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Thank you everyone for taking the time to join me today on a talk about email marketing. With the pandemic wreaking havoc on our lives, it seems like email is one of the few ways we can get in front of an audience that has gone all digital. Of course, we have social and I’ll be announcing a social media webinar targeted mainly at destinations in the next week or so. But for now, let’s dive into email marketing.

For those I haven’t met, my name is Patrick King and I’m the founder of Imagine – a digital marketing and branding agency with offices in Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Norfolk, Virginia. Our work is highly research-driven, which you’ll probably be able to tell from the way we go through this presentation.

Today’s talk is broken into three parts: we’ll go pretty deep into your content considerations, then we’ll jump over to segmentation and automation. Then we’ll wrap up with how to manage and grow a healthy list and keep the ISPs happy.

Everything I’m going to cover today is platform-agnostic. You’ll be able to do everything I cover today on your desired platform, although we’re a Mailchimp partner and choose to use that or HubSpot for our own clients. So, you may see a screenshot or two pulled from one or both of those platforms.

Email Marketing Begins With Content Strategy

Ok, content strategy – the core of an effective campaign. As I said, we’re going to dive a little deep into this since it probably makes the biggest difference in the success of your email marketing program.

And it starts with knowing your audience – or rather, audiences. The days of sending spray-and-pray email blasts to a large group of people are over. There’s just too much inbox-filler out there so we have to do our research to make sure that every email we send has an impact. Too many unopened emails can actually hurt your deliverability and put your emails directly in the spam folder more often, so each email counts.

We do this through persona development – taking sections of your total audience that have common characteristics and building them into specific identities.

This is a persona builder that we use in the early stages of campaigns here at Imagine and it helps us to determine the needs, values, desires, and ultimately what fulfillment means to each type of customer of an organization. It also helps us determine where, when, and with what type of email marketing we can best use with them.

For today’s purposes, we’re going to use “Working Wife Wendy”. You’ll see here that I’m not going with a specific business. We work with a lot of localities on tourism and economic development campaigns, and it’s often a more complex challenge so I’ll use a visitor to a new town, during this pandemic, to really test our approach. (go over blocks)

We’re going to come back to this persona, but when I say, “each type of customer”, let me illustrate.

Every industry and every business sells to more than one type of consumer. A major B2B industry like architecture and construction will have some obvious personas – groups that value certain things more than others. The developer is going to be more concerned about the long-term investment potential of a space while the jurisdiction may be more concerned about the building being up to code. If you run a non-profit, you’re going to have small donors, large donors, sponsors, members, and so on. For the purposes of our previous persona, we’ll look at the challenges of a destination and there are a lot of things to consider there as well. Each of those groups has different motivations, levels of involvement, or desired outcomes so it’s important from the jump to create separate personas within your audience.

Where you get all of this data on where they’re most active or the kind of content they care about depends on how you’ve been marketing – mainly online, but speaking with the people on your front line like business development or resource development teams can also give you insights to round these out. These are some common platforms and where you can get a lot of the information to build out personas. For financial history, of course, there’s QuickBooks or a conversation with your finance department.

These are just platforms. I’m sure that everyone on the call has industry publications that help as well.

Now, you have a clear vision of your new customers – their needs, their activity, their preferences. We’re now going to place them all into a customer journey that takes them from being completely unaware and possibly cynical to becoming a delighted and voluntary promoter. This is all-important in determining the content of not just your first email, but every email you send.

Setting Up the Customer Experience

This is the trusty sales funnel, marketing funnel, customer journey, workflow, methodology… the process has a ton of different names. I’m sure many of you are familiar with this. The purpose of this diagram is to craft and track each step of a person’s experience with your company so that the entire experience is designed for their enjoyment, with their needs at the center of your email marketing activity.

You see, we’ve populated the journey with the tools or tactics we know will reach that previous persona. We’re going to presume that your audience’s first contact wasn’t via email – they may have been on social or saw an ad, they may have seen an article that mentions you or just did a simple Google search. But once they sign up for something or give you their email any other way, you can use email marketing to communicate with them throughout the rest of the funnel.

Next, we place our key performance indicators (or KPIs) for each tactic so we can quickly know if we’re doing well in that area. For instance, …

Email marketing has its own range of KPIs that you’ll use and I’ll cover those shortly.

Finally, we’re going a step further and will design the customer experience. How can we use each stage as an opportunity to do something that our audience thinks is remarkable? We’re going beyond generic communication or “noise” to something that’s both unique and tailored to the interests of that particular audience. For example, …

Things like scavenger hunts or games that people can easily and comfortably engage in is a big help for first-time visitors to a new town. Depending on the complexity of your organization, the length of your sales cycle, or simply the personalities of your personas, this can be more serious or more complex. And increased complexity is fine since a lot of the work you can do at each stage of the journey can be either automated or used over and over without developing new pieces for each opportunity. We’ll cover that shortly as well.

This is a customer-centric experience. It takes into account what we know has changed about our customers, puts their desire for trust – as well as any nuances we need to consider – at the center of our marketing.

Next, your content needs to speak their language. In this exercise, our voice and tone should be upbeat and somewhat casual, while for B2B email marketing, the language will need to be a bit more professional.

Then, you set your goals – your KPIs. There are two main types of KPIs that we look at here, activity and financial. Things like open rate, click-throughs and subscribes are important to look at from day-to-day but what really matters – especially for us as an agency –

is to show how email has impacted the bottom line. So, looking at your revenue per subscriber or email is important. We simply divide revenue by the number of emails or subscribers and work to increase that number over time.

