Email marketing 101

Ruth G. | October 19, 2020
27 mins

For many, the term “email marketing” may inspire a tired sigh as they recall all the annoying emails they’ve gotten from any (and then some!) business they’ve ever had the vaguest connection with. But it’s not all bad; in fact, it’s not bad at all. According to the Data & Marketing Association, the average return on investment for email marketing campaigns is 3,800% or $38 for every $1 invested.

Do you see why it would be letting money slip through your fingers to ignore email marketing? When email marketing is done right, you’re building brand awareness and increasing not only your customer base but customer loyalty, too. That’s nothing to sniff at. But how do you avoid becoming yet another boring and bothersome email gathering dust at the bottom of a potential lead’s spam folder?

Are you ready to become an email marketing guru? Read the introduction to email marketing and find out how you can convert leads into customers through effective email campaigns.

What is email marketing?

Email marketing is a type of direct marketing where a commercial message is sent via email to potential customers. The aims of these messages can include, but are not limited to:

  • Encouraging a purchase
  • Increasing brand awareness
  • Enhancing customer loyalty.

Through email marketing, a business can stay connected with its customers with relative ease.

Email marketing formation started back in 1978 and to these days it is a vital element of any marketing strategy. It may seem a little old hat and maybe a tad obvious, but more people than ever use email. Not only that but because of smartphones and modern technology, they check their inbox multiple times a day. According to Magnetic, 44% of people in the US and Canada check their emails one to three times a day. That translates to multiple opportunities for seeing your email campaign.

For many, the term “email marketing” may inspire a tired sigh as they recall all the annoying emails they’ve gotten from any (and then some!) business they’ve ever had the vaguest connection with. But it’s not all bad; in fact, it’s not bad at all. According to the Data & Marketing Association, the average return on investment for email marketing campaigns is 3,800% or $38 for every $1 invested.

Do you see why it would be letting money slip through your fingers to ignore email marketing? When email marketing is done right, you’re building brand awareness and increasing not only your customer base but customer loyalty, too. That’s nothing to sniff at. But how do you avoid becoming yet another boring and bothersome email gathering dust at the bottom of a potential lead’s spam folder?

Read on to find out the basics of email marketing and how you can convert leads into customers through effective email campaigns.

Creating an email list

It’s all well and good having the best idea for the best marketing campaign ever, but without a solid email list to send it to, what good is an idea? The thought of slowly building up an email list over time may seem daunting. Couldn’t you just buy one and be done with it?

During your research, you may have come across vendors selling collections of email addresses to third parties. Understandably, getting a ready-made email list would be tempting for someone just starting, but this is a bad idea for many reasons:

  • These emails' owners did not opt into your list; therefore, your emails will be both unsolicited, unwanted, and an annoyance.
  • The list is likely to be of low quality, with incorrect data and email addresses that no longer exist.
  • It will be detrimental to your business reputation and your IP reputation. If your ISP sees your emails being relegated to the spam folder repeatedly, after a while, your emails will be considered just that: spam.

It’s also likely that these lists weren’t gathered through the most honest of methods. Many of them were created through email harvesting. Email harvesting is when bots and poorly-paid workers scour the net to capture a sizable number of email addresses.

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 – a law that established rules for sending emails of a commercial nature, whether it be business-to-business or business-to-customer – makes sending emails to recipients who ask to be opted out illegal. If a business isn’t compliant with these laws, they can be fined up to $16,000 per email sent. Furthermore, if you plan on doing business in the EU, you must have direct consent before sending someone an email.

I think we can all agree that coloring your first foray into email marketing with a dose of shady spam stuff isn’t a great idea. That’s why we’re going to tell you how to build an email list in the honest way.

Capturing Email Addresses

Capturing email addresses isn’t rocket science, but you should try to do it in a way that disrupts your customer’s experience as little as possible. You also want to make sure that you are targeting people who want to be targeted.

Lead Magnets

A key element of successful email marketing is a lead magnet. A lead magnet is when you offer something to a user in return for their subscription. It’s probably fair to think about what it is you’re marketing and make it relevant. You don’t have to offer anything beyond a simple form asking someone to sign up, sure. But often, the more compelling your opt-in offer, the more likely a lead is to become a subscriber. There are myriad things you could do: offer a free sample of something, a discount, or only just a newsletter.

