This beginner’s guide will explain exactly what is email marketing and how it works. By the end, you’ll have a solid grasp of the basics along with the know-how to launch email marketing for your business.
Email marketing is the most profitable direct marketing channel, generating an average return on investment of $42 for every $1 spent (DMA, 2019).
Email should be a key pillar of your digital marketing strategy. To not do any email marketing is like leaving money on the table.
But if you’re a bit confused about where to begin, that’s totally normal. Email’s a vast discipline. It’s easy for beginners to get lost in a sea of tools, techniques and terminology.
It’s best learn how to do email marketing before launching your first email campaign. This way you’ll get better results and avoid embarrassing mishaps. So hang tight while we teach you:
- What is email marketing
- Why your business needs email marketing in 2020
- How does email marketing work
- How to start email marketing
- How to launch your first email marketing strategy in 8 steps
- 10 best practices for successful email marketing
What is email marketing?
Email marketing is when you send a commercial email message to your ‘email subscribers’ — contacts who have signed up to your email list and given express permission to receive email communications from you.
Email marketing is used to inform, drive sales, and build a community around your brand (e.g. with a newsletter).
Modern email marketing has moved away from one-size-fits-all mass mailings and instead focuses on consent, segmentation, and personalization.
Examples of different types of marketing emails
Emails can either be promotional or informational and fulfill a specific purpose in the buyer journey.
Email marketing campaigns are used to promote, whether it’s to promote a special offer, a new product release, an ebook, or a webinar. A campaign could consist of 3 – 10 emails sent over several days or weeks.
Promotional emails have a clear call-to-action — or CTA for short. The CTA represents the specific action you want the reader to take, whether it’s visit a webpage or make a purchase.
This type of marketing email is sent as and when required, in line with the rhythm of your business.
Newsletters: A newsletter, as the name suggests, share news related to your business (new milestones reached, new product capabilities) or to highlight a product use case. Sent according to a set schedule (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly), newsletters help maintain a consistent connection with your subscribers.
But did you know? Newsletters don’t just have to be about ‘news’. As email guru Ann Handley says, focus on the letter aspect. Imagine you’re writing a one-to-one letter to your subscribers about something that interests them.
Put like this, a newsletter is an opportunity to share insights, thoughts, tips – whatever brings the most value to your audience.
Announcements: Email is the perfect way to inform customers of company announcements, new releases, changes to the service, etc.
As a channel, email has the necessary formality for delivering important messages. This would explain why email was the channel of choice for brands sending crisis communications during COVID-19.
Is email marketing still important in 2020?
Email isn’t a new technology. In fact, it was one of the very first means of digital communication to arrive back in 1971. But get this: Email marketing — almost 50 years old — is more widely used today than ever.
The phrase ‘Email is dead’ gets bounced around the marketing echo chamber every now and then. But don’t believe it. Email is only getting bigger. Just take a look at these statistics:
- In 2019, there were 3.9 billion global email users (source: Statista)
- 80% of Americans check their email at least once per day, with nearly a quarter of them checking their personal email several times a day (Fluent Inbox Report, 2018)
- 80% of business professionals believe that email marketing increases customer retention (Emarsys, 2018)
Given the figures, it’s not surprising that email is hailed as the most effective channel in B2B marketing.
Not having an email marketing strategy means missing out on sales opportunities and the chance to strengthen ties with customers.
The Benefits of Email Marketing
From order confirmations to newsletters, emails are an essential aspect of the growth and management of your business.
Email marketing will help fulfill 3 key objectives:
1. Conversions (selling your products and services)
Launching a sale or promotion? You can send an email marketing campaign to your subscribers to drive sales.
Other email marketing techniques known to increase conversion rates include:
- Emailing a discount or special offer (birthday/anniversary emails, welcome emails, reengagement emails)
- Abandoned cart emails (triggered whenever a visitor abandons a cart at your online store)
2. Brand awareness
What’s great about email is that it lets you reach someone directly. It’s one-to-one communication at its best. And besides, people don’t just let anyone into their inbox these days. It’s a curated space reserved for favorite brands and publications.
Showing up in someone’s email inbox will help your brand stay top of mind. A personalized marketing email is more impactful than a social media post where you can’t be sure if someone has actually seen your message.
