Email continues to be a marketing powerhouse for many small businesses. It allows a small business to connect directly with customers and prospects who have expressed interest in what they have to offer.
“Email marketing has allowed us to build a bigger moat than our competitors,” says Coty Perry, chief marketing officer for Anglers.com, an authoritative guide for anglers across the world, sharing expert-crafted stories and advancements in fishing gear. “Our content, which ranges from new product updates, fishing tips, to seasonal promotions, piques their interest and encourages interaction,” he says. “Email serves as a platform for fostering relationships, cementing loyalty, and ultimately, propelling conversions.”
Here are tips and strategies for creating a successful email marketing campaign for your small business.
Understanding Email Marketing
Email marketing can be used by nearly any type of small business, ranging from in-person businesses like restaurants and retail stores, service-based businesses like pest control or accounting; and online businesses like e-commerce stores or SaaS businesses.
It takes effort, and a willingness to experiment, to create an email marketing strategy that works. But as many entrepreneurs have learned, an investment in email marketing can pay off for many years to come.
Nearly 30% of marketers look to email marketing to drive sales conversions, while 20% look to email to increase customer loyalty and advocacy, according to Gartner research.
Benefits of Email Marketing
There can be numerous benefits to email marketing for small business owners. Among them:
With email marketing you remain largely in control of your customer interactions. This has an advantage over other platforms like social media or even a website, where algorithms may change and you may not be able to reach your customers in ways that worked before.
Email marketing can be highly personalized with the right tools, and this can help you segment and target certain types of customers and prospects. Personalization can improve conversion rates and increase customer loyalty.
Email allows you to strike up a conversation by email by offering customers something of value, whether that’s a coupon, download, free shipping, enrollment in a loyalty rewards program or some other benefit.
When set up correctly, email can provide detailed data that can help you understand what’s working and what needs to be improved.
With email you can stay in touch with your customers on a regular basis, which in turn can help keep your business top of mind when they are thinking of making a purchase.
Types of Email Campaigns
There are numerous types of email campaigns you can consider based on your products and audience.
Newsletters are the most popular types of email marketing according to the Litmus 2021 State of Email report. A newsletter lets you stay in front of your customers and share content updates (articles or blog posts or videos, for example), product updates including new products, and promotions such as discounts or sales. Newsletters can also help recipients feel like they are part of your brand with insider news or offers.
When someone signs up for your email list, a welcome email list is the first email they will receive. This email can be crucial to setting the tone of the relationship. If you’ve offered them something for signing up, you’ll want to provide details in this email. You’ll also want to make sure they understand when to expect future email and what to expect from them.
These emails are essential for sending customer order confirmations and receipts, confirming changes to accounts, or providing confirmation of account changes such as a password update or change of address.
Do you have a new product? Do you want to use a sale or limited time offer to move a product? Would you like to reward your most loyal customers, or encourage them to refer other customers? Promotional emails can be an excellent way to do that.
Some businesses find drip campaigns to be very effective. Here you send a series of emails over a period of time you choose, or based on customer interactions. You can use them to nurture prospects through the sales cycle, stay in touch with customers, or to sell or upsell products or services. You’ll set up these campaigns through your email software provider (more on that in a moment).
If you have customers who have not purchased or engaged with your business in a while, re-engagement emails may help you reconnect. They are often designed to capture attention with a special offer or a survey to find out why they’ve gone dark.
Abandoned Cart Emails
Abandoned carts are a huge challenge for many ecommerce stores. Customers will put items into their online shopping cart but then fail to complete the checkout process. These emails will allow the business to encourage the customer to finish buying, often with an incentive (such as a discount or free shipping).
Setting Goals and Objectives
When setting goals and objectives for your email marketing campaigns, you want to be as specific as possible. Many businesses aim to set SMART goals. These are goals that are:
A goal to increase email subscribers is not an example of a SMART goal. How will you know when you’ve achieved it? But a goal to add 1000 new subscribers to your list over the next quarter may be an excellent SMART goal.
Once you set that goal you can decide how you’ll achieve it. Can you offer a freebie for those who subscribe? Test a refer-a-friend campaign? Make the email signup button more prominent on your site, or improve the call-to-action (CTA)?
