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How email marketing works: The complete guide


Aug 29, 2017
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If you’re struggling to reach your target customers, there’s still hope. Learning how to do email marketing might provide the solution. It’s a bit different from traditional direct marketing. Email allows companies to get permission before they contact potential customers.

In the old days, companies often bought email lists. It’s a similar strategy to pulling physical addresses out of the phone book. That doesn’t work anymore.

Now, savvy marketers ask prospects for their email addresses. This strategy creates a transparent relationship between the marketer and the prospect.

If you haven’t started an email campaign, now’s the time to start. Whether you send a simple text based email or learn how to create HTML emails, it’s one of the easiest, least expensive marketing strategies available, and it doesn’t take much time or effort to set up.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you want your emails to convert prospects into customers, you need a sound strategy and the right tools.

What Is Email Marketing?

Email marketing is a way to communicate with your customers directly through email. You might send educational information, special offers, coupons, promotions, and other engaging content. All commercial email could fall under the umbrella of email marketing. However, purposeful email marketing includes a compelling call to action.

It sounds pretty simple, but you can use email marketing to achieve several different goals:

  • Develop relationships with customers
  • Encourage subscribers to forward your emails to their friends and family
  • Boost sales through strategic promotions
  • Build brand recognition with frequent exposure
  • Encourage repeat purchases from current customers
  • Enhance brand loyalty

Decide what you want to achieve before you start your email campaign. Your goals are known as your key performance indicators or KPIs. You determine your KPIs based on the behaviors you want to encourage your email subscribers to exhibit.

After you set and tweak your KPIs, create email content that urges customers toward the desired behavior.  That way, you work toward a specific goal from day one.

Why Is Email Marketing Effective? 

Nobody wants to waste time on marketing efforts that never deliver positive ROI. So why should you give email marketing a chance?


You don’t have to spend a single dollar to start an email marketing campaign. All you need are a free email account and a form on your website to collect email addresses.

You can increase ROI by working with email services. Many of them offer free versions of their software. As you build your email list, you might have to pay a small fee. However, more contacts can translate to more sales.

Email marketing does come with one cost: Time. However, it’s the best option when you have a shoestring marketing budget (and even if you don’t).

Success Rates

Segment your audience, so you send the ideal message to each consumer. Email campaigns let you customize each missive for greater impact.

For instance, let’s say you run an e-commerce shoe company. You sell boots, flats, heels, sandals, sneakers, loafers, and dozens of other types of shoes.

Women might visit your website to buy a pair of the hottest new wedges. They represent a distinct segment of your audience. They’re not looking for the same thing as a man who needs flip-flops to wear around the house.


Data has become the most valuable tool for any business owner. If you keep track of key metrics, you know when to adjust your strategy.

For instance, you can measure open rates. If most of your subscribers delete emails unread, maybe you need to change your subject lines. The same goes for engagement levels. When nobody clicks on your links, you might want to change your content strategy.

Measurability makes an email marketing strategy more malleable. Adjust your strategy as you go without much effort or any cost.

Email Is a Channel That You Own 

Facebook owns Facebook. The same goes for other social media platforms. Unowned channels can change the rules without notification and upend your marketing strategy.

Email is different. You control the content, frequency, and rules. Nobody else dictates how you use it to communicate with your subscribers.

Plus, nobody can take email marketing away from you. Mark Zuckerberg could shut down Facebook tomorrow. It’s not likely, but it’s also out of your hands.

Email Lets You Get Personal 

Gartner released a compelling statistic this year. Companies that personalize all marketing channels by 2018 will outsell their competitors by 20 percent. That’s a powerful reason to try email marketing.

You can personalize emails in several ways.

  • Great the recipient by his or her name at the top of the message.
  • Use segmentation to deliver the right message to the right audience.
  • Mention a recent engagement in the email.
  • Send emails at times that correspond to the recipient’s geographic location.

It creates a sense of intimacy between your brand and your readers. Each recipient feels like you’re talking directly to them. If you personalize emails, which we’ll cover later in this article, the intimacy increases.

Email Marketing Has an ROI of 122% 

Statistics on email marketing ROI vary. According to a recent survey, email marketing enjoys a 122 percent ROI. That’s four times greater than other marketing channels.

According to CopyBlogger, email marketing’s ROI could prove as high as 4,300 percent. It all depends on how well you use your campaign.

