Blogs, PPC ads, affiliate marketing, social media—each digital marketing strategy has its own strengths and weaknesses. But if you're looking at numbers alone, one strategy stands out as most effective: email marketing. In 2018, email marketing averaged a $42 ROI for every $1 spent. Plus, small business owners rated email marketing as the best avenue for both customer acquisition (81%) and retention (80%).
Still, some email newsletters have more engagement, more conversions, and a better ROI than others. We've collected some sample newsletters from Really Good Emails and dissected the most effective ones to see what makes them work. Here we'll walk you through the process of creating an effective email newsletter, from preparation to execution.
Know Your Audience
There's no one-size-fits-all solution for any marketing endeavor. The success of your email campaigns lies in how well you cater to your intended reader. Crafting emails that are relevant to the recipient creates 18x more revenue than generic mass emails. The techniques and strategies that appeal to Customer A might very well drive away Customer B, so start by evaluating who is going to read your emails.
Identify user devices
First, you want to look at which devices and apps your newsletter subscribers are using to read—or not read—your email newsletters. Different services display emails differently, especially mobile devices, whose screens are more constrained. Specifics vary, such as how much of the subject line fits on the screen, how much of the content is previewed, and sometimes even how graphics are displayed.
So your first step should be to check your analytics and find these answers. You'll reference the answers later, when deciding on subject lines, preheaders, graphics, and more.
Understand reader preferences
Even more important than technical details are the consumer preferences of your users. Why did they sign up for your newsletter to begin with?
Some people sign up for email newsletters because they want exclusive deals and nothing more. Others sign up to stay informed, so they know about promotions or events ahead of time. Still others are more interested in the culture of your brand and are more likely to click links to your blog articles than to products you're selling.
The best practice is to implement user personas—imaginary people or "characters" used as a placeholder to represent real types of customers and clients. Read our article about user personas for details on how to create personas that make sense for your brand.
With a diverse range of customer groups, how do you please everyone with a single email? Answer: you don't. Most email marketers advise against what they call "broadcast emails"—that is, a single email for all your subscribers.
Instead, you'll need to segment your users, breaking them down into smaller groups who'll receive more focused emails. Emails that are personalized to user segments have higher click-through rates and lower unsubscribe rates and generate more revenue than unsegmented emails.
You'll segment your userbase on a number of factors, including everything from the devices and personas we already discussed, to other factors like demographics, sign-up date, and more. Read our complete guide to email segmentation for more details on how to best segment your audience.
Define your business goals
Then there are your own business goals to consider, largely dependent on industry: An eCommerce brand is going to have different business goals than a non-profit. While you're considering what your audience wants, don't forget to consider what you want too—though, hopefully, the two overlap. Here are some common metrics to mull over:
Sales or conversions—Pack your newsletters with CTAs to get readers to a conversion page, but provide enough context in the content areas to incentivize them. Even better, streamline the process with direct conversion links embedded in the email, e.g., an in-email widget that goes straight to checkout.
Traffic—If you're more interested in being popular than profitable, you should still put a lot of CTAs in your email. But instead of links to products and services, use links to content that are more beneficial to the reader: blog articles, event pages, announcements, etc.
Reputation—Want to improve how people view your brand? Share good news about your company. You don't need to link anywhere if your main priority is brand awareness; your big concern is sharing your narrative. Just don't forget to angle your self-promotion in a way that the reader sees the benefit to them—if you're talking yourself up without connecting it to your readers, they won't be impressed.
Other channels—For a more coordinated strike to popularize your other channels, whether a push for followers on social media or introducing a new sales outlet, email is great for spreading the word. Be sure to include an incentive, such as advertising a coupon code for following a social media account.
How to Write an Effective Subject Line
Your subject line is arguably the most important part of your newsletter, as it determines whether or not people open your email at all. It needs to be enticing, concise (so it fits in most email app preview windows), and relevant to the content of the email.
As for the content of the subject line, it will of course depend on the content of the email and the segment of subscribers you're sending to. If you're largely dealing with bargain hunters, put the deal front and center (including specific numbers). If you're looking for clicks through to your content, use the subject line to hook them by teasing a story, article, or topic.
The elusive question: title case or sentence case? According to AWeber, most marketing experts swear by sentence case because it makes the email seem more personal; friends don't typically use title case when they email each other. We generally agree, especially if your subject line is more than a few words.
You can always use the following rule: If your subject line is a sentence, use sentence case. If it's not, use title case.
But your best bet is to do some A/B testing of subject lines—most email marketing software will offer that service—to see what works best.
No matter who your audience is, they are likely to respond well to personalized email subject lines. A study by Marketing Sherpa found that, on average, including the recipient's actual name in the email subject line increased the open rate by 29.3%. That figure rises and falls based on the industry, and companies in travel and consumer products/services saw increases of 40.8% and 41.8%, respectively.
Most email newsletter apps will allow you to personalize your subject line with simple placeholders in the text.