One of the major benefits of email marketing is its scalability. This means that emails can be sent to a large number of recipients for a relatively low cost (compared to other marketing channels).
3. Customer loyalty
Email drives customer loyalty at every stage of the buyer journey: lead-nurturing, conversion, onboarding, retention.
It’s a powerful tool for building a community, as discussed at length in our guide to building relationships with email.
You can create newsletter content so good that subscribers will be waiting for it to arrive each week. Keep reading and we’ll tell you how.
Get more details on email marketing benefits in this video from the Sendinblue Academy:
Why email marketing is important
Email is accessible to all age groups. It opens the door to a wide range of audiences — even the least digitally-savvy among us.
We might live in the digital age but not everyone is that comfortable using the internet. However, most people do know how to check their email. This makes it the most mainstream form of marketing.
Email marketing is extremely cost-effective. Most email marketing tools offer pricing packages to suit all budgets. In reality, the barrier to entry has never been so low.
Many email tools — Sendinblue included — offer free plans without any commitment. These are ideal for first time email marketers who want to get a hang of the software before purchasing. With nothing to lose, there’s no excuse not to give it a go.
You own your email list
Think about it: Your social media could disappear in the morning and take all your followers with it. You’d be left with nothing. But therein lies the beauty of an email list — it’s yours. 🤗
So if all else goes belly up, you’ll still have a direct line of contact with the people who are most interested in your brand. And the intimacy of email as a one-to-one channel will bring you even closer to that audience.
How does email marketing work? Introducing ESPs
Businesses use what’s known as an Email Service Provider (ESP) to send marketing emails.
An Email Service Provider is software that sends and manages email marketing campaigns.
It’s also referred to as an email marketing platform, email marketing tool, email marketing service, or email marketing software.
Now you might be wondering, can’t I just send marketing emails with my regular inbox provider? Do I really need to pay for this additional email service?
Technically, it’s possible (we even explain how in our guide to sending mass email with Gmail). Beware, though. You’re likely to run into problems with limited email bandwidth, design, and more importantly, email deliverability. Here’s why:
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, etc. are designed for personal use — not for email blasts. So when mass email is sent from an ISP, it’s easily flagged by spam filters and your account can be disabled for suspicious activity.
ESPs on the other hand have the necessary infrastructure in place to ensure email deliverability — the ability to land emails in the inbox. If you want to set yourself up for email marketing success from day one, get yourself a dedicated email marketing service.
How to start email marketing: what do I need?
Keeping it simple, there’s two main things you need to run email marketing campaigns.
1. Email marketing software
As we’ve just explained, a dedicated email marketing provider is the way to go. Sending marketing emails through an ISP will only put your brand and email sender reputation at risk.
2. An email list
This list contains the email addresses of interested subscribers who have opted-in to receive email communications from you.
Yes, that’s right — opt-in. Because here’s the thing about email contacts:
Everyone on that email list needs to have given their express permission to be there.
What does that mean?
It means they agreed to receive emails from you when they entered their email address into an email signup form on your blog, website, landing pages, social media, or anywhere else. In email terms, this process is referred to as ‘opting in’ (‘opting out’ would be an unsubscribe).
Permission-based marketing is essential to conform with data protection laws and safeguard the integrity of your brand. After all, nobody likes a spammer.
Still with us up until now? Great, because here’s where it gets exciting — learning how to launch an email marketing strategy, starting with your first email campaign.
How to launch your first email marketing campaign in 8 steps
1. Choose the right email marketing software
The first step is finding an ESP to send and manage your email campaigns and email subscribers.
Popular email tools include Sendinblue, Mailchimp, Constant Contact, Convertkit, Mailjet, Mailerlite, and HubSpot — to name a few.
With hundreds of ESPs on the market, it’s hard to know which one is right for your business. And it’s easy to get sucked in by shiny bells and whistles you probably don’t need (not yet, anyway).
Evaluate your needs. Distinguish between must-have features and nice-to-have features. Make a list.
Here are some questions to narrow it all down:
- What’s your budget? If it’s very limited, then cheap email marketing services should be your starting point.
- What kind of emails do you plan to send, and how often? This’ll give you an idea of your required email volume (i.e. number of email sends).
- If you’ve already got a list of opt-in contacts, how many are there?