ROI is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if another strategy offers higher ROI, you have to consider other factors. For instance, some marketing channels demand greater financial investment. Even if they offer high ROI, they can drain resources you might need for other purposes. You might put that money toward product development or new equipment.

How Does Email Marketing Work? 

Email marketing works by connecting you to your prospective customers via email. You can collect email addresses in several ways.

  • Ask website visitors. Use a form to invite prospects to subscribe to your email list. Explain what they’ll get in return, such as special coupons or insider tips.
  • Offer a freebie. You might collect subscribers faster if you dangle a proverbial carrot. Many companies offer free white papers, ebooks, and other resources to new subscribers.
  • Encourage sharing. At the end of your emails, ask your subscribers to forward the message to others. If their friends and family members find your email compelling, they’ll sign up too.

Let’s take a look at the steps to email marketing success.

Get Permission 

Never buy an email list or add emails without the owner's’ permission. Marketer extraordinaire Seth Godin popularized permission marketing back in 2008.

Godin defines permission marketing as “the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them” (emphasis ours).

If you send unwanted emails, one or more of four things will happen.

  1. The prospect will appreciate the email and continue to subscribe.
  2. A potential customer will never want to interact with your brand again.
  3. The recipient will mark your email as spam.
  4. The email will never make it to the recipient thanks to spam folders.

That first outcome might seem worth a try. It’s not. A single subscriber isn’t worth tarnishing your brand image.

Keep Your Word 

If you stand up a friend for drinks, he or she might forgive you. Keep doing it, and you’ll lose a friend.

The same concept works for email marketing. If you make a promise, keep it.

For instance, you might tell your subscribers that you send emails once a month. If you start blasting them with weekly emails, you lose all credibility.

The same goes for email content. Don’t promise weekly coupons if you can’t deliver. If you promise original content, don’t send blog article reprints.

Send Relevant Content and Offers 

If you want subscribers to become customers, each email needs a riveting call to action. CTAs tell the reader what to do next.

If you’re sharing a special offer, tell the reader how to get it.

  • Click here to take advantage of this opportunity!
  • Don’t miss your chance to save 20 percent on your total order.
  • If you act today, you get our special introductory pricing.

You can include several CTAs in a single email. Put one at the beginning so people can act right away. You can then sprinkle them throughout the content and put a final CTA at the bottom. Use your best judgment. Too many CTAs in a short email will look spammy.

Use Autoresponders

An autoresponder sends an email to a prospect based on his or her behavior. You can use autoresponders to automate the sales cycle and maintain contact with your leads.

For instance, send a “Welcome” or “Thank You” autoresponder message when someone subscribes to your list. Do the same with each significant interaction.

You can also use autoresponders to reconnect with a prospect. For instance, if Customer A bought a product two weeks ago, you could automate a follow-up email that highlights other products that might interest him or her.

Kissmetrics shared a helpful chart that shows how companies can use autoresponders effectively:

Use autoresponders to usher customers through the sales cycle. Inform them about your products or services, help them make decisions, and provide compelling reasons to act.

Try Segmentation and Analytics

As mentioned above, segmentation helps define different types of customers. Analytics allows you to measure your email marketing campaign’s success.

You can use familiar software to track your email metrics. Google Analytics offers a convenient and free choice.

via Smart Insights

Set up email as a traffic source. From there, you’ll see how much traffic you get from the emails you send out.

As your traffic grows, adjust your email campaign strategy. Don’t just rely on third-party analytics. Ask your customers to take polls or surveys or to provide feedback in other ways.

Recognize The Value of Your List 

Your list might not seem valuable when it consists of three addresses. It will grow, though, and become increasingly valuable.

As you develop a larger audience, you must respect the relationship you’ve established with them. Keep your promises, don’t let content quality drop, and get clear about your goals.

Websites, social media platforms, and other online marketing channels are undeniably beneficial. However, your email marketing list is your direct line to your prospects. Don’t waste it.

The Critical Factors for Email Marketing Success 

You’re familiar with email marketing mechanics now. How do you set yourself up for success?

In some ways, email marketing demands trial and error. A strategy that works for Company A might bomb for Company B. You can use a few tried-and-true strategies, though, to improve your chances of getting it right the first time.


Now’s the time to flex your creative muscles. Define and adjust your company culture, then reflect those values in your emails.

If you can surprise and delight your readers, you’ll increase open rates as well as click-to-open rates. Engagement will skyrocket. Consumers hate spam, but they love intriguing content.

