ll talk about pitfalls shortly, but next up is a powerful strategy for getting the most out of email marketing: personalization.

Using Data to Personalize Emails

Open your email right now and check on a recent email you received from a business. Does it address you by your first name?

Chances are, yes, it does. Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s someone on the other end personalizing this email to you specifically. 

At some point, you had to input your name into that company’s system. So now, when they send you an email, your name will often appear in the header.

This is a basic form of personalization, but this practice can go a lot further.

Say you're a clothing distributor, and you have customers who only buy men’s apparel, others who only buy women’s apparel, and others who buy a mix of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing.

If you send a promotional email on seasonal deals, do you want to send them all the same email? No. You want deals and new items in men’s clothing to go to the first customer, only women’s clothing deals for the second, and a mix of all your product offerings for the last type of customer.

How do you do this? Data. Lots of it. And then tying that data to your emails.

For clarity, this doesn’t mean that you need to have 10,000 unique emails if you have 10,000 customers (though software to do this exists as well). However, it probably means that you’ll have at least 2-3 different customer types, and potentially as many as 5-10, each of which necessitates a different approach.

That men’s-only purchaser isn’t going to feel very special if he’s getting offers for women’s shoes, but he’ll know that your company is trying to provide relevant information for him if the deals and offers he receives are similar to what he’s searched for in the past.

This is the same type of technology driving the recommendations you see when you log into Amazon. You aren’t going to turn yourself into Amazon overnight, but you can use the same strategies to create repeat customers.

This is only scratching the surface of how you can personalize emails. eCommerce makes for a convenient example, but tone, messaging, content and frequency can all change according to customer data.

Email Audience Segmentation

What I just described above has another name: segmentation. Essentially, this is where you split your email audience into similar categories based on things like age, geographic region, purchase habits or subscription level.

If you have three tiers to your loyalty club membership, for instance, there will be messages you’ll want to send to one, two, or all three tiers. But the top tier is likely receiving benefits the other two aren’t, so there will be messages only for them.

Other times, the categories are more industry-specific. A financial services firm that caters to the healthcare industry might have different audience segments for nursing home clients, hospital clients, and medical equipment providers. 

The types of news and information that are relevant to each audience in that example will likely not be relevant to the others, which requires separate audience segments in your email marketing.

RELATED: Building a User Persona

Types of Email Marketing

Email marketing isn’t just one thing. Yes, an email is an email, to be stupidly obvious. But the purpose of an email can vary drastically, and very few companies are using every major type of email marketing (nor should they).

Here are some common types, from which you can decide which ones are best for your company.

Confirmation and Welcome Emails

Any time you’ve purchased something or signed up for an event or newsletter, you probably got a confirmation email. This is more important than you might realize!

People are used to receiving them when they take online actions, so if they don’t receive a confirmation email, they may think something went wrong. This can erode trust in your business.

Beyond that, it’s a small opportunity to invite them to engage more. “Oh cool, you liked our {product}. We hope you enjoy it! We’d also invite you to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to receive updates on our latest products and deals.”

That’s short and sweet to make a point. You might have other ways to engage. But the point is that the purchase or sign-up isn’t the end of their interaction with you, but the beginning.

Deals and Offers

This one’s pretty simple. Some brands - Kohl’s for instance - are known for their promotions, discounts, deals and specials. Many people subscribe to the Kohl’s email newsletter to get even deeper discounts when they shop.

This doesn’t work for all companies. But if your customers expect it from you, deals and promotions can be a powerful way to create repeat customers.

Educational or Entertaining Emails

This style of email is more of a long game, because it’s not worried about making a sale in the short-term. Rather, it’s building trust and confidence in your brand over time so that people think of you when they need you, and also recommend it to friends more often.

If you’ve ever heard someone tell you that they love a particular email newsletter, chances are it’s this style.

An example: I subscribe to an email that covers cultural history. It takes interesting looks at art, music, literature, architecture, and more. Its presence in my email is a weekly treat.

It doesn’t sell me anything. Not directly, at least. However, the author has written several books on various historical topics. While I haven’t purchased any of them yet, I’ve considered it, and will likely end up purchasing one or more eventually.

Why? Because I enjoy the content, the writer’s voice and ability to break down historical topics in understandable and exciting ways. It’s marketing through education and entertainment, and can be extremely powerful when done well.

