The complete guide to writing much better marketing emails

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Email marketing is the dominant channel for marketing communications when measured by ROI, reach, and volume, and the gap continues to widen. Don’t get left behind.

Before email marketing was commonplace, marketers used advertisements, fliers, coupons, and other distributed promotions in order to build their audience and reach potential customers. Basically every lead-generation strategy from events to discounts was just considered “marketing.”

When the internet’s popularity soared during the dotcom era, marketers adapted these practices for electronic purposes, and email marketing became “the next big thing.” This also led to more distinction between various marketing avenues, such as commercial advertising, social media marketing, and search engine optimization.

Like all of us, the internet got smarter and better with age 😉, making it easy for marketers to send aesthetically-pleasing HTML emails en masse. Through innovative software, contacts and their behaviors can be tracked and segmented, dramatically boosting the effectiveness of a well-executed email marketing strategy.

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Cool email marketing fact: 294 billion emails are sent each day, with a projected increase to 347 billion daily emails in 2022.

What is email marketing?

Email marketing is the strategy of emailing marketing content—like blogs, videos, and webinars—to a specified audience, and is relied on by 81% of small-to-medium businesses as their primary acquisition channel.

The audiences and content will vary based on context, but the ultimate directive of email marketing remains the same:

  • Send emails to your non-customer audience that will interest them enough to turn them into engaged prospects.
  • Send tactical messages to prospects that assist their journey through the pipeline and help them convert into customers.
  • Send resources to customers to keep them happy, engaged, and informed.

Consider that, with the press of a button, an email marketer with a healthy audience can get their message in front of tens of thousands of people at once, every single time.

Ben Goldstein,
Head of Content and Communications at Nutshell

How are marketing emails different from sales emails?

Marketing emails and sales emails are similar, and are thus easy to mix up. They’re both sent using similar tools, map to a larger sequence or campaign, and can even serve similar purposes, like winning back lost leads.

A sales email, however, is designed to have the feeling of a one-to-one message between a salesperson and the recipient.

Although they may be sent en masse, and they may be one automated email within a much larger sequence, a sales email’s primary purpose is to build a rapport with the recipient.

This can be done in many creative ways, and sales emails take many different forms. It’s not always “click here to buy now;” in fact it almost never is.

Some clever ways salespeople use sales emails to build rapport:

  • Reaching out to a prospect to talk about something the prospect said, posted, or published
  • Inviting the recipient to a webinar
  • Sharing a relevant blog post or video
  • Following up after a meeting
  • Asking the prospect’s opinion about the competitor

Although these are far from sales pitches, they serve the purpose of building one-to-one relationships, or understanding the prospect’s needs for the sake of qualifying or disqualifying.

See also: The Complete Guide to Researching Sales Prospects

Marketing emails are more diverse. The official sender can range from the CEO, the Editor in Chief, an Events Coordinator, etc., but they always represent a broadcast from the brand itself.

Marketing emails can also map to various tactical goals, like landing attendees for an event, driving blog traffic, promoting a content download, and more. At the risk of oversimplifying, these initiatives typically trace back to lead generation at the end of the day.

The difference between sales emails and marketing emails: Sales emails represent one-on-one interactions between a salesperson and the recipient and serve to build rapport, whereas marketing emails represent a broadcast from anyone who speaks for the brand itself, and can serve various tactical purposes.

The end goal of email marketing is to create conversations with actual human beings.

Different types of email marketing

Email marketing for non-customers

Do 👏 not 👏 blast 👏 this 👏 audience 👏. Your non-customers are hanging on by a thread, so to speak, and it’s safe to assume that you’re one of many companies in their inbox trying to garner their attention.

Email marketers need to prove to non-customers that their product is one that’s worth their interest, and this cannot be done by bothering them.

There should be a lot of thought put into how to turn non-customers into prospects, and it will vary from person to person, which is why market segmentation is extremely important here: Different demographics have different needs, different habits, and should be addressed with emails that speak to them specifically.

In general, demonstrating value to your non-customers is a great way to get them in the marketing funnel, incentivising them to eventually consider purchasing your product or service.

Good content for non-customers will have to be personalized and tailored to their needs. For instance, if they’re an e-commerce company, an actionable guide on how to optimize websites for lead generation might put you on their list of companies to watch.

It’s all about attraction here, rather than attempting to pull them in. As an email marketer, you can rest assured that if you’re doing a good job representing the value of your company in a non-invasive way, you’ll gain steady conversions from non-customers into prospects.

Email marketing for active prospects

Active prospects are under a microscope because the sales and marketing teams are both working together to drive them through the sales pipeline.

It is likely that active prospects will be in regular communication with salespeople from your company, getting one-on-one time with people who can answer their questions, which means much of your content could be redundant, or even annoying.

It’s important to strategize with your growth team to determine which types of marketing emails are acceptable to send to active prospects. For instance, newsletters, webinar announcements, and new product features are still relevant, but CTAs to book a demo are not.

Once your team has determined a solid roster of content to deliver to active prospects, set up an automated drip campaign to keep their engagement high in a way that won’t step on your salespeople’s toes.

Email marketing for current customers

Email marketing towards your current customers is all about keeping them informed, engaged, and at the end of the day, happy.

With a good CRM, prospects can automatically be moved from one drip sequence to another depending on their stage in the pipeline. In this case, your current customers should be segmented accordingly so that they receive content that keeps them delighted with your products and services.

A good automated email campaign will dispense newsletters, product news, tutorials, etc., to current customers. More importantly, however, current customers should never get content from the prospects’ pipeline, with CTAs like “book a demo.” This is not only confusing, but also unprofessional.

Above all else, your marketing emails to customers should continuously remind them that they are valued.

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The anatomy of a good marketing email

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As they say, a few high-quality emails are more impactful than a barrage of bland ones. When you’re writing for an audience, it is impossible to overstate how important it is to spend time getting the details right.

If a few more compelling features can result in even a 2% increase in conversions, it will make a huge difference in the final metrics when multiplied against the entire audience.