Whatever it is, you need a strong CTA here that will convince this person that it’s worth being on your list. Chances are, this potential subscriber is already being inundated with many, many other emails. What will set yours apart? Good copywriting will come into play here.

Here are some ordinary lead magnets websites use to encourage users to sign up for mailing lists:

  • Discounts, coupons, special offers
  • Free e-book or whitepaper
  • A cheatsheet of exclusive tips
  • Notifications for price drops or sales
  • A free webinar
  • A free trial
  • Newsletters
  • Special content just for subscribers
  • Blog subscription
  • And so many more.

Depending on what your small business website offers, there is bound to be a whole host of things you can offer to a subscriber if you get a little creative. Think carefully about what makes you stand out from the crowd and how you can offer this to new subscribers in return for their loyalty.

Opt-in form

So, what is it you should write in your opt-in form? This will obviously depend on what it is you’re offering. But you also want to use this as an opportunity to set up your lead’s expectations. From the form, the necessary information they should learn is:

  • What you will be sending

You can also include:

  • What you will be sending

For example, if you run a blog, you could say something like, “Get my newest posts straight to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday” or, if you have an e-commerce site it could say something along the lines of “Be the first to hear of new arrivals and exclusive offers.” With both, an obvious expectation has been set when it comes to what kind of emails you’ll be receiving should you sign up.

For an example of how specific you can get, take a look at the email subscriptions opt-in form from The New York Times:

Based on your interests, signing up is made easy here, and you know exactly when to expect your subscription of choice to arrive in your inbox.

As another example, here’s the sign-up form for NameCheap’s mailing list:

It is brief and to the point, asking for just an email. It’s clear that by signing up, you will receive the newsletter and marketing offers.

With an opt-in form, you’re essentially getting permission from your subscriber to enter their inbox. They have opted to trust that you will meet their expectations; remember that. Stray too far from the expectations you’ve set; you may find your subscribers quickly turn to unsubscribers, or just don’t bother opening your emails at all.

The opt-in form should be as brief as possible so as not to put off a user from signing up, but at the same time, you should be able to gather the data you need for segmenting your list. This could be something like location or gender, but always err on the side of less is more.

There is more data you can use to find out about your subscribers, which we will talk about in a bit.

Key details for your opt-in form:

  • A specific, attention-grabbing headline that matches your lead magnet
  • A short, concise, but punchy description which includes key details of what you’re selling or offering, including numbers, stats, and what the user can expect to achieve by subscribing
  • A specific, attention-grabbing headline that matches your lead magnet
  • At least one relevant, professional, compelling image that either injects personality or shows the change they can expect from the offer
  • A simple form that asks for only necessary information, such as email and first name
  • A CTA button that stands out
  • An arrow never hurts when it comes to directing the eye to the subscribe button.

Where to put your opt-in form

There are so many opportunities to sprinkle your opt-in form throughout your site, don’t waste them by burying it on just your Contact page. Like with most things when it comes to website design, make it evident, but not in your face. Some popular options for email opt-in forms include the following:

Floating bar

A floating bar is one that stays insightful as you scroll through a website. By putting a simple opt-in form in one of these, a user can subscribe at all times, should the urge take them.

Header, sidebar, and footer

For immediacy, the title is a great place to place an opt-in form. The very top of a sidebar also gives your user an immediate opportunity to sign up. If you have long-form content, you can even add in a couple more forms for the user to see as they scroll down the page

Chances are if a user reaches the end up of your page, they have more than a passing interest in what you’re offering. Give them another chance to subscribe by adding your opt-in form to the footer.


The idea of a pop-up can be just a little bit obtrusive, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can time your pop-ups so that they don’t show up straight away, and they don’t even have to be so in your face. Some options for pop-ups include:

  • Pop-ups that appear when your user reaches the end of a page
  • Ones that pop up when the user is about to leave your site
  • A timed pop-up that only appears after the user has spent a couple of minutes browsing your content
  • A slide-in form that appears after the user scrolls down the page. These tend to be more subtle and won’t take up the screen like a regular pop-up.

