What’s the most effective digital marketing tool? Many still swear by the humble email – but only if you do it right.
In our series to help you build or improve your business’s online presence, we’ve explained the basics of web design and hosting, search engine optimisation and using social media for business. In this feature we examine email marketing. And far from being the poor cousin of social and other more fashionable digital marketing techniques, email remains a popular and powerful medium.
Despite the popularity of social media and other relatively new communications apps such as Slack, the volume of emails and number of email users continues to rise, according to Radicati and Statista respectively. Yet email marketing still “has the best ROI of any marketing method”, according design agency Artful owner Nick Sibbing.
A US Direct Marketing Association study confirms this, finding that email has a median return on investment more than four times higher than other marketing formats surveyed, including social media and paid search.
It even works in the youth market. According to skate and scooter retailer Kick Push founder Darin Gersbach: “Email marketing is possibly the most important marketing we have.”
“We see really good results each time we connect with customers,” says Gersbach, echoing the familiar maxim that it is a lot easier and cheaper to keep an existing customer than to attract a new one.
Still, email marketing only works if you do it the right way.
Start with a strategy
Businesses need to start with a marketing strategy, according to strategic marketing advisor Tina Manolitsas. Thinking about business goals (such as increased brand awareness or more sales) and the ways in which marketing activities can help achieve them makes it possible to allocate the available budget to the activities that will do the most good.
Importantly, consider what you are trying to communicate, and whether your initial mailing list comprises customers, prospects or just people you've met at networking events. You really don’t want people to unsubscribe, so be sure to segment your list and craft your campaigns to appeal to a specific segment.
Furthermore, you should integrate your marketing efforts across different platforms. For instance, you might tweet a snippet from your email newsletter, incorporating a call to action such as a link to the page on your website where they can read the whole thing.
Which email marketing service?
You could theoretically do your own email newsletters by mailmerging with Word, Excel and Outlook – but you’d be missing out on a host of important marketing features, compared to services that offer professionally designed newsletters, email automation tools, analytics to measure the success of your campaigns, and more.
Email marketing services are generally quite cost effective too. In fact, MailChimp’s ‘forever free’ tier allows up to 2,000 subscribers and permits businesses to send up to 12,000 emails a month. Above that, prices start at $27 a month and depend on the volume of emails and features required. For example, Kick Push uses MailChimp to distribute its weekly newsletter and it costs the company around $300 a month for its 40,000 customers, according to Gersbach.
Manolitsas says the top four considerations when picking an email marketing service are functionality, ease of use, reporting and automation.
The automation tools make it easy to send messages to subsets of your customers at different times. “It's all about listening to customers” and acting accordingly, she says.
Creating and maintaining your email list
The better email marketing platforms also provide code snippets and plug-ins for content management and ecommerce platforms such as WordPress and Shopify. These allow you to embed a newsletter signup form in the pages on your website.
You can also build an email list from your existing customer base or as part of a loyalty scheme.
Just remember there are privacy laws and that unsubscribing to newsletters is easy. If you go about things the wrong way, you can rapidly lose subscribers.
“A lot of small businesses don't understand privacy, but they have to comply with relevant laws and should use best practices,” Manolitsas warns. In particular, if you buy or start another business, make sure you understand what you’re allowed to do with the databases maintained by the old and new businesses, she says.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has helpful guides and FAQs on privacy compliance for business.
You don’t want to be seen as a spammer either. At the very least, make sure you understand the Spam Act – see our feature Don’t get stung by Australia's anti-spam laws and the relevant section of ACMA’s site.
Be sensible about the frequency of emails too. This will depend on how much good-quality content you have, and how often it’s posted. But for most small and mid-sized businesses, one newsletter per week or even once a month should be enough – you don’t want to wear out your welcome.
Hodgestone Finance sends a newsletter once a fortnight plus a major issue every quarter, according to the company’s processing officer Alex Treherne.
The fortnightly newsletter updates customers with information about interest rates, new products and so on, while the quarterly edition summarises relevant news from the finance sector.