Most award-worthy marketing emails have the same few things in common, and they all adhere to roughly the same anatomy.

Subject line

An email’s subject line is its fishing hook, its one shot to captivate the recipient’s attention enough to earn a click.

Good email subject lines are dynamic, since there’s no one line that guarantees high open rates across industries. Writing a good subject line takes some serious thought, and depends on numerous factors.

Keep your subject line short. Most email clients only display the first 33-43 characters on mobile devices.

A few things to keep in mind when drafting a solid subject line:

  • What is the demographic or market segment that will receive this email?
  • At what stage in the pipeline are the recipients of this email?
  • What information can I leverage that will resonate with this audience?

And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are pointers and best-practices that make email subject lines more clickable, as well as hazards that will make subject lines worse.

Subject line tips that work

Using a tasteful emoji, as long as it’s not overdone:

  • Data analytics reporting on steroids 💪
  • 🎃 Trick-or-treating just got a whole lot easier

Including the recipient’s name:

  • Are you trying to start a company, Ben?
  • Rebekka, are you looking for a job?

Sentence-case subject lines:

  • The worst software we’ve ever seen
  • 5 ways Nutshell outperforms comparably-prices CRMs

Keeping the tone casual:

  • Wait, there are people who don’t hate their ISP?
  • We’re seriously beefing up our product features

Being specific:

  • Our software has way better reviews than HubSpot
  • Nutshell’s email marketing features will blow you away

Subject line mistakes to avoid:

Overdoing the emojis:

  • 🎇✨🎆🎊 Check out our new 👊😝 product 👊😝 demo 🎇✨🎆🎊
  • 🎸🎸🎸🎸🎸🎸 The 2020 list of sales rockstars

Lengthy subject lines that are cut off in the recipients’ inboxes:

  • 15 exciting realizations on how to make our businesses better that came to us while watching Two and a Half… (See more)

Anything that sounds remotely spammy:

  • FREE OFFER (Click Here) you have won our sweepstakes (Buy Now!)
  • Free member rewards with our limited time offer

Overly formal tones:

  • Dearest sir/madam, we present to you our esteemed Chief Operating Officer in our celebrated webinar series

Providing no context:

  • Really great stuff here
  • Nutshell CRM email for Ron Swanson 12/5/2020

Purpose

Every marketing email has a purpose, and is meant to accomplish a specific thing. Sometimes your call-to-action is simply a recently-published blog post. Other times it’s trickier, like trying to encourage your audience to sign up for a demo.

Whatever the purpose, it must be laser-focused. This means absolutely no sending emails that simply blast a bunch of different and unrelated calls to action, or none of your users will feel spoken to, and none of them will convert.

Note: Certain newsletters, under very specific conditions, are exceptions and can have mixed calls to action, such as ones that promote upcoming events over the next few months.

Determining the purpose of an email is something that needs to be done long before drafting. After all, marketing emails all serve their own tactical purpose, and should directly trace back to the company’s overall marketing strategy.

Legitimate purposes to send marketing emails:

  • Promoting a blog post
  • Getting users to sign up for a webinar
  • Announcing a product feature

Illegitimate reasons to send marketing emails:

  • Re-engaging old leads
  • Reminding the audience that the company exists
  • Including many various CTAs in hopes that one will interest the recipient

There’s a handy two-step thought exercise for determining the purpose of a message you’d like to send.

Step one: Ask yourself what stage of the pipeline the current audience segment occupies. Knowing where they came from, where they currently stand, and where you’d like them to end up is a great way to frame an email.

Step two: Ask yourself what messaging, content, collateral, information, etc., can sway your audience into advancing through the pipeline.

From there, it’s easier to map out a way to introduce content that will have the desired effect. Remember, all marketing emails must have a focused and tactical purpose, or else they won’t produce any results, and could even damage your company’s credibility.

Custom fields

Custom fields are placeholders in the body of your email that give you an opportunity to vary the content from email to email. Typically custom fields look like [First Name], and automatically add the first name of the contact, however there are two different types of placeholders that generally populate email templates:

Custom fields are fields that are automatically populated with data from a CRM, database, or spreadsheet. When sending email templates with custom fields built-in, the sender doesn’t have to take any manual action: The CRM or email platform will automatically fill those fields in with the right data.

For instance, “Hi [Firstname], I hope [Company] is doing well” would translate into “Hi James, I hope Brightcorp is doing well.”

A marketing email showing custom fields.

Nutshell custom fields at work in a link-building email.

Placeholder text is a part of the email template that needs to be filled out by the sender, and has been intentionally left blank. Placeholder text exists when the information isn’t something that can be pulled automatically from a CRM, database, or spreadsheet, so basically any unstructured information.

Intro lines, for example, are often placeholder text. The rest of the email is already composed, and the sender writes a quick intro like “Hey Jim, we met at the Moonsoft conference last week and you recommended I reach back out in a week.”

Marketing email showing placeholder text.

The orange placeholder text on this outbound email reminds salespeople to paste their Calendly link into the message.

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Narrative and tone

Finding the right tone for a marketing email can be challenging, especially when that marketing email is being sent to a large audience, and not one-on-one.

The tone of your marketing email will change depending on the content of the email, but there are certain bits of narrative quality that you should try to preserve consistently, regardless of the nature of the audience and content.

Fact: If your audience is human beings, they will attempt to decipher intention and tone behind your words. Make them count. 👽

Use your conversation voice

The greatest marketing tool of all is the ability to facilitate genuine human connection, and this is your chance to demonstrate yours. Your audience is comprised of people, after all, and it’s human nature to strive to understand one another, if even on a subconscious level.

Use expressions that you would use when talking with your friends and coworkers. It sometimes even helps to read your emails aloud to yourself to understand how it’s going to sound to the reader.

In marketing emails, it’s totally fine to keep the tone casual. Loosen up, use a couple contractions, and remind yourself that your email is written for people just like yourself.

Limit yourself to one exclamation point per message to avoid the risk of sounding phony.

