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What Is Email Marketing? An Explanation, Some Email Marketing How Tos, And An Important Side Lesson In SEO

By March 2, 2012November 5th, 2014Email Marketing
What Is Email Marketing? An Explanation, Some Email Marketing How Tos, And An Important Side Lesson In SEO

An interesting thing happened to me as I sat down to write this. First, I wondered, “Hm, what will my readers want to learn about today?” As I scanned through my copious notes on projects, ideas and topics, I landed on a recent conversation I’d had with a friend who was ready to try email marketing but didn’t know how to put together a good newsletter.

So I chose that topic, thinking that if my friend wasn’t sure how to tackle email marketing, there were probably others in the same boat.

But then, I decided to do a quick bit of keyword research to see what other people were actually looking for.

And that’s when the interesting thing happened.

As it turned out, not a whole lot of people were looking for information on how to do email marketing! Lots of people were looking for free software, templates, management tools and other logistical things. But the “how tos” were conspicuously absent from the results.

As it turned out…

1,900 people were looking for “effective email marketing”.

14,800 were looking for “email best practices” (questionable at best – is that ‘best practices’ for email marketing or for sending a letter to your boss?)

A mere 390 were looking for “good email campaign”.

I started to see a little hope with “how to email newsletter” which, grammar aside, came in at a respectable 201,000 (assuming that 201,000 people are not asking how to literally email a newsletter… hm…)

But shockingly enough, 673,000 were looking for “what is email marketing”.

The competition for each of these is high (and remember, this is monthly searches) so all things considered, would I be doing myself and my readers a better service by writing not about how to do email marketing, but about what the heck it is in the first place?

Then I started to wonder if maybe this wasn’t turning into a lesson in SEO. Remember how we talked about finding the actual keywords people are looking for, and not the ones you *think* they’re looking for?

In the end, I decided to glom it all together. Consider that your side lesson in SEO; a real-world example of how what we think we know is not necessarily aligned with reality. And moving on to the real topic…

What Is Email Marketing?

Apparently, at least 673,000 people per month want to know. The most concise definition I found was this:

The promotion of products or services via email.

The definitions get progressively more verbose but that’s it in a nutshell. Email marketing is about building a list, putting together valuable content for the people on that list, and sending it to them via email with a marketing intent.

That intent might be building your brand, selling your products or services, staying top-of-mind, offering deals, or some other purpose.

What the definitions sometimes say and sometimes don’t say is what it should be.

  1. Permission based. That means someone has signed up or agreed to receive your marketing emails. Buying lists doesn’t count, nor does scraping email addresses from other websites or pilfering your Facebook friend list. This also means your subscribers have the option to unsubscribe, easily, at any time, without hassle.
  2. Targeted. Once you’ve got a decent sized list, start thinking about how you can group your audience into subsets with different needs, interests or preferences. You can also try A/B testing. Changing one little word in an email subject can make the difference between a 2% and a 20% open rate.
  3. Planned. Much like any marketing, emails should be scheduled and regular. Whether that’s once per week, month or quarter, set a goal and aim to hit it. Shooting off a bunch of emails just because you realized you haven’t done it in six months is not email marketing.
  4. Action-based. Whether you’re sending out a newsletter or sale announcement, get your readers into the habit of taking action. The problem with a lot of newsletters is that they may get your customers caught up on your latest undertakings but they’re passive by nature. Next time you send out an email asking your customers to buy something, it’s going to end up in the same mental box as your newsletter unless you’ve trained them to take action. It doesn’t have to be a revenue-driving action; it can be as simple as requiring your reader to click to your site to finish reading a story, or providing a link to some other interesting content on your website.
  5. Specific. The email needs a point. Is it a newsletter? An invitation? A request? An offer? It’s best to stick to a single point. If you want to share your latest news with customers, do it in a separate email than the one offering a 10% discount on their next purchase.

Advantages Of Email Marketing

Somewhere along the line, someone has tried to convince us SEO/blogging/email marketing/[insert other strategy here] is dead. Here’s when it’s dead: when it stops working. To date email marketing still returns one of the highest ROIs.

That’s arguably it’s biggest advantage, but it’s also…

  • Inexpensive. You can start with any number of free and low-cost services that let you customize a template, schedule campaigns and track results. Unlike direct mail which can cost a fortune once you’re done designing, printing and mailing, email is essentially free for the price of your time.
  • Easy. Businesses can set up and send email campaigns all by themselves without the need of a professional. This isn’t true of print design, website development or advanced SEO and content marketing services.
  • Trackable. Your email management software can show you how many emails were opened, which links were clicked and other important statistics that will help you determine the effectiveness of your content.
  • Testable. It’s relatively easy to do A/B testing with email. You can test subject lines, layouts, headlines and content with essentially immediate results to help you improve your next email.

How To Tackle Email Marketing Like A Pro

Before you can market to anyone on your email list you’ve got to have a list. We covered some good ways to build an email list before, so check that out if you need a few tips.

Once you have a list you’ve got to plan your campaigns. Here are a couple of things to consider before you even think about thinking about your email template. And by “consider”, I mean “sit down, think about the answers and write them down so you have an outline of your plan before you start.”

Seriously, folks. Answer these questions on paper. It’ll only help you and keep you focused and on track in the long run.

