June 9, 2022

What is Email Marketing? Definition, Strategies, & Tools to Get Started

Reading time about 27 min
What is email marketing and how does it work?

This beginner’s guide will explain what email marketing is, how it works, and how to get started. By the end, you’ll have a solid grasp of the basics along with the know-how to launch an effective email marketing strategy for your business. 🚀

Email marketing is the most profitable and cost-effective direct marketing channel, generating an average return on investment of $42 for every $1 spent. 

For this reason alone, email should be a key pillar of your digital marketing strategy. Not doing any email marketing is like leaving money laying out on the table. 💸

But if you’re a bit confused about where to start, that’s totally normal. Email is a vast discipline. It’s easy for beginners to get lost in a sea of tools, techniques, and terminology.

To learn more, stick around for everything you need to know about email marketing:

What is Email Marketing?

Email marketing is a direct marketing channel that lets businesses share new products, sales, and updates with customers on their contact list. Its high ROI makes it crucial to most businesses’ overall inbound strategy.

Modern email marketing has moved away from one-size-fits-all mass mailings and instead focuses on consent, segmentation, and personalization. 🆕 This may sound time-consuming, but marketing automation handles most of the heavy lifting for you. In the long run, a well-designed email marketing strategy not only drives sales, but helps build a community around your brand.

Types of marketing emails

Marketing emails can be promotional, informational, or serve a specific purpose in the buyer journey.

Promotional emails

Email marketing campaigns are used to promote special offers, new product releases, gated content like ebooks and webinars, and your brand at large. A campaign could consist of 3-10 emails sent over several days or weeks. 

Promotional emails have a clear call-to-action — CTA, for short. The CTA represents the specific action you want the reader to take, whether it’s visiting a page on your website or using a coupon to make a purchase. 

Your business’s sales and marketing rhythm typically determines how often you send this type of marketing email. ⏱️ During crucial periods like Black Friday, you may be sending multiple promotional emails in the same 24-hour period. During slower periods in the marketing calendar, there may be a few weeks between your promotional campaigns.

Informational emails

Newsletters: A newsletter, as the name suggests, shares news related to your business. 📰 Think: new milestones reached, new product capabilities, or featuring valuable content like case studies. Sent at regular intervals — weekly, bi-weekly, monthly — newsletters help maintain consistent touch points with your email subscribers. 

But did you know newsletters don’t just have to be about news? As email expert Ann Handley says, focus on the letter aspect. Imagine you’re writing a one-on-one letter to your subscribers about something that interests them. 

Simply put, 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 product releases, changes to the service, etc. 📢

More often than not, email is the go-to channel for important messages. If there’s a glitch on your website, shipping delays, or an outage in your system/software, updating your contacts via email is the best way to maintain communication. It’s secure, instant, and can match the formal tone of even the most important announcements.

Re-engagement emails

Another important type of marketing email is the re-engagement email. As the name suggests, re-engagement emails help reconnect with customers or subscribers who haven’t been active lately.

Take a look at this example from Shopify:

Why Email Marketing Is Important

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 at 50 years old, email marketing is used today more than ever before. 🤩

You may be thinking, “Do people really still use email? Isn’t social media where it’s at for marketing today?” While it’s true that social media is an important channel for any digital marketing strategy, email has several advantages.

First, email marketing campaigns can be personalized to a greater extent than those on social media. Next, costs are considerably lower than for other channels, especially considering the reach and conversion rate associated with email marketing. This is part of what makes email marketing so ideal for small businesses.

Finally, what makes email marketing so powerful and lucrative is that it gives you direct, individual access to your audience’s inboxes. 

Still don’t believe us? Let’s take a look at the numbers:

  • In 2020, there were over 4 billion global email users. 
  • 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.
  • 62% of consumers ranked email in their top preferred communication channels with small businesses. 

Given the figures, not having an email marketing strategy means missing out on sales opportunities and the chance to build lasting customer relationships. 🔗

The Benefits of Email Marketing

From order confirmations to newsletters, emails are an essential part of the growth and management of your business.

Email marketing helps you achieve three key objectives:

1. Conversions (selling your products and services)

Launching a sale or promotion? You can send your subscribers an email marketing campaign to drive sales. 🤑 In addition, try using these email marketing techniques to further boost conversions:

  • Personalized coupons or special offers for subscribers’ birthdays/anniversaries, in welcome emails, and as a way to re-engage your audience.
  • Abandoned cart emails triggered whenever a visitor adds an item in their cart but doesn’t check out.

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 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 current in the minds of subscribers. 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 while remaining cost-effective (compared to other marketing channels). 

3. Customer loyalty

Email drives customer loyalty at every stage of the buyer journey: lead-nurturing, conversion, onboarding, retention. As well, email marketing is a necessary tool to use alongside sales CRM systems to streamline communication.

It’s truly a powerful way to build a community, as discussed in our guide to building relationships with email. 🧑‍🤝‍🧑

To learn more about the benefits of email marketing, watch this video from the Sendinblue Academy: 

How to Do Email Marketing

Businesses use what’s known as email service providers (ESP) to send marketing emails. 