Next: Newsletter content and design tips, and measuring for success
Increase responses with the right content
The quality of content is also vital in minimising the number of unsubscribes and maximising the number of recipients who open your email and then click on the call-to-action or articles.
Gersbach’s advice is “keep it simple and to the point”, provide an attractive deal, and don’t over-promise in the headlines – he hates receiving emails with headlines promising “up to 70 percent off” and then discovering that only a couple of products have been discounted that heavily.
Another tip is to “mix it up”. For example, one Kick Push newsletter might focus on new products, while the following edition might feature discounted items. Offering good deals is the cornerstone of the business, he says.
On the other hand, Manolitsas points out that most people are creatures of habit, so you need to be consistent. If you keep sending them great tips that save time and effort, or inspirational messages, they’ll probably keep opening your emails. But if you suddenly drop in some mundane information such as your Christmas opening hours, they may be less likely to open subsequent messages.
It’s also important to learn how to tell stories, Manolitsas says. That doesn't necessarily mean using lots of words – video, audio and pictures can all play a part.
WMC Public Relations managing director Wendy McWilliams offers content from her blog. “One way we keep in touch with our database is through my monthly PR Blog which is emailed and covers a range of public relations tips and advice for small and mid-sized businesses,” McWilliams says. “Recent ones have been about strategic alliances; developing your vision, mission and values statements; deciding when it’s time for a new logo or logo refresh; and creating a tagline for your business.
“They seem to be appreciated judging by the feedback. Last year we started producing short videos of 1-2 minutes giving PR tips and have put them on our YouTube channel as many people prefer watching videos than reading text on a screen.”
Email marketing services generally offer a good range of email templates, with third-party templates often available too. And as with website design, it’s vital the template you select is “responsive” so it looks good and is readable on any device.
However, while there can be some variability in how browsers display websites, the differences between email clients are even more pronounced. An email might look fine in Outlook but terrible in Gmail.
Sibbing therefore suggests using a simple template, as it is more likely to display as expected in any email client on any device.
Gersbach agrees: “Attractive and simple newsletters – that’s how we do it” although Kick Push does make use of emoji to help the subject line stand out, a technique that suits the company’s relatively youthful market.
Measuring for success with testing and reporting tools
Reporting is one of the most powerful features of the better newsletter marketing platforms, so make sure you make the most of it.
Don’t just look at the headline numbers, but drill deeper, Manolitsas advises. For example, don't be satisfied with knowing the number of recipients who opened your mailout – you probably also need to know how long they spent reading it, and whether they responded to your call to action. Getting to know your audience in this way is an important part of finding more opportunities for engagement.
You also need to look for trends – do particular topics get a lot of response, or do they seem to fall by the wayside?
The more popular platforms also offer plug-ins that add integration with other applications so, for example, data can be shared with your customer relationship management system.
The better newsletter platforms allow you to perform tests to determine the best way to reach a specific audience with particular messages. For example, a message about Christmas trading hours might be better sent via a social media channel than in an email. Or maybe it wouldn't – that's why you need to test.
Testing is “hugely important”, says Manolitsas says – and to complement your newsletter platform’s reporting and testing features, an app such as Hootsuite offers similar tools for social media.
A/B testing is particularly useful. This allows you to experiment to see how changes to headlines, images or body text can affect the response you get from a mailout. MailChimp is one of the easiest email marketing services for A/B testing, she says, and it also lets you compare your statistics with those for your industry as a whole.
When you are talking to customers and prospects, take the opportunity to ask what they find useful or interesting (or not!) about your mailouts. You might discover that your low open rate is due to something as easily fixed as sending at the wrong time of day.
But beware of taking blanket advice about the best times or days for sending – audiences differ, Manolitsas warns.
So think about your customers: when is a good time for them to receive your messages? Might your timing evoke negative thoughts or feelings, for example that you don't really know or care about them? If a customer regularly visits you on Friday lunchtimes, a Friday evening email about an offer that only lasts until the following Thursday might not be received well.