It starts with your subject line.

  • Short and sweet: Make sure your readers can see the full subject line before they open the email. Use action verbs and creative language to entice your audience.
  • Engaging: Don’t use spammy words like “discount” or “freebie.” They’ll get your email tossed in the spam folder. Go with real language that eludes to a benefit for the reader.
  • Inclusive: Make the reader feel like part of a club. Words line “insider” and “join” help spark interest.
  • Questioning: If you can’t think of a witty subject line, ask a question instead. Just make sure your target audience will want to know the answer. You must also deliver the answer in the email’s body.
  • Sincere: Again, avoid spammy subject lines. BuzzFeed-style headlines don’t work for email subjects. Keep it real with your audience to maintain their trust even while playing with creative language.

Over time, you’ll use analytics to figure out what subject lines work best with your audience.

Once you nail the subject, move on to the content. Try creative formatting, images, and introductions. You can even play with funny or witty coupon codes to generate interest. As a bonus, unique codes won’t get abused as often.


If you send emails that don’t relate to your audience, you won’t gain much traction. As you craft content for your emails, ask yourself whether you’d find it relevant as a consumer.

This is why segmentation and analytics matter for email marketing. If you send an email about getting started with your service to an existing customer, he or she will feel devalued.

You never want to waste your subscribers’ time.

Autoresponders and other automation can help prevent future headaches. Start segmenting your audience from the beginning. That way, you won’t irritate your subscribers.

Craft content that nudges customers through the sales funnel. Just don’t forget to include content that also benefits the subscriber in some way.

  • Information: Use statistics, insider tips and tricks, and how-to guides to teach your subscribers something new.
  • Savings: When you help your subscribers save money, they’ll look forward to your next email.
  • Next Steps: Tell existing customers how to get the most benefit from your products or services.
  • Problem-solving: Mine your customer service inbox for frequent questions. Use your email marketing campaign to answer those questions directly.
  • Timely: Take advantage of a current event, such as a holiday. Make the offer more attractive by linking it to something the customer recognizes.

You can also increase relevance by purchase history. Showing your prospects products they’ve seen before increases their chances of buying. It’s like passing the same aisle at a store and realizing you really do want that toaster oven.


The incentives you offer don’t have to be big, but they should increase engagement. Even small incentives can drive brand loyalty and increase conversion rates.

We’ve talked about promotions, special offers, and coupon codes. However, other incentives exist.

  • Free content: Offer a white paper, e-book, article, or video for free. Consumers love to learn, so don’t disappoint them.
  • Webinars: Invite your subscribers to engage with you in a webinar. You’re giving away your time and your experience, which adds value.
  • Twitter chats: Engage with your social media audience at a specific time. Twitter chats increase engagement and help you build relationships. Plus, your subscribers gain valuable information and potential contacts.
  • Email series: Advertise an email series that promises to answer questions and provide insight.
  • Deliverables: Templates, charts, graphs, and other deliverables can increase engagement. They take little time to prepare but deliver high ROI in email marketing.
  • Blueprints: Help your audience achieve their goals by providing a digital blueprint. It’s a guide that breaks down complex subjects into simpler, easily digestible chunks, usually using fill-in-the-blank lines or questionnaires.
  • Case study: Show how your product or service directly benefited a customer or client. People love to read others’ success stories.

You can use incentives in two ways.

  1. Sign ups: Entice prospects to sign up for your email list with one of your incentives.
  2. Engagement: Include an incentive as a subscriber-only freebie in one or more of your emails.


Sending the right email at the right time can make a big difference in engagement levels. Several schools of thought exist.

Experian, for instance, released a study several years ago. Its findings indicate that engagement levels increase when emails get sent in the evening or even late at night.

Other experts claim that email open rates increase when marketers send messages over the weekend. People have more time to open and explore emails when they’re not facing a huge to-do list at work.

The ideal time for sending your emails might depend on your audience, though. For example, if you’re marketing to stay-at-home-moms, consider sending emails in the morning or early afternoon. The kids are at school, so your target consumer has time to read your email.

Frequency also matters. If you’re sending an email series, try to space them only a day or two apart. That way, the previous email remains fresh in your subscribers’ minds. Just make sure you let subscribers know how often they should expect to hear from you.

Finally, consider the time of year. Many businesses have cyclical seasons. If you sell sports and swimwear, for example, you probably get more engagement over the summer. Amp up your email marketing campaign between March and August.