- What’s your skill level when it comes to designing emails? If you’re a complete beginner you’ll want a drag and drop email editor as this is easiest to use. Email templates will also come in handy. Inversely, if you prefer to code emails from scratch, you’ll surely be on the lookout for an HTML editor.
- Do you plan to set up automated email workflows? See what the potential ESP offers in terms of email marketing automation. Some solutions only offer basic autoresponders.
- If your business communicates with different buyer personas, what segmentation capabilities are offered?
- Will your business be sending transactional emails (note that these are not considered email marketing). Some folks like to manage these emails with a separate service, others prefer all emails under the one roof with a tool like Sendinblue.
It’s also a good idea to consider your future needs. Found an ESP you like? Do some simulations: Ok, if my list grows to X, how much will this ESP cost? If I want to add X to my strategy, does this ESP have the feature-set to support me?
A bit of optimistic projection into the future is good, but don’t get carried away. Focus on the essentials for now.
Pricing by email volume vs. pricing by subscribers
As you’re exploring different options, you’ll notice most providers base their pricing on the number of subscribers.
Lots of email marketing solutions will try to lure you in with cheap entry plans for a small number of subscribers (often 250 or 500). The catch? The prices tend to jump significantly once your list grows beyond these limits (as is the case with Mailchimp).
And hopefully your list will grow because that’s kind of the point. 😉 But it sure would be a shame to end up overpaying for email in the long run.
Sendinblue, on the other hand, structures its pricing according to email volume rather than the number of subscribers. That way, you grow your email list infinitely and it won’t impact the pricing.
The Lite Plan starts at $25 for unlimited subscribers and 10,000 emails — more than enough for any small business just starting out. Test-drive Sendinblue today on our free plan.
2. Build your email list
Can’t send email campaigns without anyone to send them to. Time to start building a list of engaged, opt-in subscribers.
Most ESPs let you create subscription forms to be embedded on your website.
When creating a subscription form, be super clear about your signup promise — what kind of email content will the subscribers receive and how often?
If you promise a bi-weekly email newsletter with content marketing tips, stick to that. If you start sending unrelated promotional content, expect people to unsubscribe (or worse, mark your emails as spam!).
Remember: People trust you enough to give their email address in the first place, don’t abuse that trust.
Add opt-in forms to your website and other places
Place your email subscription form in highly visible places where people will definitely see it.
Typical subscription form hotspots include blog posts, the homepage, and contact page.
Share forms on social media by including a link in your bio or posts.
Run an ecommerce store? Include a signup option as part of the checkout process.
Supercharge your list with content upgrades and lead magnets
Nothing makes a list grow faster than premium content.
Create an exclusive ebook, report, checklist, or infographic. Offer the user to download it for free in exchange for their email address.
Special offers and discounts are a great way to get people onto your list. Clothing brand Mango offers 10% off your first order when you subscribe to their newsletter.
Discover more tactics in our guide to email list-building.
3. Set up a welcome email for new subscribers
When someone signs up to your email list, you’ve got their attention. Now’s the time to engage them even further with a welcome email.
A welcome email is an automated message sent to new customers and subscribers. The idea is to introduce your brand and any content that’ll establish your relationship with the subscriber — a welcome discount, link to latest articles, useful information, etc.
Email deliverability tip: Get subscribers to add you to their contact list so they never miss an email.
4. Define the goal of your email marketing campaign
Now that you’ve started building your email list, it’s time to think about what you want to achieve from this first campaign.
Every email marketing campaign needs to have a clear goal.
Examples of common goals include:
- Promoting a new product
- Sharing a discount with loyal customers
- Getting more downloads for your latest ebook
- Updating subscribers on some important piece company news
Your goals can either be hyper-specific or broad — as long as they fit with your business and your audience.
With a clear goal in mind it’ll be easier to create your email content. Which brings us to the next step:
5. Build a responsive-design email
You might be wondering, do I need to hire an email designer?
If you’re bootstrapped and on a budget, then no. You don’t need one. To make things easy, most email marketing services have some form of Drag & Drop email editor. These are great for producing clean, simple, hassle-free designs.
Of course, that’s not to diminish the value of having a dedicated email designer, especially for ecommerce. An email designer will help you stand out from the crowd with custom templates. It’s definitely something to consider down the line — or even now if you have the means.
