You could argue that Amazon founded a business on the back of email marketing: it’s the master of combining purchases with browsing habits to build customer-specific newsletters for daily, weekly and monthly distribution. These are cheap to distribute, give customers a real benefit and – most important of all – are incredibly effective.
However, with more active email addresses in existence than Twitter and Facebook accounts combined, how can you apply the same practices as multinational retailers to drive sales and grow your business?
1. Don’t DIY your email solution
“Email is probably the most valuable owned asset that a company or brand will have,” said Erik Harbison, chief marketing officer of AWeber, a US-based email marketing service for small businesses. “That company controls how it grows its list and communicates with it, versus other marketing channels, such as social, where they’re effectively renting space on a platform.”
For Harbison, no list is too small. “Even if it’s a list of 50 names, imagine a room of 50 people in it: that’s very powerful for a brand. If you’re posting off your brand’s [social media] page you’d be lucky to achieve 2% reach.”
Amir Jirbandey, from email marketers Mailjet, agreed. “Social is great but it has a very short shelf life and isn’t as effective as email at converting customers,” he told us. “Email is still the biggest game changer. It also delivers the highest return on investment – up to 4,300% above other platforms.”
So, it’s easy and we all have the tools we need to kick off a campaign – a keyboard, mouse and email account. Yet sending mass emails from your personal or business email client is impractical and, once you build a sizeable subscriber list, means that you’ll run the risk of being sanctioned by your mail provider – it will either limit your outgoing traffic, or suspect that you’re sending spam. The answer is to turn to a specialist email service provider.
“Most companies will start with using Outlook or a Gmail account, but we’re the next step,” Harbison explained. “We have the power and tools to make you more successful, including user segmentation [targeting], automation – which cuts back on your time and investment – and the ability to create beautiful-looking emails.”
Of course, email marketing firms would say that. The real question is how well it works in practice.
2. Know how to manage your subscribers
Aside from taking care of the design of your email, and having a better chance of getting through spam filters than you would, email service providers give you all the tools you need to manage your subscriber base.
Subscribers are your primary assets, and it pays to treat them that way,learning as much as you can about what appeals to them. Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign did just this and, in doing so, it raised $690 million from email marketing alone. Each of the campaign messages the team sent out was being read by 30 people, with 11 or 12 variations for the subject line.
“When you’re starting email marketing as an infant company, you’re in a very good position to do some trial and error,” said Jirbandey. “You want to start by testing your ‘from’ name – whether you’re going for something quirky, or a department name to be a bit more formal – to identify yourself with the customer. Then if you’re sending newsletters, you want to start with one a month then, the following month, one every two weeks.”
User segmentation will allow you to target specific subgroups – depending on interests specified when they signed up, the mailing list they’ve been added to (you should create separate forms for different platforms) and recipient behaviour. This will maximise your chances of sending relevant content and minimise the number of unsubscribes.
Mailjet calculates the industry-average unsubscribe rate to be less than 1%, and a good range to be between 0% and 0.5%, but you should expect this to be higher on new lists where subscribers won’t be familiar with your content or may have signed up just to try you out. It’s bad form to hang on to subscribers that are no longer interested in what you’re peddling: “Keep your Unsubscribe link visible in order not to frustrate recipients and prevent possible spam complaints. If recipients are no longer interested in your content or no longer wish to receive emails from you, it is better to let them unsubscribe immediately and easily. This will leave [them] with a good impression.”
3. Design your emails for delivery
But it’s not only the position of your opt-out link that’s important. Platform agnosticism is key, just as it is when designing for the web. It’s getting more difficult to accurately predict which device your recipients will use to read your dispatch and, increasingly, you need to be thinking small first, before building up to full-blown computers.
The only way to gauge the desktop/mobile split within your audience is to examine your stats, but when just starting out, it’s useful to examine global trends. Email marketing giant Adestra tracks the devices on which emails sent through its system are opened, and in 2015 it saw a consistent shift away from the desktop towards the mobile workspace.
By the end of 2015, iPhone and iPad alone accounted for 48.9% of all opens (up from 37.8% in January 2015), while bundling in Android devices increased the mobile response rate to 57.3% – by far the majority, and a group you can’t afford to ignore. There was more bad news for anyone targeting desktop clients, which saw an overall decline of around 10% for the year. Webmail services Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, Windows Live Mail and AOL captured 21% between them.
And Outlook? Only 16.7% of all emails sent through Adestra were opened using the business behemoth. This is a trend that Kevin Mandeville, from email marketing analytics firm Litmus, predicts will continue over the next year, so that by the end of 2016 Outlook will polling less than 5%. “Businesses will continue to shift away from expensive desktop suites like Microsoft Office toward more scalable services like Google Apps and Outlook 365.”
The trend towards wearables has other implications, making it more important than ever to include plain-text alternatives to the HTML view in every email you send. Without them, Apple Watch pushes your message almost entirely below the bezel to warn that the device can’t properly render the content.
“As a marketer using email, you need to be always thinking of the context of how your audience is consuming your email,” said AWeber’s Harbison, whose advice is always to “begin with the end in mind” when setting up a campaign. “[Context] influences design, which has to be front and centre. When you start to think about other ways that email can be consumed outside of mobile, such as wearables and the form they take, it’s less about images and more about snippets of copy that make sense and are more relevant.”
4. Use email as part of the marketing mix
Unless you already have a strong brand, your email has to work very hard to be opened. Mailjet calculates a “good” open rate to be between 15% and 25% for a marketing email and 30% and 40% for a transactional email (the latter being an order or account confirmation for example). So, always consider at least half of your potential audience to be missing your message, and formulate a strategy that enables you to reach them in other ways.