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Email marketing - a comprehensive overview

Posted by OTB on 29/5/2009


Some of you may be aware that Tina Catling and Mark Davies (founders of outside the box) wrote a best selling book called "Think". Some of you may be aware that they have another book coming out later this year. The new book will be covering interactive marketing. They will capture all the techniques used in both online marketing and and direct marketing...and then comparing the two...making the very first interactive tool kit for practitioners.

 This blog gives you a sneak preview of one of the first chapters in DRAFT form...yes that means it's not heres your chance to add to it!

Whats it all about?

Email is an ideal medium for direct marketing and can and should be used to some extent by almost all businesses. The advantages of email marketing are clear and substantial. Email is increasingly widespread and is the most widely used application on the internet. The costs of producing and distributing email are considerably lower than is the case with traditional media, personalisation is comparatively easy, and email has a faster production lead time and an instantaneous response mechanism which facilitates impulsive responses. In addition, measuring and testing the effectiveness of an email campaign is quick and easy, allowing for improvements to be made to increase the quantity and quality of respondents. For these reasons email marketing can be very lucrative – the US Direct Marketing Association found that in 2007 businesses spent roughly $500m on email campaigns which produced $23bn in sales – this represents a return on investment of  $48.56 for every dollar spent. However there are many common mistakes in email marketing, and an unsophisticated campaign will at best be ignored and at worst may alienate your customers and damage your brand.


While there are of course many principles that can be applied from traditional marketing methods to email you should be aware that email is a distinct medium with its own particular set of rules. The design of an email has to account for preview planes and download times – factors that we don’t have to consider when designing a direct mail campaign. Similarly we can’t just simply apply the principles of web design to email marketing – making someone click a link on an email is very different from trying to persuade someone to buy something once they have visited your website, and it therefore involves different techniques. This chapter will offer some simple advice to help you build an email list, create effective emails, and to measure your results.


Capturing email addresses

The first stage in creating an email marketing campaign is to compile a list of email addresses, but this can often be a slow process. Fortunately there are some simple and effective techniques you can use on your website and elsewhere to help you to develop a permission-based email list with large numbers of high quality contacts. Just remember that your customers are likely to be receiving large numbers of emails every day and will be reluctant to sign-up to yet another email list, and you should therefore explain clearly the benefits of subscribing to the email and consider offering an immediate incentive to encourage them to do so.

Using your website

·         Text boxes

o   The advantage of text boxes is that they allow users to enter their details without having to transfer through to a different page, this encourages impulsive decisions to sign-up. Text boxes commonly comprise just a single box asking for an email address, but you may want to include several different boxes asking for additional information that will allow greater personalisation of your emails.

·         Buttons:

o   Buttons are pictorial representations of links that take users to a separate sign-up form. Buttons can take many forms - and you may want to experiment with some creative graphics - but often they will simply take the form of a text-box in the sidebar, allowing users to access the link at any time and on any page of you website. The advantage of buttons over text boxes is that they can link to a more detailed form allowing you to capture more information.

·         Text links:

o   Text links are small sections of text linked to a separate form. Text links allow you to offer a subscription option within the context of other information. This is a useful tool for highlighting the benefits to the user of signing up to the email list - while talking about any particular aspect of your company you can highlight the fact that the user will have access to more information/offers relating to that aspect by signing up to the email list, and then include an appropriate text link.

·         Check boxes:

o   When your customers are making a transaction on your website you can make it compulsory for them to provide an email address in order to complete the purchase. In this case you should include a check box allowing them to indicate whether they wish to be contacted by you in the future. It is best to leave the box unchecked by default so as not to annoy people who have not noticed the box with unwanted emails.

Other online opportunities:

While your website will most likely be the main vehicle for capturing email addresses, you should make use of any other contact you have with potential or existing customers to encourage them to subscribe. Online advertising, third-party websites, online directories, and your email signature can all be used for sign-up links. 

Offline alternatives:

You can use traditional marketing methods to help build your email list. You may want to include the sign-up information on your business cards, on your direct mail, and on any other print or broadcast advertising you are engaging in. Never miss an opportunity to encourage people to subscribe.


Email Content


The Sender’s Address

If your subscribers are going to open your emails they have to recognise you and trust you, and for this reason the sender name and address is very important. You should use a sender name that will be easily recognisable to the subscriber and keep this sender name consistent. For this reason it is usually best simply to use your brand name rather than the name of any individuals. Of course this doesn’t prevent you from using the names of people from your company within the email itself to add a personal touch.

The Subject and Snippet Text

Your subscribers are busy people, and they receive lots of emails. If you want them to open and read your emails you need to a subject line which manages to be both informative and compelling. You should tell them what product or service is being offered in the email and what benefits they will receive – e.g. discounts or free gifts. Including the recipient’s name can be effective in getting their attention, and you may also want to include a reference to your brand.