Anyway, if you’re going full-on DIY email marketing, just play around with your ESP’s editor until you’re satisfied with the end result.
And remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Don’t get hung up on creating a fancy design for the first email newsletter. Keep it simple. You can always build upon this later on as your skills grow.
Of course, one way to go faster is with customizable email templates.
Save time with ready-made email templates
Email marketing templates are the perfect shortcut to a standout email design.
If your email marketing service offers templates, pick one you like and personalize it to match your brand colors and font.
Re-use the template over and over for future email newsletters. All you’ll be doing each time is updating the content. Quick and easy.
Sendinblue has over 70 templates in its email template gallery. There are also plenty of free email templates available from other sources.
6. Craft your email copy
You know your goal, you know your target audience, now let’s fill that template with words.
Your email copy needs to offer value and speak to topics that interest your audience. You also need to nail down the tone of voice.
To write persuasive, engaging email copy, keep these tips in mind:
- Ask yourself: What does my audience need from me? How can I help?
- Imagine you’re writing to one person
- Show your personality
- Tell a story
- Write to instill curiosity (starting with the email subject line — more on that below)
- Use a conversational tone, i.e. write the way you speak
- Break up the copy with short paragraphs and use bullet points where possible
The email signature should be the name of a real person. This is more personal than a faceless brand logo.
Don’t have much copywriting experience? Don’t worry. Writing emails is something you can practise and improve with time.
6. Optimize your email open rate, clicks, and conversions
There are a number of ways to boost your email open and conversion rate, starting with your email sender name.
Use an easily recognizable sender name and address
When you get an email, what’s the first thing you look at? Who it’s from, of course.
The sender name answers the recipient’s first subconscious question: Is this genuine or is it spam?
The best way to reinforce trustworthiness and brand recognition is to incorporate your brand name into the sender name. There are several ways to go about this:
- Your company/brand/newsletter name on its own
- A combination of brand name and your first name (e.g. Emma at Sendinblue)
- A distinct sender name to differentiate specific types of email content (e.g. Sendinblue Product News)
To be easily recognized in the inbox, use the same sender name and address for all campaigns.
Avoid no-reply email addresses as these diminish trust in your brand and prevent subscribers from reaching out with questions. You want engagement from your audience — why close off a potential means of communication?
Write an intriguing email subject line
Introducing the most important element of your email marketing campaign: The email subject line.
This one sentence pretty much determines whether your email will be read or not. And with so much competition in the inbox these days, it needs to stand out.
Aim to create intrigue or a desire to open in just a few words.
- Limit yourself to 50 characters
- Highlight your most interesting offer
- Appeal to your subscribers’ emotions and ambitions
Our best subject line resources to boost open rates:
Optimize your email preheader/preview text
The email preheader (or preview text as it’s also known) is the snippet of text that appears after the email subject line on certain email clients and devices.
The preheader adds valuable context to your subject line and can significantly boost your open rates. The subject line and preheader should work together to start telling the reader a story.
Again, it should instill enough curiosity to make the reader want to open the email and learn more.
Fail to set a preview text and the email client will pull the first line of text.
‘View this email in your browser’ isn’t the most enticing, is it? Yep, you guessed it, customization is best.
7. Test your email campaign before sending
Always send a test email before officially hitting send. Small mistakes can easily slip through the cracks and harm your brand image.
Keep your eyes peeled for:
- Forgotten or incorrect links
- Text formatting errors
Have some team members proofread and check the test email on both desktop and mobile.
If you’re with Sendinblue, use the email preview feature to test different screen sizes and email clients.
And when all’s good to go, double check that you’ve selected the right email list.
8. Schedule your campaign for the right time
Rather than choosing a random day and time, be strategic. Choose a time that makes sense for your audience, based on what you know about them.
Most people tend to only visit their inbox a few times each day. Find a time that’ll put you top of the inbox when subscribers are checking their emails. This is sure to increase your open rates.
Email marketing campaigns tend to perform better when sent on Tuesday or Thursday in the mornings around 10:00 AM or in the afternoons around 2:00 PM.
It makes sense: Many people check their emails in the morning when they get to work, as well as after returning from lunch.
But, what works for most may not work best for you. It’s important to test different times to see where the sweet spot is with your audience.
