You’re always on the lookout for ways that you can improve your relationships with your customers, make more sales, and grow your business.
That used to require cold calls, handshakes, and advertisements in the local paper. But today, most of the magic happens in the inbox.
More businesses—both big and small—are relying on the power of email marketing to promote their products and services and boost their bottom lines.
Curious how you can do the same? This post covers everything you need to know about email marketing for your small business.
What is email marketing?
Email marketing involves promoting your business through email, but it’s more than one-on-one correspondence. Email marketing means sending an email campaign (which you might also hear referred to as an email blast or email newsletter) to a list of contacts who have signed up to receive those promotional messages from you.
The intention of email marketing is to land new customers and close more sales, but that doesn’t mean that every email newsletter needs to be a blatant sales message or request to purchase.
A successful email marketing strategy strikes a balance between making asks and nurturing relationships. And, it does this by peppering in helpful, valuable content that people can only receive if they’ve signed up to be part of your email list.
Benefits of email marketing for small business
No longer a strategy for big brands and large corporations, more and more small businesses use email marketing. In fact, one recent survey found that email is the most popular form of marketing among small business owners.
For good reason, too. Email marketing works. Below are a few of the many benefits.
The biggest reason email marketing is so popular is that it’s effective.
Over 81% of small businesses claim that email marketing is their number one channel for attracting and retaining new customers. 59% of consumers say that marketing emails influencer their purchasing decisions. And 50% claim they purchase from marketing emails at least once a month.
Ironing out your email marketing strategy will require an investment in time, but not a hefty sum of money. Most email marketing software (more on this later!) is reasonably priced, especially for beginners who have relatively small lists.
Plus, the return on investment is positive. According to the Data and Marketing Association, for every $1 you spend on email marketing, you can expect an average return of $32.
It’s frustrating to sink time, energy, and money into advertising without a clear of whether or not they’re working. Fortunately, nearly all email marketing tools have analytics built into the dashboard of your account.
You’ll quickly and easily be able to see how many people are opening your messages, how many people are clicking through to your website, and even how many are actually completing your call to action (such as making a purchase or booking a consultation).
Email marketing is a strategy that can grow along with your business. As your list expands from a handful of subscribers to thousands, this tactic will continue to be just as effective at promoting your business and nurturing your relationships with your customers.
Unlike other approaches that become more labor-intensive as they balloon—like sales, prospecting, or word-of-mouth referrals—the effort required to keep up with email remains the same.
As long as you don’t bombard your subscribers with too many messages—or go overboard with inhuman email templates—the inbox can be a near-sacred place. That’s because it hasn’t just remained the most-valuable digital marketing channel, it’s also the place we turn to for direct, one-to-one business communication.
Best email marketing services and tools
The technical side of email marketing can be a big hangup for many small business owners. The good news is that the majority of email marketing tools out there today are incredibly easy to use and will walk you through how to get started step-by-step.
Email service providers (ESP) are plentiful, which can make it tough to pick the one that’s right for you. Here are a few things to consider as you’re evaluating your choices:
- Budget: Most email marketing platforms come at a monthly cost. How much can you afford to spend?
- Features: For example, do you want access to marketing automation? Will you also want to use it for relationship management or customer service?
- User-friendliness: Platforms run the gamut from simple to complex. While you’ll get more capabilities the higher up you go, those platforms can also be more complicated for beginners.
- Customer service: The level of service isn’t equal everywhere. Online reviews can tell you a lot about how responsive and helpful service departments are. But, as always, take them with a grain of salt.
Now that you know exactly what you’re looking for in your own email marketing service, let’s dig into the details of a few of our favorite ESPs (in alphabetical order):
With a lot of focus placed on marketing automation (meaning, you set up a system where certain marketing messages are triggered by specific actions that customers take), ActiveCampaign offers a lot more than just email marketing—including the ability to send SMS messages to your list.
What it costs: The “lite” plan starts at $9 per month.
With a drag-and-drop builder for emails, tons of templates, and even a helpful resource library, AWeber is great for beginners who need a little bit of help getting up to speed.
What it costs: Plans start at $19 per month.
Constant Contact goes well beyond just email marketing by also offering tools for social media, event management, and more. Despite being so comprehensive, its assortment of templates makes getting started easy and fast.