Be courteous and respectful

Yes, the golden rule applies to email marketing too. Respecting your audience should be a principle that influences all of your marketing tactics. For instance, sending repetitious marketing emails to your entire audience is disrespectful and obnoxious.

This philosophy should shine in your marketing emails as well. If you ask your audience to do something, do it courteously, and say “please.”

As far as narrative and tone are concerned, try to craft your message in a way that reads with sincerity, and is as little as an inconvenience to your audience as possible.

Avoid these common email marketing discourtesies at all costs:

  • Making assumptions: Like when someone quotes a movie because they assume you’ve seen it—assumptions can be awkward and even kill the conversation. Simply put, making assumptions will alienate everyone the assumption doesn’t apply to, so avoid them wherever possible.

  • Not providing enough information: Nothing is more annoying than receiving an email that is lacking context or paints an incomplete picture, leaving you wondering what exactly you just read. If you want your audience to continue to follow you, make sure they’re on the same page.

  • Not acknowledging the audience: Self-centered messaging is the leading way to ensure your audience unsubscribes from your marketing emails. Your marketing emails should feel like one person talking to another person, and if they don’t, your audience is unlikely to engage.

Related: 5 Messaging Differences Between a Savvy Salesperson and a Serial Spammer.

Don’t try too hard

It’s awkward than brands trying to cash in on the latest TikTok crazes, so put aside your dabs, your whips, and your nae-naes. Instead, look for ways to include humor that doesn’t feel shallowly focused on viral trends.

Controversial subject lines, overusing buzzwords, and rapid-fire jokes all come across as trying too hard. As an email marketer, it’s important to find that sweet spot where you’re conveying to your audience that you speak their language but you don’t stretch to prove your relevancy.

^ How audiences react when companies try too hard.

Stats, infographics, pics

In a marketing email, graphical assets say more than words alone. If you want to engage your audience effectively (you do), you’ll want to include media besides words so that they understand the “full picture” [knee-slap] more effectively.

The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, which means it’s absolutely worth it to try to find relevant pics to help hit a point home.

Keeping your image file sizes small will help your email load quickly for recipients—especially on mobile devices.

Statistics are also a dynamic way of introducing ideas in a manner that is digestible for your audience. For instance, if you’re talking about workflow automation, a simple stat like “80% of businesses use some type of workflow automation” helps to frame your message by adding context.

"Marketing emails containing relevant images have 94% more total views than marketing emails without images."

Source: Poll Everywhere

Include ALT text in your images. If an email client blocks an image, the text will appear instead of a red ‘X,’ and it’s also a courtesy for visually-impaired people.

Call to action

A call to action (CTA) is an invitation for your audience to take an action, usually in the form of clicking a link to a web page, blog post, or related info.

CTAs exist in many different forms in the sales and marketing worlds, and serve different purposes depending on which audience they’re speaking to, and who is sending them.

For instance, a salesperson speaking to a prospect might use the call to action “request a one-on-one demo,” and a marketing person sending a newsletter might use “read our latest blog post.”

CTAs should be friendly and inviting. Instead of “CLICK HERE,” try “TAKE ME THERE,” “KEEP READING,” or “LET’S GO.”

It’s important to understand what your CTA is going to be before drafting your marketing email. After all, your CTA is the tactical purpose of your email, and writing an email without a purpose in mind is just weird.

A good CTA is strong, compelling, and lets the reader know exactly why they should click it. If your email is about cold email templates, a good CTA would link the reader to your blog post or content download full of cold email templates.

Remember that your marketing email is higher in the funnel than whatever your CTA links to. To reflect this, your marketing email should speak generally about the topic of your CTA, and users who are interested will click and learn more.

The 6 most important email marketing metrics—and what they really mean

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It’s like we always say: You can’t improve what you don’t measure.

Every email marketing software platform includes reporting tools that show you the impact of your emails. But you need to fully understand what the metrics are telling you—and the relative importance of those metrics—before you make any drastic changes to your strategy.

Here are the six most common email marketing metrics, what they actually measure, and how much weight you should give them when fine-tuning your email marketing efforts.

Open rate

What it means: Open rate is the number of recipients who opened your email at least once, divided by the number of delivered emails (i.e., not including bounced emails); multiplying that number by 100 gives you the email’s open rate. According to a Fall 2020 report from Constant Contact, the average email marketing open rate across all industries is 17.16%.

(By the way, an “open” is recorded once the tracking pixel in your email fires.)

What it really means: Traditional wisdom says that open rate is a direct measure of your subject line’s quality. If your subject line is compelling (or simply unusual enough to catch attention in an inbox), more people will click it.

But there’s another factor that’s even more important than the success of individual subject lines: your reputation as a content provider.

When your company sends out a marketing email, is your audience excited to receive it, regardless of what the subject line promises? Do you have a history of providing content that’s relevant to your recipients, or do you only email your list when you need something from them?

Recipients will get in the habit of opening your emails when you’re consistently providing value—even if your subject line isn’t a home run every time.

Your audience when they see an email from you.

How important is it: Having a large email list doesn’t matter much if only a few people are opening your messages. Knowing your open rate helps you understand your “true” audience size.

In other words, about how many people can you expect to reach with a given marketing email? If you want to set realistic expectations for the impact of your email marketing, tracking your open rate is a necessity.

How to improve it: Don’t send a marketing email unless there’s a direct benefit to the recipient; over time, your readers will associate your emails with value. When it comes to subject lines, dare to be different. And you may want to consider scrubbing out unengaged email addresses that are still active but haven’t interacted with your emails in a long time.

Click rate

What it means: Also known as click-through rate or CTR, email click rate measures the number of people who clicked at least one link in an email divided by the number of emails delivered; multiplying that number by 100 gives you the email’s click rate.

Since only a portion of the people who open an email will actually click one of the links, your click rate will naturally be lower than your open rate. According to research from CampaignMonitor, the average click-through rate for all industries is 2.6%.

