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What Is Email Marketing

Written by: Lars Erik Larson  | June 12, 2020

This is the definitive guide to email marketing in 2020.

In this article we cover:

  • What is email marketing
  • The benefits of email marketing
  • Email service providers (ESPs)
  • How to build your email list (optin forms and lead magnets)
  • How to design an email campaign
  • Audience segmentation
  • Types of emails to send
  • Email automation and autoresponder sequences
  • How to optimize your emails (open rate and deliverability)

What Is Email Marketing?

Email marketing is a highly effective marketing strategy that involves sending out emails to individuals. These emails can have a variety of intents — to sell or promote something, or perhaps to inform, entertain and educate.

Businesses will have an email subscriber list — these are people who have "opted in" to receive emails. There is also cold email marketing, which is sending to people not on your list.

Email is such a powerful marketing method, because it's a direct message, straight to a person's inbox. It's the digital equivalent of your letterbox outside your house.

History of Email Marketing

  • (1971) First email sent by Computer Engineer Ray Tomlinson
  • (1978) First "commercial" email sent by Gary Thuerk — a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corp
  • (1978) The email was sent to a list of 400 people and resulted in $13,000,000 in sales
  • (1990's) Internet has now become mainstream, and email is in wide-use, for both commercial and personal intent

Benefits of Email Marketing

Better Engagement

Because email is so personal, you can expect far greater engagement than other marketing channels. For example, a 2019 study showed that the engagement rate for Facebook was 0.09%. Compare that to a MailChimp report which showed email marketing has a 21.33% open rate.

If you do the math, that shows email has about a 20x higher engagement rate compared to social media.

This is all believable when you consider the nature of email — personal messages straight to an individual's inbox.

Higher Conversion Rates

Email marketing also tends to convert at a much higher rate. Research from McKinsey showed email conversion rates are 3x higher than social media ones.

The same research also came to 2 other conclusions...

a) Email converts 40x more customers than social media (Facebook + Twitter)

b) Each new email-acquired customer spends 17% more money (per order)

All these findings are obviously due to the personal, more engaging nature of email.

Best Marketing Channel

When people get marketing-related materials, they prefer it to come through email. In fact, 72% of people want promotional content to be sent to them via email.

source: MarketingSherpa

People are conditioned to receive and expect marketing content in their email inbox. They aren't really looking for it on social media, or on television.

High ROI

One of the best aspects of email marketing, is how far your budget can go — insane return on investment. The most recent data reports a 4400% ROI for email marketing. That means, every $1 you spend, you get $44 in return.

ROI is such an important metric because any and all forms of marketing cost something. The more you can get out of your money, the better. Simply put, email marketing is the ROI gold standard.

Lots of People Use It

Despite the rise of social media over the last decade, email is still popular as ever. Check out these stats...

  • 99% of consumers look at their emails every day (Source)
  • 306 billion emails are projected to be sent in 2020 (Source)
  • 91% of email users look at their inbox daily (Source)
  • Half of the world population in 2020 have email accounts (Source)

Just about everyone has an email account, which is another reason why it's such a powerful marketing channel.

You Own Your List

The great thing about email marketing, is that you own your list. This isn't true on social media, your page is a property of a big company. They can terminate your "list" at any time, for any reason. Many people have had their business and income crushed because their social channels have been deleted.

Email is the golden marketing channel because it's bulletproof.

How To Run an Email Marketing Campaign

Get An Email Service Provider (ESP)

To run an effective email campaign at scale, you're going to need an email service provider.

An email service provider (ESP) is basically a company that supplies you with the necessary resources for email marketing. This is especially important when you are a larger company with a massive list. But even if you're not that big, an ESP still has features that make it very valuable.

Lots of ESPs have free options, so they're not just for paying customers...

Why You Should Use An ESP

Email Volume

ESPs have powerful servers that allow sending large, bulk amounts of emails very easy, and fast. Normal, free email providers like Gmail, Yahoo or Outlook have limitations which can make scaling impossible.

Audience Segmentation

With an ESP you can segment your audience into different groups, based on really anything — age, gender, location... You can target specific demographics of your list with unique campaigns.


Making sure your email marketing is data-driven is absolutely crucial. ESPs have built-in analytics features that help you make the right campaign decisions.

Subscriber Management

When it comes to email marketing and list building, subscriber management is crucial. An ESP allows you to customize your list, adding or removing individuals to different groups and segments.


One of the most useful features of an ESP is automation — being able to plan and schedule your campaigns. This saves lots of time and keeps your email marketing consistent, because you might not always be.

HTML Designs

ESPs let you create and send customized HTML emails that have "website quality" design. Most standard email providers only allow you to send in text format.

Best ESP Options


Mailchimp is one of the biggest, most popular ESPs today, offering you everything you need to succeed in email marketing. It's suitable for all types of people/businesses — from fortune 500 companies, to simple bloggers.