Sendinblue Premium users get access to Send Time Optimization which selects the best time for each individual contact based on previous engagement data.
8. Monitor the campaign results
Analyzing key email marketing metrics will teach you how to do better in future campaigns. As a beginner email marketer, there’ll always be areas of improvement.
Most ESPs have an analytics dashboard with at least the following metrics:
- Open rate: The ratio of the number of people who opened your email divided by the total number of recipients.
- Click-through rate: The ratio of the number of people who clicked on a link in your email divided by the total number of recipients.
- Unsubscribe rate: The number of people who unsubscribed divided by the total number of recipients (hopefully, as close to zero as possible). If this number is high, you need to review your email frequency and segmentation — we’ll look at this in more detail shortly.
- Bounce rate: The number of emails that failed to deliver divided by the total number of emails sent. Soft bounces are due to temporary issues like the recipient’s inbox being full. Hard bounces, on the other hand, are due to permanent issues (e.g. an inactive email address).
10 Best Practices for Email Marketing Success
This next section focuses on how to do email marketing well.
1. Never buy email lists
Building an email list can be slow, especially when you’re just starting out. Buying a list might seem like a tempting shortcut but trust us, it’s a terrible idea.
Buying a list will put your business at serious risk because:
- In many jurisdictions around the world, sending unsolicited emails and storing people’s data in your crm without consent is illegal (think GDPR and CAN-SPAM act).
- People are more likely to mark unsolicited emails as spam, damaging your email sender reputation and potentially ending up on an email blocklist.
- Most email marketing services will refuse to work with you because purchased lists can harm the deliverability of other users on shared IP addresses.
And that’s not all. Many email addresses on purchased lists are actually spam traps. A spam trap is an inactive email address that’s purposely left out in the open to attract spammers.
Because the email address doesn’t belong to anyone, it’s impossible that it opted-in to any email lists. That way, the ISP knows that whoever contacts this address is a spammer.
In short, don’t buy email lists. Build your list organically — however slowly — and you’ll reap the rewards in the long run.
2. Use double opt-in
As already mentioned, the term ‘opt-in’ refers to the signup process. There are two different types of opt-in for email marketing:
- Single opt-in is when the subscriber is added to the email list once the signup form is submitted.
- Double opt-in is when you send a confirmation email with a link to each new subscriber. The subscriber must click the link to complete the subscription. Without this verification, they won’t receive emails from you.
Sure, double opt-in adds an extra step between the potential subscriber and your list. But far from being an obstacle, this process is important — especially for email deliverability.
Double opt-in eliminates any misspelled email addresses (which would otherwise generate a hard bounce). It also rules out spam traps and acts as proof of subscriber consent — a GDPR requirement.
For better email marketing, double opt-in is the way to go.
3. Segment your mailing list
As your email list expands, it’s likely to contain diverse buyer profiles.
List Segmentation is the process of dividing your list into smaller sub-lists of subscribers who have something in common. The idea behind this technique is to engage subscribers with more relevant, targeted emails.
Among the many different possibilities for segmentation, examples include demographic information such as age and location, lead score, and purchase history.
You can already segment subscribers into separate lists during signup by asking preferences in terms of content, email frequency, etc.
Who doesn’t like to feel noticed?
People generally appreciate when brands add personal touches and pay attention to small details. When it comes to making us feel valued and understood as a customer, a little effort goes a long way.
This also rings true for email marketing.
Personalizing emails is essential to building trusting relationships with prospects and customers.
Here are some simple email personalization ideas that’ll positively impact your opens, clicks, and conversion rate.
Simple email personalization to get started
- Use the subscriber’s first name in the email subject line and content (“Hey Tom!”)
- Where are the bulk of your subscribers located? Consider time-zones when scheduling campaigns to maximize the chances of the email being read.
- Segment contacts so that messaging is targeted and relevant
- Use behavior-triggered emails based on how customers interact with your product/service
5. Optimize for mobile
61.9% of all emails are opened and read on mobile.
For best results, make sure your emails display correctly on mobile devices.
Depending on the email design capabilities of your ESP, it’s likely that mobile-responsiveness is an already built-in feature.
All emails designed in Sendinblue are automatically programmed to fit mobile devices and you can double check this using the mobile preview functionality.
6. Optimize email deliverability
Email marketing success depends massively on email deliverability.
