Nearly 60 percent of businesses say that email marketing is their top source of Return On Investment (ROI), according to HubSpot.

We’ve got your back if you don’t feel like you’re hitting that benchmark. See what we did there?!

Thankfully, Back to School season is here!

This time of year can bring a rush of feelings to people of all ages. To the kids: dread. To the parents: relief (though they may not admit it).

While many of us long for the downright luxurious schedule of being in school — with summers off and a winter and spring break, for starters — we grown-ups can still use this back-to-school period to go back to the basics and make sure we have a good foundation of the essentials for our work.

Just like Billy Madison went back to school to prove he knew everything he’d need to make it in the real world — all of us could use a refresher on how to thrive with our email marketing.

And so, we present the ABCs (and beyond) of how to make magic with your email marketing strategy.

But first, you may ask: Is email marketing really that important? Is it really such an essential, high-priority marketing tool, like everyone says?

Back to Basics: Here’s Why Email Marketing is So Essential

Email marketing may seem like just another tedious task on your to-do list, making you ask: “Why? What’s the point of it all?”

An understandable impulse, but as it turns out — email marketing serves a massively important purpose both for your customers and for your business.

For your customers, email marketing has the benefit of solving problems. It’s a key part of your brand storytelling, as it demonstrates how your products and services fill a need.

Email marketing also delivers significant value for your customers. Email messages can be used to deliver savings (think promo codes, discount alerts, flash sale announcements and more), information (think new product announcements, alerts about changes to your product or policies, etc.) and entertainment (think holiday-themed messages, birthday or anniversary greetings and beyond).

Now, notice anything in particular about all those functions that email marketing serves for your customers? Bueller?

That’s right … email marketing is particularly useful for your customers when you, as a marketer, make the effort to personalize your messaging and segment your audience.

Feel free to take a dive into our various “study guides” on those all-important topics elsewhere on this blog. (We promise there won’t be a pop quiz … but these topics are incredibly useful for turbo-charging your email marketing efforts. That means you can accomplish more and in a lot less time. Talk about extra credit!)

For your business, email marketing serves an even more important role. As we’ve mentioned before, email marketing delivers the highest ROI. You can’t argue with the numbers: According to reliable sources, email marketing can deliver an absolutely astounding 3800% ROI — banking your business a potential $38 for every $1 spent.

In addition, email helps nourish your relationships with your most valuable marketing asset: the members of your email list. Why are those particular individuals so valuable to your business?

Simply put: They’re vetted and they’re committed. Your email subscribers are a select few who have not only willingly opted into your emails, but they make the decision over and over to keep listening to what you have to say — rather than smashing that “unsubscribe” link or even the horrid “mark as spam” button.

Email marketing is so great for your business because it allows you to send targeted, personalized messages directly to each subscriber. As we mentioned just now, your email list subscribers are your VVIPs. And even though the messages you write for your email marketing campaigns go out to a bunch of people — if they’re done right, they have a very intimate, valuable and personal feel. That’s a win-win for everyone.

Without further ado, here are our Top 3 Email Marketing Basics That Are Worth Revisiting.

Back to Basics Tip #1: Audit Your List Growth Practices

OK, time to ask the hard questions, so let’s dive in: Are you doing everything you can to effectively grow your email list?

… No? Well, don’t worry. There are a couple easy places to start.

Step 1 to Grow Your Email List Quickly: Create Online Opportunities

Surf on over to your brand’s website. Do you know what the most popular page of your site is? (It’s OK if you don’t, but if you have an idea, all the better.) What’s the most active, frequently updated part of your site?

Make sure you have an email list signup forms active on all of the pages on your site where visitors are likely to linger or engage. We’re talking homepage (this is a big one, obviously), product pages, your blog, etc.


The BuzzFeed Animals Newsletter

From: BuzzFeed

Why It’s Great: Talk about targeting! This sidebar email signup — which doesn’t feel annoying or intrusive — pops up after BuzzFeed visitors view content related to adorable animals. By creating a targeted email signup landing page that offers choice, transparency and the lure of a world of fun, BuzzFeed can capture highly engaged and interested email subscribers. Who could say no to fuzzy kitties videos in their inbox and daily pics of absolutely cuddle-worth good boys?

