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Email Marketing Guide

From one-shots to newsletters. An overview of email marketing.

Email marketing is a common, and well used method of direct marketing. It's a popular way to publicise offers or promotions to your users, or can be used as a means to keep customers up to date with news, or seasonal messages.

Why send an email?

Everything starts with your audience

“Should I be sending an email?” Is the first thing you should ask yourself. Is email the right solution for this particular instance, or would an alternative means of communication be more appropriate?

You can only really find this out through deciding what it is you want to communicate, what business goals that desired communication is linked to, and whether or not your audience are proponents of email marketing, and aware they will be getting an email from you.

Email is always a popular option, since a huge number of people use email every day, and a direct approach to marketing is often favourable for delivering a message that you would like people to act on.

Your recipients are also a large consideration before you get too far in to the email sending route. If you don't have a list of subscriber email addresses who have specifically opted to receive communication from you, then this is really your first goal.

Grow your list

Without a recipient, your email is worthless

If you're starting from scratch, then really your first goal should be to build up an email list of subscribers who are keen to get information from you. This can be done in a number of ways.

Most commonly, a simple sign up form is added to your website, allowing visitors to register their interest in receiving email from you. This can be as simple as an email address, or can be larger to capture names, preferences, interests and relevant information about your audience.

The more information you want to capture, the more informed you'll be about your recipients, and the more personalisation you can give to the emails, but the detrimental effect of having more fields to fill out before subscribing, is that users will be less inclined to add their details or sign up in the first place. They key here is to find a happy balance of gathering information, while still making it easy to sign up.

Other methods of email capture can involve existing contact forms (using an appropriate check-box and caveat notice) or through business card or contact details accumulation at trade shows or expos. There are countless ways to collect email addresses. The opportunity to get creative here is an often overlooked consideration.

Often companies will mention some sort of offer or promotion that is unique to the emails they send, in order to encourage people to sign up. If you can provide the potential user some sort of incentive, they are more likely to sign up.

That said, you may find users will sign up if they feel a certain brand loyalty, or if they want to stay up to date with your website. Let's say you are a magazine style site; users may sign up to make sure they don't miss an issue, or any articles that are relevant to them.

You can encourage constant expansion of the subscriber list through allowing recipients to forward the email to friends (to allow them to sign up) or by running promotions involving signing up to the list.

Remember: Regardless of how you accumulate these email addresses, the recipient should always consent to receiving regular email communication from you in future.

Your previous email activity

Consistency is key

You may already have a list set up, and have even sent a number of emails in the past. It's wise to consider a few things in that case.

How recently did you email your list? If it's been some time then you should be very cautious about getting back in touch. You should probably remember to mention to them up front, why they're getting the emails, and how they signed up, as well as a prominent way to unsubscribe.

Consider how different your new set of email marketing may be from your old emails. Will there be a hug difference? If so, you should make sure people know that it's the same company, otherwise your recipients may mistakenly think a different company has got in touch, and unsubscribe.

How frequent are these recipients being emailed? If you switch from a monthly email to a daily email, you may notice more recipients unsubscribe, but if you switch from a daily email to a bi-monthly, you may find recipients get a bit confused about the lack of communication.

An email marketing strategy

Who, how and when?

One of your first considerations should be your strategy for email marketing. If you intend to send regular email communication, then a frequency and sending plan should be determined.

A strategy for sending is the sort of thing that can tie in with your existing promotions calendar. A sending plan can be as simple as a decision to send a monthly digest of company news, or can be as involved as setting the frequency of promotional emails and details of the offers they contain along with dates, site tie-ins, or seasonal offers.

You may wish to run more than one subscriber list for this. Running a list for regular updates, one for promotions and one for members. Consider a separate sending plan and frequency for each type of subscriber. Your members may want regular contact, while updates might be monthly, and promotions every fortnight. Remember separate lists will require separate sign-up options, or choices at the subscription stage.

There are also advantages to having a separate list for brand new subscribers. These new subscribers are recipients who have recently engaged with your brand, and so may be open to one or two more emails than normal.

At this point it's also wise to consider whether you intend to incorporate any type of auro-responders. These are automatic reply emails sent at a set interval, usually measured from the time a user signs up. A perfect example might be a welcome email, or an email after a couple of months, asking how the recipient feels about the marketing, if they have any feedback, and if they're happy to continue with their subscription.

The content

Keeping things appropriate

The content of your emails will be largely determined by your marketing strategy. That said, all emails need content considerations in several key areas.

The subject line:
This is the first contact with your recipient. If your subject line doesn't entice the recipient to open your email, you've lost the battle before it's even started. Do not underestimate the power of a strong subject line.

The subject line however is also susceptible to email spam filters, so great care should be taken to avoid words that can get marked as spam, or contribute towards your spam filter score (a score that filters use to determine whether your email gets through or not).