Also, don’t forget to include opt-in forms on your website's different pages, particularly your About page, Contact page, and blog.


On a side note, let’s not forget about opportunities to capture email addresses in real life. If you’re a local business taking its first foray into the world of the web, use your bricks-and-mortar presence to build your online presence. In your store, office, etc. leave a simple sign-up sheet somewhere noticeable, inviting people to learn more about your offers, etc.

Don't use BCC: - go with a reputable service

If you’re just starting, it may be very tempting to initiate email marketing campaigns manually; typing up an email, inputting the email addresses you’ve collected in the BCC box, and hitting send.

If you’re unsure of what BCC is, it’s that neglected recipient box in your email client's compose section, usually after the main recipient and CC boxes. BCC stands for Blind Carbon Copy. It’s quite similar to the CC box, except when you put email addresses into the BCC section, the people included in this list can’t see each other’s email addresses.

This isn’t a good idea.

You run the risk of accidentally putting these addresses in the CC field. To err is human and all that, but most people won’t appreciate that their email has been made public to many strangers and has left them open to spam. And human or not, this kind of error just isn’t professional. There is supposed to be a certain level of trust between you and your customer; you don’t want to break that because of something silly.

It should also be noted that if you try to send an email with hundreds of emails listed in the BCC section, there’s a higher chance that it will be labeled as spam.

Furthermore, CAN-SPAM has some pretty strict protocols you should be following when it comes to how you contact those on your mailing lists. Each email you send should:

  • Provide recipients with an easy way to opt-out or unsubscribe
  • Fulfill the opt-outers wishes within ten business days

If you’re taking care of your mailing list manually, you may find it very difficult to keep track of unsubscribers, particularly honoring their request within the specified timeframe.

Not only that, but when you try to go the manual route, there isn’t an effective way of tracking whether or not the recipient opened your email, how long they spent reading it, or whether they clicked into your website from it, and so much more. How will you know if your email marketing campaign is a success if you can’t effectively and accurately measure it?

Why you should go with an email marketing platform

There are so many benefits to using an email marketing platform, the main one being convenience. Take all the cons of using the BCC method, reverse them, and that’s why you should use a professional service. To get a little more specific, with an email marketing platform:

  • Email addresses are kept private
  • You won’t have to manually add or remove email addresses from your list
  • You’ll be able to track a variety of metrics and statistics easily
  • There are often customizable email layouts and templates
  • You can trigger automatic emails.

Sounds good, right? These platforms not only make email marketing convenient, but they also ensure things are professional and above board.

There are a plethora of email marketing platforms on the market. But how do you know which is the right one for you? What this will boil down to is cost and scalability. Luckily, by in large, most email marketing tools are pretty cost-effective. Some reputable providers include:

Email marketing techniques

Now that you’ve grown a decent list, what are you going to do with it? The main things you should do are:

  • Think about your goals
  • Think about what you promised your subscribers

Don’t lose sight of either of these factors. You should then think about the type of email marketing campaign you want to spearhead and how to make the most of it.

Engagement vs. transactional

The most common kind of marketing emails are ones that encourage engagement and ones that promote a transaction.

Engagement emails

As you may have guessed by the name, an engagement email is an email that keeps your subscribers engaged. This engagement could be achieved by gently reminding them that your brand exists or encouraging them to purchase or attend something. Some examples include:

  • Newsletters
  • Announcements
  • Invitation to an event
  • Marketing offers

Transactional emails

While it may seem like a transactional email refers to having just purchased on an e-commerce site, that isn’t necessarily the case. A transactional email can be sent based on an action or inaction on a website’s user. For instance, this could include:

  • A welcome email
  • Lost password email
  • Cart abandonment
  • Thank you emails
  • Account updates

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As you can see, a transactional email doesn’t necessarily have to be related to a purchase. A right mix of engagement and transactional emails in your strategy ensures your subscribers are kept in the loop and that your brand won’t stray too far from their minds.

