If you run an online business, email marketing will be a large part of your overall marketing strategy. Whether you are running a local business, ecommerce business, or anything in between, email is still the best way to talk to your customers (relatively) personally. If you’re not already doing email marketing, then you are likely leaving a lot of easy revenue on the table.
In this guide we’re going to dig into the types of email, best practices around email marketing, tracking, talk about a few email providers, and finally the most common mistakes we see made with email marketing.
Types of Email
There are two main types of email in business:
Some companies split out the ownership of these two areas because they can both be very large jobs in their own right at scale. However, with a small business you will likely not need a dedicated email marketing person for quite some time, and it can be quite cost-saving and enable your brand voice to be consistent if you have the same person creating content and crafting/sending emails to customers. In a small to medium size business, this often works for the marketing person (singular) to do and even as the team grows, some other roles may be more important to hire (eg paid acquisition, content, full time SEO) before hiring a dedicated email person (depending on your company’s needs and product).
Examples of Marketing Emails
Here is an email that Trulia sends weekly:
And here is an example of Expedia’s marketing emails. What I love about this email is that it’s targeted to me (I travel to Denver fairly often) and it’s relevant to my interests:
Examples of Transactional Emails
HotPads sends very simple, but very effective emails every day (as often as you specify, actually) for your saved searches:
Meanwhile, the well-known developer and project management tool JIRA send these emails right when an action happens, since if you use JIRA you basically live in it all day to keep projects tracked and moving forward. I had to redact some parts for confidentiality purposes, but you can see that there is a link to click to take me to the comment. One thing I would change about this email would be a better/more attractive call to action, but it’s a developer tool so I won’t be picky!
Email best practices
These are some best practices for email that you should (almost) always follow.
Have one main action for each email campaign
For every email (and more accurately, consistent email campaign) you send to customers, whether marketing or transactional, you should have one main action you want them to take when they receive and open that email. If it’s a transactional email, you want the person to come back to your site and buy something. If it’s a marketing email, you want them to click to your site to read the content or whatever you are sharing, and then do some sort of microconversion on your site (download an ebook, just visit so you can drop a retargeting pixel on them).
If you’re engaging in email marketing, emails should be sent consistently but not too much. If one of the worst sins in email marketing is not sending emails consistently, then another is sending too often.
It’s outside the bounds of this article to talk about mapping your customer’s needs to the emails that you send, so let’s say that if you’re engaging in marketing emails, then create a calendar and send on a set schedule.
If you’re sending transactional emails (ie product updates, this teammate did this thing in the app), then select an amount of time that would be useful for your user depending on what they are doing within your app. If they are using it day in and day out, and multiple times a day (like any engineering or project management tool), they probably want to be aware that someone has just done something straight away. If your business is used less often, then dial that number back.
Most importantly, always give the user control over how often they receive emails – instantly, hourly, daily, never, etc. And of course, make it easy for them to manage these settings on both desktop and mobile! You don’t want people unsubscribing from genuinely useful emails that help them use your business because they cannot control how often they get contacted.
Send at relevant times
In keeping at the above, sending emails slightly before the time you think people will be checking their email is best practice to have your email at the top of their inbox when they log into their email.
For example, Medium.com sends emails about 7:30am every day. I know to expect them and I look for them in the morning when I wake up and check my phone.
The best way to know relevant times? Test. Send different campaigns at different times on different weeks and track opens and clicks. Then you can optimize your send times for the goals you have set.
Allow opt out
Did you know that it is illegal to not allow people to unsubscribe from your emails? According to Wikipedia, in order for your emails to be within compliance you must guarantee that:
- A visible and operable unsubscribe mechanism is present in all emails.
- Consumer opt-out requests are honored within 10 business days.
- Opt-out lists also known as Suppression lists are only used for compliance purposes.
If you notice that people are complaining about emails or other notifications not stopping after they request them to cease, take care of this issue immediately.
Send marketing and transactional emails from different IP addresses
One of the biggest and most common email mistakes that new email marketers make is sending both marketing and transactional from the same IP address.
Why is it a problem to send marketing and transactional emails from the same IP? Well, every email provider decides whether an IP is trusted or not. That trust comes from how long the IP has been active, how many sends have gone through it (and if a high volume, if the IP was warmed up properly), and how many complaints that IP has had from recipients.