Each part of your marketing campaign should relate somehow to every other part. Email shouldn’t stand apart from social, paid search, direct marketing, and other efforts.

Start by getting different departments in your business on the same page. Your social media team should know what your email marketing team is doing, and vice versa.

Next, look at the tools you use, from Kajabi and SalesForce to Zapier and AWeber. Use those tools together to make your email marketing campaign stronger.

Add links to your other campaigns in each email. Link to your blog, social media platforms, blog feeds, and landing pages. Social buttons work particularly well for this purpose because they’re recognizable and easy to incorporate.

You can also turn your subscriber list into a CSV file and upload it to social media, such as Facebook or Twitter. Use that data to follow your customers and begin social media monitoring. You’ll learn valuable information about your prospect’s pain points, needs, and desires.

If you make videos, don’t discount YouTube as a valuable source for new subscribers. Add a CTA at the end of each video and in the video description for your subscription list. Annotations and cards can make this process even more successful.

Copy Quality 

A low-quality copy will turn off your subscribers in a heartbeat. Nobody wants to wade through an email full of formatting issues, grammatical errors, and sloppy wording.

You don’t need an MFA to create quality content. Just follow a few important rules of thumb.

  • Get to the point. Avoid tangents at all costs. Your reader will decide within a second or two whether to keep reading or hit the delete button.
  • Keep it short. Brevity matters. Use short sentences, short paragraphs, and short body copy. Don’t make your reader work for the information.
  • Run spell check. It only takes a second, and it will catch some of those common errors that creep up on you.
  • Use Hemingway. Not the author—the app. It catches issues that spell check won’t.
  • Format well. Plain-Jane formatting works just as well as fancy graphics and text boxes. Readability matters more than style.
  • Start with action words. Strong verbs give your copy momentum and gravitas.
  • Use second person voice. Talk to your subscribers as though you’re sitting at your breakfast table over cookies and cups of coffee.
  • Add urgency. Give your incentive a deadline. Your prospects will know they have to act quickly to get the benefit.



Attribution helps you understand whether an email contributed to a customer’s decision to buy. At least, that’s the simplest definition.
As with most metrics, it can get a little complicated.

Google Analytics uses several attribution methods to help you understand your email marketing success rate.

  • Last interaction: Was your email the last interaction with your brand before the customer bought the product?
  • Time decay: Google Analytics measures the interactions that happened in the days or weeks leading up to the purchase. If the email was one of the last interactions, it credits the email with the purchase.
  • Last non-direct click: With this attribution, Google credits the email if it’s the last click before a customer buys a product.

These are among the most common attribution models.

However, you can step outside Google Analytics if you want a more granular look at your email marketing campaign.

Some programs allow you to set up control groups. Just as in a scientific experiment, the software measures sales conversions among prospects exposed to your email list as well as among those who aren’t.

You can choose how to approach attribution. However, without it, you won’t know your email marketing campaign’s impact on revenue lift.

Landing Pages 

We’ve talked about calls to action or CTAs, but where do those CTAs lead? You almost always include a link with a CTA, so your subscriber knows where to go next.

In most cases, the destination is a landing page.

Think of landing pages as direct extensions of your email. They bring the customer closer to the sales conversion tipping point.

Most landing pages include specific, actionable copy that reinforces your email’s message. Declutter your landing pages as much as possible to keep your reader focused. Navigation, sidebars, and other elements don’t belong on these pages.

You can test different landing pages by segmenting your email subscribers. Send half to one landing page and half to another. The one that performs best (results in sales or other desired behaviors) wins.

Continue this A/B testing throughout your marketing campaign. Play with page design, wording, and CTAs to find the magic combination.


Some businesses approach to content marketing almost as an afterthought. Don’t make that mistake.

Sure, you should spend time creating online courses, developing blog content, and interacting with your audience on social media. Neglecting email, though, can have serious ramifications.

For one thing, consumers now spend more time on mobile devices than on desktop computers. Since emails are optimized for mobile, they make an excellent content vehicle. Plus, people don’t carry around their desktop computers, but they almost always have their smartphones within easy reach.

Email also offers efficiency, flexibility, and endless customization options. Why wouldn’t you give it a try?

Start creating your email marketing templates and other assets today. Armed with this information, you can start generating ROI immediately. Use it to advertise your next course, build interest in your products, and develop better relationships with your target market.

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