The Beginner’s Guide to Building an Online Presence Part 5: Email Marketing
Although social media plays an important role in helping small businesses establish their online presence, it tends to get too much attention while email marketing takes a back seat. This is a shame because while social media may open doors, it is really email marketing that closes them. According to McKinsey, email is 40x more effective at acquiring new customers than social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. For every $1 spent, email marketing generates $43 in ROI. That’s no picnic!
Using email, your business can push out targeted information to existing and/or potential customers on a regular basis instead of simply posting to the masses and waiting for them to come to you. Unlike other online communication channels, email offers direct, one-on-one contact with your customers and is a powerful method for building quality relationships with these people.
As with any decision that involves building your company’s online presence, the key to getting started with email marketing and experiencing positive results involves having the right plan. This guide will walk you through each step of the process from getting customer consent to crafting great content:
Step 1: Define Your Audience & Goals
Because people today are constantly flooded with pitches and advertisements whenever they open their Internet browsers, they’ve come to expect two things from companies that try to court them: 1) a commitment to consent, and 2) customized content.
Email is personal. It’s like the physical mailbox of the online world. You wouldn’t start shoving self-promotional flyers into a stranger’s mailbox each week without making them upset, right? The same thing goes for email. Actually, a person’s email inbox is in many ways considered more sacred than their physical mailbox. That’s because it’s much harder to get ahold of someone’s private email address than it is to locate their public mailing address. And as a business, you’re required to get a person’s permission before you can send them email campaigns. This is called the opt-in rule, and we’ll go into more detail about it when we discuss list-building below.
Email isn’t one-size-fits all. Every email campaign you send should be customized according to the various interests of your customers. Think about it. Your business probably doesn’t cater to just one kind of customer and even if you do, you probably don’t sell only one product or service to them. You have to be familiar with the different problems and needs of the people who make up your audience and be capable of grouping them accordingly.
If you haven't done so already, take some time to group your target customers according to key traits and come up with buyer personas, or fictionalized characters that represent each group. You can refer to Part 1 of this series for more information on how to create buyer personas. Once you figure out which types of individuals make up your audience as a whole, grouping (aka segmenting) them becomes much easier.
Of course, it’s also easier to segment your customers into different email lists if you know what the goals for your email marketing efforts are going to be. Without knowing the purpose for what you’re doing, you might completely miss the target (literally). For example, you might look at the demographics of your current customers and decide to create emails that target the largest group, which are young adults ages 18-26. But if your primary goal for email marketing is to drive sales, targeting young adults—who may represent your largest segment but who have the lowest spending power—could produce poor results.
Here are some examples of common email marketing goals used by small businesses:
- Driving more website traffic.
- Building a loyal tribe of readers.
- Making customers feel special with access to exclusive deals, etc.
- Fostering a trusting relationship (by acting as a thought leader) with potential customers.
- Raising awareness about events and boosting ticket purchases.
Step 2: Determine the Right Frequency & Timing
How often does it make sense to communicate with your audience(s)? Most small businesses that are new to email marketing choose to send emails once a quarter or once a month. While this is a good place to start, depending on your company’s goals and the type of individuals you are targeting, it could be wise to increase the frequency of your communications. For instance, in addition to regularly scheduled emails (ex. once a month), you can try sending your readers special promotions or important notifications from time to time and see what kind of feedback you get. Always be careful of overdoing it. You don’t want to risk people associating your business with spam and unsubscribing from your list!
When are your readers are most likely to check their email accounts? Whether or not your email will be read has a lot to do with when it is sent. You don’t want it to get lost in all the other unopened emails that flood a person’s inbox. Are your target customers early-risers, lunch-time readers, or folks who finish going through their inboxes before bed? While the Internet is full of opinions about when the best time is to send out emails, ultimately the right answer all depends on who your target customers are, what time zone(s) they are located in, and what actions you hope they will take when reading your emails.
Once you’ve determined the right frequency and timing for sending emails, we suggest creating an editorial calendar to help your business stay organized and on-top of email communications. It’s important to make email marketing a regular commitment if you plan to keep your customers engaged and stay out of their spam folders.
Step 3: Select an Email Service Provider
While it’s possible to maintain an email list using your regular business email client, this is not advisable, particularly if your list exceeds 50 email addresses. That’s where email service providers (ESPs) step in to store your lists and allow you to create and send nicely-designed emails using simple web-based interfaces.
No matter what provider you use, several things remain constant. For one, almost all services easily integrate with your company website, where people can fill out a form to automatically be added to your email list. When a person joins a list, they are opting in, or giving their consent to be mailed. The ESP takes cares care of sending them a confirmation email and removing them if they choose to unsubscribe. And all ESPs feature basic analytics showing how many emails bounced, how many were opened, how many times each link was clicked, and how many readers unsubscribed.