What it costs: Plans start at $20 per month.
Targeted toward creators, in particular, ConvertKit is a great option if you’re running an online storefront, service business, or software-as-service app (SaaS). It’s easy to create website forms or even dedicated landing pages to start growing your list.
What it costs: Plans start at $29 per month.
For those in ecommerce, Drip is a solid choice for not only email but an entire customer relationship management (CRM) system. Because of that, it’s easy to personalize and segment your emails and give subscribers the types of promotions they really want.
What it costs: Plans start at $49 per month.
GetResponse is another solution that goes far beyond email marketing to include landing pages, sales funnels, webinars, marketing automation, and more. Despite all of those extras, rest assured that creating emails is simple with a drag-and-drop email builder.
What it costs: Plans start at $15 per month.
Keap is another one that bills itself as an all-in-one marketing software solution, with a CRM, marketing automation, and detailed analytics. Keap also has highly-recommended customer service, with 24/7 chat available.
What it costs: Plans start at $49 per month.
If you’re an e-commerce business, Klaviyo is the gold standard. It integrates seamlessly not only with all major e-commerce platforms—like Shopify, BigCommerce, WooCommerce, and Amazon Marketplace—but also with the frontend and backend apps that power fast-growing storefronts.
What it cost: Free for the first 250 subscribers, with paid plans starting at $20 per month.
Mailchimp is a popular option among small business owners, mostly because it’s intuitive to use. Plus, it’s reasonably-priced, even offering a free option for businesses who are just getting started and only need limited features.
What it costs: Free plans available, with paid plans starting at $9.99 per month.
SendFox is a relative new-comer to email marketing built by the team at Sumo (that’s the same company we’ll highlight in the list-building section next). It offers a stripped-down ESP experience that—far from being a detriment—can actually be an asset if your business is just getting started.
What it costs: At the time of publishing, SendFox was the least expensive of all paid options—$49 for the lifetime of an account of 5,000 subscribers.
How to build an email list
Before you can reap the benefits of email marketing for your small business, you need to overcome the hurdle of actually having people to send your messages to.
It’s tempting to get started with a good base of subscribers by manually adding email addresses for people you’ve already worked with—whether they’re customers, vendors, or industry contacts—to your list. After all, you have their email address and they’re obviously interested in what you offer.
Not so fast. There are some rules and regulations to email marketing (you can check out the CAN-SPAM Act for more information), and many email marketing services also have terms and conditions of their own.
If you’d rather play it safe, treat this as your golden rule: People must explicitly opt-in to receive these marketing messages from you. Whether that means they fill out a form at a trade show or sign up through your website, you should get their explicit approval that they want to be on your email list.
Here’s how you can start building your email list from nothing.
1. Choose your email marketing platform
When people sign up to receive your marketing emails, the email address they submit should automatically be added to your list. That isn’t going to happen unless you’re already set up with an email service provider (ESP).
Through this platform, you’ll maintain and segment your list, craft and send your emails, and access analytics about how your marketing efforts are performing.
2. Create a “subscribe” page on your website
It’s wise to have a centralized place that you can send people who are interested in signing up for your marketing messages. That means you’ll want to create a dedicated page on your website where people can fill out a signup form that adds them to your email list.
Having this page gives you a single, easy spot to promote when trying to grow your email list. With that in mind, make the URL for this page something obvious, such as www.companyxyz.com/subscribe or www.companyxyz.com/newsletter.
This page doesn’t need to be overly complex, and a web designer or developer should be able to help you get it setup with relative ease. In fact, many email marketing services offer features that make it simple to create a landing page on your site.
In addition to the signup form, this page should include some information about what people can expect when signing up, including:
- What sort of things they’ll get access to (company or new product announcements, discount codes, etc.)
- How frequently you’ll send emails (for example, once a week or once a month)
That’s information that people will consider when weighing whether or not to hand over their email addresses. You don’t need to get super specific—just aim to give them a general idea of what they’re in for.
3. Include other places to sign up (namely, a pop-up)
That “subscribe” page is an important hub, but it doesn’t need to stand on its own. There are numerous other places and ways you can ask for people’s email addresses, including pop-ups, embedded forms, and even links directly back to your “subscribe” page.