Topical or Seasonal Emails

Thanksgiving greetings to let your customers know what you’re thankful for? A preparedness article about the incoming hurricane seasons?

These are just a couple examples among thousands of topical or seasonal emails you could send.

Bonus points if it somehow touches on what your business does. An Irish history museum would be stupid not to send a St. Patrick’s Day email, for example, or an ice cream chain on National Ice Cream Day (July 21, by the way).

Maybe it’s paired with a discount code, or a bit of entertainment, or maybe it’s just to wish everyone a great day. Regardless, these touch points can be valuable ways to stay in peoples’ minds.


You’re cordially invited to a masquerade ball at midnight on the solstice in the abandoned rail station in the forest!

Ok, so maybe your invitation isn’t quite as grand and mysterious as that. But invitations are a valid use of email marketing. Here are some examples:

  • Events hosted by or sponsored by the company
  • Invitations to donate to a particular charitable cause or event that the company is involved in. This is popular around the holidays, for instance.
  • Invitations to follow the company on social media, or to share a particular announcement with friends who might enjoy it.

Businesses that are honest about needing help to get the word out will receive it, but only if they’ve first earned the respect of the people they’re asking to help them.

Drip Email Campaigns

A drip email campaign is a series of emails sent to a person over a specified period of time, which is triggered by a specific event that the recipient takes.

Drip campaigns are a bit of a hybrid, because they can include all of the email types mentioned above.

For example, a visitor to your website signs up for the company newsletter. This might trigger a series of emails that look like this:

  1. An email welcoming them to the newsletter and talking about the different benefits the email can provide.
  2. A series of educational emails about products or services the person has browsed on the site in the past.
  3. A few months later, a coupon code for a discount if they refer a friend to the newsletter.
  4. Another month later, an invitation to an online event co-hosted by the company.

All of this can be set up in advance! All that is required is that the person sign up for the newsletter, and it triggers this entire series of emails.

This is a powerful way to scale your efforts so that you can create curated email sends to thousands of people.

How Not to Do Email Marketing

Ok, so you know what types of emails you want to send. Now what should you avoid?

Here are some common pitfalls that businesses fall into:

  1. Sending emails too often. Who wants to get 3 emails a week from the same company? A few people, sure, but not most of us, especially since most people are on numerous email lists. There’s no magic formula for how often you should send emails, but if you think it might be too much, it probably is.
  2. Not sending enough emails. Wait, wait?! Yes, really, sending too few is bad as well. If your followers only hear from you once a year, you’re leaving a ton of opportunity on the table.
  3. Relying on emails to spike sales in the short-term. Email marketing is a long-term strategy. If you only send them when you need an influx of sales, you might have success at first, but you’re eventually going to burn out your audience. Mix up your emails with ones that provide value to the audience and aren’t just asking for money.
  4. Only sending promotions. This relates to #3. This can become repetitive and forgettable if you’re overdoing a single type of messaging.
  5. Not including opt-out options. This can actually be illegal, as we’ll discuss below. But it’s also just a bad practice that will annoy many subscribers. Make sure you’re staying compliant with email regulations in your country.
  6. Not segmenting your audience. Broadly sending every message to every person is a great way to lose the attention of your audience. Segmenting your audience means that everything you send has a specific audience in mind and will provide greater value to those receiving them.
  7. Not automating sends. The drip campaigns we mentioned earlier are an example of automated email sends. If you’re doing too much manually, you won’t be able to scale your email marketing efforts to support continued growth.

There are other potential pitfalls to any form of marketing, but these are some of the major ones that businesses trip over.

How Often Should I Send Emails?

Our advice: start with once per month, then scale up as you get the hang of what resonates with your audience. For most businesses, once per week is the most you should ever aim for, though even here there can be exceptions, particularly if you’re segmenting your audience well to avoid oversaturating any audience with too many emails.

You can occasionally break this rule when you have special announcements or when you’ve crafted a series of emails that all build off of one another in a drip campaign.

CAN-SPAM Guidelines

Commercial emails are regulated by the U.S. federal government. This comes as a surprise to some, but it shouldn’t when you think about the millions of marketing messages that are sent every day.

The CAN-SPAM Act provides guidelines for businesses that use email for commercial purposes. Similarly, the GDPR is the EU’s version of these guidelines, and regulates emails for countries within its membership.

The guidelines include items on security, use of data, and transparency in revealing who is sending the email, where your business is located, and honoring opt-out requests (unsubscribes) promptly.