Pure Kana CBD email signup form

From: Pure Kana CBD

Why It’s Great: This email signup popup asks visitors an irresistible question while they’re scrolling the brand’s products page. (Curiosity and personalization are always a good combo for getting your customers interested!) Further, visitors are presented with the seemingly no-brainer deal of giving an email address to get both the answer to this burning question and a valuable 10% discount.

Song of Style email signup form

From: Aimee Song, founder of fashion and lifestyle blog Song of Style

Why It’s Great: This beautifully designed email list popup appears when a user stays on the homepage of blogger Aimee Song’s site for 30 seconds without clicking anything. The colors are inviting and eye-catching, and the theme of travel and old-school correspondence is subtly suggested. An email list popup like this promotes the powerful idea that if you don’t sign up, you’ll be missing out on a direct line to a powerful influencer — and nobody wants that FOMO.

Step 2 to Grow Your Email List Quickly: Create Offline Opportunities

Just because everyone’s always online doesn’t mean that you should neglect the opportunity to maximize your offline signup opportunities, too.

IRL signups — versus their URL counterparts — can add an extra layer of connection, because they’re likely to involve your customer actually talking to someone and possibly even doing a manual task like writing with pen and paper (gasp!).

Great examples of this include the sign-in “interest list” that you might encounter at a realtor’s open house, an in-store physical signup mechanism — sometimes promising a freebie or chance to win something (like those fish bowls of business cards that you see at restaurant counters and retail stores) or when a cashier asks for your email and tells you you could have your receipt sent to your inbox rather than printed.

All of those offline methods represent great ways to capture the email addresses and other contact info of your most loyal and interested customers. But remember to follow the CAN-SPAM rules and associated best practices regarding email marketing so that your sender address doesn’t get blacklisted. (For example: Be very clear with your customers about what emails they’re signing up to receive, and honor any opt-out requests promptly.)

Step 3 to Grow Your Email List Quickly: Take a Cold, Hard Look at the Facts

Finally, it’s time to do some soul-searching. Be honest with yourself now: Is what you’re currently doing for email subscriber list growth working?

To arrive at the answer to this probing question, consider the following two questions:

  • How many signups do you get versus traffic to a page?
  • Do you need to update your signup forms?

If the answer to the first question is “not enough,” and/or the answer to the second question is “yes” — here’s what you can do.

Once again, surf over to the user side of your brand’s website, so that you can retrace the exact experience that your customers are getting when they visit you. How does the entire experience feel — cohesive? Disjointed? Read over your copy and the CTA of your email signup forms and popups. Do those words feel like they are distinctly your brand’s, or do they feel generic?

Don’t be afraid to declutter, too — sometimes cutting down the number of fields on your signup or taking the proverbial red pen to some of your copy can do wonders for conversion rates and signup success.

Back to Basics Tip #2: Make Your Email Template Design Functional

Is your email template design working for you?

In 2019, all email campaigns should be responsive and geared towards deliverability. The text-to-image ratio is critical — you don’t want so many graphics and GIFs that your message won’t load for people (or that it takes too long to load, which is also a mortal sin).

Mathematically speaking, the experts are divided. Some have recommended an 80:20 text-to-image ratio. SpamAssassin is a bit more aggressive, claiming that a 60:40 text-to-image ratio is OK. You’ll find a virtually 50/50 split for the 80:20 ratio and the 60:40 ratio among the experts. Which is just fine, in fact — you’ll want to evaluate your brand’s individual needs and situation to determine how much is too much when it comes to incorporating images.

No matter what your text-to-image ratio is, your messages need to be designed for user experience.

Step 1 to Design for User Experience: Direct Your Reader Towards the Goal of the Email

To borrow a cheesy and somewhat outdated phrase popularized by the Canadian rock band fronted by the guy who was once Mr. Avril Lavigne: “All Killer. No Filler.”

That’s how your marketing emails should be.

Sure you can have fun with the copy. You can use borders, graphics and even GIFs in your layout — but every element you add to your email design needs to direct your customers towards a goal.

Often, that goal is a click to your website. For certain brands — such as gurus running consultancies — the goal might be something more personal like a response.


