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Crash course: Email marketing that works

pwd staff OLIVER WOOD
Oliver Wood

|1st June 2017

Email lists are highly coveted by businesses because once you have an email you have a potential lead.

The ability to communicate directly with your audience from their inbox can be invaluable in generating conversions but it can also be a challenge. If your emails do not resonate with your leads, they can unsubscribe, delete them or report them as spam, which will develop some disappointing reports.

It is pointless to waste money on building large email lists if your email marketing falls flat. Many businesses believe a big email list is worth a great deal but it isn’t the size of the email list that really matters, it is how well you can convert those leads.

If you are just starting out with email marketing and have a smaller subscriber list, you can still leverage email marketing strategies that really work. This crash course in email marketing will introduce you to some actionable techniques that will help increase your open rates, CTRs and conversion rates.

Part 1. Understanding the purpose of email marketing

Unlike SEO or PPC, email marketing is not just about attraction and conversion. In many ways, the conversion funnel is more analogous to social media marketing because, as well as pushing sales, it can and should be used to nurture an ongoing relationship with customers.

Your email list may be made up of databases your business purchased, previous customers and voluntary subscribers. Voluntary subscribers are the most important, since they actually want to be on your email list.

Depending on your business model and website content, there could be many reasons why people subscribed. If you have excellent content marketing it could be because they find your blog fascinating and want to enjoy your informative content. In fact, the majority of subscribers agree to receive emails for news and updates. Promotions and offers come in as the second most popular reason and third is those looking for helpful tips:

Newsletter Graph

This means that your email subscribers may be hungry for interesting content and this educational or inspiring content is how you will nurture a successful ongoing customer relationship.

The principal tactic for both nurturing relationships with leads and successfully converting them is ensuring high relevancy.

Just as with all digital marketing mediums, high relevancy to the audience vastly increases the chance of conversion. The problem with email marketing is many marketers think that if someone subscribed, they must be a hyper relevant user. If you are starting out in the crazy world of email marketing the most essential thing to remember is that all your products, services, deals and even your great educational content won’t be relevant to all your subscribers all the time.

To implement email marketing that really works you need to increase relevancy on a personal basis using the best tools in your arsenal: automation and segmentation.

Part 2. Automation and segmentation

Despite the wealth of technology now available in email marketing software, businesses still over use manual broadcasts. This is when email marketing content is sent out to your entire subscriber list. The emails are not tailored to the subscribers’ interests or behaviour and this is why your subscribers become bored with your emails and unsubscribe rates increase.

It can be tempting to push all promotions to the full list for maximum reach and stuff emails with CTAs to encourage conversions but refining your audience with a more personalised approach has been proven to yield better results.

Automation and segmentation of your email lists, no matter their size, can create a better experience for your subscribers, more relevant content sent to each user and therefore a higher conversion rate when you do push products and services.

Using triggers and auto responders, you can control which of your email content is sent to which subscriber and when, based on their behaviour.

Tracked behaviour is usually a link click in previous email content, for example if your subscriber expressed an interest in a particular piece of content on your site you could then send only those subscribers more emails and info on that topic. Tracked behaviour could also be previous buyers or cart abandoners. Reminder emails of full shopping carts are very useful for e-commerce stores looking to push conversion rates. BigCommerce report that this email remarketing technique can recover 15% of lost revenue..

According to research carried out by the Epsilon Email Institute, automated email messages (those based on behaviour triggers) average 70.5% higher open rates and 152% higher CTRs than manual broadcast email marketing.

By only sending your content to subscribers who have expressed an interest, you can begin to add layered segmentation to your email list for a more extensive tailored experience.

Even with new, smaller email lists this can increase open rates, CTRs and conversion rates. Auto Responder Madness is a company who have used this tactic to great effect for many years. Some of their campaign conversion rates are as high as 31.42% with ESPs (earning per subscriber) of $38.64. This is much higher than the average conversion and ESP rates for most business. 20% is often cited as a positive average open rate. They believe it is largely thanks to their dedication to automation and segmentation over manual broadcast.