What it really means: No matter how you decide to present links in your email—whether it’s through CTA buttons, hyperlinked banner images, or hyperlinked text—you have to make a good argument for why clicking is worth the reader’s time.

Click rate reflects how good your argument was. Did you effectively make the case that there’s something of greater value on the other side of that click?

That being said, design is crucial to click rate. A prominent CTA button or an attractive banner image will always draw more clicks than hyperlinked text saying “click here”!

The other factor that affects click rate is how well the email content matches the promise of the subject line. If your readers are drawn in by the subject line, but the content itself is less valuable or less interesting than what they expected it to be, they’ll likely exit your email without clicking.

How important is it: The overall purpose of email marketing is to turn email addresses into buyers, and you will eventually need your readers to click on something in order to do that. For that reason, click rate is one of the most important email metrics of all—it’s just not important for every marketing email.

For example, if you’re passing along a brief announcement to your customers, you don’t necessarily need them to click on a “READ MORE” button in order to accomplish that.

So, pay close attention to click rates for any marketing emails that specifically require clicks to deliver value. Averaging the click rates of all your email messages leaves you with a metric that’s too general to be useful.

How to improve it: If you’re providing genuine value to the recipient in your email, they’ll click. And if they don’t click, you didn’t make a strong enough case for why they should click.

Clear, persuasive copy helps, and strong design definitely helps. The visual presentation of the email should leave no doubt to the reader where they’re supposed to point their cursor.

Bounce rate

What it means: Bounce rate can be measured by taking the number of email addresses in your audience list that didn’t receive your message, divided by the total number of email addresses in your audience; multiplying that number by 100 gives you the email’s bounce rate. CampaignMonitor puts the average email bounce rate across all industries at just 0.7%

A bounced email can be a “hard bounce,” meaning your email was never accepted by an email server (i.e., the recipient email address or domain doesn’t exist or is inactive) or a “soft bounce,” meaning your email was accepted by an email server, but wasn’t delivered anyway (i.e., your message was too big, the recipient’s mailbox was full, or the recipient’s email server was temporarily down).

What it really means: Outdated email addresses are just a fact of nature; over time, many email addresses and domains on your subscriber list will become inactive.

A growing bounce rate means you’re not doing the proper maintenance work to delete emails once they start hard-bouncing. And that’s a problem, as we’ll explain in a moment.

A high bounce rate can also suggest a lack of standards for accepting email subscribers in the first place. Do you allow form-fillers to put literally anything into the email address field when they’re signing up for a free trial or downloading a piece of content, or are there some safeguards in place to catch spammy email addresses?

A list of identical marketing email addresses.

“Oh my gosh, none of these are valid email addresses!”

How important is it: Incredibly important. Once your bounce rate starts to creep above 2%, continuing to send to those addresses will damage your sending reputation among ISPs and hurt the deliverability of future sends.

Not regularly scrubbing your email list is like never changing the oil in your car. This is essential maintenance that will cost you big time if you ignore it.

How to improve it: Make some time to delete hard-bounced email addresses after every marketing email you send. And make sure you have some process in place for weeding out fake email addresses upon signup, whether that’s using an email verification tool, or sending out a confirmation email with a link that subscribers have to click in order to receive future messages.

Unsubscribe rate

What it means: Unsubscribe rate is the number of recipients who unsubscribed from your email list after receiving an email, divided by the number of delivered emails; multiply that number by 100 to get the unsubscribe rate for your email. Unsubscribe rates for marketing emails typically range from 0.1%-0.4%, depending on industry.

What it really means: To what extent are your messages annoying your email subscribers? If you’re blasting your list with marketing emails beyond the frequency that they were originally expecting, many subscribers will start to drop off.

Sudden spikes in unsubscribe rate can also suggest that you’re sending out emails that are irrelevant to a large chunk of your recipients (i.e., emailing your entire subscriber list about an announcement that only affects current customers).

How important is it: As long as you’re consistently delivering value and relevance to your email recipients, spikes in unsubscribe rate should be relatively rare, which makes this metric somewhat less important than the rest. Keep your unsubscribe rates anywhere below 0.5%, and you’re golden.

How to improve it: Pay attention to any unsubscribe rates that are well above your average to understand what your audience isn’t interested in. And make sure your emails are properly segmented, which we’ll cover more in the How to set up a marketing campaign in 7 easy steps section. (The short version is: send each marketing email only to the contacts who will actually benefit from it.)

We also recommended setting clear expectations upfront with your email subscribers regarding how often you’ll be emailing them and what kind of content they can expect.

This information can be expressed on your email signup forms themselves, as well as in the confirmation emails you send out to get subscribers to officially opt in to your list.

Response rate

What it means: Also known as reply rate, response rate is the number of recipients who directly replied to your email, divided by the number of delivered emails; multiplying that number by 100 gives you the email’s reply rate.

What it really means: Are your emails written to spur conversation, or are they only arranged as a one-way channel for announcements and offers? Do your recipients trust that their reply will actually go to another human being, or do they assume it will land in some corporate inbox? If you write your marketing emails like you’re writing a letter to a friend—something we always suggest, by the way—your recipients will feel more comfortable replying.

Marketing emails shouldn’t just look like they’re coming from a real person. The replies should actually go to a real person.

On a more basic level, response rate reflects whether or not you’re specifically asking for replies in the first place. Don’t expect a bunch of responses to come in if there’s nothing in the email to respond to. (That’s why we load our own marketing emails with thought-provoking questions and requests for feedback and help.)

A screenshot of a marketing email from Ben Goldstein at Sell to Win

How important is it: Not all of your marketing emails need to draw replies to be successful. Most of your messages will be designed to inform your audience of something or direct them to a page on your website, and that’s perfectly OK.

That being said, a single reply from a living, breathing human being can give you more actionable information than a thousand clicks to a landing page.

In fact, we think the primary goal of email marketing is to turn an anonymous email address into someone you’re actually speaking to; encouraging replies is the simplest way to make that happen.