From: TJ Maxx

Why It Works: Designer discount retailer TJ Maxx has an interesting email marketing strategy. While they technically have an ecommerce site, it’s not particularly robust or up-to-date with their latest offerings. (TJ Maxx draws customers in with the promise that it’s “never the same store twice” because of regular killer deals arriving and being snatched up. They’re more interested in getting traffic into their brick and mortar stores rather than having people sit online checking for new items.) That’s why TJ Maxx’s marketing email is relatively pared-down and graphically simple. Since it’s likely to be read a lot on mobile devices as people are out-and-about, the brand doesn’t want to jeopardize deliverability with clogged-up design, and they don’t want to lose people’s interest with a wall of text.

Step 2 to Design for User Experience: Place Actionable Content Above the Fold

In the days where people read physical newspapers, “above the fold” content could be seen before a customer even picked up the paper. It was the juicy stuff — the wording, images and design could be enough to make a person either shell out for the product (the newspaper, that is) or walk away without another thought.

In this era of smartphone screens, email marketers must make sure to place actionable content above the “fold” of a device — meaning, it should be plainly visible and easy-to-understand without requiring scrolling or unnecessary clicking.


GAP Factory email

From: Gap Factory

Why It Works: This email features a live countdown just under the brand’s logo and nav bar, and before the massive clickable image that advertises a big discount. In fact, the countdown itself is clickable — meaning that it’s super-easy for the customer to click through to find these big deals before they run out.

Step 3 to Design for User Experience: Keep Color in Mind

As we’ve covered elsewhere in the blog, color can make a huge impact on how your readers perceive your product and brand.

Be sure to be consistent with the overall vibe and identity of your brand, but don’t be afraid to experiment with different hues and shades, especially across individual campaigns.


FROM: Nordstrom Rack

Why It Works: Check out this side-by-side of two different emails from retailer Nordstrom Rack. While both play off the same color palette — muted pastel backgrounds and white text, with brand and navigation text in dark colors — the shades chosen create an entirely different experience for each email. The one on the left creates urgency, starting with the sun-colored orange and yellow banner on top. Then, a beautiful product image with complementary colors encourages the customer to click through to the product page of the site. On the right, the email’s colors invite a little more lingering, which is appropriate — the brand aims to have customers review six options in a poll and cast a vote for a favorite.

Back to Basics Tip #3: Examine Your Email Marketing Goals

OK, it’s report card time!

As a twist — you’ll be grading yourself here.

Time for some brutal honesty and self-evaluation … Is your email content strategy effective? What are your reports telling you?

If you’re not sure how to answer this question, consider whether you’re seeing the opens you want. If your opens are low, you may need better list segmentation.

Segmentation is a beautiful thing that we love to talk about. It’s a powerful tool that allows you to send more relevant emails. It also allows you to do more personalization — allowing your messages to go further for you.

Another troubleshooting trick you can try to up your open rate is to A/B test your subject lines. There are so many trends with subject lines, which is why brands do well to mix things up based on what the situation calls for.

Check out this inbox snapshot:

inbox snapshot

You’ve got emojis. You’ve got conversational language. You’ve got straightforward announcements, irresistible come-ons and personalized offers.

Don’t be afraid to try new and different things with your subject lines, and always watch your open rates to decide which new tricks are worth keeping and which are worth ditching.

Your “from” sender name is another thing you can play with in your marketing emails. We know that you’d never make the rookie mistake of keeping your sender name as “noreply” — how robotic! But the choice of whether you go with “[First Name] from [Brand],” “[Brand],” “[]” or something else … that’s a tough one.

Now, check out another inbox snapshot:

These are all marketing emails, from the “Promotions” tab of a Gmail inbox. Notice there’s a good mix of people’s names, full brand names, shortened brand names and even a combination of first name plus full brand name that got truncated.

As you test different sender names for your emails, consider how they affect your campaigns. Do certain stylizations feel more formal? More intimate? Are some more likely to grab people’s eyes? Are some in danger of being shortened in a confusing way?

Finally, as you assess your email marketing strategy in pursuit of the lofty goal of sky-high click-through rates, remember that the only rules are the ones you set for yourself. Don’t feel locked in to one format, style or type of content. A/B test like your business depends on it — because it sort of does.

Remember: Even small tweaks to your email marketing strategy can mean big chances. For instance, if you experiment with a text link versus a button CTA at the end of your messages, you could see a huge difference in click-through rates.

So, class is dismissed on our little Email Marketing Basics 101 crash course.

What new email marketing changes are you excited to try in your campaigns?