Consistency is key

Think about the reason why you’re sending your email. Whether you’re offering a marketing offer, a free webinar, or just shipping a newsletter, try to make it, so the email only focuses on the one action you want your user to take. It can be easy to get excited and try to fit a lot in there. But you run the risk of it getting cluttered and confusing your user: they may end up not taking any actions at all.

Whatever kind of email you’re sending, you need to ensure that your landing page (more on those in a bit!) matches the CTA of the email. Susie will grow very impatient if she clicks on an offer for a free marketing ebook download and finds herself on a long blog post about a company update without a download button insight.

Standing out

Anyone can send an email. But how do you send an email that stands out? This may seem overwhelming, but just a little ingenuity can go a long way. The three basic tenets of standing out are:

  • Creativity
  • Relevance
  • Timing


Getting a little creative doesn’t mean having to sit in the corner of a darkened room waiting for the muse to come. It just means thinking smart. Think about your email inbox and what encourages you to open an email and what makes you instantly hit delete. What’s the first thing you see when you receive an email in your inbox? That would be…

The subject line

When is creativity mentioned, you probably thought bold, innovative graphics and punchy body copy like no other, right? Well, sure. That’s part of it. But what good is the content of your email if nobody opens it? And people are fickle, busy creatures; if they can avoid opening an email, they will.

The optimal email subject length is a hotly contested issue, with very few agreeing on the subject. Mail Chimp has found that there is no statistical link between length and email opens, while Return Path has found that emails with subject lines between 61-70 characters long had the highest read rates.

A good rule of thumb is keeping it relatively short and easy to read. You may think of yourself as an exceptional wordsmith, but if ever there was a time to learn to self-edit, it’s now.

Here are a few other tips for a great subject line:

  • Asking a question
  • Appealing to their curiosity
  • Suggesting they’re missing out on something great
  • Personalization
  • Humor

And sometimes, only getting straight to the point of your email can be incredibly useful.

We’ll talk a bit more a little later on increasing your email open rates.

Email Content

Remember earlier, when we talked a bit about consistency? Well, if you promise something in your email subject line, for instance, “Our Winter Sale Starts Today!” there really should be something about a winter sale in that email. Don’t get clickbaity just for the sake of having your email opened, and it will backfire. If you promise something, make sure to deliver.

As for the email content itself, keep it short and easy to read. Opt for:

  • Short sections
  • Bullet points
  • Bolding the most important bits

If the wordsmith inside you is crying, remember that often it’s harder to be whittled down those words and to be concise than is to be verbose – it’s good writing practice. Also, nobody wants to read a wall of text. Nobody.

Try to inject a little personality where possible instead of just listing out generic information. Emphasize how you can benefit them instead of merely trying to sell them something or talking about your company's great.

Most importantly of all, don’t forget to make it actionable.

Mobile optimization

You’ve probably gone to great lengths to ensure your website is optimized to work across all devices – but what about your emails? According to Fluent, 75% of consumers use their smartphones most often to check emails. Optimizing emails for mobile isn’t complicated. Here are just a few things to ensure your emails are good to go across all devices:

  • Using a responsive email template. This is where using a good email marketing platform comes in very handy – most come with templates designed to be responsive across devices.
  • Use smaller images, and don’t use too many.
  • Remember to keep that subject line short – too many characters, and the whole thing won’t even show up on some devices.
  • Ensure your CTA buttons are large and comfortable to click.


Building a sizable email list can be pretty exciting. It can be tempting to keep subscribers updated with every little thing that happens with your company, every sale, every discount. But it’s best to have some restraint.

If you send customer emails for everything and anything, you run the risk of being marked as spam or worse still, triggering a mass unsubscribing. According to Hubspot, 78% of consumers unsubscribe from emails because brands send too many emails. Don’t be one of those brands!

Avoid this by sending only valuable content to your subscribers. If you’re an e-commerce brand selling both men’s and women’s watches, don’t send your female subscribers notifications when there is a men’s sale, and vice versa. If you’re unsure if your email is valuable or not, it’s probably best that you don’t send it.

Caution is key. Your subscribers have allowed you to take up precious space in their inbox. Don’t mess up this opportunity!