Some features include...

  • High volume sending
  • Email list management
  • Automation
  • Deliverability management
  • Analytics tracking
  • Campaign reports
The versatile, all-round choice.

Aweber is another email service provider that specializes in lead generation for small businesses. Its drag and drop interfaces makes email marketing easy for anyone.

Here's a list of features offered...

  • Pre-made email templates (HTML)
  • Proofing tools
  • List management
  • Automation/scheduling
  • Surveys
The small business owner's pick.

If you're a blogger, publisher, podcaster or YouTube, ConvertKit might be for you. This particular ESP was specifically designed with creators in mind.

Here's some features of ConvertKit...

  • Simplified automation/scheduling
  • Drip email campaigns
  • Landing pages
  • Sign up forms
  • Lots of integrations
Best ESP for content creators.

For a great all-round marketing software that also is a great ESP, look no further than GetResponse. With it, you can max out, optimize and scale up your campaigns with customized emails.

Features include...

  • Newsletters
  • Autoresponders
  • Automated emails
  • Audience segmentation
  • Social sharing
Fantastic overall digital marketing tool.
Constant Contact

When it comes to small businesses, Constant Contact is the ESP gold standard. It's a robust suite of web building, e-commerce, marketing and design tools.

Here are some features of the ESP...

  • Drag and drop editor
  • Email automation
  • E-commerce email tools
  • Analytics tracking
  • Surveys/polls
Most popular option for small businesses.

Build Your Email List

Before we actually create any emails, we need to build up our email list. This isn't that complicated to do, as there's really only one way to get someone on your list...

An optin form.

What Is An Optin Form?

An "optin form" is a form on a website that asks for your email address. You've definitely seen them — here's an example...

Grow Your Email Marketing List With Two-Step Optin Forms | The ...
source: the modern entrepreneur

There's 3 general components to an optin form...

  • The form title — "Subscribe To Our Free Weekly Newsletter"
  • The form fields — "Enter your full name..." + "Enter your email..."
  • The call to action button — "Get Free Email Updates"

The form title is essentially a chance to sell your email list. It's typically filled with benefits and social proof — at least good ones are. The example above isn't very good, as it doesn't try to persuade you in a copywriting sense.

The form fields are basically what information you're asking from them. Obviously you want their email address, but sometimes you get other details too. Examples might include your full name, business name, age or gender.

The call to action button is a brightly colored, clickable button with enticing copy. Good examples include "subscribe now" or "sign up."

Optimizing your optin forms will involve modifying and tweaking those 3 factors. We'll go over some best practice strategies shortly.

You can find optin forms in a variety of different places on a website. The sidebar is often a common place you'll find them...

Some people also put them on the "About" page.

Or even as a popup.

5 Steps to Creating an Email Opt-in Form that Drives Results
source: walsworth

There's simply a myriad of spots you can put optin forms, each with its own level of list-building effectiveness. They're kind of like advertisements on a website — in the background, conveniently placed... Other times they're the direct focus, acting as landing/funnel pages.

Although optin forms are how you convert readers and website visitors into subscribers, you still need to get them there... To your website. Hence, a good content/inbound marketing strategy is the most important aspect to list-building.

So, spend some time on your optin forms... But put the bulk of your effort into making great content, and outreach. These will give you the best "return on investment" when it comes to building your list.

Optin Form Best Practices
Don't Use Too Many Form Fields

Asking for too many details can absolutely destroy the conversion of your optin forms... In fact, Marketo found the less form fields, the higher the conversion rate.

marketo form field test - MarketingExperiments
source: marketingexpriments

Yes, that research does show more form fields earns more in sales per conversion... But it's really industry dependent. You're better off getting them on your email list first. It's easier to sell them when you're in their personal inbox.

So... Try to limit the form fields on your optin forms. Email and name is usually enough at most.

Use The Right CTA Button Color

The color of your CTA button can dramatically influence whether or not people "click." Different colors have different psychological effects on humans...

The Psychology of Color: How to Use Colors to Increase Conversion Rate

You'll want to use (for your CTA) a color that draws attention — one that contrasts your website's general color scheme.

Orange is a good option.

Case studyWiderFunnel (A digital agency) used orange call to action buttons to boost lead generation 32.5%.

Red is also effective.

Case studyUX designer Dan McGrady increased conversion rate by 34% by switching from green buttons, to red ones.

Use Social Proof And Benefits

The difference between a good optin form and a bad one, can often just be the copy. You need to make sure you write like a copywriter — use social proof and list benefits. Here's an example of an optin form that has these two qualities...

In that example the social proof is the testimonial from Kieran Flanagan and the benefits are the "exclusive SEO tips."

Compare that to an optin that doesn't have these things...