You should also be aware that some email clients such as Gmail include a ‘snippet’ from the beginning of the email next to the subject line. At the very least you should ensure that the text in the snippet complements rather than detracts from the content in the subject line.

Writing Style

Your subscribers want to digest the key information in your email as quickly as possible, so your copy should be simple, scanable, and to the point. Try writing out in full everything you want to say in your email, and then shorten it as much as possible by removing any superfluous or flowery language and by making use of lists and bullet points. Remember you don’t have to use perfectly correct English and perfect grammar, adopting an informal style for the sake of brevity does not necessarily make your emails look any less professional though you should only adopt this approach if it corresponds with your brand personality.

As part of this informal style you should consider using creative alternatives to everyday email content. For example, rather than starting an email with “Dear Thomas” you can use a more interesting personalised greeting such as “Three cheers for Thomas!”, and instead of using links saying “Read more” or “Visit our website” you can just as easily use a less formal alternative such as “Check it out for yourself” or “Dive in”.

Less is more

As well as avoiding using too many words you should also avoid using too many different messages in any one email. Each email should have just one primary topic or objective, whether that is to sell a particular product or just to say ‘Welcome’ to a new customer. It’s a common mistake to try to do too many things at once but an email which is too cluttered will likely be less successful than one with a simple and focused message. If you do want to get across additional messages within the same email you must ensure that the layout is simple to understand and that the different sections of the email are clearly signposted and delineated.

More than just sales

Your emails can be about more than simply promoting products and pushing your subscribers to make purchases, you can use them to strengthen the relationship with your subscribers and to develop your brand.  Every now and then you may want to send an email to your subscribers which is entirely designed for their entertainment with no effort to sell them anything – try making it funny or silly with jokes, cartoons, and videos. Making your emails unpredictable and entertaining in this way can help create are more favourable view of your brand and encourages subscribers to open your emails more often.

User-Generated Content

User-generated content can be used to great effect in your emails. Including testimonials and ratings provided by visitors to your website can help to persuade your subscribers of the quality of your product. This way it isn’t a salesman telling them how good a product is but one of their peers, and this is always going to be more convincing.

Another way of utilising user-generated content in your emails is to create a dialogue with your email subscribers: you could include a survey or quiz in every e-newsletter you send out –  this creates a more interactive experience for the reader and provides you with valuable information about your subscribers.

Be mysterious

One possible technique is to use deliberately cryptic email copy. You could have an email consisting of one sentence or even just one word, or perhaps just some imagery or graphics. If you make the content unusual and interesting then your subscribers will want to see what you have to offer and many will click through to your website to see what it is. This is however a risky strategy as many people will not have time to read vague or ambiguous emails, and you may fail to grab the attention of some of those people who would have been interested in your offer if you had just explained clearly what it was.


Email Design and Layout

Scanable Layout

Your subscribers are unlikely to sit down and carefully read through every bit of information on your email, instead they will ‘scan’ for the key information and the layout of the email should help them to do this as quickly and easily as possible. They should be able to understand the core message of your email within seconds – i.e. what is being offered, who is offering it, and how they can take the offer up.

It is crucial that you avoid using large blocks of text in your emails and that you break up your copy. You can use multiple headlines and bullet-points, as well as lines, borders and boxes to divide the email into different sections. The most important components of your message will usually be the details of the offer and the call-to-action, and you can use ‘visual anchors’ to draw the reader’s eye to these and to any other important information – you can give them a different typeface, size, or colour, separate them completely from the other parts of the email, or use images such as arrows or buttons to draw attention to them.

Pre-header Text

Pre-header text is, as you may have guessed, text which goes above the header on an email. Most of the time the pre-header text is used for a link allowing subscribers to view the email as a web page to enable them to safely see any blocked images or graphics. There are however a number of other functional items you can include in the pre-header text:

·         ‘Unsubscribe’ link

·         ‘Forward to a Friend’ link

·         ‘Edit Preferences’ link

·         Permission information

·         ‘Mobile Version’ link

·         A whitelist request (to add you to the recipient’s address book)


The header will usually include your company logo, or at least some reference to your brand, as well as a navigation bar linking to the different sections of your website. Any headers you use in your emails should be similar in style if not exactly the same as the headers you use on your website in order for your emails to be consistent with your brand identity.


The footer of your email can be used for additional links to different sections of your website, options to subscribe or unsubscribe, and viral links (i.e. options to forward the email to a friend or to share the email on a social network). You may also want to include a link to your privacy policy.


