Email Marketing Strategy

Jeanne Jennings is a recognized industry expert and an email marketing consultant and trainer with 25+ years of experience working with both B2B and B2C clients ranging from early-stage startups to major corporations like Capital One and Verizon. In this guide she outlines relevant email regulations, best practices for segmentation and campaign management, and tips for driving conversion rates.

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Questions covered in this guide

What does it mean to have an email strategy?

Think in terms of campaigns vs. stand-alone emails – campaigns are sequences of messages that build on each other. Focus your campaigns by asking:
  • Who’s your target audience?
  • What’s your unique selling proposition?
  • How will you approach them?

What are the different ways you can get people to opt into your email list? 

Make sure there’s an easy email sign-up action on your website – the website is ground zero for the opt-in. You want to make sure that when someone comes to your website and isn’t ready to take a primary action (e.g. a demo), that there’s a secondary action of signing up for emails. The classic placement would be on the top right of every page.

Make sure the email field is on the call to action itself – you want to avoid forcing people to click through and then land on the page to sign up for emails. Every time they have to click through to an action you want them to accomplish, you’re going to lose people.

Gather emails via events, but make sure they know what you’ll do with the email – it’s really important that you make it clear that the people who give you their email address are going to be added to your email list. You don’t want to just collect people’s email addresses without letting them know what you’re going to do with them.

What are the CAN-SPAM and other regulatory basics to know when managing email marketing lists?

CAN-SPAM – the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 is actually one of the weaker anti-spam laws around the world. All CAN-SPAM really requires is that you have an unsubscribe in every email that is sent, that you have your postal address in every email that is sent, and that your from line and subject lines aren’t misleading. 

CCPA (California Consumer Protection Act) – CCPA goes further with what you can and can’t do with personal information, including email addresses. You can’t share that information with other people without getting permission. It’s similar to GDPR which is the European Union regulations. More companies are seeing CCPA as the future. 

Standards and best practices of the email industry – GDPR and CCPA are much more in line with the established standards and best practices in the email industry than CAN-SPAM is, The email industry has been self-policed from the beginning. Entities like Spamhaus actively collect information on email marketers who are doing nefarious things with email. For instance, they’ll set spam traps, email addresses that are just set up and created for the sole purpose of being posted on the internet. Then, when people scrape those email addresses and start sending to them, they will make a note of that, and put those senders on a blocklist.

The best practice is to go “opt-in” – this isn’t required by CAN-SPAM, but it’s the best way to protect your list. In Europe, GDPR requires proactive action for an opt-in. Studies have shown that if you have a “yes” and a “no” checkbox for opting in (or not), more people are likely to choose yes than if you just have a single box that they can check or not.  

What do you risk if you don’t adhere to best practices? 

You could end up on a blocklist or get kicked off by your email service provider – most of the blocklists are enforced by IP addresses and most people who are sending emails, especially at a lower volume or on less expensive servers, are on shared IP addresses. This means that if there is someone from that IP address who is sending mail which is identified as spam, that IP address could end up on a blocklist. Email service providers are careful about the people that are using their platforms because they don’t want their IP addresses to get blocked, jeopardizing their relationship with their good senders. 

How should you think about segmenting your email list? 

Segmenting is campaign-specific – there are millions of ways to segment any list, but it’s also not about just one way of segmenting that works. It’s about using the correct segmentation based on the campaign and based on what you want to accomplish. 

Segment based on activity – segment out the people that are inactive on your list and mail them less frequently. It just doesn’t make sense to send frequently to people who aren’t active. If anyone opens or clicks, they’ll be moved to the active list. This is a very traditional way to segment your lists to save resources.

Segment based on what you learned from previous emails – for example, if an earlier email in a sequence had multiple categories of content, you might see what people clicked on previously and follow up with category-specific emails based on their actions. By doing this you can generate a lot more revenue because the second email is highly relevant to that person.