Replies are also a great way to identify the “super fans” of your brand. If you notice that a certain subscriber is responding to your emails on a regular basis, that person might be willing to write a testimonial for your company (if they’re already a customer) or start a sales conversation (if they’re a subscriber but not yet a customer).

How to improve it: First and foremost, arrange your marketing emails to appear like they were sent by a single individual. There should be a person’s name in the “From” field (preferably the person who actually wrote the email and will be fielding the replies), and the email should be signed by that person. Write your marketing emails in first person, if possible.

Next, include one direct question in your email, which could be anything from a discussion prompt (“How is this new development in the manufacturing industry affecting your company? Please reply to this email and let me know your thoughts.”) to a request for help (“We could really use some insight on a new product we’re developing. Could you please reply to this email and tell me how often you adjust the brightness on your smartphone?”)

And finally, make sure you can respond to your email replies in relatively short order. If one of your recipients takes the time to share their thoughts with you but never gets so much as a “Thank you!” in return, it’s likely they won’t waste their time again in the future.

Audience growth rate

What it means: How many net new subscribers (i.e., total new subscribers minus unsubscribers and deleted addresses) you’ve gained over a certain period of time, compared to your total subscriber count in the previous period; multiplying that number by 100 gives you your audience growth rate. Growth rate can be tracked for your entire email list, or for individual audience segments.

What it really means: How successful are your email acquisition efforts? Are those efforts improving over time? A strong audience growth rate tells you that you’re offering website visitors and prospects content resources that are valuable enough to trade their email for, while providing your current customers and subscribers with enough value to remain in their inbox long-term.

How important is it: As with website visits and social media followers, email audience size can be a vanity metric if you over-focus on it. Growing your list isn’t the point; acquiring and retaining customers is. That being said, increasing your audience growth rate expands the potential impact of your efforts.

Unlike PPC ads (which can be very expensive) or SEO content (which won’t succeed in attracting visitors every time), email marketing is as close as you can get to a guaranteed method of reaching your audience, virtually for free.

It’s no wonder why the ROI of email marketing is crazy high. And the more legitimate names you add to your email list, the more profitable that channel becomes.

How to improve it: With so much noise in our inboxes these days, you’re going to have to offer website visitors a better reason to subscribe to your email list than “Sign up for our newsletter!

Virtually every single page on your website should include a relevant content offer—templates, guides, checklists, ebooks, worksheets, video content—that you offer as a free download in exchange for your visitor’s email address.

As we’ve learned at Nutshell, organizing free virtual events is a great way to collect email subscribers in mass quantities. After all, an email address is a small price to pay for an experience that the attendee would normally have to pay hundreds of dollars for.

Using purchased lead lists for email marketing

With some 68% of businesses struggling with lead generation, purchasing a list for email marketing seems like a good idea. But is it really?

Well, it’s complicated.

The CAN-SPAM Act and other risks

The CAN-SPAM Act slaps a hefty $42,530 penalty per email on those who are caught breaking the rules, and the rules themselves become much easier to break when purchasing a list for email marketing. And there are a lot of rules

When sending marketing emails to a list, the CAN-SPAM Act states that you absolutely must

  • Use subject lines that aren’t deceptive
  • Include your company’s postal address in every email
  • “Clearly and conspicuously” identify your message as an advertisement
  • Include a way for recipients to unsubscribe
  • Honor unsubscriptions promptly

And so on

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Furthermore, because of the many potential pitfalls outlined in the CAN-SPAM Act, most marketing email platforms require you to confirm that any contact list you upload has opted-in and verified that they want to receive emails from you.

This means that buying a lead list is strictly against their terms of service, because it is comprised of contacts that have not consented to any form of email marketing.

Most email marketing platforms will freeze your account, or even ban you from their platform if you are found violating their terms of service.

To make things even scarier, many organizations include “spam trap” email addresses, meaning they’ll register a random email address on their domain but never use it, ensuring that the only way to discover this email address is by scraping their domain for valid email addresses.

Any email that is sent to a trap is automatically flagged as spam, and a few of these offenses piling up can cause your domain to be blacklisted, which will make your company’s emails virtually undeliverable, which is the absolute worst thing to happen to an email marketer.

However, there are companies that do this type of vetting and regularly update their lists so that email marketers don’t end up sending undeliverable emails. These lists can be useful, but only if they’re used correctly.

How to use a purchased list

When using a purchased list, it’s absolutely critical to

  • Do prospect research on every single contact to verify that they’re real
  • Send high-quality, highly personalized emails to avoid being flagged as spam
  • Not blast the entire list, but rather use it as a starting point and then select contacts tactfully
  • Follow every single CAN-SPAM law at all times

So the verdict is that no, you cannot purchase a list of contacts and simply decide that they’re going to receive your newsletter from now on.

What you can do, however, is create very tactical advertising campaigns to encourage them to sign up to receive emails from you, so that you can send them marketing emails in the future.

Deep dive: The Nutshell Lead List Purchasing Guide.

Your email marketing sent to purchased lead lists, if you choose to do it at all, should be extremely limited. Again, the biggest CTA you can include on such a far reach is to ask them to opt in. From there, sending other email marketing is acceptable but only because they’ve asked for it.

But buying a lead list and treating them like subscribers? No way.

"Forget about it" when sending marketing emails to purchased lead lists.

Expert opinion: Email marketing strategies at various companies

Every marketer, every company, and every platform functions differently, meaning a strategy that works wonders for a particular organization might not be feasible for another.

In order to make this guide as comprehensive as possible, we reached out to a bunch of different email marketing pros, from specialists to founders, to get their opinions.

Q: Which software tools do you use for email marketing?

Popupsmart. It’s amaaaazing. Managing forms and pop-ups can be daunting. This tool gives you a dashboard to monitor your popups, uses AI to target your pop-ups, AND let’s you schedule them.

Have a seasonal lead magnet you want to use? Schedule it so it stops sending before it’s out-of-date.

Want to send a lead magnet to folks who visit specific pages? No problem.