Most subscribers are now blocking images in their primary inbox by default. While this shouldn’t deter you from using images altogether you need to be aware of the challenges that this poses. You need to make sure that your emails are intelligible without the images by using a mixture of text and images such that the text is sufficient to communicate the message and enable the recipient to click through to your website, or you can use ‘alt text’ to replace blocked images with copy. Alternatively you can just provide links in your pre-header text to enable the recipient to choose to view the images as a web page.


Videos can be effective in making emails more entertaining, informative and distinctive. You can choose to embed videos in the email itself or you can just link to videos in your website. If you choose to embed videos you should remember that your subscribers usually spend only a few seconds scanning your email and you should therefore present your videos in a clearly recognisable video player format if you want them to get played.

You should also be aware that there may be technological obstacles to viewing videos in email – while most of the email clients that consumers will be using (Hotmail, Gmail etc) will be fine, many of the email clients used by business such as Lotus Notes and Outlook are not necessarily enabled for viewing videos. Videos are therefore less suitable for business-to-business email marketing.


Your colour scheme should be consistent and simple – too many different colours can make your email appear cluttered, less attractive and more difficult to quickly scan. Ideally you should choose one dominant colour and just one or two secondary colours. Make sure the colours you use complement each other – navy blue text on a bright red background will not be attractive or easy to read.


As we have already seen you need to ensure your email can see the main details of your email pretty much instantaneously and they will be unable to do this if they have to scroll down the page to find important information. You should therefore try to include all of the crucial elements of your email – your brand, the offer, and the call to action, and anything else critical to your email – are located around the top. A normal preview pane will be around 500 pixels wide and 350 pixels tall so you should try to include all the important bits in this area, and particularly in the top-left section as this is where your readers will look to first.


Email Opportunities

Most of the emails you send are likely to be regular newsletters and notifications of special offers and new products. However there are lots of other great opportunities to contact your subscribers in order to strengthen your relationship and encourage them to make a purchase. Here are a few suggestions:

Welcome Emails

Welcome emails can generate some of the highest open rates and they can set the tone for your future emails and they can therefore have a significant impact on the future success of your email marketing campaigns. As well as thanking them for subscribing it’s usually a good idea to use this opportunity to spell out in greater detail what your subscribers can expect from your emails in the future as well as telling them a more about your business. It can be a good idea to use welcome emails to request that your subscribers ‘whitelist’ you in order to ensure that future emails arrive in their inbox without images being blocked and without being treated as spam.

Shopping Cart Abandonment Emails

Most of the time when customers place items in their online shopping cart or basket they don’t go on to complete the purchase. There could be any number of reasons for this, for example they may have intended to go back and purchase the item later but forgotten about it, or they may simply be using the shopping cart like a wish list with no firm intention of completing the purchase. Whatever the reason it’s a good idea to send them an email reminding them that they have items waiting in their shopping cart. You can do this after a given period of time, or you can do it when the stocks of the particular products in their cart are running low and warn them that they should buy quickly before they sell out. You could also think about including an incentive for the customer to go and complete the purchase, though there is a danger that this would lead savvy customers to deliberately abandon the shopping carts in order to receive the incentive.

Reactivation Emails

Another opportunity for email contact is when a customer reactivates their lapsed account. Simply sending them an email thanking them for coming back and informing them of recent changes and new products and services can be useful in strengthening the relationship with the customer and increasing sales.

Transaction Confirmation Emails

Once a visitor to your site has made a purchase your aim is to make that person come back again and an effective way of doing this is to send them a confirmation email which is highly personalised and attractive, and which includes recommendations and special incentives to encourage repeat purchases. You should however ensure that any promotional copy is to the side or below the confirmation copy.

You could also send recent purchasers a follow-up email asking them what they thought of their product. You could then ask those who provide positive reviews to send referrals to friends.

Browse Activity Emails

If you track which pages your subscribers are viewing you will be able to send personalised emails based on the particular products or services that each individual subscriber has viewed and informing them of any relevant special offers that arise, as well as recommending similar products that might interest them. However there is a danger that your customers might not like the fact that their activity is being closely monitored so you need to be careful and sensitive in how you use this information and try to get feedback on what your subscribers think of these emails.

Win-Back Emails

If a previous customer has not been active for a certain amount of time (often linked to your business cycle) try sending them a “We miss you!” email to persuade them return. You can also provide an exclusive incentive to encourage them to come back.

Special Occasion Emails

Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, – there a lots of special occasions that you can use as an excuse to contact your subscribers. At a given time before the event send them an email reminder with relevant product suggestions and incentives, and personalise the copy and imagery to the specific recipient.

Re-stock emails

If you can work out the average consumption period for your products you can send your customers an email at the time when they are likely to need to stock up on new supplies – if your product usually needs replacing after three months, send them an email after three months with incentives for a repeat purchase or recommendations for alternative products.