Email Structure

Now that you have your content strategy, it’s time to look at the structure of your emails. The most overlooked part of an email is – in my mind – the most important. It’s your subject line. If you don’t get that right, nothing else matters because your email isn’t getting opened.

To make a great subject line, you need to create a blend of curiosity and a “what’s in it for me” to entice people to open the email.

You then want to make your copy succinct. People like to read what they want – they don’t like to read in order to get excited about something.

You’ll see here that these email examples – plucked from a great reference site, – only contain a few lines of text. Your copy should get to the point and work under the assumption that people aren’t going to want to spend a lot of time on your email.

What you may also notice in these emails is that it’s pretty clear what the sender wants you to do, which brings us to the next tip:

Make the path forward obvious. Ideally, your email should have one message and one desired action. Don’t hide that action in a text link that’s they have to hunt for, and don’t expect that action to be a reply back to you – the recipient often isn’t ready to talk to someone yet.

Send them to a landing page made specifically for this email marketing campaign. This keeps them under your brand’s umbrella and allows you to continue the narrative and encourage them to take some small action – a tip sheet download, a map for that scavenger hunt – something non-committal in their minds, but it allows your brand to grow in their minds.

So that’s content and email structure. Next, I’d like to talk a bit about how you can use your platform to work harder for you and help you make a more personal connection with each person in your audience.

Segmentation and Email Automation

Every email marketing platform offers you the ability to break your audience down into lists but too many times, we see them used the wrong way. We see stuff like lists by the date they were uploaded when that date isn’t significant in any way or some other arbitrary purpose.

If instead, you created segments based on personas, you can then easily communicate on a more individual level. While there are a ton of ways to segment your audience,

You probably only have a handful of criteria and that’s totally fine.

In your platform, you should see a feature similar to this, which is how Mailchimp does it. If you’ve captured the data about your contacts over time, you can then sort out segments and save them by that data. It may not be much to start – say, people that have opened all of your last five emails or people located in a certain zip code, but you’ll have an idea of what data you want to gather moving forward and that data will allow you to segment further.

I got this email a couple of weeks ago and it shows how much you can customize an email based on the data you get. The more details you get about your audience, the more the platform will let you add code snippets to put that data into your email content, allowing you to personalize each email as if it was sent to only one person.

Next, and something that’s a bit of a rabbit hole, is automation. Let’s pretend that someone signs up for your newsletter this afternoon. They immediately get an autoresponder that points them to an exclusive landing page. Based on their actions on that page, they get an email a couple of days later.

Based on their action to that email, they get another relevant email a couple of days later. And so on. But what if someone signs up tomorrow morning? They’ll get the same content at the same cadence of a couple of days, without you having to interact with every single contact. And it’s predetermined by how they signed up – that would determine the segment and therefore, the automation workflow.

If it seems confusing, trust me – it gets that way. It can be a lot of initial content and setup but to know that your contacts are all being followed up with, with content they care about, in their voice, on their schedule, can save you a ton of time and confusion in the long run.

In your email marketing platform (once again, this is Mailchimp), setting up your automation is actually pretty simple once you get started. It’s based on an if/then type of logic. If they take this action, give them this content.

By this point, you have the tools to develop your own strategy, your own approach, how to start gathering the data you need and formulating content ideas. Now let’s take a quick look at your lists.

Email List Management

List health is critical because too many spammy emails or too few opened emails and you’re doomed to spam folders. So be careful about what you send out.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address one of the most commonly asked questions we get about not just email, but social media as well. What’s the right time?

While this can never be an exact science, this can provide a good starting point for your campaigns. You can refine it from there. Generally, the most effective days to send emails are first Tuesdays, then Thursdays, followed by Wednesdays. Try to avoid Friday emails because we’re all checked out by then.

Times are a bit surprising too, but as I said, this is a general rule. Your campaigns will need some attention to find the right times for them. The most effective is usually 10 am, followed by 8 pm, 2 pm, and yes, 6 am. We sent out an email for this webinar yesterday (a Tuesday) but at 4 pm. It’s not one of the generally recommended times, but we’ve seen from our own data that 4 pm gets us pretty high open and click-through rates.\

So that’s a lot, I know. But I wanted this to be a comprehensive guide to improving your email campaigns.

Email Marketing Checklist

I want to close with one last piece of advice – create a checklist for your email marketing. We create these internally for our clients so that simple errors don’t slip through.

Write your content before you mock up the email. We use Google Docs for this so we can easily share among our team and with our clients.

After you’ve laid out the email, double-check:

    • Copy. Look at dates, times (make sure you don’t accidentally use MST when you really mean to use EST,) capitalization, italicization, etc.
    • Hyperlinks. Do they work?
    • The “From” address, reply-to address, and friendly from—do want your email sent “on behalf” of a person or your organization?
    • Subject line. Errors in your subject line are the worst, so make sure you triple check this one.

Send yourself a test and check every piece of step two again.

Double-check your preheader text, which is the text that shows up as a preview under the subject line. It’s a sometimes-overlooked component of email but could make all the difference as far as your open rates are concerned.

Look for design flaws. All email tools should provide you with a preview option that shows any obvious errors in your code.

Get a fresh set of eyes on your email by sending a test to a colleague. A different perspective is often the key to finding a sneaky mistake that would otherwise elude you.

Double-check your list and segments. Make sure the list size and segments are right. Once this checklist is cleared, you’re ready to send it.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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