Your email goals will need to align with your overall business goals, and need to take into account the preferences of your audience. For example, a B2B marketer may find email open rates on the weekend are quite low, but higher on a specific day of the week. A business with an entertainment focus may find Friday to be a great day to send emails that focus on what’s happening over the weekend.
While stretch goals are great, you also want to be realistic about what it will take to reach your goals.
Defining Your Target Audience
There’s a saying in marketing that if you try to reach everyone, you’ll probably reach no one. You need to understand your target audience and their needs, motivations and desires. You need to identify what will drive them to visit your website or purchase your product.
Many businesses create customer personas that represent one or more type of customer you’re trying to reach. Over time you can refine these personas to better target segments of your audience.
Establishing Campaign Goals
Email campaigns should have goals. Again, SMART goals are ideal here as you can track and measure results.
Examples may include:
- Increase click-through rates by 5% in the next month.
- Increase open rates by 5% in the quarter.
- Increase sales by 5% in the next six months.
- Reduce abandoned carts by 2% in the next quarter.
Building an Email List
Your prospects, fans and customers need a reason to sign up for your email list. Here are some ways you can encourage them to opt in:
Make the Benefits Clear
Whether it’s a download (ebook, white paper or cheat sheet), discount code, or simply a promise that you’ll update them with new content, your subscribers need a reason to share their email address.
Make It Simple to Sign Up
You need a super-simple sign up form. Be careful about asking for too much information during sign up, or you may lose them.
Remind Them to Opt In
Many email software providers require double opt-in which means your subscribers need to confirm their sign up with a confirmation email. Again, make this easy to do.
If you operate a business with foot traffic such as a restaurant or retail store, you can use physical signage to encourage sign ups. If you operate a website or online store you’ll want to find opportunities to promote it online. In both cases, you can also encourage sign ups through social media.
Give a Reason to Read
No doubt your subscribers get a lot of email. Getting them to read requires compelling subject lines and engaging content.
Lead Generation Strategies
There are numerous ways to generate email list leads. Perry suggests starting by offering something tangible. His favorite: an ebook.
“Simply asking visitors to ‘sign up for our weekly newsletter’ isn’t good enough anymore,” Perry warns. “People value a clean inbox and no one wants to be bombarded with emails. So, you need to offer something of value in exchange for them giving you a spot in their inbox.”
Some of the most popular lead generation strategies include:
- Lead magnets: free downloads (ebook, cheat sheet, webinar)
- Coupon or discount
- Contests and giveaways
- Subscriber-only content or benefits
- Loyalty rewards program
- Partnerships with other companies
- Social media promotion
- Exit popup box with sign up form
- Refer-a-friend or colleague promotion
- Link in email signature
Here’s the opposite of permission-based marketing: buy a list of emails from a questionable source then bombard them with emails even if they aren’t interested. You may get a few sales that way but chances are your emails will wind up in spam folders.
The correct way to build an email list is to get subscriber’s permission to communicate with them by email, confirm that with double opt-in (where they confirm that they have signed up) and then always give them an easy way to pause or quit their subscription.
Crafting Engaging Emails
Crafting engaging emails that help you achieve your goals is both an art and a science. Email copywriting is a skill that even the most experienced marketers work at improving.
Feel stuck? Brian Hawkins a 20-year digital marketing veteran that lives a life of “Go, See & Do” offers this tip: “Study your rivals’ email funnels on Milled to get some inspiration, then add a humorous yet personal anecdote to accurately personalize your emails.”
He also recommends going the extra mile. “If your customers leave their shopping carts empty, try individually messaging them to show that you care and to be helpful rather than pushy,” says Hawkins.“This worked for a number of start-ups and small businesses that went above and beyond to connect with customers and be authentic and sincere in order to secure their business the traditional way.“
AI can be helpful for brainstorming and creating drafts of your emails. Here are five AI prompts you can use to draft emails. But always make sure to carefully review and edit your emails or you may find yourself with large numbers of unopened emails or unsubscribe requests.
Compelling Email Content
Here are some of the elements required for compelling email content.
Designing Effective Templates
Start with an effective template for your email. This includes both an attractive visual design as well as a flow that works well for your goals.
Images can make your email more appealing but remember that not all users see images in emails, and some of your subscribers may have visual impairments. So don’t let images take the place of explanatory text.