Make it pretty while you’re at it? Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Beacon. Having a lead magnet that speaks to specific industries, buyer personas, or offerings is critical. It helps you pre-qualify your leads by signaling to them with the right content. The problem is creating and managing all of these offers. Beacon helps you create a lead magnet quickly and professionally with dozens of templates. They also offer several options for helping you DELIVER those lead magnets with opt-in forms built in. Get a new lead magnet done quickly with this tool.

Stripo.  Most Email Service Providers have a built-in drag-and-drop email building tool. That’s wonderful for having all of your email tools in one spot. However, many of them are limited. Using a third-party email building tool like Stripo helps you build emails JUST the way you want them without custom code.

Emily McGuire
Owner, Chief Email Marketer at Flourish & Grit

Q. Which types of marketing emails do you send?

My team works primarily on communicating with our existing reviewers (and sometimes new ones!) to collect authentic, high-quality feedback of software they’re using day-to-day at work. I send anywhere from two to maybe five or six emails a week, depending on who and what we’re focused on.

One of my teammates specializes in recorded video reviews and in the Q&As on each page; she’s sending somewhere from three to nine emails a week. The two of us collaborate pretty closely on segmentation and copy/design, and we have an amazing in-house design team. We’re incredibly lucky to have these resources, but we try to be scrappy whenever we can.

Carolyn Dorant
Senior Email Marketing Manager at G2

We send a few different marketing emails: a newsletter, event announcements, community roundups and webinar recaps. We send our newsletter once a week, and nearly the whole team is involved in the process.

Since my aim is to make it a snackable version of our week’s content, team members will send me what they think we should include in the week’s newsletter across podcasts, community discussions, webinars and article content.

Brooklin Nash
Head of Content, Sales Hacker

Q. Which email metrics are most important to you?

One metric I like looking at is the click-to-open rate. Many people tend to look at just the open rate and click-through rate independently. Click rate tells you how many people clicked a link relative to how many people the email was sent to, the click-to-open rate tells you how many people clicked-through out of people who actually opened the email.

This can give you a strong baseline understanding of how the content within your email drove traffic back to your site, sales, or overall engagement.

Kelly Forst
Marketing Specialist at AWeber

Q. What’s your favorite email marketing pro tip?

Email data can be great for sculpting and optimizing your company’s content strategy. Read between the lines about how your open rates and CTR might be connected to the type of content you delivered.

For example, if rates are higher for your emails that contain “recommended lists of products that do x” or “resources to help you achieve x goals,” this is likely a clear indication of what your most valuable buyer personas want more of.

Derek Flint
SEO Content Manager at Marketing Supply Company

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How to set up a marketing email campaign in 7 easy steps

Now that you know what makes a marketing email successful, let’s walk through the process of setting up and sending a marketing email campaign, from start to finish. Here we go…

Skip to sub-section:

1. Define your audience

There are very few situations where it makes sense to send an email to all of your contacts. For example, an announcement about how your company’s phone support availability will be limited over the holidays would only be relevant to current customers.

Conversely, an email offering a discount to first-time buyers would only be relevant to non-customers, and might even create hostility among your current clients. (“I just signed up last week, no discount for me??”)

So the first decision you need to make when setting up an email campaign is: Who should receive this email?

Is it your newsletter subscribers? Your current customers? A mix of former customers and lost leads? Only the people who downloaded a specific piece of content or attended your last virtual event?

Defining your audience upfront cuts down the risk of recipients unsubscribing from your marketing emails due to lack of relevance.

Audience segmentation is also very helpful to the writing process itself, because you can speak to the interests and concerns of a specific recipient type; your message doesn’t have to be for everyone.

Of course, there will be times when you have a marketing message that’s so important that you think everyone should hear it—the announcement of a major product release or a game-changing partnership, for example. Even in those situations, we recommend creating separate emails for separate list segments.

The way you speak to current customers will always be different than the way you speak to non-customers, even if those differences are very subtle.

2. Determine the goal

What do you want your email recipients to do, specifically? How are you measuring the success of this particular marketing email?

The primary goal for your email will directly impact its design and direction. For example, your goal might be…

  • Clicks to a website page: Let’s say you’re sharing your latest published content or making an announcement that requires more than a few lines of explanation. To get your readers to read the “full” version of the article or announcement on your website, your email should include a few lines of compelling description and at least one prominent CTA button directing the reader to “READ MORE,” “LEARN MORE,” or “KEEP READING.” 
  • Form completions: If you’re promoting an upcoming webinar or event, getting your recipients to click is only half the battle. You have to be crystal clear with your reader that once they click on your CTA button (“REGISTER TODAY”, “SAVE MY SPOT!”) they’ll also need to fill out the form on the landing page in order to sign up for the event. Note: The percentage of your email recipients who A) open the email, B) click the CTA, then C) fill out the form on the landing page will naturally be fairly low. So make sure to send multiple messages to your audience any time you’re trying to get them to complete a form.
  • Purchases: If you sell products on your website, email marketing can be a reliable channel to compel purchases from your buyer list. The challenge is to make sure that those purchases are attributable to the email campaign. You can do that by adding tracking links on CTA buttons (which will show how many buyers entered your site through your newsletter) or offering coupon codes that are unique to each marketing email you send. 
  • Replies: One thing we like to do at Nutshell is ask questions at the end of our newsletters. The replies we get often turn into longer conversations where we can offer our expertise to the respondents or refer them to our sales team. This method is also effective when you’re making a brief announcement or sharing information that doesn’t require the reader to click to a landing page. If you don’t have a strong CTA to include in your email, ending with a question gives you a concrete way to measure impact.

Multiple CTAs can overwhelm a reader. If you want recipients to do something specific, stick to a single CTA.

3. Write excellent, helpful content

At this point, you have your audience and the ideal behavior you want them to take. It’s time to put pen to paper.

There’s only one email writing best practice that we recommend to everyone, regardless of industry or reader persona: Write it like it’s a letter to a friend. Be friendly and warm, and speak to your common interests with your target audience.