Sumo’s list-building options are perhaps the easiest and least expensive ways to do this through full-page overlays (known as “Welcome Mats”) and smaller pop-ups triggered by visitor actions like button clicks, time-on-page delays, or exit-intent.
For example, create a pop-up on your homepage that encourages people to subscribe. Include embedded forms on your blog posts. Insert a sign-up block in the footer of your website or in the top navigation as a universal “bar.”
Pepper these types of calls to action throughout your website, rather than hoping that people somehow stumble into your single “subscribe” page.
4. Actively promote your email newsletter
Outside of your website, you should be actively promoting your email newsletter to get members of your existing audience to subscribe. Here are a few ideas:
- Include a link to your “subscribe” page in your personal email signature
- Announce your newsletter on social media, with a link to your “subscribe” page
- Hang flyers or posters promoting your newsletter (and how to sign up) inside your business
You can’t expect to build a signup page and watch as the eager subscribers roll in.
Keep promoting your newsletter over and over again on different outlets (especially social media!) so that you can capture some of your existing customers and contacts and start with a decent base of subscribers.
5. Incentivize subscribers
We’re all drowning in our inboxes, which means some people tend to be tight-lipped about their email addresses—they don’t want to be bombarded with more junk emails.
You can get around this hesitancy by incentivizing people to sign up for your email list. Basically, what will they immediately get in return?
Will you use marketing automation to send them a “thanks for signing up!” message along with a guide that helps them solve a problem relevant to your business? Will they receive an exclusive discount code? You can even host a contest where you’ll randomly select an email subscriber every week or month to receive a gift card, free service, or some other desirable prize.
Think of ways that you can actually reward people for signing up for your list, and you’re bound to see your number of subscribers on a steady incline.
Segmenting your email list
Once you have a base of subscribers built up, you’ll want to look into segmenting your list. This refers to breaking your subscribers into categories (or, as the name implies, segments) that allow you to better tailor and target your marketing messages.
You can break your list down by a variety of factors and criteria, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Purchasing Behavior
- Level of Engagement
- Opt-In Preferences
The vast majority of email marketing platforms make it simple to segment your list by using different tags that can be automatically assigned. For example, customers who make a purchase through your website could be tagged with “customer” or people who subscribe through a blog post might be tagged “blog reader.” Check the guides provided by your chosen email provider for information on how to apply these tags.
Segmenting requires a little extra effort, but it’s worth it. By breaking down your larger audience into smaller, more niche groups, you can deliver more personalized content. An experiment conducted by Mailchimp found that segmented email campaigns resulted in:
- 14.31% higher opens than non-segmented campaigns
- 100.95% higher clicks than non-segmented campaigns
- 4.65% lower bounces than non-segmented campaigns
- 9.37% lower unsubscribes than non-segmented campaigns
However, keep in mind that segmenting your list is only the first step—and it won’t do any good if you deliver all segments of your list identical messages. Put in the work to customize your emails for each segment, so that you can experience similar positive results (and avoid having people unsubscribe).
Improve open rates: Strategies and tips
The average open rate (which indicates how many people actually click open the marketing email that arrives in their inbox) across all industries is 17.92%. That means if you have 100 people on your email list, just under 18 people are going to open that message you worked so hard on.
That’s a discouraging statistic. But the good news is that there are a few things you can do to give your own email open rates a boost.
6. Write a strong subject line
The very first thing subscribers will see is your subject line, making it one of the most important pieces of your email. According to Business2Community, 47% of all email readers will base their decision to read an email entirely on the subject line alone.
What constitutes a “strong” subject line can vary depending on your brand personality and the content of your email itself. But, there are a few tactics you can try to encourage people to actually open and read your marketing email:
Inspire a sense of urgency
Leverage people’s fear of missing out by using your subject line to relay some immediacy.
Example: Only 12 Hours Left to Take 15% Off!
One surefire way to get people to open your email is to make them wonder what exactly it is. Do that by being less explicit with your subject line.
Example: You’ll Never Guess What We Did…
It’s a small change that can make a big difference. A report by Experian found that 56% of brands using emoji in their email subject lines had a higher unique open rate.
