While customer acquisition is important for any business, research suggests it's five times cheaper to retain an existing customer than to attract a new one. Fortunately, email marketing makes retaining customers easy and affordable. About 80% of SMBs found email marketing to be the best strategy for customer retention, whereas only 44% of respondents found social media to be the key tactic.
Considering it costs next to nothing, it may be tempting to employ the scattershot method, pinging out emails at random in hopes of attracting clicks. Before you succumb to such tactics, however, remember the shoddy marketing minefield that was Twitter in the days before social media branding. Free advertising is no excuse for slipshodness; don't let your email newsletter game follow suit.
As it turns out, there is plenty of strategy involved in email marketing. The best part is that it's all very easy to measure.
We asked small business owners and marketing experts about the email campaign strategies they've tried. They laid it out in these seven tips.
Planning your email marketing campaign
1. Try market segmentation.
Unlike with a billboard (because you have no control over who drives down the freeway), email marketing hits its target every time. Therefore, it's the perfect medium for marketing segmentation. In other words, you can tailor your message by audience.
One common way to do this is by age group. Ivan Veta, digital marketing specialist at NexTravel.net, found this to be a helpful method for his clients, as it allowed them to switch up their strategies according to generational marketing preferences.
"Our learnings thus far have concluded that millennials react positively to campaigns that contain infographics," said Veta, whereas "Gen X and baby boomers readers tend to click on action buttons to read more about a certain topic."
For transregional campaigns, Josh Ogle, co-founder of The Original Agency, suggests his clients segment by time zone.
"We send an email at 10 a.m., for example, but always 10 a.m. in the locale where the user resides," Ogle said, thus ending the problem of their European customers receiving "good morning!" emails at 4 p.m. For one client, this yielded a 29% improvement in open rates in the first 24 hours.
You can even segment in several layers.
"Break lists up depending on where your contacts are in the buyer's journey, and segment based on what you know about them," said Maria Mora, vice president of creative and content strategy at Big Sea. "Then tailor messages that are appropriate to those contacts at the right time."
Additional segmentation criteria could include geographic location, age, education level, job function, industry, customer persona and interactions with past campaigns. How you segment your email list will depend on the needs of your business and customers, but here are some ideas to collect data for your segments.
- Subscriber quizzes: Quizzes are a great interactive lead generation tool. They're also an easy way for your subscribers to identify what they are most interested in, so you can easily tailor what you send to them based on their interests.
- Behavioral segmentation: When you first meet someone you find interesting, you take the time to get to know more about them. Behavioral segmentation works in much the same way, but in a way that is scalable and valuable for your business. First, you identify the behaviors you want to pay attention to. For most online businesses, this will include new leads, cart abandoners and inactive subscribers. To do this effectively, you will need to integrate your email marketing service with your website or e-commerce platform. Then, you will need to create automated nurture sequences that target the identified behaviors.
- Opt-in surveys: Do you want to know what your email subscribers are passionate or curious about? Just ask them. When you offer an opt-in gift, it's easy to add a short survey that allows the subscriber to tell you a little more about themselves. Even a simple question such as "What are you most passionate about?" can yield a wealth of information.
Editor's note: Looking for the email marketing service that's right for you? Use the questionnaire below to have our vendor partners contact you with free information.
2. Make it personable.
The more personalized an email, the less likely it is to get lost in an inbox of spam. There's an easy way to make an email more personable – have it literally come from a person.
"One thing we saw an instant bump in open rates from was when we put the email coming from the owner's name instead of the company name," said Jeff Moriarty, who runs the marketing and web development for Moriarty's Gem Art.
As a side benefit, this helps differentiate your company as a small business.
"Customers appreciate not being hit by just sales emails and find the ones we send much more valuable than most other retailers," Moriarty said.
Some email marketing software even allows senders to include the recipient's name in the salutation. (This will depend on the level of friendliness you're going for.)
Crafting your email message
3. Play with your subject lines.
Once you've got your campaign strategy down, focus on the subtleties of messaging. This starts with the first thing your customers will see: the subject line. If it doesn't pique their curiosity among the other emails in their inbox, they'll likely delete it.