Use humor to the extent that it’s appropriate. And always remember: Marketing emails are about educating and nurturing, not pressuring your readers into a sales conversation.

Focus on the recipient, not yourself. Reduce or eliminate sentences that start with “I,” “we,” or “our company.

Even with a friendly writing tone, you should still use clear, direct language to explain the value of what you’re offering in your marketing email. A reader should never have to wonder, “What is this and why am I getting it?” or “What’s in it for me?

As long as you’re offering something of real value and can properly express the benefits of taking action, your readers will be more than happy to click the CTA button.

One more thing: Linking to relevant resources in your marketing email will help your readers learn more, feel smarter, and have the kind of positive experience with your marketing email that will make them more likely to open the next one.

These additional resources can be other pieces of content you’ve produced in the past, or even content from a third-party website. Providing your readers with the best information on a given subject—even if it didn’t come from your own site—makes you appear credible and genuinely helpful.

Beware the big block of text! Add a line break to any paragraph that’s more than three sentences long.

4. Design your email for maximum impact

Ideally, the copy and design of your message should work together to hook your reader from the moment they open the email. But keep in mind that different message types call for different visual approaches.

Some marketing emails—a “letter from the CEO”-type newsletter, for example—look perfectly natural presented mostly as text. However, if you’re plugging an exciting new product, an upcoming event, or a collection of recent blog posts, you’ll make more of an impact by including images, animation, and other bits of visual excitement.

Of course, building your emails from scratch is hard work, even for talented marketing designers. That’s why it often makes sense to use an email template to lay out your marketing email.

Most marketing automation software platforms have a number of templates built in that include spots for banner images, columns, pullquotes, CTA buttons, headlines, and sub-heds. Choose one that you think is a good fit for the overall vibe of your email and start pasting in your copy.

Emails wider than 640px might not render well on certain email clients. 600px wide is the sweet spot.

Marketing email design isn’t only about the images and styling in the body of the message, though. You also have to be aware of how your email will appear in an inbox before it’s even opened. To that end…

  • Make sure to put a real person’s name in the “From” field (i.e. “Jack @ Nutshell”), even if the replies actually go to a general inbox.
  • Include a line of custom preview text to accompany the subject line; think of it as an additional teaser that might interest a recipient enough to open the email.

5. Test, then test again

Just because your marketing email is written and designed doesn’t mean it’s ready to go out the door. Before adding your recipient list and hitting send, send a test email to yourself and at least one other colleague.

Give the test email a close read to find any stray typos. Click every single hyperlink to make sure the links load correctly and that any UTM parameters or tracking links you included are fully operational—especially the ones on CTA buttons. Make sure that your images are displaying properly in various email clients and on mobile devices.

If you run into any issues, fix them in your email marketing software, then send out another test. Repeat the process until your email is flawless.

6. Push the button and brace for impact

Now that your email is “done done,” add the proper recipient list (remember step 1?) and schedule it to go out.

There are countless research studies online that will tell you which days and times are the most effective to send an email…and if you ask us, they’re mostly hot air.

Every audience is different, and it generally takes a lot of trial and error to figure out when your email subscribers are most likely to open one of your marketing emails.

That being said, we do have one piece of universal advice to share when it comes to email scheduling: Only send a marketing email at a time when someone from your team will be around to handle the replies.

The more important your message is, the more likely it is that many of your recipients will reply with burning questions. Don’t send out a marketing email late Friday afternoon and leave your audience hanging over the entire weekend!

At Nutshell, we only send out emails on weekdays (and not too late in the day) to ensure that we can field any important replies as they come in. We suggest you do the same.

And if you’re scheduling an email to go out days in the future, set up a reminder for yourself to be available when it actually goes out.

Before sending a marketing email, ask yourself: Am I actually giving the recipient something of value?

7. Learn something before moving on

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with email marketing is using the same tactics over and over again, regardless of whether they’re working or not. Every single email marketing email you send gives you an opportunity to learn the following…

  • Was the subject line compelling? (i.e., what was the open rate compared to the average open rate for this message type?)
  • Did you pick the right audience? (i.e., what was the unsubscribe rate compared to the average unsubscribe rate for this message type?)
  • Was the offer in the email compelling? (i.e., what was the click rate compared to the average click rate for this message type?)
  • Did the landing page fulfill the promise of the email? (i.e., what was the conversion rate on the landing page compared to past conversion rates for similar offers?)


All of these things can be measured, tracked, and optimized. So be sure to check the stats on every email you send and use that data to inform future email marketing campaigns. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels.

Now, how do you get that data even faster: by A/B testing! If you’re ever curious about how one specific element is impacting your emails’ performance, split your audience list in half and send out two versions with only one difference between the two emails. In other words, the emails are identical except for the send-time, or identical except for the subject line.

A/B testing gives you comparative data that helps you fine-tune your email marketing strategy in a way that’s more scientific, and less based on hunches. (Not that your hunches aren’t brilliant.)

Steal these templates!

Skip to template:

“Webinar announcement” email template

TYPE: Broadcast / Announce
Concept: Announcement of a company-organized webinar or virtual event taking place in the near future, with a primary CTA to register.

Subject line: Save your spot at [event title]!
Preview text: It’s live, it’s free, and you might actually learn something.

Hi {FIRSTNAME},
Got any plans for [event date]? Well you do now.

[webinar topic] is one of the most important—and least understood—drivers of growth for businesses like yours. So we teamed up with [partner/speaker name and title] to present a [##]-minute webinar passing along everything we know on the subject: “[event title].”

The live broadcast will kick off [day/date] at [time], and will teach you:

• [webinar sub-topic A in the form of a question]

• [webinar sub-topic B in the form of a question]

• [webinar sub-topic C in the form of a question]

We’re limiting the registration to [###] virtual tickets, so hit the button below before everyone else beats you to it.

[Button: “SAVE MY SPOT”]

The webinar will be recorded for all registrants, but live attendees will have a chance to submit their questions to the presenters and get expert insights on the spot.