Example: Happy National Pizza Day! 🍕Grab a Slice on Us
Regardless of which tactic you choose, stay under 60 characters, as most email platforms will cut off a subject line that’s any longer than that.
7. Make use of personalization
Emails that have personalized subject lines are 26% more likely to be opened. So, use the information from your subscribers to make things a little more personal.
Sound complicated? It’s not. It’s as simple as including the subscriber’s first name.
Most email platforms have some sort of code snippet that makes this even easier. For example, in Mailchimp, typing *|FNAME|* directly where you want the subscriber’s first name to appear means Mailchimp will automatically pull in that information for that subscriber when the email is sent.
Example: Hey, Sam! We Don’t Want You to Miss This
8. Check the “from” name
Speaking of names, your own name matters just as much. Emails that come from a company (rather than a person) are more likely to end up in spam or the promotions section of the inbox—where they’re way less likely to be seen.
Get around this by sending emails from a specific person at your business (like you!), rather than from your business as a whole.
This is easy to update in the settings of your email tool, and you can still include the name of your business—as long as there’s a person’s name too.
Example: Terry at CompanyXYZ
9. Consider your timing
Timing is everything, and it’s something you should consider when scheduling your email marketing messages.
Numerous studies claim to have discovered the perfect time to send an email. But, more often than not, they contradict each other.
Your best bet is to commit to some trial and error and do some A/B testing (meaning, comparing two of the same emails sent at different times) to find out what works best for your own list.
Additionally, some email marketing tools come with a built-in feature that will automatically select the best time to send your email based on the level of engagement with your past email campaigns.
10. Stay out of the spam folder
The last place you want to end up is the spam folder. Unfortunately, some words will be picked up by the robots who scan inboxes and send your message straight there—even if it’s not actually spam.
Avoid writing your subject line in all caps (i.e. READ THIS EMAIL NOW!!!), and stay away from some of these common trigger words in both your subject line and the body of your email:
What is a call to action?
You’re not sending that email just to send it. You want subscribers to take some sort of action after reading that message. That won’t happen on its own. You need to ask for it.
That’s where your call to action (CTA) comes into play. In your CTA, you should explicitly state the activity that you want your subscribers to perform, whether that’s reading your latest blog post, checking out a new product, or taking advantage of a deal you’re running.
To make the most out of your CTA, include only one in every email. You can’t expect subscribers to like your Facebook page, make a purchase, and leave a review all at once—that’s too big of an ask.
Each email should have just one purpose (i.e. getting people to complete a purchase), and the correlating CTA should be painfully obvious. Use a larger font, an eye-catching color, and premium placement within the body of your email to make sure it can’t go unnoticed.
As Billy McCaffrey recommends in an article for WordStream, your CTA should start with a strong command verb that immediately elicits action. These verbs could include:
- Find Out
It’s just another small way to make it immediately clear what action your subscribers should be taking—rather than clouding that important piece with unnecessary language. A CTA that says “Order Now” is a lot stronger than, “Interested? Go ahead and place your order!”
CTR: What is click-through rate and how do I improve it?
While your open rate indicates how many people open your email marketing message, a click-through rate (CTR) goes one step further to measure how many people are actually clicking a link included in your email.
This is helpful, as it tells you who’s following your CTA and clicking through to purchase, subscribe, read, etc.
Unfortunately, click-through rates are even lower than average open rates at just 2.69%. It’s notoriously tough to get someone to actually click that link and navigate away from their inboxes.
To give that number a much-needed boost, try some of the following tips:
11. Nail your CTA
It’s so important that we’re reiterating it. You can’t expect people to take action if you don’t make it clear what you need them to do. Return to the previous tips about crafting a CTA so that you can actually inspire action (and, as a result, boost your click-through rate).
12. Mind your formatting
In addition to making sure your CTA is placed in several prominent spots, pay attention to your formatting to ensure you’re delivering a clean, skimmable email that doesn’t overwhelm your subscribers.
Keep in mind that 55% of emails are opened on mobile, so your format should work on a variety of devices. Your email marketing software should provide a preview of what your email will look like on a phone versus a desktop so that you can ensure your CTAs aren’t getting buried.
