At its core, email is a communication channel. Email allows you to build a relationship with current and prospective customers over time. The best way to ensure that subscribers open your emails tomorrow is to send great emails today. Email is not just a promotional megaphone.
“Email” means many things—all at the same time. Email marketers use newsletters to announce new products and engage with their audience. Meanwhile, onboarding campaigns activate and move prospective customers down your funnel. Email also includes important transactional messages such as receipts or boarding passes—and that’s just part of it.
As we’ve seen, email is extremely versatile. That’s its main power. And weakness. When building your email strategy, you need to focus on one use case and make it great. Then, and only then, can you move and expand the role email plays in your organization.
To put things into context, trying to plan multiple email initiatives at once is akin to trying to plan a wedding, a birthday party, and a bar mitzvah all during the same week. Not a good idea. Start small and grow your email program over time.
Email is bringing sexy back. Why?
Your email list is a highly valuable business asset—even though it’s not visible on the books, from an accounting standpoint. Recent changes in the PPC and social media landscape have made it more lucrative to focus on email marketing.
Just to give you some context, AdWords’ CPCs rose 40% in two years, Facebook’s organic reach (the percentage of people that see your posts without your having to pay to increase distribution) dropped to an all-time low of 2.6%, and Tweets’ click-through rates are generally in the 0.5% range.
Compare this to the typical email metrics. What do you get on your campaigns? A 20% open rate and a 3% CTR? That’s an 8× better performance on reach and a 6× better performance on clicks when compared to social media. Oh, and remember, you own your email list. If you don’t do anything spammy, no amount of “algorithm change” will drastically affect you. Take that, Facebook Newsfeed!
Talking about Facebook’s decreasing post reach, you might like the below graph from 2013–2014. The downward-sloping line shows the reach of an organic post on Facebook. The rising bars show the average stock price. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the stock price rose as the organic reach dropped? Nope. Facebook changed the landscape—and their shareholders are very happy.
As someone coming from the PPC world, this graph spells doom. The only way to compensate for the lower organic page reach is to spend more money on ads. Then simple arithmetic kicks in: As more marketers increase their spend, CPCs rise, which decreases your ad campaign’s ROI.
Let’s put these number into context with an example. Imagine that you have an email list of 100,000 subscribers and your emails receive a 20% open rate, with a 3% click rate. Sending an email drives 3,000 visits to your site. Given the visitors’ high intent (they are on your list AND they clicked through your email), let’s say they convert at 3%. In total, this campaign would drive 90 sales. Now let’s say that you want to get the same 90 conversions using Facebook. Assuming a $1 CPC and a first-time visitor conversion rate of 1%, you’d need to pay $9,000 to drive 90 sales.
This insight—that email is a phenomenal channel to focus on compared to social media—is supported by a study from McKinsey revealing that email is 40× more effective at acquiring new customers than Facebook or Twitter.
Now that you’re convinced that you should focus your energy on email instead of social media, let’s talk about the role email can play. Most marketers use email as a retention channel—to keep customers around—but email can be a very powerful acquisition tool too, helping you convert prospective buyers into customers. In essence, a good email program works as a conversion tool, increasing your overall site’s conversion rate.
Another reason for email’s popularity growth in recent years is decreasing costs. Back in the day, to send emails you had to set up your own email servers, worry about downtime and deliverability, and security was also an issue. This was a complex and expensive process. In essence, email marketing was either really expensive or done by BCC’ing your address book from Outlook. Yuck! Now, you can sign up for an email service provider (ESP) and get rocking.
ESP … that sounds like a new concept. Let’s explore what an ESP is and why they’re important.
What is an ESP?
An email service provider (ESP) is a platform that manages email marketing services on their servers, which are specifically optimized for this purpose. While you control your email marketing account and send emails using a Web interface, the ESP’s servers do the heavy lifting. If you tried to send bulk emails through your regular Internet service provider (ISP), your campaign could be blocked, as regular ISPs are not set up for—and sometimes prohibit—bulk mailings.
tl;dr: An ESP is an online service you use to send emails. They worry about all the tricky technical details associated with sending emails, allowing you to focus on simply creating great emails.
There are hundreds of ESPs, each boasting different features and prices. Depending on your business size and needs, an ESP can be free or cost thousands of dollars per month.
To give you some context, here are two pricing options from MailChimp, based on list size:
Notice how the prices vary based on list size and email send volume. Let’s compare MailChimp’s prices to Customer.io. Look at the “Pricing calculator” column:
Which one should you pick? Customer.io appears to be 37% cheaper than MailChimp, but they each have different features.