CASL compliance: how to update your email signup forms - MailUp Blog

See how generic and uninspired this one is? Why would anybody want to fill out that optin form? Make sure the copy on your form is enticing, shows some social proof and lists a benefit or two.

Use A Lead Magnet

A "lead magnet" is something of value, attached to an optin form — a PDF guide for example. Here's an example...

How to Create a Lead Magnet Form | Gravity Forms
source: gravity forms

Lead magnets are an incentive to sign up to someone's email lists. It's one of the most powerful strategies to supercharge your optin forms.

Here are some things you can use as lead magnets...

  • Checklists
  • Ebooks
  • White Papers
  • Reports
  • Video Guides
  • Product Discounts/Promo Code

Create And Send Emails

So now you've got a sizable email list... What emails do you send? Well, you need to have mapped out a campaign — this will be designed around your business. When you've done that, you can begin to start creating individual emails.

Email Campaign Research

An email campaign is a series of emails that you send to subscribers of your list. You must uncover exactly what type of emails these should be...

Do some buyer persona research... See what a competitor's email list is like... You need to find out what your audience wants from email marketing. You can't try to sell them right away, you need to nurture and engage. That means content.

Once you've figured out what type of emails they (your audience) want, plan out a schedule. If they want a content-rich newsletter, find the optimal frequency. How often do they want to be notified about new blog posts? Figure it out.

As far as sales content goes, follow an 80/20 rule — 80% content, 20% sales. Less is more when it comes to nurturing leads via email.

Audience Segmentation

When covering the issue of email campaigns, audience segmentation is something we must go over...

Audience segmentation is an ESP feature that divides and segregates your subscriber list based on various factors. Some of these (factors) might include...

  • New/recent sign-ups — new subscribers...
  • Location — geographical region/country/state...
  • Age — young, old, age bracket...
  • Gender — male or female...
  • Activity level — open rate/how engaged they are...
  • Purchase activity — items bought, abandoned cart...

Why should you segment your list? There's a few reasons, but the main one is making your email marketing more personalized. When you create targeted campaigns for different segments of your list, you can expect better results. Your open and click-through rates will increase, while unsubscribe rate decrease.

Types Of Emails

Your ESP should have a variety of email templates you can use, along with guides about how to use them. Your emails will either be of a commercial nature, or an extension of your content marketing, or PR related. Or in simple terms...

  • You're trying to sell them something
  • You're engaging them with content
  • You're informing them of important issues/details

As an example, Mailchimp has 5 basic email templates...

  • Sell Products — commercial
  • Make an Announcement — PR
  • Tell A Story — content
  • Follow Up — content
  • Educate — content

Most email campaigns will feature the same, general emails. Here are some that you'll come across...

Welcome Email

A "welcome email" is an email people send when an individual subscribes to your email list.

11 Effective Welcome Email Examples For Inspiration | SendGrid
source: sendgrid

It's pretty standard, almost everyone sends these. They help build engagement right off the bat.

Newsletter Email

A newsletter is a versatile email that updates your subscribers on everything going on. It's kind of like a frequent press release, mixed with content and sales.

47 Engaging Email Newsletter Templates, Design Tips & Examples For ...
source: venngage

This is an email that helps maintain community engagement, through consistency.

Sales Email

The sales email is simply an email that attempts to sell something. Sometimes it's just a link to product pages, other times it's a long form sales letter. It can vary a lot.

5 Sales Email Templates for Scheduling Clients and Prospects
source: activecampaign

Sales emails are usually "bottom of the funnel" as sales are always the ultimate goal.

Re-Engagement Email

The re-engagement email is sent when a subscriber's engagement has dropped.

Should You Say Goodbye to Inactive Subscribers? (And How To Do It ...
source: campaign monitor

It's used as a way to get an individual active and back into the fold.

Automate Your Emails

You've now created your email campaigns — it's time to automate them. Your ESP should have a feature that allows you to do this.

Let's go over some basics of automation...

What Is Email Automation?

Email automation is a feature of most ESPs that allows you to send emails and specific times in the future. It's a way to plan out your campaigns so that you don't have to send emails individually.

The benefit of this (email automation) is obviously saving time. Besides that, here's some other good reasons to automate...

  • Personalized campaigns for customers
  • Increased retention of customers
  • Makes your email marketing easy to scale

What's An Autoresponder Sequence?

Email automation can help you create what's known as an "autoresponder sequence."

An autoresponder sequence is a string of sequential emails sent to an email list, or a specific segment. This image should help you understand...

4 Types of AutoResponder Series and the One You Should Absolutely ...
source: smart passive income

Autoresponder sequences are activated by various different types of "triggers."

What Are Autoresponder Triggers?

Autoresponder triggers are actions that start, or put in motion, an autoresponder sequence. One of the most common triggers, is someone signing up to your email list.