Don’t use too many fonts (or colors), and be sure to break up long text if it’s absolutely necessary to include it. (You may want to provide the option to read longer emails on your website.)
For many emails, a conversational tone is better than one that is too formal. Of course, if your product requires more technical language it may be appropriate, but overall keeping language simple is a best practice.
Avoid using jargon and acronyms that some of your readers won’t understand.
Subject Lines and Preheaders
Writing good subject lines is essential if you want your emails to be opened and read.
The subject line is the words that appear alongside the email.
A preheader appears at the top of the email when a recipient opens it. Preheaders too should be brief and straightforward, and give the reader a reason to keep reading the email.
Here’s an example of a subject line and preheader:
Subject line: Flash sale: 24% off for 24 hours! Preheader: Get 24% off all of our best-selling products for the next 24 hours.
Just like writing compelling email copy, writing compelling subject lines and preheaders is both an art and a science. However, there are some best practices to keep in mind:
Keep in Short
Email subject lines must capture attention quickly and if they are too long they will be cut off. Stick to less than 50 characters.
Keywords are words that people search for. Words like “receipt” or “coupon” can not only increase open rates but can help your subscribers find your emails when they look for them later.
Don’t Be Annoying
Using all caps, lots of emojis or trying to trick someone into opening an email with a misleading subject line will hurt more than it will help.
Once your newsletter is getting traction, don’t be afraid to ask your readers for feedback on the content they value most, Perry recommends.
“We love to run polls to our audience to figure out what resonates with them the most,” he says. “We can then take these results and offer it for free in exchange for more email sign-ups – this is typically done in a free ebook or cheat sheet format.”
Personalization and Segmentation
As your email list grows, you’ll find that not all customers have the same interests or buying habits. Segmentation can be helpful for appropriately personalizing emails. If you send an email to a customer offering a sale on something they just bought, for example, they probably aren’t going to be happy to get that email.
Segmentation allows you to send different emails to groups of customers based on purchase history, interests, demographics or other factors. Personalization allows you to better target customers and increase the likelihood your emails will be open, read, and lead to action.
Litmus research found that more than 65% of marketers create at least 2 versions of an email on average. And nearly 16% are creating 4 or more.
With personalized emails, you can also send more targeted offers. Think about the financing email campaigns you may have received for business credit cards or small business loans, for example. If emails suggested offers that were relevant to you based on your needs or qualifications (like your personal or business credit scores), you were probably more likely to read them and even to respond.
Other ways to personalize emails is to use the recipient’s name in the subject line or greeting of the email or to send birthday greetings (and perhaps a gift) to customers on their birthdays.
A responsive design is one that will look good regardless of the device the reader is using. In other words, it’s readable on everything from a desktop computer, to an ipad to a smartphone.
If your emails aren’t mobile-friendly, users won’t be able to read them easily on their mobile device, or if they can’t click on CTA buttons, conversion and click-through rates will suffer, and you may lose the opportunity to engage or sell to that reader.
Emails should have a call to action. That CTA can be anything from clicking through to read an article to making a purchase.
CTA buttons should be clear and easy to find. Make sure the CTA button or link is clickable on all types of devices, and takes the reader to the place that’s promised. Broken links in emails create a frustrating user experience and hurt click through rates (CTRs).
You may need to experiment to find the right CTA placement, but it’s generally a best practice to put it above the fold, or where the user doesn’t have to scroll down through a lot of other content to take action.
Multiple CTAs can be used in longer emails, but you don’t want to overwhelm your readers with competing CTAs. Giving them too many choices can also mean they don’t choose anything.
Testing and Optimization
The only way you’re going to figure out what’s working is to test, tweak and test again. You’ll need to keep careful track of results from each of your email campaigns and testing to understand what resonates with your audience.
Also known as split testing, with A/B testing you send two versions of an email to see which one gets the better response. Elements you can test include your subject line, CTA, personalization, offer, send time, content etc. However, you only want to test one of these elements at a time. If you test more than one, you won’t know which change affected results.
The beauty of email is that it lets you track a lot of detailed metrics. Email marketing platforms will provide analytics including such as open rates, click-through rates, conversion rates, bounce rates, and unsubscribe rates. And ultimately all of this information should help you determine your return on investment (ROI) from email.