Of course, there are more advanced features available which vary from provider to provider along with differences in pricing. All of this can make choosing an ESP seem like a daunting task. Some of the more common advanced features to look out for are:
- Autoresponders: allowing for a series of messages to be sent at preset intervals when someone joins a list
- Transactional emails (send to a single recipient following the completion of a transaction)
- Email scheduling/send later features
- Conditional emails (ex. such as when the ‘birthday’ field matches the current day)
- Mobile-responsive email templates
Ultimately, which ESP is best for your business will depend on how big you expect your list to get and how frequently you plan to send emails. But to make your choice a little easier, we’ve compiled a list of some of the top email marketing service providers for small businesses:
- Boasts some of the most powerful email design and contact management tools at low cost.
- Pros: Huge selection of email templates. Advanced, word processor-like visual editor. Allows attachments. Large library of plug-ins.
- Cons: No Gmail or other third party contact integration.
- Has a whimsical interface and offers one of the most generous free plans in the industry.
- Pros: Great in-depth analytics. Includes a mobile application for adding contacts on-the-go.
- Cons: No phone support. Steep pricing transition from free to paid account. Free plan does not include auto-responder.
- The largest of the ESPs aimed at small business that offers tons of email templates. A great choice for email marketing beginners.
- Pros: Hundreds of templates, including industry-specific themes. Event management solution creates email invites with home page links and registration forms.
- Cons: On the pricier side. Doesn’t include several important campaign management features like A/B testing.
- Small business focus with an easy-to-use ESP that integrates seamlessly with websites and online stores.
- Pros: Low-cost plans. More advanced plans feature unlimited image storage. Ability to easily convert blog posts into emails. Integrates well with social media and Google Analytics.
- Cons: Beginner Plan has an image library limited to 25 images.
- Pairs a simple interface with an exceptional feature set.
- Pros: Simple, easy-to-navigate interface. Lots of email templates to choose from.
- Cons: Doesn’t include event management features.
- Email marketing software with a great selection of campaign management and design features.
- Pros: Simple, easy-to-navigate interface. Social media marketing tools. Large library of plug-ins.
- Cons: Image library limited to 5MB of free space (additional charges for upgrading).
- Pros: Auto-responder capabilities and in-depth analytics. Large library of plug-ins.
- Cons: On the pricier side and some of the templates look a bit dated.
- High-quality email design and campaign management functionality with small business focus.
- Pros: Provides a built-in survey solution. Integrates with Salesforce. Offers event management tools.
- Cons: Doesn’t work well on Google Chrome or Safari internet browsers. Charges additional fees for some functionalities with entry-level plan.
Step 4: Develop a Creative Content Strategy
Email marketing is all about building trust. In order to be successful, you must prove to readers that your content contains something of value to them. This means you’ve got to give people what they want before you can tell them what they need (to buy).
So what does your audience want? Think about your buyer personas. What type of information do your buyers consume on a regular basis? What would draw them to your brand? For example, if you own a fashion consulting business and your primary buyer persona is a young female professional who enjoys reading fashion magazines, then you might consider sending out emails about how to accessorize or where to find the best local vintage apparel. Position your business as a thought leader in the industry while offering useful advice to your readers. These emails can help you build a loyal fan base and convert potential customers into clients.
As a rule of thumb, try to approach most emails with the goal of furthering your relationship with readers rather than pitching them. It’s best to save the pitch for unique updates, offers, and announcements.
Some common types of emails include:
- Welcome Email: thanks people who have signed up for your newsletter, product trial, or other offer and gives them more information about what to expect (what value you will offer them) going forward.
- Informational/Educational Email: provides industry knowledge that’s connected to your business or products in order to build a trusting relationship by teaching them something.
- Product Advice/How-To Email: offers advice and tips on topics related to your products while establishing your business as an industry authority.
- Survey Email: are designed to help you collect useful information that you can use to improve the customer experience. It’s good practice to communicate the survey’s purpose and offer an incentive for their thoughts.
- Event Invitation: used to invite your contacts to an event and motivate them to register.
- Transactional Email: is triggered by specific actions, such as a person completing a purchase or signing up for a newsletter. These can take the form of: Confirmation Emails/Receipts or Thank You
- Promotional Email: used to promote a product or service, usually encouraging a purchase. Often create a sense of urgency and feature discounts, promos, and coupons.
- Newsletter: used to improve brand awareness and build a relationship with your audience. Often contain a mix of content—some educational, some promotional, some how-to information.
When it comes to design, focus on creating email content that matches your brand’s look and feel. Include your company’s colors and logo in your templates. This will help readers feel more familiar with you from the start.
Create your emails so that they are simple and easy to scan. Remember, your audience is full of busy people just like you who get lots of email each day and their attention span will be limited. That’s why it’s best to not include too much text in any email. Break up your content into short paragraphs and use subheadings and images to help keep your readers engaged. For long articles, consider providing a preview and then adding a “read more” link so people can get to the rest when it’s convenient for them.
