Despite the obvious complaints about endless emails, spammy senders, and the battle to conquer the inbox, email remains one of the foundations that the internet is built upon. People check their inbox 15 times per day on average. An email address is required for the creation of accounts on any social media, e-commerce, and personalized site. It remains one of the most effective channels to connect with customers – existing or potential. Understanding the basics of email marketing will help any entrepreneur navigate the difficult terrain of outreach and building loyalty. Email can even deliver serious value to your customers, if you know what you’re doing.

I’ve compiled some of the best practices around to create a sort of crash course for emailing in general. If you see anything I missed, please point it out in the comments. Otherwise, grab a drink and some peanuts, we’re going to drill down into what it takes to become an expert in emailing.

Why Email?

Emailing is a channel for two primary purposes: recruiting new customers, and building loyalty among existing customers. Given the relative cheapness of emailing, it is a preferred channel for e-commerce sites because of the overall low cost of acquisition. This affordability is highly scalable. Once a company has built an email list with millions of email addresses, the only cost of contacting all of these people is the cost of sending the emails, which can get down into the fractions of fractions of a cent per email sent. Penny pinchers delight!

Combine the affordability with the fact that nearly every internet user has an email address, and it’s no wonder that email is so effective as a communications channel.

Hold up, it’s not that easy

Like anything, there is a positive and a negative side to emailing. The ubiquity of email has created some inconveniences which are important to understand:

  • Obtaining a quality email address has become a battle in itself. Quick, think about how many email addresses you have. One for work, a few others from work that might route to yours. Then there is your personal email (probably the most important for things like connecting with family or receiving notifications). Do you have a few other scratch email addresses? Maybe a Hotmail or Yahoo! email that you use when you have to log in to a site to access content or a service but you don’t want to get spammed later? This exponential factor makes it hard for email marketers to get the right, primary email address.
  • The law is tricky. Believe it or not, there are laws governing what companies can send to people. It might seem like the huge size of the Nigerian royal family knows no bounds, but in fact there would be a lot more princes out there if it weren’t for email and spam laws. The biggest point to remember is that B2C and B2B email campaigns are regulated by different laws, which are compounded by specific laws from country to country.
  • Anti-spam filters are becoming stronger. And more complex. And more intelligent. Sometimes they even catch email that is not considered spam, for example, a message that someone requested to receive. Navigating the anti-spam filters is a job in itself.
  • Too many emails make people unreachable. Even when emails get past the anti-spam filters, an inbox can still be overrun by messages from friends, co-workers, and companies alike. Once an inbox hits a critical mass, an internet user might just stop deleting excess emails, and let their inbox fill and fill, while only reading the important emails that come through. So even if you made it to the inbox, the life expectancy of your message might be only a matter of minutes before 50 more emails arrive and your message drops into the Mordor or “Older messages.”
  • Everything is constantly changing. From the anti-spam filters to how your email provider displays images or HTML, there is no one standardized global code for email. An email that shows up perfectly for Hotmail users in Japan might not even make it to the inbox of Gmail users in Canada.

The Legal System of Emailing

Laws have been created (in 2004 in France for example) to protect consumers from getting bombarded with excessive commercial emails. There are three key concepts to get familiar with about who can receive emails:

  1. Opt-in: an internet user clicks a box that says that they want (or are willing) to receive messages from you.
  2. Double Opt-in: some countries (like Germany) now require a double opt-in, where an internet user has to clarify not once, but twice, that they are willing to receive your messages.
  3. Opt-out: every email should contain a link letting the recipient choose to no longer receive messages from a specific sender.

Under most conditions, a sender must receive permission from a recipient before sending them an email. In France, it is forbidden to automatically select the Opt-in box in a registration page, a company has to let the recipient choose their preference, with the default being “no.” It’s also illegal to buy consumer email lists for B2C purposes. A company must clearly specify that they will share a customer’s information with third parties before doing so.

