15 ways to improve your email marketing campaigns

Email marketing pros share their top tips on how to craft emails that will get opened and acted upon.

Despite many years of predictions that email marketing would be replaced or fade away, that day has yet to arrive. In fact, email marketing remains one of the most effective ways of reaching prospective and existing customers.

Of course, there is always room for improvement with any marketing method. So to find out how businesses, especially small and midsized ones, can increase the effectiveness of their email campaigns dozens of email marketers and small business experts offer their top 16 tips for creating emails that recipients will read and click on.

1. Segment your email lists. “You may have subscribers who are interested in different types of emails, such as coupons, events or news, but not necessarily all three,” says Sarah Vandenberg, founder and CEO, Vandenberg Digital Communications. So it’s important to understand who you are sending emails to. “For example, if you offer discounts for students or for retirees, consider segmenting your email lists by age group. If you have a press release, email it to a dedicated media list rather than your full one. [Providing] relevant messages to your [subscribers and customers] can encourage higher open and click-through rates and fewer unsubscribes.”

2. Make sure your emails are mobile friendly. “Research from Litmus [and BlueHornet] shows that 71 percent of people will delete an email immediately if it doesn’t display correctly [on their mobile device],” says Cynthia Price, vice president, marketing, Emma, a provider of email marketing services and software. “To avoid [your email] being sent straight to the trash, it’s important to focus on creating mobile-optimized email content that is eye-catching and engaging on a smartphone.”

To that end, she advises that marketers “opt for a single-column design that works well with the vertical scroll. Use big images and bold headlines [though many marketers advise brands NOT to use big images]. Include plenty of white space for easy scanning. Keep your subject lines short. And make sure your CTA buttons are large enough to be easily tapped – at least 44 pixels squared.”

“Email marketing services like MailChimp allow you to test how your messages look across a variety of devices and in different inboxes, such as Gmail in Chrome or Outlook 2011, and make sure that your designs display correctly wherever they’re sent,” says Vandenberg.

But if you’re not using an email service that lets you test how your messages will look on different devices, use responsive design to create your emails.

Yesmail’s latest benchmark report found that brands with responsive design in all of their emails garner a 55 percent higher mobile click-to-open rate (CTO) than brands that have not implemented responsive in any of their campaigns,” says Ivy Shtereva, director of marketing at Yesmail.

3. Consider text-only emails – or not using image-based emails. “We [found] that a simple text-based email with links to our content or product works the best,” says Copley Broer, who runs LandlordStation, which provides online tools and content to property managers and landlords throughout the country. “Images look pretty but most email clients like Outlook block them automatically which means that most people just see broken stuff instead of the pretty image. So we write very short but descriptive paragraphs with links to the site and we tag those links so we can see what people are clicking on and what they aren't.”

4. Have email come from a real person (as opposed to ‘noreply’). “Sixty-four percent of subscribers open an email based on who the email is from,” says Steven Macdonald, digital marketing manager, SuperOffice. “No one likes receiving an email from donotreply@example.com.” So next campaign, have your email come from a member of your marketing or customer service teams, or even your CEO – and let people know how to respond, so their reply won’t get bounced or ignored.

5. Make your subject line compelling and to the point. “You win or lose with the subject line in your email, so make it as compelling as possible,” says Michael Weiss, cofounder & managing partner, C-4 Analytics, a digital marketing agency. “Either spell out an offer that your customers will find irresistible, such as, ’50 percent off our most popular software,’ or inform customers of something special that's happening, such as, ‘Duck a l'Orange is back on Tuesday!’ This is even more effective if you have a segmented mailing list tailored to specific buying habits of your customers.”

“Subject lines can make or break a campaign,” says EJ McGowan, senior director & general manager, Campaigner. “They have to be compelling enough to persuade contacts to open the emails, but friendly enough to not turn them off. First and foremost, keep them short; lines with fewer than 50 characters have higher open rates, and anything over 50 runs the risk of being truncated,” he explains. Also, “try to convey a sense of urgency in the subject line with a special announcement or limited-time sale, but don’t be too pushy.”

“Short subject lines that drive urgency – [such as] ‘Last chance!’ ‘Ends tonight!’ etc. – get opened,” says Sean Hay, director of retention, Sunglass Warehouse. “We see up to 8 percent higher open rates than average [when we do this].” That said, the email’s “success in driving revenue depends on the offer contained in the email.”

6. Personalize your email. “Email blasts that clearly have no customization won’t resonate well with your contacts,” says McGowan. “But personalization, when done right, can both encourage contacts to open the emails and then interact with the content on the inside.

“Start with the basics, like adding first names to the subject lines,” he suggests. “If you have it, use more advanced data in the body of the email to offer a compelling call to action. For instance, use past purchase behavior to determine which specials might be most intriguing to certain contacts,” he says. “Whether basic or advanced, the more recipient data you can use to personalize the messages, the more impactful the campaign will be.”

“In place of the mass emails of days gone by, subscribers want highly relevant messages that fit their unique interests and pain points,” says Kraig Swensrud, CMO, Campaign Monitor. “This sentiment was echoed in a Janrain study, which showed that 74 percent of online customers are frustrated when they receive content that has nothing to do with their interests. The good news is that personalization in email marketing is proven to increase click-throughs. Emails with personalized subject lines are 26 percent more likely to be opened.”

7. Have a clear call to action (CTA). “One of the biggest mistakes in email marketing is not having clearly defined calls to action,” says Milan Malivuk, director of Marketing at itracMarketer, an email marketing and marketing automation provider. “It doesn't matter if you're driving traffic to a page, getting people to call a number or asking for form submissions. If the reader can't determine what they're expected to do within 5 seconds, chances are they [will delete your email],” he states. “So when designing an email for a marketing campaign, test it out by showing it to a friend or spouse and give them 5 seconds to look at the email then see if they know what they need to do.”

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