To complicate things further, some ESPs provide a “services team” to help you use the platform and plan your campaigns. This includes companies such as Bronto and SailThru and typically costs tens of thousands of dollars a year.
ESPs provide a bevy of different features: list management, automated messaging, HTML email production, testing, optimization, and reporting. There’s an inside joke amongst email marketers where we say that nobody’s really happy with their ESP. Marketers’ needs are so complicated there’s always a missing feature or a buggy part of the software as you run into edge cases.
Even though it’s “just” a marketing medium, a good email program needs to closely match each company’s business model. ESPs are tasked with building software that assists just about every different business type out there. Talk about a difficult job. Makes you almost feel bad for the ESP product team, doesn’t it?
Now that you have a general understanding of what an ESP does, let’s talk about another way you could send emails.
Pure-play ESPs vs. SMTP-as-a-Service
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to send emails. The first is to use an ESP—as we’ve discussed so far. An ESP allows you to create and manage your campaigns, lists, and reporting via their Web interface. The second option is to use something called an SMTP-as-a-Service. An SMTP-as-a-Service allows you to send emails directly from your application. When using an SMTP-as-a-Service, all of the email logic must live inside your own code base. Let’s illustrate this with a few examples.
Popular ESP use cases:
- Send a newsletter to your entire list
- Send a special promotion to previous customers
- Send a welcome drip to new subscribers
Popular SMTP-as-a-Service use cases:
- Send a one-time “forgot password” email
- Send a daily activity summary
- Send “your email was successfully updated” confirmation
Remember, when using an ESP, all of the email logic lives inside their tool, which you access via their Web interface. When using an SMTP-as-a-Service, all of the email logic lives inside your own code base. The reason this divide exists is that, depending on your ESP, it may be easier to trigger the above-mentioned examples directly from your own systems (e.g., “forgot password” email).
Newer ESPs, such as Customer.io, make it easy to send all of the above examples directly from their systems. This essentially removes the need to have an ESP for some emails and an SMTP-as-a-Service for others. Yay!
Small vs. large ESP
The main differences between large ESPs and smaller ones (other than price) are the features you can access and whether there’s a service team helping you along the way.
We won’t cover every feature each ESP offers, there are just too many of them. But know that every ESP is unique in its capabilities. If you’re interested in learning more about any one ESP and want to see how their tool works, simply schedule a demo with them. Their sales rep can be particularly useful and will tell you why you should switch to them. Not that you should, but they’ll help you identify their key differentiators.
If you’re just looking for some recommendations to get started, here they are:
- To simply send newsletters: Campaign Monitor
- To send emails based on user behavior: Customer.io
- To send transactional or “system” emails: MailGun (Note: They’re an SMTP-as-a-Service)
We started MailCharts by using Campaign Monitor. Once our email program grew large enough, we switched to Customer.io for the added flexibility of behaviorally triggered messages.
Now that you have a general understanding of what it takes to compare ESPs, let’s switch gears and talk about sending emails.
When to email
How often a company sends emails depends on their line of business and user preferences. A news site sending “breaking news” alerts will email much more frequently than a company like Apple, which seldom releases new products or sales promotions.
While there isn’t a universal “best” email frequency, I recommend starting with at least one email every two weeks. Once you have this cadence in place, test sending more aggressively. Beware, though. Research shows that the more emails you send, the lower your email click rate will be. While this sounds scary, it does not mean that you should email less frequently.
It’s okay for engagement rates to decrease as you become more aggressive. You’ll also notice that more people will start unsubscribing. This is normal; it’s a natural part of the process. Instead of looking purely at email open and click rates, I encourage you to look at metrics such as revenue-per-subscriber or sales-per-subscriber rate. Yes, emailing more frequently will lead to email performance declines (in terms of opens, clicks, and unsubscribes), but you’re also likely to drive more sales. If sending one campaign drives 20 unsubscribes but an additional 500 sales, would you do it? My gut tells me you would. As they say, the devil’s in the details—and you need to find the right balance.
Another consideration to keep in mind is that the right send frequency for your company might depend on management’s expectations. If email is only planned to drive 5% of revenue, you won’t need to email as much as if it’s supposed to drive 30% of revenue.
Some e-commerce companies email on a daily basis (such as J.Crew, Bonobos, Gap, and Uniqlo), while others only a few times a week (such as Lululemon and Nike). The send frequency is a key aspect of your email marketing strategy.
The same goes with how promotional your emails are: Some companies send tons of discounts, while others focus on lifestyle and content. Take a peek at these emails from J.Crew:
Sample emails from J.Crew.