An email service provider is a 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 a product on top of that?

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. Although they’re free to use, they’re not free bulk email senders. So when a 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 good email deliverability rates — i.e., the ability to land emails in your subscribers’ inboxes. If you want to set yourself up for email marketing success from day one, get yourself a dedicated email marketing service.

How to choose an email service provider

With hundreds of ESPs on the market, it’s hard to know which one is right for your business. 

Some of the most popular options include Sendinblue, Mailchimp, Constant Contact, Convertkit, Mailjet, Mailerlite, and HubSpot.

Here are some questions to help narrow down your options:

  • 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. Email templates will also come in handy. On the other hand, if you prefer to code emails from scratch, you’ll be on the lookout for an HTML editor.
  • Do you plan to set up automated email workflows? See what the ESP offers in terms of email marketing automation. Some solutions only offer basic autoresponders. 
  • If your business communicates with different buyer personas, what contact list 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, while others prefer all emails under the same 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: “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? What sort of integrations or apps will I be able to add on?”

Optimism for the future is a good thing, but don’t get carried away. Of course, stay focused on the essentials for now. 😉

How much does email marketing cost?

Email marketing costs can vary widely depending on the size of your email list, the quantity of emails you send, the level of support you need, and the technical specifications you’re looking for.

For some, free email marketing plans offer more than enough functionality. For others, email marketing can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per month.

As you’re exploring different options, you’ll notice most providers base their pricing on the number of contacts on your email list. This pricing model can be attractive to those just starting out, but costs rise considerably once your list grows. 

But growing your subscriber base is the whole point of email marketing! 🤦‍♀️

Sendinblue, on the other hand, structures its pricing by email volume rather than the number of subscribers. That way, you can grow your email list infinitely and it won’t impact the pricing. 

The Lite Plan starts at $25 for unlimited subscribers and 20,000 emails per month — more than enough for any small business just starting out. Try it out today!

How to get email lists for marketing

You can’t send email campaigns without anyone to send them to, so it’s time to start building a list of engaged, opt-in subscribers.

Yes, that’s right — opt-in. Because here’s the thing about email contacts:

Everyone on your 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 consent is referred to as an “opt-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. 🙅‍♀️

Because this is a pretty non-negotiable part of email marketing, most ESPs let you create signup forms to organically grow your subscriber list.

Here are some tried-and-tested ways to organically grow your email list:

Add signup 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. Creating a pop-up form on your website can be a good idea, too. Just make sure not to disrupt the user experience too much. Pop-ups that prevent visitors from using your site can be big deterrents! (Think of your signup form placement like your call-to-action placement.)

Share forms on social media by including a link in your bio or posts.

Run an ecommerce/online store? Include a signup option as part of the checkout process.

Use lead magnets

Nothing makes a list grow faster than premium content.

Guarded content like ebooks, reports, checklists, or infographics are great ways to grow your contact list. Visitors get valuable content in exchange for joining your newsletter list. It’s a win-win! 🏅Check out these content marketing hacks for more ideas and inspiration!

Special offers and discounts are a great way to get people onto your list, too. For example, 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.

How to write a marketing email

Now that you’ve started building your contact list, the next steps are defining an email marketing strategy and creating the content!

How to define an email marketing strategy

To define your email marketing strategy, think about what you want to achieve with your first campaign. Here are some common goals for email marketing beginners:

  • Promoting a new product
  • Sharing a discount with loyal customers 
  • Getting more downloads for your latest ebook
  • Updating subscribers on with company news  

Your goals can be specific or broad — as long as they fit with your business and your audience. In either case, having a clear, measurable goal will make it easier to create your email content. 

How to design a marketing email

Email design doesn’t have to be difficult or overly technical. Using a drag-and-drop editor, you can easily create stunning and professional marketing campaigns. 🧑‍🎨

There’s no need to get hung up on creating fancy, elaborate emails. More importantly, you should focus on creating an email that embodies your brand, whatever it may look like. Oftentimes, this means keeping it simple. You can always build upon this later on as your skills grow.

Save time with pre-made email templates

For beginners and seasoned pros alike, email marketing templates are the perfect shortcut to standout email design. 

Just pick one you like. Customize it to match your brand colors and font. 🎨 Then reuse it for future email newsletters. All you’ll have to do is update the content. Quick and easy!

Sendinblue has over 40 newsletter templates available on all plans (even the free one). There are also plenty of free email templates available from other sources.

Sendinblue offers 100% responsive email templates, meaning they automatically adjust their formatting to fit the device they’re viewed on — mobile, tablet, or desktop. 📱

How to write your email copy

Email copy needs to offer value, feature topics that interest your audience, and embody your brand’s 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 brand personality.
  • Tell a story.
  • Write to instill curiosity, starting with the email subject line — more on that below.
  • Use a conversational tone and write the way you speak.
  • Break up the copy with short paragraphs and use bullet points where possible.
  • Use the name of a real person for the email signature instead of a faceless brand logo.