Depending on the device screen size and the email app, your subject line will appear differently to each user. The biggest risk is being cut short, so you want to be sure the most important stuff is up front.
This is where your device analytics come in handy, so you can optimize your character length based on the device most of your readers use. For quick reference, see the chart in this article from Campaign Monitor.
Consider whether or not you want to show a little emoji. Using emoji in email subject lines is a risk. For one thing, it doesn't fit in with more professional and sophisticated brands. But even if it does match your tone, emoji are displayed differently on different devices, so you have less control over how your subject line comes across.
Still, for the right kind of reader, emoji are a shortcut to a personal relationship and can increase your open rate. If emoji coincide with your brand personality, experiment with them and track your open rates to see how they work.
In an email preview, the preheader text is the snippet of email content that the user can read before opening the actual email. In that way, the preheader text acts as a bonus subject line, allowing you to add more information or complementary context that didn't fit into the subject line.
But it only works if you use it proactively. If you don't fill out the preheader text, it will resort to the default: usually the first line or two of text in your email, or maybe some metadata gibberish listing out the recipients. If your preheader text is something like "click here for the online version," you're missing an opportunity.
Headers and Dividers
If you're familiar with other online writing, you already know the advantage of separating your text into smaller, digestible pieces rather than one overwhelming chunk. The same principle applies to emails: Using headers or visual dividers helps readers scan for the parts they want to see most.
Even if your newsletter revolves around images instead of text, you can still use visual dividers in the same way as text headers. Visual dividers come in various forms—everything from a stylized line to a full-width photograph. As long as it communicates a clear break in topic, it's effective.
An added benefit of using headers and dividers is that you can fit more content and more CTAs into your newsletter—which is especially effective for content sites. Consider the format of this New York Times newsletter, where multiple articles each have their own link, with clear dividers: Readers go directly to the article they want to read.
Visual dividers can also be a valuable opportunity for branding by using your brand colors or incorporating your logo into your dividers.
The trick isn't to use images. It's to use the right images—on brand and optimized for your target reader. Buzzfeed's "This Week in Cats" newsletter, for example, understands well that its readership of cat lovers enjoy pictures more than text, so they prioritize visuals—yes, pictures of cats—in their newsletter.
It pays to develop a visual style for your brand, something that makes all your images recognizable as yours. This could be overt, like a distinct style of illustration from the same artist, or more subtle, like regularly using the same camera filter. But be sure all your images aren't the same size: Variety creates more visual stimulation and breaks up the monotony of overly structured newsletters.
In particular, images of people are more effective. And not just any people— real people. Photos of your staff personalize the bonds between you and your readers. Stock photographs don't test as well as custom photographs, so if you must use stock, choose images that don't look like stock, or personalize them by editing in your company logo (be sure to check the usage rights first).
Finally, be sure to hyperlink your images so that if the user clicks them, it's not a wasted click. You can direct users to pages relevant to the image to save them some steps, but if the image is too broad, you can always link it to your home page.
Calls to Action (CTAs)
While you don't want to bombard your readers with outgoing links, it's still best to give them multiple options for when your main CTAs aren't relevant to them. How many CTAs depends on the length of the email, the content (e.g., if you're promoting multiple products or blogs, or only one), and how aggressive your brand is comfortable being.
This email from Nokia is all about their Steel HR line of watches, but even so, they include quite a few different CTAs to the same product page.
In general, people like interactivity, so buttons for social sharing or linking back to your site are a must. You can even take this principle a step further and provide special interactions only available in the newsletter—such as voting or rating.
Footers are often thought of as a necessary evil in newsletters, where you stuff all the obligatory information like legal disclaimers and unsubscribe links.
On the bright side, you can still jazz up your footers and make them work more for you. One great approach is to include your physical address and/or contact number—these things make your brand seem more legitimate, even if your readers never actually use this information. Some people even prefer traditional contact methods, and since the footer is a low-traffic area anyway, you don't risk much by including company details.
How to Avoid Spam Filters
Because spam filters are almost always automated, there's a large margin for error; your emails may be flagged even when the recipient desperately wants to read them.
So when you compose your email newsletters, keep these tips in mind for avoiding spam filters:
Don't use all caps.
Don't use excessive exclamation points.
Don't use more than three different fonts or text colors.
Stick to a 60:40 ratio for text-to-images only if your email is less than 500 characters. (This was once thought to be a universal rule for all emails, but Email on Acid demonstrated that it only applies to short emails.)
Avoid these spam trigger words, as listed by Yesware.
It should also go without saying that unsolicited emails quickly get flagged as spam. We're writing this article under the assumption that you're sending emails to people who requested them.
If nothing else, we suggest taking the time to pick the right email marketing app for your business. These apps facilitate A/B testing for each aspect of your messages—plus, they offer templates, help you design newsletters, and offer in-depth tracking tools. Different tools will help you in different ways, so try out a few before diving in.
With the right tools and the tips we've provided here, you can increase engagement and help grow your business, one newsletter at a time.