13. Keep it short
Research from HubSpot states that the ideal sales email is only between 50 and 125 words. (For the record, there are exactly 66 words in this entire paragraph). Nobody is going to scroll through a 1,000-word message, let alone take action at the end of it. So, keep your email copy short and skimmable to increase your chances of people clicking through to the desired destination.
Best practices for email marketing
The above covered a lot of tips for getting your emails opened and read, but here are a few more best practices to keep in mind as you’re planning out your email marketing strategy and email campaigns.
14. Be consistent with your sending schedule
To fully take advantage of all the benefits that email marketing provides, it’s vital that businesses are able to stick to a regular schedule. By committing to a predictable schedule with your emails, you’ll condition their audiences to naturally expect your emails, while also ensuring that your brand always stays top-of-mind.
Think of it this way: How likely would you be to trust someone if they suddenly started talking to you again after several months of silence?
While your subscribers might never eagerly refresh their inboxes in anticipation of your weekly newsletter, great relationships are always built on the backbone of regular and consistent communication.
Even if your subscribers don’t read every single one of your emails, constant interaction naturally creates a sense of familiarity and reliability towards your brand. Committing to a regular publishing schedule also signals to your audience that they are valued and that you’re available to respond to any of their queries or issues they might have.
How often and how many emails you should be sending out is largely dependent on your business and audience.
However, according to research by Omnisend, the majority of small to medium-sized businesses will send anywhere between two to four emails per month, closely followed by only one email a month.
15. Capture your brand personality in your email copy
It’s important to remember that, these days, the modern customer wants to feel connected with the brands they choose to do business with. They want to feel like they’re receiving emails from a human and not just another corporation. In fact, over 60% of consumers base their purchasing decisions on whether or not they believe a brand shares their values.
When drafting your emails, remember that you’re a person—and what you’re writing will be read by another person. Treat it more like a conversation than a straight sales message.
Remember that whatever voice and tone you use in your email campaigns should match the identity of your overall brand. If you use a lighthearted or even humorous tone for your social media campaigns, do something similar in your emails. In contrast, if your brand is known for being more direct, mirror that style.
Since you’re the business owner, chances are good that your brand personality is a direct reflection of your own. So, if it helps, pretend that you’re writing an email to a friend. That’ll help you strike a more relatable, conversational tone that doesn’t stray too far from your existing brand identity.
16. Don’t neglect your preview text
Your preview text is also valuable email real estate. This is the little blurb of text that appears after the subject line in the inbox and gives you an indication of what’s included in that email.
You should keep this copy between 35 and 90 characters (although, some email services might be able to display more), and it should expand on the subject and give your subscribers a little more insight into what they’ll find inside that email.
This is another great place to use action words, instill a sense of urgency, and even include some personalization (most email marketing tools will make this easy!) to encourage people to open and engage with that message.
When you’re ready, A/B test some different preview text versions to get an idea of what works best for your specific subscriber list. It can be something different for everyone!
17. Regularly clean your list
While it’s easy to look at the size of your email list as the only indicator of the success of your email marketing efforts, don’t get too hung up on those digits. It’s far better to have an engaged audience, as opposed to just a large audience.
As counterintuitive as it seems, clean through your email list on a regular basis (quarterly is sufficient) to remove email addresses that no longer exist and identify your unengaged subscribers—meaning people who haven’t interacted with your emails in the past several months.
At that point, you can either send an email in attempts to re-engage those lapsed subscribers (often referred to as a re-engagement campaign), or remove them from your list entirely.
Regularly pruning your list might feel like a step backward because your subscriber count is going down. But, it offers numerous benefits, including:
- Improved open rates
- Higher click-through rates
- Fewer spam complaints
- Reduced cost and “bounces”
- Far more accurate reporting
Things like improved open and click-through rates and fewer spam complaints can boost the deliverability of your emails—meaning you’re more likely to end up in the main inbox and stay far away from the spam folder.
You’ve got mail: Ace your email marketing efforts
Today, growing your business and landing new customers is less about pounding the pavement and more about filling the inbox.
Email marketing for small business can seem intimidating, especially if you have limited time, resources, and expertise. However, it’s well worth the investment, because it’s affordable, scalable, measurable, and effective.
Use this as your guide to take the first steps, and you’ll be well on your way toward landing more customers, solidifying your brand, and growing your business. Who knew email could be so powerful?