When is the best time to send a marketing email?

Rather than choosing a random day and time to send your emails, be strategic. Think about what you know about your audience and choose a time that makes sense for them. 

Sendinblue’s research showed that email marketing campaigns tend to perform better when sent on Tuesdays or Thursdays in the mornings around 10 AM or in the afternoons around 3 PM.

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 for your audience. Or, use Sendinblue’s Send Time Optimization feature, which selects the best time for each individual contact based on previous engagement data. 🤓

To learn more, check out our research on the best time to send an email.

10 Strategies for Email Marketing Success

This next section focuses on strategies and best practices 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 risk because:

  • Sending unsolicited emails and storing people’s data in your CRM without consent is illegal per GDPR and CAN-SPAM.
  • People are more likely to mark unsolicited emails as spam, damaging your email sender reputation and potentially ending you 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.

In short, don’t buy email lists. Build your list organically — however slowly — and you’ll reap the benefits 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:

  1. Single opt-in is when the subscriber is added to the email list once the signup form is submitted.
  2. 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 that 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 of subscribers into smaller sub-lists with common traits. The idea behind this technique is to engage subscribers with more relevant, targeted emails. 

Typically, contact lists are segmented by demographic information like age and location as well as customer information like lead score and purchase history. (This is where having a sales CRM that works with your email marketing tool comes in handy.)

To get a head start on segmentation, add subscribers to separate lists during signup by asking about their email content and frequency preferences. 

4. Personalization

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 rings true for email marketing, too.

Email personalization is essential to building relationships with prospects and customers.

Here are some simple email personalization ideas to help increase your open, click through, and conversion rates.

  • Use subscribers’ first names in the email subject line and content.
  • Consider time zones when scheduling campaigns to maximize the chances of your email being read. Where are the bulk of your subscribers located? 
  • Segment contacts so that messaging is targeted and relevant.
  • Use behavior-triggered emails based on how customers interact with your product/service.

For a more complete guide, check out our article on Personalized Emails: How to Reach Customers and Generate Sales.

5. Optimize your email subject line, sender name, and preview text

Email subject line

Introducing one of the most important elements of your email marketing campaign: the email subject line. ✨

These few words could determine whether your email is read or not. And with so much competition in the inbox these days, they need to stand out.

Aim to create intrigue or a desire to open in just a few words.

  • Keep the subject line to 50 characters.
  • Highlight your most interesting offer.
  • Appeal to your subscribers’ emotions and ambitions.

Take a look at our best subject line resources to boost open rates:

Sender name

When you get an email, what’s the first thing you look at? Probably who it’s from.

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. Dimira 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. 

Preheader/preview text

The email preheader (or preview text) is the snippet of text that appears after the email subject line for certain email clients, particularly on mobile 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 see the first line of text. 

“View this email in your browser” isn’t the most enticing, is it? 

6. A/B test your email marketing 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’ open rates and click-through rates.

Test different email subject line formulas, content formats, and CTAs. See which ones get the best engagement and adjust your strategy accordingly.

7. Optimize email deliverability

Even more than subject lines, calls to action, and copy, email marketing success hinges on reliable email deliverability.

All-important for email marketers, email deliverability refers to the ability to deliver an email to the inbox. 

When all goes according to plan, 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 deliverability best practices:

  • Make sure the email subject line doesn’t come across as spammy or overly promotional. If a contact decides your email is spam before even opening it, your deliverability rate is likely to suffer.
  • Keep your subscriber database up to date by removing unengaged contacts 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 will 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.

8. Clean your email list regularly

Keep your database up to date for optimal email deliverability and higher engagement rates.

Got subscribers who’ve dropped 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, no one likes losing subscribers, but it’s 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. Keep track of email marketing metrics

Analyzing key email marketing metrics will teach you how to improve your strategy for future campaigns. Most ESPs have an analytics dashboard with at least the following real-time 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. If this number is high, you need to review your email frequency and segmentation.
  • 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, like an inactive email address.

10. Scale with autoresponders and email automation

Once you’ve got the hang of things, 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. 

Further reading: 11 of the Best Marketing Automation Services in 2022

Where Can I Learn More about Email Marketing?

If you’re determined to become an email marketing expert, then you’ll love the Sendinblue Academy

Once you finish, you’ll get an email marketing certification to add to your CV and LinkedIn. And the best part? It’s completely free! 🎉

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has given you a better idea of the world of email marketing. We know there’s certainly a lot of information here. But by taking things one step at a time, anyone can use email marketing to grow their business. 

Get started today with Sendinblue’s Free Plan to see what features and functionality your business needs!

Get started on Sendinblue for free

Sendinblue’s Free Plan includes access to all core email features, unlimited contact storage, 300 emails/day, 40+ email templates, and customizable signup forms to grow your email list.

Create your account now >>

Ready to find your marketing zen?

Take the stress out of your work day with a solution that’s built for you!

Get started free