In general, there are 3 types of basic autoresponder sequences, based on trigger type...

  • Subscriber activity trigger autoresponders — (email sign up, lead magnet...)
  • Purchase activity trigger autoresponders — (product purchase, abandoned cart...)
  • Date-based trigger autoresponders — (sales, birthday...)

Optimize Your Emails

When it comes to optimizing your campaigns, you'll need to focus on these 2 metrics...

Open rate — essentially a percentage of how many people on your subscriber list opened an email. If you had a list size of 2, and only 1 opened your email, your open rate would be 50%. This is easy to measure, as most ESPs give you this metric.

Deliverability — a term used to describe how successful your email is at reaching someone's inbox. Sometimes, you don't reach the inbox — you end up in their spam. There is no universal metric for deliverability, it's based on general engagement (open rate, click-through rate, bounce rate, unsubscribe rate, etc...)

Open Rate Strategies

Send welcome/introduction emails

Most people send a welcome email when someone subscribes to their email list. The problem is they send very generic ones that look like this...

Although this is better than nothing, we can do much better — here's how.

  • Use their name
  • Tell them what to expect from being on your email list
  • Close out with a call to action

If you do these things, your introduction email should look a little something like this...

Much better — expect higher open rates.

Send emails at the right time

When you send your emails can obviously dramatically influence whether or not they get opened. Both, the time of day, and what day. An email sent on Saturday at 8PM is less likely to be opened, let alone seen. Compare that to Monday 10AM — drastically different results.

So, what is the best time to send an email?

Answer: there really isn't an exact time — it varies based on numerous factors.

Different sources state different optimal times.

GetResponse's data suggests any weekday between 1-2PM.

While a benchmark report from Yes Marketing says Friday...

And Hubspot says Tuesday 11AM.

This is pretty much the trend for all tests and reports — lots of variation.

The one real commonality is that you should send emails during the week, not the weekend. And for hour, either during work hours, or late at night so they see it first thing in the morning.

Optimize for Gmail's snippet preview

Because Gmail is the most popular email provider, it makes sense to optimize for it. Specifically, we can target, and look to improve the snippet preview of our emails. Here's what it looks like...

It's really important we get our snippet preview right — it affects open rate.

There are 3 parts of the gmail snippet.

  • Sender name (RED)
  • Subject line (BLUE)
  • Preview (GREEN)

We get the sender name and subject lines right, but when it comes to Gmail, the preview is forgotten. It's important we address it (the preview) because it influences the open rate of your emails. It's kind of like a meta description for a Google search result — it builds on the page title.

The preview is automatically going to be the first few lines of your email.

Make sure you make those first few lines that will show up in your email preview really good. Use some keywords if you have to.

If you want to know how it looks, just send the email to yourself first.

Deliverability Strategies

Use a double opt-in

A double opt-in is when someone has to verify that they would like to sign up for your email list. You'd first give your email on the opt-in form, then you'd need to respond to the verification email.

Here's an example from Search Engine Land...

You enter your email.

You receive a confirmation you have been sent a verification email.

You'll then need to respond to the verification email.

Once you have responded, you'll officially be on the subscriber list.

Some even go further and throw in an anti-spam/both test.

What this (a double opt-in) achieves is essentially a screening of your subscriber list. It ensures that the people who sign up are highly engaged, which is preferable to inactive members. You might not get as many sign ups with a double opt-in, but you guarantee they're quality.

Remove inactive subscribers on your list

Inactive subscribers can destroy your email deliverability — this is because it hurts "sender score."

Sender score is basically your email reputation score, valued between 0 and 100. It's determined by various factors — spam complaints, blacklists, even subscriber inactivity. A high sender score suggests that you are credible, increasing the chance your emails will reach the inbox, not "spam."

So, when people on your list ignore your emails, it harms your sender score. Because of this, all your emails and their deliverability could be compromised. Sooner or later, you'll start landing in the spam folder.

Not good — the solution is simple — get rid of the dead-weight.

Your email service provider should have a function to help you identify and remove inactive individuals.

If you do this (clean your list) you should expect increased email deliverability, which improves everything.

Case studyBrian Dean of Backlinko increased his open rates by 19.8%. He did this by deleting over 28,018 inactive subscribers from his email list. His deliverability improved dramatically.

Final Thoughts

After reading this guide, you should now know...

  • What is email marketing
  • The benefits of email marketing
  • Email service providers (ESPs)
  • How to build your email list (optin forms and lead magnets)
  • How to design an email campaign
  • Audience segmentation
  • Types of emails to send
  • Email automation and autoresponder sequences
  • How to optimize your emails (open rate and deliverability)

Email is one of the most powerful marketing strategies, available to businesses today. It's way more personal and direct than others methods, which means superior engagement. If you want your business to exponentially grow, then you need to start building that list up.

Leave a comment below if you have any questions.

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