Daniel Burstein

Email Marketing: What are the top three steps for effective email marketing?

March 5th, 2013

At MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2013, I was asked about the top three things marketers should do to make more effective emails by Jim Ducharme, community director, GetResponse Email Marketing



I’m interested to hear how you would answer the above question as well. Feel free to use the comments section of this MarketingSherpa blog post to share your thoughts.

The question reminds me of a story from John C. Maxwell, author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. He tells of a young man coming up to him, and asking for the one thing the young man can do to become a better leader. Maxwell responds that there is not just one thing, there are 21 things he must do to become a better leader.

Clearly, Maxwell is good at branding. But, he also brings up a good point. We’re all busy, and we’re looking for the top takeaways or shortcuts to do our jobs better. However, true success is not so simple.

While many marketing blogs are fond of giving you the few shortcuts or secrets to success, I’m sorry to say that email marketing is hard work involving so much more than the three steps listed below.

But, at a high level, if I had to narrow email marketing down to three steps based on all we’ve learned from marketers through MarketingSherpa, it would be these …


Step #1: Start with your customers

Almost all email marketing developed by a competent marketer, really all content and marketing in general, is effective … for the right audience. The question is – are you delivering the right email to the right audience?

So, for example, a free shipping promo. That works great for the people who really love your product and are already keenly interested in buying. That might be the little incentive that drives them to make another purchase.

However, for the people that don’t know the value of the specific product you are promoting quite yet, free shipping for something they don’t value is almost meaningless and likely to get deleted.

So, that’s the real question you have to answer. If you have an unsegmented list of 100,000, and only 100 of them like your product enough to buy based on the free shipping promo, but another several thousand might unsubscribe (or worse, mark your email as spam), then that email promo, while effective for a small segment, is not right for that overall audience.

Here is where deeper complexities, like segmentation, come into play. But at a high level, my main point is you cannot evaluate your email promotions and content in a vacuum. There is rarely right or wrong email marketing. However, there is effective or ineffective email marketing for a particular audience.

This is part of what makes email marketing so challenging. Marketers have to hit their goals, so they keep sending more email – and the email seems to be working. After all, even with diminishing returns, since your email will be right for some small segment of your audience, you get some conversions and it appears to work.

But what is the long-term cost of your actions? What customers would be interested if you gave them what they wanted? How many customers are you forcing out of your funnel?

These can be maddeningly difficult questions to answer. Here are a few resources to get you started:

What is B2B?: Discovering what the customer wants by understanding your Buyer’s Funnel – This video isn’t about email marketing specifically, but Kristin Zhivago does a great job of explaining how to understand what your customers want. Email marketing is one way you should apply that knowledge.

Value Proposition: How to use social media to help discover why customers buy from you – Again, not focused on email in particular, but this blog post should give you some ideas for using social media to help understand the value you can deliver (pun intended) with your email promotions and newsletters.

Personal vs. Robotic: How to turn automated email into personal experiences that drive new and repeat sales – Jermaine Griggs was able to understand what his customers wanted by tracking their behavior, and then delivering relevant email marketing with automation and segmentation. Some very impressive, and advanced, tactics in this case study. Plus, Jermaine is an excellent speaker, so I think you’ll really enjoy this video.

Step #2: Start trying to deliver what your customers want

I’m not going to spend as much time on this step, because you’re likely already doing it at some level. Hopefully, you’ll be able to do it better if you really dive into step #1.

Essentially, once you know what your customers want, try to give it to them. Make sure you don’t look at your email program as solely sending out promotions, and consider content and transactional emails as well. Here are some resources to help you execute on these three types of emails.


Transactional emails and notifications

Let’s start with the most overlooked emails, perhaps because many of these are set automatically, looked at as more of a requirement than an opportunity, and largely forgotten.

What does your customer want to hear from you after they buy? Perhaps several emails updating them on every step of fulfillment? Or is that too much? Do they want follow ups with use cases of the product? Warranty information? What additional promotional information can you include in these emails?

A few resources to help you with these types of emails:

Marketing Chart: Transactional Emails – a Missed Opportunity – Here is a look at a little data to give you an understanding of possibly opportunities in your transactional emails. While a few years old, I think the general information is still very applicable today.

Transactional Email Overhaul: 5 Strategies to Revive an Older Program – A good general overview for how you can use your transactional emails.

Maximizing Email List Growth: How the New York Public Library drove a 52.8% lift in newsletter subscriptions – Johannes Neuer used transactional emails to grow the New York Public Library’s list. The library already sent automated emails to remind patrons that books were due. The marketers tested a simple addition to these emails – “Get the latest NYPL news and events. Sign up for our newsletter at: [shortlink].” – which increased the library’s opt-ins by 120%. The above blog post includes a Q&A with Johannes that gives a little background on The New York Public Library’s email program.


Promotional/selling emails

This is your classic opportunity to deliver a specific offer and get a conversion. The biggest question you must ask yourself, based on Step #1 – Will the people I’m sending this email to see value in this offer?