Append data that helps you tailor your outreach – for example, zip codes if your reps are geographically divided and you want to know what rep to assign. Or maybe seniority level they are, if you’ve found that a VP-level is a much better place to start with your sales vs. going into a manager 

A good segmentation strategy will separate people to treat them differently – I worked with a client that had a really complicated segmentation that they were so proud of, but 96% of the people fell into one segment and the other 4% were split among five segments. That’s not a valuable segmentation. The idea with segmentation is to separate people into groups where you’re going to treat them differently. you need to think through it at the end of the day and ask yourself how you’re going to treat each segment differently.

Where should you use an automated drip series?

If there’s something that happens over and over with your business, use automation – if there is something repetitive a drip series is a good way to handle it. For example:
  • Abandoned lead form – if someone fills out part of your lead form, you can use email to reach out to them and ask them to provide that additional information.
  • Demo no-show sequence – if someone requests a demo but doesn’t attend, you can craft a sequence to get them to re-engage.
  • Free trial conversion sequence – have a campaign that runs during and after the free trial to try to convert trialers into buyers.
  • Lead nurture sequence – develop drip series to passively cultivate leads in your database.

What are the best practices for setting one up? 

Start with a message map and a flow chart – the best-automated campaigns and the best drip series start with an old fashion flow chart. See a sample below — this is a full program, most companies would start with just one piece of this and then build on it.  

Build-in logic based on activity – think in terms of logic and what works well for the user based on their behavior.

Keep the scope small to start – you want to make sure you keep the scope of that automated campaign small enough that you can build it and launch it. You can always add to it later if need be.

Share content based on where they are in the journey – look at the customer journey and what they’re most likely interested in. 

What are some best practices around email copy?

Make the body of the email readable:
  • Keep paragraphs short, ideally 5 ¼ lines or less – I know that sounds ridiculously specific; it comes from a study Microsoft did years ago, and it really works. It’s lines, not sentences, so if your columns are narrower, you’ll have fewer words.
  • Use numbered or bulleted lists – bullet-pointed lists are much easier to skim than putting lists in the paragraph.  
  • Especially in B2B, copy is more important than images – in B2B, copy is typically doing the selling, not the images. 

Include calls to action at the top and bottom – you want to make sure that you have calls to action at the top of the email just in case someone is ready to move forward just by reading the subject line or preview pane copy. You also want to have a call to action at the bottom and maybe also in the middle. Basically you just don’t want the reader to have to scroll to find a call to action. . 

Always use rich text – sometimes people try to shortcut and they create an email that’s not HTML, it’s just one big image. That’s a bad idea because many email clients block images by default, so you want to make sure that even if images don’t appear, your message will still be visible.  

Subject lines should be clear and concise – the first thing to know with the subject line is that you can only guarantee that the first 25 characters will be visible. So you want to make sure that the first 25 characters of the subject line have enough information to get people to open the email. Avoid the temptation to be vague and intriguing–I’ve found that vague doesn’t work as well as getting to the point. 

The pre-header text should build on the subject line – preheader text appears in Gmail to the right to the subject line in grey type and in Outlook it is below the subject line. I’ve found that having a preheader text that builds on the subject line is much more effective at getting not only the open, but also clicks and conversions, vs. just restating the subject line in the pre-header.  

When’s the best time to send an email? 

Those “best time” guides aren’t all that useful – the report can say that Thursday at three o’clock is the best time to send an email, but if enough people read that, it won’t be the best time anymore due to bombardment. 

Think about when people are in their inbox and able to engage – you want to think about when people are active in their inbox and they may be able to exchange. 

Use activity in your product as a guide – take a look at your website traffic. If you find that people are more active on your website in the afternoon, that might be a good time to send them an email because it suggests they’re thinking about it. 

Should businesses have a newsletter? What are the best practices? 

Every business should have a newsletter – it’s a good way to keep in touch with prospects as well as customers. 

Too often, B2B companies send a newsletter that’s all about them –  don’t talk about the clients you signed, the people you hired, or the awards you’ve won — people don’t care, and it’s not going to help your cause.

You need at least 60% valuable editorial content – any time you do a newsletter, to make it a newsletter, you need to have at least 60% editorial content, which provides value without a purchase. Have no more than 40% promotional content (e.g. 50% off our products). 