Have a wonderful day, and we’ll see you on [event date]!

[sender name]

“Product news” email template

TYPE: Broadcast / Announce, Update
Concept: Announcing a new product offering or feature, with a CTA to learn more on the website

Subject line: First look: [product name]
Preview text: Our latest [product type] is a game-changer.

Hi {FIRSTNAME},

Good to see you, friend. We’ll make this quick.

Today marks the release of [product name], a [product category] that helps you [product benefit A] and [product benefit B].

Priced at [price], [product name] offers the following improvements on our previous [product category] offerings…

• [product feature A]

• [product feature B]

• [product feature C]

• [product feature D]

This new release was one of the most requested from our customers, so thank you!

To learn more about this new release, check out the full details at the link below:

[Button: “LEARN MORE”]

Big ups to our hard-working product team for making [product name] into a reality. And please reply to this email if you have any questions!

Cheers,

[sender name]

“Sales promotion” email template

TYPE: Broadcast / Promote, Sell
Concept: A one-to-many sales email, offering a discount or other promotion for a specific product offering, possibly for VIPs or customers who haven’t purchased in a while; primary CTA is to follow a link to sale items.

Subject line: For our VIPs only…take 20 percent off any [product name]

Preview text: Reply to this message with “howdy!” for a mystery coupon…

Hi {FIRSTNAME},

We’re psyched that you’ve been a longtime [your own company name] customer, and we want to make sure you stay psyched. So here’s the deal…

From now until [day/date/time], you can get any of our [product type/service category]s for 20% off…just for being you! All you need to do is hit the link below and enter the coupon code VIP2021 on the purchase page.

[Button: “LET’S SAVE SOME MONEY”]

Still here? Wonderful. If you’ve gotten this far in the email, you deserve a bonus. Reply to this email with “howdy!” and I’ll give you a mystery coupon code that will [double/multiply/increase] your savings.

Take care, and please let me know if there’s anything else I can do to support you and your business.

[sender name]

“Exciting announcement!” email template

TYPE: Broadcast / Announce, Update, Celebrate
Concept: A general purpose blast informing subscribers of something interesting that the company is doing. (A new partnership? A charitable effort? The launch of a company podcast?) Primary CTA is to learn more on the website.

Subject line: The wait is over. Brightcorp and Moonsoft are together at last.

Preview text: The long-awaited partnership that adds tons of new value for our customers.

Hey {FIRSTNAME},

While gathering around the virtual water cooler, we had this bright idea: Let’s use the bright ideas our users have given us. It may be our best thinking yet.

When our team launched Brightcorp, we weren’t really thinking about other tools like Moonsoft’s platform. We were focused, instead, on delivering brightness technology to our consumers, and giving them the most luminous experience we could.

Recently our users have been talking about Moonsoft, specifically whether or not we plan on partnering with them anytime soon.

“Hmm,” we said. “That would be cool.”

Today, we are proud to announce that we have officially partnered with Moonsoft to deliver solar-quality virtual luminescence with adaptive void shading in a fully integrated platform.

Moonsoft [Link to company page] is a de-illumination company that was founded… [Describe the partnership company and their mission]

By joining forces, we hope to… [Describe the goals of the partnership]

This article [Link to article] goes into more detail about what a partnership between Brightcorp and Moonsoft means for our users, what will change for Brightcorp customers, and what we hope to accomplish together.

Please respond to this email and let us know what you’d love to see us do now that we have a full partnership with Moonsoft!

Sincerely, [sender name]

“Letter from the CEO/Editor” email template

TYPE: Newsletter / Educate, Update
Concept: A conversational, text-focused letter sharing thoughts and a couple of links. This might be closest to our approach with the STW newsletter.

Subject line: You know what I think, {FIRSTNAME}?
Preview text: Plus: The book that doubled my close rate in a single month.

Hi {FIRSTNAME},

It’s almost 6am, and I’m sitting at my kitchen table waiting for the coffeemaker to finish burbling. The kids aren’t up yet, but they will be soon. So I wanted to get this out of my head while it’s still quiet.

[4-5 paragraphs on some recent epiphany you had]

I can go on and on about this stuff, but my youngest just came down the stairs and wants his waffles. Real quick:

– Seats to our [seminar or workshop title] are still available. Sign up by Friday with the code “[coupon code]” and get $40 off the price of your virtual ticket.

– My dear friend [author] wrote a book on [topic] that is going to wind up making me an extra $80,000 this year, if I’m doing my math correctly. Buy it here: [link] …and I promise, I will buy it back from you if it doesn’t blow your mind too.

The sun’s coming up now. The waffles are in the toaster. My dog and the neighbor’s dog are having a little conversation. Let’s all have a good morning, okay?

Best,

[sender name]

“Latest content” email template

TYPE: Newsletter / Educate, Update
Concept: Sharing the latest marketing content, via thumbnail images and short descriptions. This would be a more traditional approach for a blog newsletter.

Subject line: Everything you need to know about SEO
Preview text: What is the secret ingredient that can transform your writing from a hobby into a cash generator?

Hey {FIRSTNAME},

If you’re anything like most humans, you probably have your own unique insights and perspectives about your industry. What most humans do not know, however, is that they can earn 88% more leads simply by consistently blogging those insights.

SEO is the secret key that can unlock those marketing leads for your company by giving your writing visibility on search engines, and we just published a guide on how to make that happen.

A few of the topics we cover:

• Page titles, headings, and paragraph text, and how they function like a network of roots.

• The relationship between page-loading speed and bounce rates.

• How to build an SEO skeleton.

Simply put, it’s a great starting point for anyone who might benefit from upping their content marketing game. The article describes technical SEO from a realistic and attainable standpoint, even for people who’ve never published anything before.

[Button: “Read the full article”]

As always, if you have any questions about SEO that aren’t covered in the article, you can ask them in a reply to this email and I will Google the answers share my knowledge with you.

Cheers,

[sender name]

[Thumbnail list of recently-published articles]

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