B2B is a different environment since there are no limits on sending emails to “generic” addresses, like B2B emails can also be sent directly to employees who hold certain roles as long as the email corresponds with the role of the recipient. For example, a fintech company can send an unsolicited email to a personal work email ( if that person is the head of finance. But a company cannot send an email to that person if it enters into the private sphere, such as a deal for a family vacation.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I can hear you saying right now, “but does anyone actually follow these rules?”

The answer is yes, they do, and the penalties can be steep. It might seem like you get a lot of emails per day, but that number would be much, much higher if the majority of companies could get away with spamming you all day.

But they can’t, since each server that is used to send emails is subject to “returnpass” which gives a global scoring to servers. If a server gets blacklisted, their emails will always fall into spam.

Building an email database

OK, now that we’ve gotten all that legal stuff out of the way, it’s time to talk about how to build an email list, because after all, you can send the best emails in the world, but if you don’t have enough recipients in your database, your email campaigns will never be effective.

So how do companies build their databases and use email to reach customers?

  • Build your own database: this includes gaining people’s email addresses through the participation in quizzes, contests, and lotteries (“Enter your email for the chance to win…”). If a quiz is done right, it can also go viral, magnifying the quantity of email address capture. Or having a customer sign up for a site or service. This is becoming increasingly popular for e-commerce sites that ask for an email address before a customer can even view a catalog. In the B2B world, offering a free white paper to download in exchange for an email address is a powerful lever for acquisition. Ditto for webinars.
  • Exchange lists with partner sites. Then send emails to those people asking if they’d like to sign up to your emails.
  • Rent a list. While it’s illegal to buy email lists in B2C, it’s not illegal to buy them in B2B situations.
  • Hit up an email network. They will send your email to their list for you.

Carfax for email lists?

Now you might be thinking, I can just buy or rent an email list? Amazing! And yes, while this is truly amazing and can be a very affordable way to reach a lot of potential customers, there are a series of questions that you have to ask the company that’s offering a list. Don’t just accept and send, you will be wasting your time. Instead, ask these questions to verify the integrity (and therefore ROI potential) of a list.

  • Where did the list come from? Did Neil Armstrong bring it back from the moon? Did Moby Dick spew it out of his blowhole? Or did Bill Gates give you his personal contact list? Where a list comes from can make all the difference. If you can’t pronounce the place where it came from, you might want to pass.
  • How is it updated? Who combs through it to make sure that all the emails are still valid?
  • How many times is it rented per month? Are these same recipients getting multiple emails per day?
  • Did any of my competitors use it in the last 60 days?
  • Who is responsible for the list when it’s sent?
  • How secure is the sending?
  • What stats are available? Open rates? Spam reports?
  • How much does it cost to send through it again? (In the case of errors or non-deliveries).

Keep your list clean and tidy

An effective email strategy is amplified by keeping an updated email list. Whenever emails hard bounce (don’t arrive in an inox) or someone unsubscribes, those email addresses should be removed from the mailing list. Ideally, a list should be cleaned at least every six months, but an even better practice is making the habit of updating it after each email send out.

The main reason behind this is that the error rates have an impact on the deliverability of emails from a certain sender. Harmful error rates vary between B2B and B2c, but it’s a fairly easy problem to avoid if you devote the time to keeping lists up to date.

Don’t use a bad email address

The identity of the sender is very important in determining both delivery and open rates. The name (or what your inbox shows you to tell you who sent you an email) should be clear. A company name, the name of the employee sending the email, or a representative – say, a mascot – are all good options. Making the name as short as possible is also wise since different email services display names differently.

It’s also important that the name corresponds to the actual email address used to send the emails. Avoid, for marketing messages (though this can be used for notifications and order confirmations).

Nail the Subject Line

We’ve now gotten through the technical basics of emailing. In many cases, an email services provider like MailChimp makes it easy to manage all of the technical details at once. Now that we can get an email to someone, how do we get them to open it?