While Auto Responder Madness used high levels of segmentation in the earlier days of email marketing, it is now profoundly easy to implement. There is no excuse not to utilise this strategy, as nearly all email marketing software allows easy creation of triggers and auto responders. DripActive CampaignMailchimpHubspot and Brief Your Market are all well-known email marketing platforms that range from free for small email lists to enterprise level and they all have the use of triggers and auto responders for segmentation. Of course, all email marketing software is a little different and will have their strengths and weaknesses, so do shop around if you are brand new to email marketing or looking to change platform. Always look out for sophisticated trigger and segmentation abilities for more powerful email marketing capabilities.

Those who are just starting out with their email list may fear over segmentation when they have small subscriber numbers. The common concern is they will miss subscribers with their promotions and conversion rates will drop but this is not the case. Automation and segmentation is actually easier and cheaper with small lists because you could even perform it manually, if you are not ready for better software yet. Simply place opt in forms to new email lists when someone expresses interest in a piece of content in your emails via link clicks. This allows you to be more transparent with your subscribers, so they know exactly what content they will receive. Do not fear segmentation on small email lists, as it can win you loyal subscribers who enjoy the content they receive. The promotions and calls to buy they do receive will be more relevant.

More advanced email marketing software allows you to do this without the subscriber being aware, thanks to behavioural triggers. It is also an advantage for bigger email lists. With larger email lists, personalization is a real challenge but triggers and autoresponders let marketers understand the needs of a wide ranging and heavily varied audience.

The great thing about automation and segmentation is that your content has a longer life. Triggers based on date joined allow new subscribers to see older content that will be brand new to them without resending it to older subscribers. This gives your hard work more value and longevity than content created for manual broadcasts to an entire list.

This strategy focuses on quality not quantity when it comes to email marketing and therefore increases the relevancy of your messages.

So, now you understand the importance of the right people receiving the right content but how can you convince them to convert without over-selling and putting subscribers off?

Email marketing and social media operate on a system where the business is selling to users who are not necessarily looking to buy at that time. With search marketing, whether you are using SEO or PPC, the user is actively looking for your services at that moment in time. This is why it is so easy to repel users with a heavy sales message in email marketing. However, by using the ‘serialised storytelling’ technique, in combination with automation and segmentation, you can create happy subscribers and make a profit with email marketing.

Part 3. What is serialised storytelling?

Serialised storytelling cultivates positive customer relationships because it is a soft sell approach. If you are an e-commerce store, it is naturally useful to use more direct messages of offers and discounts, particularly to your previous buyer list. Yet, the customer is still unlikely to want to buy from you every day. With higher priced items and B2B marketing the serialised storytelling strategy is especially successful.

Instead of talking about your product or service in the first email, you offer interesting, inspiring or educational content upfront. You want to create the idea that you are an authority in your industry, while keeping your company in the minds of your customers even when they are not ready to buy.

People in the digital age have notoriously short attention spans. If you spread your story or message over several emails across several days, this creates an idea of anticipation, especially if the content is genuinely informative and useful. The trick is to then segment your audience by linking off to your site where they can discover more content on other related topics. This is where you start segmenting your campaigns by subscriber interest and sending the next serialised stories to highly interested groups. After delivering really useful information to the right people, you can then recommend your product as a side point in the third of fourth email in the series.

This may seem like a slow approach but it means that truly interested parties will have the chance to convert, while those who have expressed less interest are not bombarded with sales pitches.