Avoid too many numbers, words associated with offers, value or money and using the recipient's name. All of these will often contribute to a negative spam rating, or filtering to a spam folder.

The main content area:
Usually the first thing a recipient sees is the top of the email – a small sliver of varying height, where you might like to place something to catch the eye. A logo often sits here to let the recipient know who's emailing, and it's wise to have a very brief few words on the content of the email below.

The other item found at the top. Often the first thing in the email is a link to the web-version of the email. A website-based version of the email, viewable through a regular browser, to help recipients see things the way they were intended.

The bulk of the main content area should be well-considered, concise copy that is engaging, and to-the-point. Think about how the email might look if all the images used were blank. Does the message still read well? If someone has images “turned off” will they still see your call top action, or the relevant copy?

The higher up an email you place the important copy, the more chance that it will be read. Despite there being an ever increasing belief about the non-existence of “the fold” online, it's worth remembering that anything requiring a call to action should generally be placed as high up the page as possible to avoid people missing it.

The key to email copy is really keeping things concise and relevant. Provided the copy is relevant to the email, the offer, the promotion or the rest of the content, then you should be fine. If readers feel that it's interesting or relevant, and they have time to read it, then there's nothing to suggest that they won't.

Personalisation of the email at this point is certainly beneficial. Using someone's name to address them is a quick way of getting their attention. Think about direct mail that comes through your mailbox. How much attention to you give to something addressed to “The Homeowner” compared with something addressed to you personally? Using a fall-back for the recipients name (in case their name isn't in your database) is another element where spam can be a problem. Using “dear friend” or “dear customer” often triggers spam filters.

It would certainly seem that spam is a problem at every corner, but relevant content, strong, well written copy and a good ratio of text to images always helps.

Footer area:
The bottom of the email is often home to an unsubscribe link, company information on who sent the email, and information on why the recipient is getting the email in the first place. It's always best practice to include all of these elements. Optional additional notes may include, copyright, privacy policy, terms and conditions and links to email receiving preferences or a recipient's account dashboard.

Designing for email clients

Welcome to the 1990s

Designing and building for email clients can be a challenge. When you consider the huge variety of email clients people use to check email, both online through a browser (like Gmail or Live Mail), and as a standalone client (like Outlook, or Mail) – there's an awful lot of platforms that you're required to support.

With every client comes a differing set of restrictions, and some (such as Outlook 2007) struggle to display even the most basic of elements often seen in every day web design and build.

The design of an email should always be done with the build in mind. Unlike a browser, where javascript, or clever CSS techniques could solve a complex problem, in email there's nothing like that. You have to make do with the basic tools at your disposal, and so any designer should always bear in mind that even simple things like background images have strong build implications.

Building for email clients

The art of nested tables

As a basic rule, emails should be constructed using table-based mark-up to position elements. CSS should be kept to a bare minimum, and everything set with CSS should really have some sort of HTML based fall-back in case any CSS is stripped out by email clients.

A good example is regular body copy: The use of font tags is recommended to set the size, colour and font-family and then a span nested within the font tag with in-line style to control size in more detail, font-stacks, colour, line-height and any text-transformations is good practice. This way you still have some level of graceful degradation if things like line-height are stripped out.

Images should always have “alt” text as a backup, and try to avoid putting any important links or calls to action in images since many of the email clients have images turned off by default.

Background images are another tricky area. Using a background image isn't supported in all email clients, and while a single-colour background will work, you may need to place and slice images more creatively to get the design looking right.

A tactic to avoid, (despite being seen quite often) is to make the entire email a single image, thus avoiding having to work any tables or styling to have it all laid out. Despite gaining possible opens through intrigue from your recipients, there's a big change that with images switched off your email will be blank. Not only that, but having more than one link overall will become more complicated to implement.

Tagging for delivery

Tag. You're it.

All the email delivery platforms will have slightly different tag requirements, but it's highly likely that you will be required to have at the very least an unsubscribe link in your email. This functionality is done through special unique tags that you add to the email template at build stage.

As well as this simple example, there will likely be more advanced sets of tags to allow you to create customisable templates for re-use. Things like repeatable tags to allow a client to add multiple stories, or tags to add the date, certain user data such as name or email address or a table of contents. The limits to these possibilities will be determined by your email provider of choice.

Choosing a delivery platform

Price, features and ease of use

Choosing a delivery platform will be a case of deciding on costings, usability, flexibility, and possibly recommendations. With the latter in mind, we recommend the use of Campaign Monitor.

Other delivery platforms include:

Setup on these systems should be fairly straightforward, and if you find it's not – I'd advise finding a platform that was easier, since you'll have to interact with their platform on a regular basis for sending, reporting and updating.