Another factor to take into consideration in your email strategy is timing. Three factors you should consider when planning your email marketing strategy are:

  • The personal
  • The seasonal
  • The time of day

The personal will depend on the data you have gathered from your subscribers. For example, if you know their birthday, it never hurts to send them an email with a special offer, such as a discount coupon, a gift, or a special deal. Everybody likes to be remembered on their birthday. Here is an example of a birthday email sent out by beauty retail chain, Sephora:

The email ticks all the boxes: it's personal, has a clear CTA and gives you the option of redeeming your gift online and in-store.

Other opportunities for sending such an email might include Women's Day, Father's Day, etc.

There are so many opportunities to tap seasonal occasions. The big ones are Summer and Christmas, but think about your brand and what it's offering. Where are the unique opportunities that you have when it comes to Valentine's day, back to school, the 4th of July, etc. Again, relevance is critical here. Also, be sure to keep an eye on trending topics that could be used to your advantage.
When it comes to the time of day, some stats suggest that some hours are better than others. A lot of this will depend on your demographic, so A/B testing is key here. But according to Propellor, the optimal time for email opens for entrepreneurs, business to business, and business to customer emails tends to be Saturday mornings. Food for thought!

Ways to increase your email open rate

We've covered some of the basics when it comes to composing a snappy subject headline that you couldn't help but open, but there are some other things you can do to really increase your email open late.

Segmenting your email list

According to the Data and Marketing Association, in 2017, segmented emails accounted for 36% of total email revenue. Sounds good, doesn't it? But what exactly is segmenting an email list, and how do you go about doing it?

Segmentation is essentially splitting your email list into more targeted groups so that you can send these groups more relevant emails based on their interests and demographics. To split your plan, from the start, you'll need to keep track of why each subscriber signed up to your mailing list in the first place. Maybe they:

  • Took advantage of a specific offer or download
  • Made a purchase
  • Signed up on a particular page

You can begin to create segments based on the above criteria. You can then segment your list further by looking at things like their location, age, gender, interests, the lead magnet they responded to, and whatever else you like.

Make the most of the data you have to make your email marketing strategy as personal as possible. By doing so, you can create tailored autoresponder emails that are sent to a specific group when certain conditions are met.


Autoresponders are written in advance and are automatically sent out by your email marketing tool when a user does something like making a purchase, how they browse your site, abandoning a shopping cart, or joining your email list.

Autoresponders are vital because they provide essential information for the user, thus building trust and providing you with vital data that you can use later to segment your email list further. Some examples of an auto-response include:

  • A welcome/introduction email
  • An offer based on a user's browsing habits
  • A follow-up email after purchase or an abandoned cart
  • Personal events, like a birthday or anniversary

Whatever the purpose of your auto response, make sure you make it personal and keep it specific. Use analytics and keep testing to keep an eye on what works and what doesn't.

Unsubscribe requests

If someone decides to unsubscribe to your mailing list or service, you can either accept it and move on or use an autoresponder email, gently urging them to reconsider. Your subscriber may just have forgotten what makes you great. How about using this as an opportunity to remind them.

If a user unsubscribes, you can trigger an email informing them that you'll be sorry to see them go. It's always lovely to hear you'll be missed, but what can you do to reel them back in? You could include a small opt-in form with the email, where they can personalize their email preferences, helping you target them more effectively. You could also try enticing them back with an exclusive offer or a gift.

Use the recipient's name

You may have noticed a common theme that keeps cropping up repeatedly in this article: keeping things personal. And what's more personal than a name? According to Experian Marketing Services, including a name in the email subject line can increase open rates by 29.3%.

Remove inactive subscribers

If you have subscribers that just aren't engaging, it's probably best to remove them from the email list. If they aren't converting, keeping them on your list only isn't cost-effective – removing them may even save you money on your email marketing plan. You can segment users who haven't been active for a while and remove them using your platform.

Avoiding the spam folder

Can you remember the last time you perused your spam folder? Yeah, didn't think so. There isn't any surefire way of avoiding the spam folder, unfortunately, ISPs and email firewalls are getting stricter and stricter as time goes on. There are a few best practices you can follow, though:

  • Ensure your subscribers have opted into your email list
  • Only opt for sending good, personable content that's in line with your brand. If you have low open rates or misleading subject lines, your emails could start to be seen as spam
  • Go with a useful email marketing tool that checks for spam trigger words and is also vigilant about other anti-spam factors.