Auto Responder Madness have used this approach to cultivate highly tailored content for their audience. We highly recommend listening to this intriguing interview with the Auto Responder Madness founder to learn more about how well serialised storytelling worked for their company:

Serialised storytelling solves core email marketing dilemmas

Serialised storytelling will help you share the best message with your subscribers and it solves the dilemma of impatient subscribers. Compelling stories often create more loyal subscribers and convertors, yet impatient people don’t want to read long reams of text when in a hurry. By breaking out your email marketing message across several emails, you solve the impatience problem without compromising the quality of your story and can generate excitement with cliff hangers.

With traditional email marketing, your copy is a self-contained message and once it is sent it is gone but serialised storytelling allows the creation of open loops. The subscriber is always expecting the next piece of educational content and actively looking forward to it, hence there is always another chance to recommend your product or service. It also allows a continual series of segmentation, which creates higher quality leads.

Another winning point for serialised storytelling is that it allows you to discover which content actually works. If you directly ask subscribers if they would like to know more about a related topic and no one clicks the link, you will know that the subject matter idea was not as popular as you thought and you can veto it in favour of better ideas.

While it is clear why this method would work for higher priced items and B2B markets, such as selling SEO software, you might be surprised to learn it can work for practically any industry.

Imagine that you sell cosmetics. You know your subscribers like your cosmetics or are curious about them because they subscribed or bought before. The temptation is to always send promotions, offers, discounts and news about new products to the whole list. Now these subscribers are probably interested in offers but not all the time. You can still increase value tenfold with segmentation, automation and ongoing storytelling in this scenario.

You could create a series of emails on makeup tutorials and promise yet another coveted tip or secret in another session of emails if they click a link or opt in. You could then start segmenting people by the type of makeup and content they enjoy e.g. gothic makeup, naturalised makeup, training sessions, product reviews, skin types. This would then allow you to market to their personal preferences and you will be recommending products that actually suit their style or skin. When those with very pale, sensitive skin are segmented off you could send them a series of tutorials relevant to them and in the third email offer a special discount code to only those subscribers to make them feel lucky and special.

This can be performed with everything from telecoms and marketing tools to DIY tools, pet products and even the property industry.

Automation and segmentation are definitely the most powerful tactics for your email marketing and serialised storytelling is sure to give you an edge. However, for those right at the start of their email marketing plan it can be challenging to know where to begin. After all, you need to start somewhere and send that first email before people hit your triggers and are segmented to receive your automated content and tailored stories.

When relevancy is on your mind the most daunting prospect can be those first emails. If subscribers don’t read it how can you then segment them into more relevant audiences. You need to choose a good topic, subject line and write great copy.

Part 4. Choosing email topics

You can be best copywriter in the world but if the content is not relevant then people won’t read it. How can you ensure the first email will resonate enough with all the subscribers to be opened?

Funnily enough discovering the answer is much easier for small business who are early on in their email marketing process. This is because the business owners and marketers will be closer to the customers themselves. No one has more customer connection than small business, so before all the fancy automation kicks in you can just ask your audience what topics they would like to hear about. Yes, that’s right just ask them, in person or on the phone, directly one at a time, don’t be shy!

For bigger businesses, you need to collect that information another way. Customer surveys onsite are one option but quizzes are a lot more fun. You can pop them on your site or in your first email and let people play a game to tell you which content would interest them most.

Here is an example of a quiz from a major makeup brand featured on Buzzfeed. It is a fun quiz to connect users with a product.


This can also be done more directly with topic choices for subscribers. It is easy to build creative quizzes for your email marketing with software like Qzzr and Woobox, in fact some email marketing software have in-built surveys.

If you don’t want to design quizzes or surveys you could take the direct approach and just have your first manual broadcast ask people which topics they would be interested in. Give them some suggestions to select and/or let them reply in an email with their own suggestions. This will give you new ideas you never thought of, direct from the people you want to market to and you can learn the language they use. By understanding how they speak you will write better copy for them.