The ideal frequency depends, but at least once a month – it depends upon your relationship with subscribers and what your content is. From my experience, you need to send it at least once a month so that people remember who you are and to help you keep your brand top of mind (which you probably want to do with a newsletter). 

The best newsletter format tends to be blurb + link – include a text blurb that tells the reader why this article would be interesting, with a link to read the full text. Don’t put all of the text in the newsletter itself. Publishing the full text of someone else’s article without their permission is a violation of intellectual property law — which is a key reason we use blurbs with a link to the full text. 

What are the key metrics when it comes to email marketing, and what are healthy ranges for each? 

Focus on metrics related to revenue and conversions, not opens and clicks – ultimately, your key metrics need to be related to revenue or conversions generated — whatever you need to keep the lights on in your business. Focusing too much on opens and clicks is one of the downfalls I see with people who are new to email marketing.

For revenue-generating emails: revenue per email is a great metric – simply divide the revenue generated by that email campaign by the send quantity, and you get a revenue per email number. 

For lead generation: conversion rate (not click rate) – if you’re doing a campaign in the B2B space, where you’re looking for lead generation or some other non-revenue-based action, then you’re going to want to look at your conversion rate for the intended action (sign-ups, event attendance, etc.This is calculated by dividing the number of conversions by the send quantity.

Benchmark engagement (opens + clicks) vs. your list – there are public benchmarks for open and click-through rates, but it’s more valuable to check each email against the engagement you typically get with your list.

How should you think about testing and refining campaigns? 

Generate and test hypotheses – use the scientific method. Develop a hypothesis about how you might boost bottom-line performance on this email marketing campaign, and then test it. For instance, I worked with a company and we had a product style guide for that brand’s key colors which were dark purple and red. All the call to action buttons were red. I was reading a psychology of color book and it hit me that we should try a different color for the CTA because red could be subconsciously stopping people from taking this action (stop signs are red and a red stop light means stop; also, this was a financial product and being ‘in the red’ financially is bad). Our hypothesis was that a green button would perform better, since green was the color of money and meant ‘go’ on a stoplight. The hypothesis turned out to be true; the green call to action buttons boosted performance significantly.

It’s easy to test subject lines, but the lift is limited – people often do a lot of subject line testing because it’s really easy, but the effect it can have on the email’s performance is usually small.

Identify the “leaky” points, and refine them – oftentimes we start with the landing page because that’s closest to the conversion and small improvements there can have a dramatic impact on your bottom line. I had a client recently who had a campaign that failed miserably. They had driven 3,000 people to the landing page, and the email’s call to action had the price in it, so they were ready to buy, but less than 1% converted. They thought the email failed, but the email actually worked fine, the landing page is what failed.

Find what’s working, and move it up in the campaign – try to do more of what works, or pull it up earlier in the process. For instance, I was working on selling a new product; we weren’t having a lot of luck, and we didn’t know why. When I did an analysis, I realized that people who watched a video that was below the fold on the first page of the product information had a much higher propensity to buy than people who didn’t watch the video. So not only did we initially move that video above the fold, which helped a lot, we actually put an image of that video in the email itself, and when people clicked on it they went to the landing page to view it. That solved our whole problem, it really saved that product and that campaign.

What are the most important pieces to get right? 

Have a strategy (you’ll be more successful) – one is to have a strategy. It’s possible to do email marketing without an overriding strategy, but you’re going to make more money and be more successful if you have an overriding strategy. 

Have an advocate for the subscribers – someone needs to be thinking about whether you’re mailing too much, and whether what’s going out is actually relevant to them. 

What are the common pitfalls? 

Never buy lists – if you get an email from somebody who says they have a list of a million people who are exactly who you’re looking for, and it’s $100, it probably sounds too good to be true for a reason. What matters is the quality of names on your list, not having a large list.

Not mailing enough – sometimes new folks don’t mail enough. They’re afraid they’ll send too many emails, but what’s almost worse than over mailing is people forgetting who you are. 

Poor writing – not having someone who knows how to write your campaigns for an online reader. Poor email writing often includes subject lines that don’t get to the point, or a lot of fluffy copy.

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