Now look at these from Lululemon:
Sample emails from Lululemon.
Notice the difference in tone and promotional cadence.
Truth be told, there’s no universally optimal send frequency. You should test different email cadences and see how your subscribers respond to them. Let’s take a look at industry benchmarks to compare and contrast email frequency.
Note: The data we’re about to explore comes from the tool I’m building, MailCharts, which provides email marketing intelligence to help marketers plan and send great email campaigns.
Email send frequency
At the time of this writing, the average company tracked by MailCharts sends 14.3 emails per month. Only 33% of these emails are mobile optimized and 24% of these emails are promotional. As you can imagine, these stats vary for each industry.
Monthly email volume based on all companies tracked by MailCharts.
Comparing two industries highlights these differences: Let’s look at e-commerce companies vs. enterprise companies. As you can imagine, e-commerce companies look to convert users via online purchases (e-commerce, helloooo!), while enterprise companies oftentimes prefer their B2B sales funnel to end with a salesperson closing the deal. The goals and volumes of email are very different.
In the e-commerce world, for example, the average volume was slightly higher than the aggregate, at 16.4 emails per month. Fewer emails were mobile optimized (only 30%), while more emails were promotional (41%). The email frequency and promotional cadence make sense: E-commerce companies want to entice clicks and conversions on their websites.
Let’s compare this to the enterprise world. The average volume was 7.2 emails per month and 56% of emails were mobile optimized. Notice how send volume here is much lower vs. e-commerce. As you might have guessed, fewer enterprise emails are promotional—at only 13%. Product benefits are paramount to driving prospects down the B2B sales funnel, more so than pricing promotions.
If you’re interested in learning more about email frequency by industry, check out the MailCharts Email Marketing Statistics page. The data is refreshed on a monthly basis.
Quick aside: You might be wondering: Why are more enterprise emails mobile optimized compared to e-commerce? Looking at MailCharts data, one hypothesis that holds true is that a large portion of e-commerce companies use email designs which are heavier in images and thus are harder to adapt to mobile (e.g., one giant image or more complex layouts that require coding expertise). Meanwhile, enterprise companies send less complexly designed emails (e.g., mostly text). The data suggests that e-commerce emails are twice as likely to include content that’s 1MB or more in weight than enterprise companies’. Further, e-commerce emails are seldom mostly text (less than 3% of the time), whereas almost one-fifth of e-commerce emails are mostly text, which responds better to mobile environments.
Before sending an email, you’ll first need to create it. With that in mind, let’s talk about different email creation processes and why you may want to limit who’s involved.
The email creation process
The speed at which you create campaigns varies drastically depending on your team’s structure. Simply put: The more people involved in creating a campaign, the slower things move.
Imagine you work at a small startup and you want to send a newsletter announcing the latest product feature. What do you do?
Here’s what your process might be:
- Get a base template from Ink
- Change the colors so they’re on par with your brand
- Draft the email in a Google doc and send it to one team member for revisions
- Add the email to your ESP
- Final QA
- Hit send
This whole process can be done in one afternoon. The only potential “blocker” here is the copy revision from your team member.
Now imagine you work at a 200-person company with a communications designer, a copywriter, and a marketing director. Your process might look like this:
- Have a meeting to discuss how we’re going to announce the latest features in the newsletter
- Get initial copy from the copywriter
- Schedule some time with the copywriter to review the copy/make edits
- Schedule some time with the designer to go over image concepts based on the copy
- Present the email to the marketing director
- Implement tweaks from the above meeting
- Send the email to your engineers for coding and implementation
- Final QA
- Hit send
Whoa. Noticed how many potential blockers there are? This process can easily take 1+ week. All this is to say that your team’s structure can be the difference between moving really fast and relatively slow. Keep the number of parties involved to a minimum.
Another important habit to get into is creating an email calendar. Planning your email campaigns ahead of time prevents you and your team from scrambling at 4:55 pm the day when the email is supposed to go out. When creating the email calendar, make sure to touch base with the inbound team to learn what they have in the works. Incorporate the content they’re producing in your email strategy. Also, if you have a PR or communications team, talk with them to get a heads-up on seasonal promotions or campaigns that’ll be happening in the coming weeks.
Quick aside: Larger retailers often live and die by their email calendar since it outlines exactly what their upcoming roadmap is. The challenge is that this calendar often changes on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, depending on new priorities and recent sales activity. Managing a comprehensive email calendar involves a ton of project management and coordination across the organization.
We’re now ready to explore different email types and understand when to send each. The following chapter lists the most popular emails and includes examples to spark your inspiration.