A vital feature to bear in mind when choosing topics is problem solving. Most valuable content will address common problems or pain points that your audience can relate to. An ideal way for bigger businesses to get the inside scoop on customer pain points is to look at your own reviews and those of competitors if yours are all golden. Look for common complaint themes that you can help subscribers overcome. Take a look at the example below from the Charlotte Tilbury brand:


As you can see mascara smudging is a re-occurring complaint. This could be addressed in an email marketing makeup tutorial topic e.g. how to prevent panda eyes and have extra-long lashes. You could turn a negative point into a positive with an email advising a different mascara for the lower lashes or a lash primer in this situation.

Part 5. Creating the right subject line

The subject line is in many ways the most crucial part of your email. This is what will convince people to open or ignore. You cannot have the best CTRs and conversion rates if none of your subscribers open the email in the first place.

Getting subject lines just right can be complicated and stressful for new email marketers and experts. You have to immediately convey the relevancy of your content to a population who are constantly attacked with spam, unsolicited emails and reams of irrelevant sales pitches. Getting the message across that you are different is no easy feat.

You must try to make your headline accurately convey a taste of the content to follow while being personal, emotive, honest and avoid sounding like click bait. You also don’t want the title so long it is truncated on desktop or mobile. 50 characters or less and 6 – 10 words is a good guideline as your template.

When you have mere seconds to convince people to open, one technique is to focus on what you can do for them. Again, this is about problem solving and pain points. Having super relevant content is not enough, you have to constantly show people what is in for them rather than pushing the benefits of your service of product. In digital marketing never make the mistake of thinking the customers or subscribers care about you. They really don’t, they only care about content that can benefit them in some way.

Try subject lines like these:

‘5 guaranteed ways to boost your CTR’

‘Proven writers block reversal techniques’

These are problem solving subject lines.

Another interesting technique is to sound like a human. Some people are repulsed by emails from businesses because they get so many.

To crack this stubborn audience, you could try to sound like a human. This is a little risky as it is technically a trick but can work wonders if your content is genuinely useful as well. Below are two common subject lines that friends send to one another.

‘Thought you might like this’

‘Can you make it?’

Urgency is another highly effective method, as long as it is used sparingly. Let people know an offer or piece of information is available for a limited time:

‘Only 20 days left to vote on your favourite….’

‘Book within the next 24 hours for reduced prices’

Discounts and urgency are good tactics, however you should avoid terms like free or offer or too many capitalisations or exclamation marks, unless you want to end up in the spam folder.

Whichever tactic you use, you should definitely split test your subject lines.

Unlike AdWords split testing, you won’t need to make separate campaigns because the vast majority of email marketing software has this functionality built-in and allows split testing for subject lines with the click of a button in one campaign. Split testing will allow you to follow the data and see which subject lines work for your various audiences. Try to split test as many subject lines as possible to acquire the best data and chance of success.

Part 6. Writing great email copy

Once you have your topic and subject line, it is time to write the copy. A good email marketing tip to remember is that copywriting for email marketing is different from website copy, print copy, ad copy and even social media copy. Every medium is slightly different and has an audience in a different frame of mind. This can differ among email subscribers, depending on whether it is a home email, work email or both and what time of day it is. In addition to creating a tone of voice for your brand and industry, you need to choose a variation of that tone for your email marketing. Reading plenty of novels can help with this. Being widely read is not only beneficial for keeping your ‘grey matter’ active, it will also expose you to a larger range of writing styles. This will make your own copywriting more adaptable in turn.

Just as with the subject line, split testing the copy style and length is a great way to see what works. If you are still unsold on serialised storytelling you could carry out split tests to compare the tactic with self-contained content, to see which works better for your business.

To get started with writing high quality email copy try to: Be transparent – Although you desire a high open rate and CTR you should never mislead your subscribers. Trying to trick people into clicking will not work if you cannot deliver on the promise of your subject line or copy. This will lead to low conversions and eventually more unsubscribes.

Use examples – When telling a story, using a real-life example makes the content more relatable. If the subject matter is educational, a little dry or technical, examples can make it much easier to digest. Using examples that could be from your own life can help make an emotive human connection.