Last but not least, it’s a good idea to always spend some extra time making your email subject line catchy and too-the-point. Many marketers will argue that the subject line is the most important part of any email because it decides whether or not your content will be read. One way to get a sense of what works and doesn’t when it comes to subject lines is to try A/B testing different versions and assessing which ones tend to perform the best.
Step 5: Build Your List!
The Opt-In Rule:
The first rule of list-building is to ALWAYS make sure people are given the choice to opt-in. It’s in your company’s best interest to do this because people who don’t give you permission to send them emails are more likely to report your campaigns as spam. If enough people mark your campaigns as spam, your internet service provider can block (aka “blacklist”) you from sending any messages on their network. While the thresholds for blacklisting vary between internet service providers, it generally only takes a few spam reports for a company to earn this label and wreck their email marketing efforts.
There are two types of opt-in methods for you to choose between: single opt-in and double opt-in. Each offer certain advantages and disadvantages:
- Single Opt-In: automatically adds a subscriber to your list when they enter their email and information into your opt-in form and click the ‘submit’ button. This simpler process usually allows for lists to grow more quickly, but it can result in a high amount of bogus emails or disengaged subscribers
- Double Opt-In: involves a two-step process. After a user enters their information into your opt-in form, they are sent an email and have to click a link in that email to confirm that they want to be on your list before they are added. Though the process to sign up is more complicated, it helps to ensure that your email list is populated with people that actually want to receive your content.
While it may seem harmless to manually add the email addresses of event attendees or new business contacts from a recent networking event to your mailing list, remember that you are taking a risk by doing this without their express permission. And be wary of purchasing or renting email lists! While purchased lists are technically not illegal, many email service providers prohibit sending to them.
Besides promoting consent, your opt-in forms and welcome emails should clearly state what people are signing up for and why they’re receiving email from you. And make sure every email you send contains an unsubscribe link. Most ISPs build these into their templates, but it’s always wise to double-check that they work.
Make It Easy For People to Subscribe:
The best way to build your email list is to make it easy for people to want to subscribe. It all comes back to providing value. A person will be more willing to give you their contact information if they are offered an incentive—such as a free webinar, an eBook download, or a special offer—in exchange for doing so. This is called content gating, or offering content that can only be unlocked when an email address is given. While this creates a barrier to entry for people who are interested in viewing your content, it’s a worthwhile barrier because your business will build a list of qualified prospects as a result.
Another way to encourage more people to subscribe to your email list (which can work in tandem with offering valuable content) is to create lots of opportunities on your website for them to opt-in. Some popular options include: creating opt-in overlays that pop up on particular pages, using top bar or side bar opt-in features, or capturing contact info on campaign-specific landing pages.
Make Your Content Shareable:
One of the best things your business can do to build an email list is to design your content in such a way that existing contacts are driven to share your emails with their friends. There is nothing more lucrative than word-of-mouth marketing, so make it simple for your contacts to spread the word. Try creating a referral program that offers special discounts for people who recommend your business to their friends. Always cater your content to what your audience considers useful and make it possible for this content to be viewed outside of email programs by including public links to the web versions of each email you send. And don’t forget to add Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp links to email campaigns so readers can share your content on their social networks and connect with your business on these channels.
Use Social Media to Support Your Efforts:
Speaking of social media, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube offer some amazing tools which can help business owners grow their list of email leads. In each case, you’ll want to pair high-value content with a call-to-action that encourages signups.
If you’re comfortable spending a little money on advertising, both Facebook and Twitter allow you to pay for promoted content. Using Facebook Ads, you can target your exact audience by location, demographic data, interests, and more. If your message is right, it’s possible to see dramatic results almost immediately in terms of gathering leads. Try promoting gated content like a link for a free eBook that takes people to a page on your website where they will be asked for an email address in exchange for a download. Or take advantage of Facebook’s options to run contests and giveaways on your business page that require email details for entry.
Twitter lead generation cards are unique in that they allow you to collect email addresses straight from Twitter. These are great for promoting all kinds of content or even offering a simple description about the value your email newsletters provide along with an ask to subscribe.
One of the more interesting ways to collect email addresses is through creating YouTube tutorials with call-to-action cards. These are ideal for businesses that offer products and services that customers could use some help learning how to use or would like more information about. The first step in getting traffic to your YouTube videos is to find “how to” keywords that people are actually searching for. Use these keywords to create targeted video tutorials. At the end of each video, you can add a call-to-action card and select the “link” option to direct viewers to your opt-in landing page (you’ll have to associate your website with your YouTube account first before you’ll be able to link to it). YouTube is the second largest search engine, so it’s relatively easy to build a strong following on this channel. YouTube is also owned by Google, so having YouTube videos help with search engine optimization (SEO) in addition to supporting email list-building.
Now go forth and create great emails! Let us know how your campaigns unfold by connecting with us on Twitter @FreedomVoice.