Once the content of an email is created, it’s time to chisel out the subject line. This might seem like a predetermined characteristic of an email’s body content. After all, it’s a direct reflection of it. But it’s more than that. A subject line is the first content with the email for the recipient. It serves as a hook, window, and door into the email itself. Most importantly, many studies show that there is a strong correlation between the subject line and open rates.

Here are a few quick best practices for writing awesome subject lines:

  • Popular belief holds that a subject line should be below 60 characters in length because of how email providers display the subject line. Gmail’s is limited to 70 characters, Outlook 73. Going over that limit can cause the end of your message to be lost in an ellipsis.
  • The first three to four words are the most important. When a recipient reads across the line from left to right, they gauge interest as they move along. Those first few words need to have the highest possible impact to drive people into the email.
  • Try writing a long (70+ characters) and a short (30 characters) version of your subject line. Creating different versions allows you to hone down a message until it’s as sharp as it needs to be to be effective.
  • Do not wait until the last minute. Subject line writing is like headline writing in copywriting. A good copywriter can spend up to 25% of their time on the headline, and 75% of the time on the body. That might sound unreal, but what good is spending time on the body copy when no one is going to read it?

Of course, it’s always helpful to know what not to do too:

  • Don’t add accents or weird characters (even emojis, for now).
  • Don’t use exclamation points
  • Don’t capitalize an entire subject line.
  • Don’t lie or promise something ridiculous
  • Don’t use acronyms
  • Don’t use commas, try to use dashes instead

The Pre-header

Descending deeper into the physical structure of inboxes, we get to the pre-header. This is the top bit of body text that shows up in the preview of the email. It varies from inbox to inbox in terms of length, but it’s always super important to getting people to open an email.

Gmail allots 97 characters for the pre-header. The iPhone Mail app displays 81 characters in portrait mode. Maximizing this space is different depending on the needs and the target, but favoring text over a big image at the top of the email can get more information to a recipient enticing them to open an email.

Making emails readable

Emails should be reflective of the design characteristics of the sender. But they should never stray too far from the norms of emails and some general rules of thumb.

  • Use black font on a white background. Avoid using an image background since a lot of email providers block images in HTML so the email will look white anyway.
  • Use a clear font family like Arial.
  • Don’t make the email too dense. Leave a line break after each block of text and leave some space around the Call to Action.
  • Count on a width of 600 pixels.
  • Favor two column formats and, if possible, try to get your message across on the same screen so that people don’t have to scroll to understand what your email is about.

Text emails

Sure, every emailer out there wants to wow their readers with a beautiful design. But going over the top can backfire. Image-based emails are harder to get through spam filters, they are nearly impossible to read for mobile users, and they often get mangled in inboxes that refuse to display images automatically.

These are the primary reasons why text-based emails are better. They respond to different devices, can be adjusted automatically to suit different readers’ needs, and they don’t have as many formatting or deliverability issues.

Frequency, how often should I send emails?

The frequency of emailing depends entirely on the cycles and missions of your business. It could vary depending on the time of year, or it could vary on how recently someone became a customer or prospect. Many services, like Aweber, allow you to set up predetermined time sequences to automatically email people with specific intervals. Here are a few baseline generalities that can be helpful in helping to start framing frequency:

  • A regular frequency over a long period of time can create a sort of ritual around your emails. If it’s possible, send emails the same day of the week at the same time of day.
  • Every three weeks is a good reference point since waiting any longer risks having people forget about you.
  • Try to alternate between commercial offers and informational emails to bring value to your customers.

Either way, your frequency will eventually be determined by your base. Having a lot of your recipients unsubscribe, your open rates start falling, or getting blacklisted from certain domains are all signs that you might be sending too many emails. Adjust your frequency according to your KPIs until you find what works best.

Go forth and send!

You made it all the way through, congratulations! If you know someone who might benefit from this explainer, please share it with them. If I forgot something important, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!


One thought on “Everything You Need to Know About Email Marketing

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