If you want customers to open your emails, you need to play around with your subject lines and figure out what catches their attention. Try out different subject lines by asking questions or teasing content. Avoid potentially off-putting words, like "donate," which can reduce your open rate by 50% or more.
4. Name benefits, not features.
To create an attractive subject, Ryan Gould, vice president of strategy and marketing services at Elevation Marketing, advises getting personal with customers by being upfront about who you are and what you can do for them.
"Customers really don't care about what your email is offering – they just want to know how it's going to benefit them," he said. "If that is coming across clearly in the subject line and it's paired with a sense of urgency, such as a time limit, odds are they will want to read more. Using questions … and mentioning current (and relevant) events are also excellent ways to pique readers' curiosity."
Even better would be to personalize these benefits with subject lines such as "X helps influencers like you get paid by doing Y," according to Quincy Smith, SEO and content manager at Ampjar. After applying targeted benefits marketing to his own campaigns, Smith increased open rates from 8% to 17%.
5. Be concise.
Don't complicate your emails. Say exactly what you want to say in a way that will interest readers. You don't have to type paragraphs of content that no one will read. Think press release, not manifesto.
"Instead of including several long articles that will take readers a long time to scroll through, keep it brief and include a link to your blog where they can read more," said Emily Sidley, senior director of marketing and PR at Three Girls Media Inc. "This is especially important because the majority of consumers check email on their phones. If the email is too long, they won't spend time scrolling through on their tiny handheld screen."
A rule of thumb is that if your emails take longer than two to three minutes to read, they're likely to be ignored, added Mora.
One way to decrease word count is to cut out all the waffling – which customers will appreciate anyway. For example, Kyle Turk, vice president of marketing at Keynote Search, found that greater transparency in subject lines increased open rates from 21% to 30%.
"There is so much noise in inboxes nowadays that if you aren't clear in your messaging, it will simply get looked over," he said.
6. Include a call to action.
With all this focus on getting the customer's attention, it's easy to forget the initial intention of the email. Are you reminding them that they have an item in their cart? Alerting them of a sale? Promoting new products? A clever subject line may improve your open rate, but to increase engagement, you have to increase your click-through rate, or the percentage of subscribers following email links to your webpage. This is where you'll need a call to action.
A call to action can be as simple as a direct request. "You can't expect your audience to guess what you want them to do next," said Kendra Jones, a PR and marketing strategist specializing in influencer marketing. "Placing concise calls to action, such as 'Click here to download your free guide,' that are hyperlinked to the opt-in increased my click-through rate by 18%."
Broadening your reach
7. Try A/B testing.
So far, we've suggested marketers take the deductive approach, testing new strategies by observing relative improvement in open and click-through rates. There's another way to improve, however, and that's by pitting two strategies against each other.
Nichols recommends testing just one part of the email (e.g., subject lines or images) at a time so there aren't too many variables. This will ensure more accurate results.
The more of these tests you run, the more likely you are to discover an unexpected strategy. For example, after running a variety of A/B tests, Keynote Search found that using imagery with a close-up of someone's face increased its click-through rate by 17%, Turk said.
It's easy enough to test preconceived strategies like the ones on this list. With A/B testing, however, you may find strategies that never would've occurred to you.
Email marketing tools and platforms
There are many things to consider before choosing an email marketing service for your business. These three tools, used in tandem with each other, can help you get started, build your email lists and optimize your emails:
- iContact: This is an email marketing software company that has great service, an easy-to-use campaign editor, in-depth reporting and competitive pricing.
- Facebook Ads Manager: Use Facebook ads to build your email list.
- CoSchedule: You can test your email subject lines with CoSchedule. It scores your subject lines and offers suggestions to increase your open rate. It also scores your character count, word count and emoji count.
When is the best time to send emails?
The best time to send emails depends on your audience. According to aggregate data, the most likely times for customers to open emails are 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and 3 p.m. on Thursdays; emails sent at these times will likely deliver results, even if they are marginal. For optimal results, however, you need to study your specific email lists and campaign analytics. Customer feedback and interactions should drive your email timing, not general industry data.
Siri Hedreen and Marisa Sanfilippo contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.