You can test email frequency to see whether your audience prefers email more often or less frequently. You can also test send times using A/B testing to understand whether your email list prefers email at a different time of day or day of the week.
You want to regularly review your email marketing metrics to help understand what’s working. If you discover, for example, that an email has a high bounce rate (emails not delivered) it may be time to clean your list. If you find that your emails are getting opened but readers aren’t taking action, your CTA or offer may need to be improved.
Understand that all of these metrics may impact each other. Send emails more frequently and you may see CTRs increase, but send emails too often and you may reduce open rates, and click through rates may fall as a result.
Automating Email Campaigns
One of the advantages of email marketing is that you can often create campaigns that can run again and again. For example, a welcome series can be used for those who sign up today or three months from now.
Similarly, seasonal or holiday campaigns or birthday emails can be set up well in advance as long as you know what you want to offer.
Email Marketing Software
The key to all of the approaches listed here—personalization, responsive design, workflows, automation, tracking metrics, and more—lies in the email marketing software you use. There are hundreds of email platforms to choose from, so deciding which one best fits your needs and budget may take a little work, but once you do, you can focus on using the features to create effective email marketing campaigns.
The vast majority of email marketing software comes with drag-and-drop email templates that make it easy to create professional-looking emails without a background in email design. Most offer at least some segmentation and personalization options, as well as the ability to create workflows.
Pricing for email software is often based on the number of emails you send. As your list increases, you’ll likely spend more. Scrub your list from time to time and remove those who aren’t opening or responding, so you aren’t paying your email service for emails that will never be opened.
Email marketing software should also help you dig into and address deliverability issues.
Compliance and Legal Considerations
There are several regulations that impact email marketing.
A federal law, the CAN-Spam Act is a federal law that requires that all commercial emails be clearly identified and contain certain information such as the sender’s physical address. It also prohibits marketers from sending unsolicited commercial emails, and requires an easy opt-out mechanism for those who want to unsubscribe.
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
Although it is a European Union law, the GDPR can also impact US-based marketers that have customers or subscribers in the EU. Among other things, it requires that businesses get consent before collecting or processing personal data, and that individuals can access, correct, or delete their personal data.
California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)
One of the stronger state privacy regulations in the US, the CCPA is a California law that gives consumers more control over their personal data. Businesses who collect or process personal data of California residents must disclose the categories of personal data they collect, as well as give consumers the right to access, delete, and opt-out of the sale of their personal data.
Overall, there are several best practices when it comes to complying with email marketing laws and regulations:
Always get a subscriber’s consent (opt-in) before you send email from your business. If you use email marketing software, it will likely give you code you can add to your website or other places you ask consumers to sign up with the appropriate disclaimer.
Make It Easy to Opt-out
Most email marketing software comes with an “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of every email. If not, you need to consider a way to let them opt out.
Make sure your business contact details are included with the email and easy to find.
Whether you hire an attorney or use a professional email marketing service, make sure you get advice about properly setting up your email marketing program and keep ahead of new privacy developments.
Protect Your List
Don’t make it easy for a hacker or even a disgruntled employee to get a hold of your list. If your business email is hacked, it can open your business up to notification requirements as well as a loss of trust on the part of your clients. No one in your organization should have access to your email list unless necessary.
How to Finance Your Email Marketing Campaign
Email lists can grow quickly or slowly. There may be a lag between when you invest in email marketing software as well as staff or consultants to manage your email, and when you see sales from email.
If you need to finance cash flow in the meantime, a couple of options include:
Business Credit Card
Using a business credit card gives you time to pay for purchases, and can also allow you to earn rewards. A card with a 0% intro APR can give you several months to pay for purchases, making it a great option for many marketing campaigns.
Business Line of Credit
Business lines of credit are another popular financing option for small businesses. A type of small business loan, they are a popular source of working capital financing for short-term needs because you only pay interest on the amount you borrow.
An email list, when properly nurtured, can be a valuable marketing channel and business asset.
Most businesses won’t build an email list overnight. It takes time and discipline to keep building a strong email list and to learn how to get your subscribers to take action.
When it comes to email marketing, you’ll likely need to do a lot of testing to figure out what works best. A combination of creativity with attention to detail will be crucial for success.
This article was originally written on August 28, 2023.