Creating good landing pages

What is a landing page?

So you've done. You've crafted the perfect email with an openable subject line and actionable content. Your customer has clicked through to your website. Success! But where do they land? The email itself is only half the battle. If it doesn't lead them to a useful landing page, it's all been for nothing.

In email marketing, a landing page is a web page created specifically to help convert people that have clicked a link. It's where a visitor "lands" when they are sent to your site. Landing pages are designed with a single focused objective known as a Call to Action (CTA).

Best practices for your landing page

The most common landing pages are for data capturing (i.e. mailing lists) or making a sale. A typical conversion-based landing page could include:

  • Advertising a pre-sale, sale, or discount
  • Offering a giveaway or download

You can share a landing page on social media, or make a PPC ad linking to it, then include a sign-up form where a user subscribes to your email list.

Your subscriber could also be led to a landing page as part of your email marketing campaign. If you have a specific offer, you don't want a customer landing on the homepage where they could be distracted by many other things.

Remember earlier when we said your emails should match the CTA of your website sign-up? Well, we're about to go full circle here, because it's also vital that your landing page matches the CTA of your email.

The page the subscriber lands on land on should have a particular aim. If your email implored them to "Click Here" to be led to a free ebook download, make sure they are guided directly to that free ebook download.

Some tips for creating a useful landing page include:

  • Using clear, short copy
  • A prominent CTA above the fold
  • Including relevant imagery or video

Make sure the look of the page matches that of the email, and also ensure it's in keeping with the image of your brand. Avoid cross linking entirely (that said, it's never a bad idea to link the logo to the homepage).

Some email marketing platforms include landing page templates too, which is another factor you should take into consideration when choosing the best tool for you.

Analytical ability

If you want to keep track of who is clicking and measure your success, the importance of using an email marketing platform with a good analytics tool cannot be stressed enough. What you should be measuring to see how well you're doing is dependent on your end goal, whether that be converting more leads into paying customers, or you wanting to build your subscriber base.

By keeping an eye on certain metrics, you can take action based on your email marketing campaign's specific data. The metrics you want to keep track of will depend on your particular aims, but here are a few key ones.

Metrics you should track

  • Click-through rate (CTR)
  • This is the percentage of recipients who click on one link or more in your email
  • Email open rate
  • The percentage of recipients who actually open your email
  • Conversion rate
  • The number of users who completed the intended action of your email, such as completing a sale or just clicking through to your website
  • Bounce rate
  • This measures the number of people who open your email but leave without fulfilling any of the desired actions
  • Time spent
  • The average time a user spends reading your emails
  • Email unsubscribes.

As mentioned previously, most good email marketing platforms include analytics. If you want to go a little more in-depth with tracking data, you can also use Google Analytics in conjunction with your chosen service.

A/B Testing

By keeping an eye on analytics, you'll be able to much more accurately gauge what works and what doesn't in your email campaign. A great way to do this is through A/B testing.

Put simply, A/B testing in email marketing is comparing two versions of an email and analyzing which one performs better amongst a particular demographic. One email will serve as the control; this one will stay the same throughout testing, while the other will have one slight variant.

A/B testing best practices:

  • Keep things simple - stick to altering one element at a time
  • Send emails at the same time every day for accuracy
  • Have a significant sample size

There is no end to the things you can test in an email marketing campaign. Some examples include:

  • The subject line
  • The copy length
  • Video vs. imagery
  • CTA placement

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Think about the specific aims of your email marketing campaign. What do you think you could do to make your emails more effective? Once you've brainstormed some ideas, go ahead and do some testing.

Wrap up - how to improve?

Like many marketing facets, there is a wealth of tips and advice that can be given, from best practices to tried-and-tested case studies. What it always boils down to – email marketing included – is trial and error. There is no one-size-fits-all miracle tip we can give you to ensure your email marketing campaign is a surefire success. But if you're willing to experiment, test continuously and pay attention to what your analytics is telling you, then you should be ready to go ahead and make a good impression.


Picture of Ruth G.

Ruth G.

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