We’re not going to list every item in the guidelines, but the links above contain them. If you’re starting email marketing in your company, or currently using email marketing and haven’t already reviewed these guidelines, it’s vital that you do so.

Does everyone follow these guidelines? Most do, but the exceptions are obvious because it looks a lot shadier when you aren’t doing things like allowing opt-outs or revealing your business name and location. So not only will you be compliant, but your emails will elicit more trust if you adhere to these guidelines.

Building an Email List

Now the hard part. Well, not the only hard part, but one of them.

Building an email list that will provide consistent revenue for your company takes time. Some businesses try to jump the line by buying email lists. This is bad for a few reasons:

  1. It’s often hard to know where the data was obtained from, and if it was through legal means.
  2. Even if it was legally obtained and can be sold and shared, no one on that list opted into emails from your specific company, so they’re unlikely to be interested.
  3. The response rate from such lists varies wildly, but we’ve seen numerous instances where the engagement level is marginal, at best, from those on purchased lists.

So how can you do this in a way that’s going to create sustainable business?

  1. Include prominent newsletter sign-up opportunities on your website.
  2. Don’t just mention that you have an email newsletter. Tell people why they should be interested in receiving it.
  3. Deputize your sales team to ask potential or existing customers if they can be added to our email list.
  4. Encourage sign-ups at public events your company is present at, either directly or via contests and giveaways.
  5. Market your newsletter on social media. If you’re in a more corporate industry, LinkedIn might be the best place to mention it. If it’s less formal, Instagram, TikTok or many others might work better.
  6. Make great, informative, interesting, entertaining emails. Seriously, the best way to get great results from email is to make your email consistently exciting for those receiving it.

Measuring Email Success

One of the great things about email marketing is that it’s one of the more easily trackable digital marketing channels available to you.

Your big metrics are going to be Open Rate and Clickthrough Rate.

Open rate is the percentage of people who open your email in their inbox.

Clickthrough rate is the percentage of people who take some action once the email is open. This could be clicking on a purchase link, social media icon, or link to a page on your website with a video or article.

What’s a good open rate and clickthrough rate? It varies depending on industry and company, but in general, anything below a 20% open rate and 2% clickthrough rate should be considered underperforming.

“Wait, 2%?!” you might be saying. That seems low, right? But remember that email marketing is intended to work at scale. If you send 10,000 emails, you should expect at least 2,000 to read your email, and 200 to take some action that leads them to your website, an article, a coupon code, social media post, or product page.

That’s 200 likely customers, all for the cost of preparing and sending a single email. Not bad, right? Now imagine if you have 100,000 subscribers and can expect this on a monthly or even weekly basis.

Testing Your Emails

So your emails only have a 15% open rate and a 1% clickthrough rate. They’re underperforming. How can you improve this?

There are a lot of ideas on how to get more engagement, but underlying all of them is A/B Testing. A/B testing in email marketing is where you prepare two emails and send them to similar audiences, then analyze them to see which one performs better.

Will a single A/B test fix the issues with your emails? Probably not. But if you’re constantly tweaking your emails and testing their success, within a year you could have 50 A/B tests to draw from, which will start to paint a picture of what works and what doesn’t.

What kinds of things are you testing in these? Generally, if your open rate is low, you’ll want to test different subject lines. And if your clickthrough rate is low, you’ll want to switch up the messaging, offers and information in the emails themselves, and also vary the volume and type of clicks you’re prompting the readers to perform.

Getting Started With Email Marketing

We didn’t talk about some of the nuts & bolts of setting up email marketing. That’s because lots and lots of tools exist to make this step easy for you. 

Mailchimp, Constant Contact, ConvertKit and Hubspot are just a handful of the most popular options. Others come packaged with CRM software, so that they integrate seamlessly with your internal database. Others are available as plug-ins for websites built in Wordpress, Squarespace or other website platforms.

Any of them will allow you to import lists of emails, create audience segments, and craft attractive emails on a variety of topics. They’ll also handle sending the emails and will also collect tracking data so that you can measure success.

Everything beyond that is just refining your process so that email brings you more attention, engagement and revenue. The hard work comes from creating an infrastructure and processes for email marketing so that you’re maximizing its benefit for both your audience and you as a company. 

If you’re willing to put in that work, though, email marketing can be one of your best digital marketing channels for years to come.

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