But don’t get carried away

While it is good to contact your subscribers regularly you don’t want to annoy them by pestering them too often. It is very important that you get the overall frequency of your emails right, otherwise you could find yourself with a lot of unsubscribe requests. A potential problem in large organisations is that you end up with different teams or departments wanting to email the same subscribers all at the same time. One way of avoiding this is to assign someone with responsibility for managing the frequency of emails who can decide which emails should get priority and whether the different messages can be compiled into a smaller number of emails.


Measuring Success

There are a number of different ways of measuring the success of your email campaigns in order to help you identify which areas need to be improved. Some of the usual Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are listed below.


Delivery Rate

Formula: ((emails sent – emails bounced) /emails sent) x 100%

This measures the proportion of emails that are being successfully delivered to your subscribers’ inboxes. A low delivery rate could indicate that your emails are being treated as spam, or that a large number of the email addresses on your list are not valid.


Open Rate

Formula: (emails opened /emails sent - emails bounced)) x 100%

This measurement is not as significant as it used to be as it has become more difficult to calculate the open rate accurately. An email is registered as ‘opened’ when an image is requested from the server, however many email clients  are now blocking images by default so many emails are incorrectly designated as unopened. Open rates are still worth keeping an eye on - an unusually low open rate may suggest that you need to make changes in the sender or subject lines or that your subscribers have not been impressed by your previous emails.


Click-Through Rate

Formula: (emails clicked /emails sent - emails bounced)) x 100%

This measures the number of people who click on a link in your email. Since the measurement of open rates has become less reliable the click-through rate has become the primary indicator of subscriber interest. If you have a high open rate but a low click-through rate then this suggests you will need to improve the content and/or design of your email.


Conversion Rate

Formula: (emails resulting in a conversion /(emails sent - emails bounced)) x 100%

The conversion rate is the number of different emails that resulted in a ‘conversion’. A conversion simply refers to a subscriber performing a desired action, so for an online retailer a conversion would simply be a web site purchase. Other types of businesses may have different definitions of a conversion such as a membership registration or a software or media download. If you have a low conversion rate despite having reasonable click-through rate then you may need to improve your landing page.


Unsubscribe Rate

Formula: (unsubscribe requests /emails sent - emails bounced)) x 100%

This is the number of subscribers who lost interest in you completely and decided to unsubscribe. High unsubscribe rates are usually indicative of a problem either with the content or the frequency of your emails.


Viral Rate

Formula: (emails forwarded /(emails sent - emails bounced)) x 100%

You should usually have some viral element in your emails, whether this is a request for recipients to forward the email to a friend or to share it on a social network. This is an effective way to add revenue to your campaign and to acquire new subscribers. The viral rate measures the number of subscribers who choose to share your email in this way.


Return on Investment (ROI)

Formula: (revenue generated from campaign /total cost of campaign) x 100%

The ROI of your email marketing campaign is the most important measurement in determining the extent to which it has been a an overall success. Your overriding goal in business is to make money, and the greater the ROI the more money you are making. If your other email marketing KPIs are all showing positive results but your ROI is low this could be an indication that you are spending too much money in the production of you email marketing campaigns.





Testing is quick, cheap and easy in email marketing – this is one of its great strengths, yet it is surprising how often testing is overlooked by organisations in their email marketing campaigns. You can test pretty much anything – whether it’s a single element of your email such as the subject line, or the whole thing. If your emails are doing well you’re probably best off just making small changes and testing alternatives to single elements such as the subject line, but if your campaign is seriously underperforming you might want to consider testing a completely different approach.

Subject lines are a great candidate for testing. Try to make sure that whatever you use can be replicated in subsequent emails, so try testing different ‘types’ of subject lines. For example, you can test subject lines which focus on product benefits, price or offer end dates and see which works best. You can also test almost any part of the content of the email. From a design perspective you can test different lengths, layouts, images,  colour schemes and so on, and  you can also try different incentives and product descriptions. It’s not only the content that needs testing, you can also try sending your emails on different days, at different times, and at different levels of frequency.


Email Service Providers (ESPs)

It is highly recommended that you invest some money in a good Email Service Provider to help you tackle the administrative, technological and creative challenges involved in an email marketing campaign.

ESPs provide many invaluable services. Delivery rates should increase as most ESPs are approved by ISPs as a legitimate email delivery service and they usually offer easy methods to authenticate your email. Most ESPs also provide clients with comprehensive tracking of their emails which will help you to keep track of the key performance indicators highlighted above, and you can use this information to help create a segmented list so that you can target the individuals who would find your message most relevant to them. ESPs will manage your subscribes and unsubscribes for you which will be a big time saver especially if you have a large subscriber list. Also, ESPs will usually offer HTML templates which you can adapt and use for your campaigns and personalising your emails is made easy so that you can include the subscriber’s name, past purchase history and other information directly into the message.



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