Make your story easy – Storytelling in marketing is a great tool but it shouldn’t be a hard story. Make sure your copy style, font and formatting are easy to consume. Serialised storytelling can aid this problem by breaking a story up into shorter sections.

Use your audiences’ language – Look at their quiz responses and reviews. Use the terms they understand, not your industry jargon.

Don’t over sell – Remember to focus on entertainment, intrigue and nurturing a relationship.

Part 7. Frequency

The appropriate frequency of emails is a hotly debated topic among email marketers. It will naturally depend on your industry and business model but still the argument rages on.

On one side, there is the argument that, if you don’t send frequent emails every day or week, your subscribers will forget you. On the other side of the debate there is the idea that if you bother them too much, they will resent you, even if the content is relevant to them.

Communication is good but especially in B2C markets, end users are busy and distrustful of emails from businesses. There is a lot of data to support the less is more side of the argument. A study conducted by TechnologyAdvice found that 46% of consumers flagged email subscriptions as spam if the company emailed too often. Worryingly, too many emails is the most commonly given reason for users unsubscribing:


This is less of an issue if you are using automation and segmentation because emails are sent out based on user behaviour triggers. However, even using this method can irritate users. If you are using open loops and serial stories it can be extremely effective but if you overdo anything subscribers will become frustrated.

Think of it this way, no matter how relevant and amazing your content is and no matter what your industry, your subscribers deserve a break. You and your subscribers are not working, learning, studying or buying face cream every day. People still want to just relax sometimes or they are too busy to look at or come back to your email.

Email marketers should also consider the hot potato effect. Crazy Egg explains the hot potato effect as subscribers being full of enthusiasm (or hot) for your content when they first sign up to your list but then, much like a hot potato being passed around, they cool. Their attention drops and so you should send more emails at first and less as time goes on.

Hubspot’s research point to 16 – 30 campaigns a month yielding the best results:


This email frequency saw a CTR 2 times greater than those who sent 2 or fewer campaigns but after 30 campaigns the CTR drops again.

The best way to deal with the problem for good would be to let your subscribers choose how often they receive content. Some email marketing software allows this as a button trigger during the subscribe process:


Part 8. Keep your email lists clean

The last, but not least, of our email marketing crash course tips is keeping email lists clean. Although automation and segmentation should keep lists fairly clean it is always good to double check:

Do your current list segments and trigger settings match with current content on your site? Will any onsite changes affect the setup?

A manual review of your email lists seems tedious and time consuming. It is but it is also very useful. It could save you money on your software if you are charged by list size. Cleaning up email lists allows you to review the subscribers who are repeatedly not engaging.

You can then put these subscribers into a separate re-engagement list and attempt to focus on getting their attention back with new content and copy. If this fails then they are unlikely to ever engage, so remove them from your list and save some money.

Shockingly some email marketing software keeps unsubscribed users on your list. This spells trouble as the software has just stopped them receiving emails but they still count as part of your list size, meaning you could be overcharged.

Get started with your email marketing success

Thanks to improved technology and smarter marketing, the global average open rate and CTR in email marketing has increased and unsubscribe rates have dropped. This is despite users receiving more emails from businesses than ever before. Econsultancy report the average open rate is now up to 24.88%, the average CTR is up to 3.42% and unsubscribes are down to 0.52%:

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.24.28

This is a good sign that digital marketers are increasingly taking personalisation, automation and segmentation seriously and are following data led decisions when it comes to their email marketing.

This crash course in email marketing should set you up for success but if you would like more email marketing tips, watch this short video on email marketing best practices:

Remember your email list is a very powerful tool, so use it well. Email lists can be used for communication with customers, nurturing customer relationships and ultra-personalised marketing. You can even use the lists to remarket outside your email marketing strategy e.g. on AdWords or Facebook for excellent cross channel marketing.