An important concept for email marketers, email deliverability refers to the ability to deliver an email to the inbox.
When all’s well, the email makes it past the spam filters and arrives at its destination. When deliverability is compromised, the email lands in the spam folder or, worse, your sender IP is blocklisted by the ISP.
While deliverability often depends on technical factors, there are plenty of non-technical ways to help your email newsletters reach the inbox.
Here are some easy-to-follow deliverability best practices:
- Make sure the email content doesn’t come across as spammy. Did you know that certain words and phrases trigger spam filters? Have a look at this list of words to avoid.
- Keep your subscriber database up to date by removing unengaged users and inactive addresses.
- Only send to opt-in subscribers. Send emails to someone who’s never heard of you and it’s likely they’ll report you as spam. This’ll harm your future deliverability.
- Always include an unsubscribe link. Under the GDPR (Europe’s data protection regulation), an individual has the right to dictate how their data is being used. The act of unsubscribing falls fully within those rights so this option should always be available.
More tips to improve email deliverability (and a free ebook) available here.
7. Choose an engaging email newsletter design
When it comes to email marketing, design is just as important as the content. The look and feel of your email is going to communicate a message about your company and its values. Spend some time getting it right.
Ideally, you want to capture attention with an on-brand email design that highlights your main message and CTA in the best way possible.
Great email design supports email content by making it clear, legible, and structured. A structure that naturally draws the reader to your call-to-action will drive up your click-through rate.
If intend to add images to your email content, keep in mind best practices for newsletter images:
- Don’t clutter the email with too many images (this could harm your deliverability)
- Avoid images that are either too large or too small
- Add ALT text for each image in case it doesn’t show — this’ll also make it more accessible to people using screen readers.
- Only use high quality images that serve a purpose. Avoid generic stock photos that don’t add value.
For the best email design inspiration, check out ReallyGoodEmails.
HTML or plain text
It’s a long-standing debate among email marketers — HTML versus plain text, which is better?
Plain-text can be just as effective as HTML. It all boils down to your audience and the types of emails you’re sending.
If you’re a writer with a writing tips newsletter, plain-text makes sense. On the other hand, ecommerce emails will need to be more eye-catching. The best way to know? Test!
Watch this Sendinblue Academy video for more insights into HTML vs. Plain text.
8. Clean your email list regularly
Keep your database up to date for optimal email deliverability and higher engagement rates.
Got subscribers who’ve disappeared off the radar? If someone hasn’t engaged with your emails in at least six months, send a reactivation campaign or even ask for a second opt-in. See if you can get them interested again.
If there’s still no engagement, delete the subscribers from your list.
Sure, it’ll be sad to see them go but better for your deliverability in the long term.
Another important point: Make it easy to unsubscribe with a clearly visible unsubscribe button. If people can’t find the way out, they’re more likely to mark you as spam.
For reference, a good unsubscribe rate is 0.5 or less.
9. A/B test your email subject line and content
Hesitating between two subject lines? Not sure what content your audience will react best to? A/B testing is one way to find out — and a great way to optimize your campaigns.
Test different email subject line formulas, content formats and CTAs. See which ones get the best engagement and stick with the approach.
Keep testing until you find your secret sauce!
10. Scale with autoresponders and email automation
Once you’ve got the hang of email marketing, automate your email marketing strategy to make your business grow even faster.
Autoresponders are the simplest form of email automation.
Autoresponders send an automatic personalized email (or email series) at different stages of the buyer journey. You get to follow up with subscribers without having to be physically present to hit send.
The welcome email is the most common autoresponder example and most email marketing services have an autoresponder function.
Armed with the right email automation software, you can go one step further and set up complex email automation sequences using if/then/else logic. This kind of email series is highly effective for lead nurturing and lead scoring.
Where can I learn more about email marketing?
Enjoyed this article? If you’re determined to become an email marketing expert, then you’ll love the Sendinblue Academy email marketing course.
Complete the course and you’ll get an email marketing certification to add to your CV and LinkedIn. And the best part? It’s completely free! 🎉
Theory is one thing, of course, but the most effective way to learn email marketing is through hands-on practice. Get signed up to Sendinblue’s free plan and start playing around.
Build a subscription form, experiment with different email designs to find the one that suits your brand, send your first campaign. What are you waiting for?