  1. Why are you engaging in email marketing? This is all about defining goals. Some companies never try to sell a product or service in an email. Some companies only send out product-centric promotions. Decide on the purpose of your email campaigns, and “because someone told me I should” is not a good reason.
  2. What type of campaign is it? Now that you know why, you can decide what. Newsletters? Promotions? Some combination of? Subscribers to this site are part of our RSS campaign, where they receive updates whenever we post new content. If you have a blog or a site where you update product information regularly, you can set up an RSS campaign to keep customers and readers informed, too.
  3. How often will you send emails? The million dollar question is, “How often should you send emails?” When I know that, I’ll be sure to write the book and retire on the profits. In the meantime, do what the rest of us do: pick a schedule. With an RSS campaign that question is answered by default. It fires whenever there is new content. With a newsletter or other type of campaign, you could opt for weekly, monthly, or whatever seems reasonable for your niche. You can always adjust as you learn more about what your subscribers want.
  4. Where and how will you get content for your emails? The answer to this question may well answer the one above. Newsletters can be the most challenging because they’re the most open-ended. It’s easier to fire off an RSS campaign knowing that the content is coming from your blog, or a product special if you know you offer sales every month. But the dreaded newsletter means you need to get creative, so decide ahead of time what type of content you want in it, where you’ll be getting it from, and finally, whether it’s reasonable to fit that level of content creation or acquisition into your schedule.

A Few Tips On Email Templates

Many words later, we’ve finally gotten around to talking templates. Usually, this is where people start, probably because it’s easy to visualize a lovely template with all its lovely photography and content, but not as easy to drill through the details and particulars.

Your template, though, should come last. It’s the dressing, not the whole salad. A template can also be the thing that derails your efforts, even though you’ve spent time detailing your goals, crafting content and carefully composing subject lines.

Why? Because they’re the shiny object in the equation; the thing that grabs our attention and gets us all hung up on the exact hue of green instead of the accuracy of our grammar.

Here are some things you should know and un-know about templates.

  • It’s not about the design. Unless you’re showing off your design skills (which may be valid, by the way) your template does not need to be an art project. It needs to be functional. It needs to complement the content and facilitate the action you want your readers to take. Not dazzle them with its fantastic use of the Droid Sans font.
  • Graphic-heavy emails may never reach their destination. Spam filters use “too many images” as one cue to let them know an email is junk. Here’s another thing about spam filters: they are immune to your begging and explanations.
  • Too much design can mess with your display. Different email clients render emails differently. It’s tough enough to get a simple HTML email to look the same similar in Gmail and Outlook. Why add to your woes by increasing the likelihood that some client will completely botch the rendering?
  • People can (and many do) turn off images. In Outlook, you can set images not to display unless you ask them to. Hotmail disables images by default. Gmail also disables images unless a sender meets certain requirements. You as the user can enable them, but your readers are probably seeing your email for the first time, and possibly every time, in nothing but text. Keep that in mind as you craft your layout. Go easy on the pictures and make the text readable. Use image ALT tags so people get the gist even without the pictures.
  • It’s all about the structure. Eye-tracking studies show repeatedly that people scan the top, then down the left side of the email, with merely a glance across or to the right. Content in the lower right of the email is pretty lonely indeed. That’s important to know because if you’re placing a call-to-action or an important headline, you want it where people are most likely to scan.
  • Readability rules apply. Everything you learned about creating readable content – using bold fonts, headings, bullet points, catchy phrasing, short paragraphs, clearly delineated content areas – it all applies to email. Your email must be easy to scan so that readers can get to the meat quickly and easily.

How’d I do? Were you in the “what’s email marketing” crowd or did you find the “how tos” more useful? Got any other email marketing questions? Let me know!

In the meantime, get back to your SEO and make sure that whatever your next blog post is about, it’s information people are looking for!

P.S. Sign up to get new content delivered to you via email and check out the receiving end of our RSS email campaigns!

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Hi Carol,

    It’s my first time visiting your blog. I’m a part of Ken Pickard’s Blog Comment Group with you. Nice to meet you. 🙂

    What a comprehensive explanation! I think you’ve done a fine job of breaking down something which appears extremely complex and made it understandable and ACTION-able for the new marketer.

    Way to go on this explanation! I especially enjoyed your tips on email templates!

    Best regards,
    Cat Alexandra

    • Hi Cat,

      Nice to meet you too, I’m glad you stopped by! I definitely try to give people actionable ideas so they can leave here and try something out. Thanks for your comments and let me know if you ever want to read about a certain topic. Looking forward to reading your blog, too.

  • Adrienne says:

    Hi Carol,

    Great job, I agree.  I think that a lot of people find this topic scary because we all know we need to be doing email marketing but then it all boils down to what do you share with your list!  

    I can just speak from experience because when I first started I was overwhelmed and confused about this topic.  You did an excellent job of explaining it and I’m sure that anyone who didn’t have a clue of what all was involved should after reading this.

    Thanks for putting the time in to share this with us.


    P.S.  By the way, your Twitter ID isn’t connected to your tweet buttons so you probably aren’t even aware when people share your content.  I have a blog post explaining how to do that if you need any assistance.  Thought you’d want to know.

    • Thanks Adrienne, I say it all from experience 🙂  Once upon a time I was that person staring at an email template thinking, “now what??”

      And thanks for the info about the tweet button, I would love to check out your article. I didn’t think that was possible with this particular plugin but if you know the magic, I’ll definitely do it.

  • Juvlon E-Marketing says:

    To Just let you know Google made a big announcement on 30th January 2012 about DMARC and Email Authentication. Well, it wasn’t just Google, the announcement actually came from fifteen leading email service and technology providers, that they are all fighting spam and phishing together, in a big way, by forming a new email authentication standard.


    • Spam is definitely a problem. More and more legitimate emails are getting flagged as spam and unfortunately not all of them end up in the spam folder – some simply never go through at all. There are a bunch of other ways to combat this issue that go beyond simply writing good subject lines, such as using reputable providers and adding spf records to your domain – sounds like a good topic for a blog post 🙂