Different email campaigns have different unsubscribe rates, and you do not want to risk your marketing emails because you are sending too many transactional emails, just like you do not want to risk your transactional emails because you sent an empty marketing email (hey, it happens!).
Sometimes you’ll need to use two separate email providers to send these different types of emails (especially as your number of emails sent scales, some providers can get quite pricey) or at least have two separate accounts and dedicated IPs for each account.
If you’re sending emails, how are you going to know what’s working if you do not have the links within your email tracked so that you can measure what is working and optimize what could work better.
If you’ve never used it before, Google’s own URL builder will become your new best friend. Here you can define your campaign source, your campaign medium (in this case, email), and your campaign name for this individual send to know how well this specific email send did.
Here is an example of the form filled out:
And this is the link generated when you click that blue button:
With a well-tagged system, you’ll hopefully see something like this:
Email Providers for SMBs
This could be a post in and of itself, but here are some great email providers for SMBs.
Mailchimp comes first for a few reasons. First, they have a very generous free plan (up to 2,000 subscribers and/or 12,000 emails a month). This gives you a lot of headroom to get comfortable with email marketing with very low risk. Once you are ready to take your automated email game to the next level, they even offer easy onboarding drips for a very affordable price (around $10/mo to start). This is a steal to be able to keep your audience engaged and bring them down your marketing funnel to convert!
I’ll be completely transparent that Mailchimp is my favorite email marketing platform as a small one-person company, but here are some others that people vouch for:
- Constant Contact
- Vertical Response
Common Email Pitfalls
There are a few common email marketing pitfalls to be aware of and avoid if you want to keep your list strong and engaged. Here are a few.
Not Emailing Your List Frequently
Let’s be honest – with all the work that goes into building a business (processes, people, product, sales, marketing) it’s hard to find time to create something of value and send marketing emails every week. If you’re a solo founder or leading a very small team without someone dedicated to it, creating content of value become especially hard.
However, there are ways to overcome this. First, you can commit to creating something of value every few weeks (two is very reasonable usually) and sending that out via email. Second, you can recycle old content that the person may not have seen in the past. Third, you can keep people engaged by working to move them from simply being a marketing contact to becoming a product contact in which case your triggered campaigns can keep them engaged.
If you are building a software business (frequently called Software As A Service (SaaS)), then keeping in contact with your product list can be pretty easy as you build a set of emails to keep people engaged. These emails often include product updates, triggered emails for something that happened in the app (new lead, this person changed this setting, etc), reengagement emails for lapsed users, upsells, that sort of thing.
Including Too Many Calls To Action
Many marketers and business owners have many different actions that they would like their customers to take. Signing up to a list, following you on social media, and of course at the end of the day paying you money. However, an email to your list is not the place to be asking them to do multiple things. Ultimately, the goal of emailing your list is to engage your audience and get them to come back to your website which is where you can convert them to doing something meaningful.
For every email, as discussed above, you should have one main action that you want a user to take (click to a product, click to your blog to read the rest of the post). It’s fine to have secondary actions deprioritized within the email (eg social media icons, app download buttons), but those should not take attention away from the main purpose of the email.
At HotPads where I led marketing for a while, this was our blog RSS email which had one main goal – get users back to our site.
Not Asking For Double Opt In, Or Emailing People Not Opted Into Your List
Once upon a time, I thought I would be clever and use SEER’s Contact Exporter plugin to not only export my blog’s commenter emails but also to add them directly to both my RSS feed list and email marketing list without asking them to opt in. Instead, I sent an email to all of them saying that they had been added and that if they did not want to receive communications from me, they should unsubscribe.
What happened? At the end of the day I had to write this post because I received such negative feedback from people and had a HUGE number unsubscribe from my list. Then I had to clean that list again my 2 main email lists, so I probably lost some legitimate contacts in that cleanse as well. Also, my email provider Mailchimp was not happy with me and threatened to suspend my account!
So what would I have done differently? If I try to follow this strategy again (and I think at heart, it’s a good one), I’d import the contacts into a separate list and send a one time email explaining everything and then ask interested people to opt into my other list as opposed to opting out. This would save my reputation with Mailchimp as well as minimizing the importing/exporting/cleaning work required to get the larger list clean.
Email marketing is one of the most overlooked yet most valuable and profitable marketing channels you can use to grow your business. It starts with building your email list (something we have not talked about in this post), then getting on a schedule, sending emails with a purpose, and constantly testing and optimizing to increase your opens and clickthrough rates.
Have fun and good luck!