Each system will likely have a slightly different system, but the process of adding your content will involve uploading the design, or copying in the HTML code, and uploading any images or CSS used.

You will then most likely have to add the recipients by uploading your list, and defining which columns in the list are which data. Some of the systems have built in form codes to add to your site so that you can have people sign-up straight on to the list, as opposed to having to add new subscribers every time.

Testing

If at first you don't succeed

Testing is a very important part of the email sending process, and one that could have a pretty big impact on your open-rate or click-through rate, so be wary of skipping through the tests – a good eye for detail is required, and over time you will learn the common problems and how to avoid them before they arise.

Much of the testing process is trial and error until you're confident that your email stands up in all the email clients you need it to.

Most of the email sending platforms have built in testing you can use. Some will be basic, and some more advanced. Campaign Monitor conveniently utilises the very accomplished Litmus platform for testing, but even with this built in – we recommend testing manually wherever possible.

A wise move would be to set up a Gmail, a Yahoo Mail, a Live Mail (Hotmail) and an extra mail account that you can check through a client such as Outlook or Mac Mail. Also worth considering is an account you can check via a mobile device, and something you can use to check a text-only version of your email.

The more unique platforms you can test on, the more confident you can be that your email will hold up in varying situations.

A/B Testing

Heads or tails?

A/B testing is a useful accolade for emails, especially when there can be something so crucial as a subject line to optimise. Some of the email providers will allow you to run an A/B test on a campaign. The A/B test is where you select an element of the email where you'd like to optimise effectiveness. This element is then split in to 2 possible designs, or 2 versions, which are tested on portions of the audience with reported results on both for comparison.

Campaign Monitor will allow you to run an A/B test as part of an email send. This means they will take a percentage of the recipient list (you choose what value, say 20%) and send A to half (10%), B to half (20%) and then the remainder of the list (80%) are sent the version deemed most effective, after a certain period of time (also chosen by you).

A/B testing is recommended on one element at a time, in order to garner accurate stats on the difference that change makes. Making more than one change means you can't be sure which changed element made the difference. A good place to start is the subject line. Why not try sending your email with 2 different subject lines, to see which gets more opens or clicks?

Scheduling

Get to know your audience

Scheduling an email can be as simple as sending straight away, and paying for the delivery on the spot. There are however, considerations that can work to your advantage here. If you remember your audience once again (they should have informed everything up to this point anyway, so you won't have forgotten about them!). Think about what time they will be checking their email, and where they will be checking it, and with what device. Does your audience work during the day? Is there a lunchtime break where you can entice people to open your email? Do they work nights, and are easier to contact in the evening when they wake up?

Think about the best time to send very carefully. Sending at the wrong time, can mean your email gets filed to the bottom of the pile, whereas catching a recipient at the right time could mean conversion right away.

Measuring success

Opens, clicks and insightful trends

Once your email campaign has been sent, you can start monitoring the statistics. It's worth leaving the email to propagate for around 24 hours minimum before you check the results, but after a few days you should see the open and click activity has tailed off, and the results should be a little more representative.

You will see various common statistics regardless of the platform you use. The two most commonly quoted are “Open rate” and “Click rate” - often expressed in percentages, these tell us how many recorded opens and clicks the campaign has seen.

Remember: These statistics are just a guide. Email tracking is never quite accurate enough to take as gospel. There are too many discrepancies to use the stats on their own. They are far more useful for measuring trends and comparing differences across a number of emails or campaigns.

If you're new to email marketing, you may find that the open or click rates seem strangely low. It's worth remembering that the general industry average open rate (according to the UK Email Marketing Benchmark Report 2011) is 18.21% while the click through rate is only %3.29.

Open rate is often misleadingly low, since in order to track an email “open” the email must load a small (effectively invisible) image from a remote server, so if a recipient has images turned off, the image won't get loaded, and despite opening the email, that “open” won't be counted. Only when the recipient clicks a link, can the “open” be recorded. Recipients who view the text-only version of the email (on older email clients, or perhaps on a mobile device) will not register as an “open” or “click”.

Because of these unavoidable inaccuracies, it's always valuable to have tracking or analytics on the landing page for links from within the email. This way you should get a more accurate representation of visitors from the email – and you can even follow their user journey right through to conversion if necessary.

Continued email marketing

Where do we go from here?

So once you've sent your first email, or first renewed email, you'll want to remember to keep up with your strategy for sending, which will mean keeping on top of content, allowing time for designs and copy to be signed-off and keeping on top of your list.

The future of your email marketing is really up to you. It should always be determined by your recipients and target audience.

Personally, I like to see email merketing as a challenge. An opportunity to push the boundaries of a system which doesn't seem to have seen many client-side advancements since the 90s. I think there's always room for innovation, and call me sad, but there's an element of satisfaction in discovering a new way to make things work.

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