A few case studies …

Email Marketing: Why Newegg’s daily-deal alert emails garner a 60% average open rate

How Cirque du Soleil Uses Email to Sell Out Shows at Local Cities

Email Marketing: 900% more revenue-per-email from Restaurant.com’s automated strategy

Automated Email Case Study: 175% more revenue and 83% higher conversion rate


Educational/nurturing/news emails

Of course, email marketing is more than just emailing people who have bought from you, or sending emails nudging people to buy from you. If you truly start with your customers, then delivering the value your customers want is an important aspect of your email marketing.

Sometimes that’s information on a transaction they made with you or an incentive to buy a product they would value. But sometimes, it’s just information.

Sometimes you need to inform and educate your customers – before they buy (especially for a considered purchase) to help them understand all of the complex decisions they need to make, after they buy to retain them as a customer, and even if they never buy to simply deliver value in the form of content they expect when they give you permission to email them by signing up for your list.

Here is some information you might find helpful …

Content Marketing: 3 tips for producing engaging email content – This hour-long webinar replay goes into much more than newsletters, but will help with your newsletter content as well.

Email Marketing How-to: 5 steps to improve your email newsletter – This How-to article includes good, general advice for email marketing newsletters with advice from industry experts Joel Book and Loren McDonald.

Lead Nurturing: Ripening the right bananas – If you’re not familiar with lead nurturing, this seminal article from Brian Carroll provides an overview.

Email Marketing: Weekly newsletter sees 400% lift in reactivation of inactive subscribers with personalization – Some pretty smart, and advanced tactics from Paul Ramirez in this case study.

Email Marketing: Helzberg Diamonds lifts sales with non-promotional sends – Sometimes, the best way to sell is not selling at all, as Laura Schraeder learned in this case study


Step #3: A/B testing

Behavioral and A/B testing comes at the end, and at the beginning, because this is really a cycle. Testing also helps you build your customer theory – I hope you’ll notice it’s not a coincidence that two of the three steps in this blog post are focused on your recipient, the person with the power to accept or reject your emails.

If you’re not familiar with testing, it gives you the power to understand how your customers react to real-world situations in near real time. In essence, your customers tell you which subject lines or offers are valuable, taking out the guesswork.

Here are some testing resources you might find helpful …

Email Testing: How the Obama campaign generated approximately $500 million in donations from email marketing – Think about that for a minute. In the biggest marketing campaign of 2012, the presidential election, the team behind the Obama campaign generated a half a billion dollars from emails. A/B testing played a big part, as you’ll read in this case study. We were so impressed, we invited Toby Fallsgraff to be a keynote speaker at Optimization Summit 2013 in Boston.

A/B Split Testing: How to use A/B Split Testing to Increase Conversion Rates, Challenge Assumptions and Solve Problems – Here is an overview of testing in action.

Email Copywriting Clinic: Live, on-the-spot analysis of how to improve real-world email campaigns – Part of testing is understanding the statistics and technology behind it. Antoher part of testing is getting an idea for what to test. Flint McGlaughlin will give you plenty of test ideas in this Web clinic replay.

As you see, what I intended as a simple, three-step blog post about email marketing turned into a 1,806-word behemoth. Email marketing is hard and complex. So, my hats off to all of the hard-working email marketers I met at Email Summit 2013, and those reading the MarketingSherpa blog right now.

Keep at it. Here’s to your success.


Related Resources:

GetResponse interviews from MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2013

Subscribe to the free MarketingSherpa Email Marketing Newsletter for case studies and how-to articles

Learn proven methodologies based on years of research with MarketingExperiments’ Email Messaging Workshop

Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

Categories: Email Marketing Tags: , , , , ,

  1. March 5th, 2013 at 14:54 | #1

    Nicely put.

    I have spoken with lots of people who do email marketing and so many people leave out testing. How can you hope to maximise on efforts without that?

    So I am glad you have it in your 3 high level things. The other big one for me, and it ties into what you have said above, is the design of the email. It has to be in line with what the audience expect and will respond to.

  2. March 5th, 2013 at 16:04 | #2

    Hi Daniel,

    We always get great questions to bring to experts such as you at the Sherpa Email Summit! My only regret is that you and I are always so busy at the Summit that we don’t get more time to talk email marketing!

    Thanks for taking the time to share your insight!

    Jim Ducharme
    Community Director
    GetResponse Email Marketing

  3. March 12th, 2013 at 03:57 | #3

    I agree, step 1 is the most crucial one -start with your customers, think from their perspectives to know what would be interesting to them. One shoes may not fit all, the slice them in to more relevant segment to send them the most relevant information. check out some interesting stats like top 10 Open Rates, Click Through rates and other interesting email marketing benchmarks depicted visually in this infographic – http://blog.directorymaximizer.com/2013/03/11/email-campaign-statistics-by-industry-infographic/

  4. December 12th, 2013 at 01:14 | #4

    First of all I would like to thank you Mr. Daniel for this great post. I truly agree with you. If someone wants to start implementing email marketing practices then he/she must follow the above steps. These simple steps will lead them to reach their email marketing perspective.

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