What is Email Marketing? The Ultimate Guide

Today, email is so commonplace that it’s easy to take for granted—but we must never forget that email is also a powerful marketing channel. Email marketing was the backbone of early internet communications, and is still a popular way for brands to connect and engage with existing and potential customers.

But with new digital channels constantly emerging, does email still have the clout it used to? We’ve all hit ‘delete’ or ‘unsubscribe’ when a poorly written or badly-targeted email campaign lands in our inbox. However, well-planned and well-executed email marketing remains one of the most powerful and underrated digital marketing tools.

So, what is email marketing? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll look at what email marketing is and what the different types of email marketing are. We’ll also offer beginner tips for devising an effective email marketing strategy. We’ll cover:

  1. What is email marketing?
  2. What are the pros and cons of email marketing?
  3. What are the different types of email marketing?
  4. What do I need to create an email marketing strategy?
  5. How to develop an effective email marketing strategy: Top tips
  6. Wrap-up and further reading

Ready to get the lowdown on email marketing? Then let’s go.

1. What is email marketing?

Email marketing is a type of digital marketing that uses email to promote a company’s products or services to existing and potential customers. It aims to raise product awareness, generate leads, or build customer loyalty. While ’email marketing’ doesn’t typically refer to transactional emails (such as confirmation of purchase or customer service emails), any touch point with a customer can be used to further strengthen relationships. Therefore, any email a commercial entity sends its customers can be considered a marketing email in the appropriate context. 

The power of email marketing lies in the fact that—much like its analog, traditional direct mail—email lets companies communicate customized messaging directly to individual customers.

As one of the first digital marketing channels to emerge, email marketing has stood its ground against ‘sexier’ digital channels like social media, apps, or influencer marketing. And while some feel differently, email marketing remains a powerful tool in every digital marketer’s armory.

A brief history of email marketing

When the first email was sent in 1971, little could anyone have known what a phenomenon it would one day become. At the time, email was far removed from the media-rich content we know today, but it gradually evolved.

The first mass email was sent in 1978, and over time, many improvements were made. Nevertheless, email remained pretty unfamiliar to the average person until the dawn of the internet and modern home computing. The first mass-market email service provider—Hotmail (now known as Outlook)—launched in 1996. For the first time, this used HTML to make messages more aesthetically pleasing. And this was the seed of modern email as we know it today.

In the late 90s, companies with products to sell were fast to catch on: email had great potential for communicating with the masses quickly and cheaply. But these days were the Wild West of the internet—there was little regulation, targeting was poor, the execution was pretty crummy, and people soon started blocking these unwelcome emails. Spam was born!

While those first blanket emails used a scattergun approach, modern email marketing—when executed with thought and precision—is highly targeted to customers’ needs. However, while email marketing has grown more sophisticated, companies struggle in the battle against spam filters to this day. It’s the legacy that won’t die!

Some believe there’s little place for email marketing in the 21st century, but we strongly disagree. Email marketing may have changed, but it still plays a vital role in any digital marketing strategy. And when used effectively, it’s an excellent complement to other digital channels.

2. What are the pros and cons of email marketing?

We’ve already touched on some of the benefits and drawbacks of email marketing, but here’s a comprehensive list.

Pros of email marketing

  • It’s cheap: Email marketing is the most cost-effective way for brands to connect with a large audience.
  • It’s fast: Email marketing messages can be produced and sent quickly. This is a critical feature for responsive, real-time marketing.
  • It’s ubiquitous: According to a large-scale study in 2019, the number of email users will top 4.3 billion by the end of 2023. This fact alone is a compelling reason to utilize this powerful digital channel.
  • It creates measurable results: Using web analytics, businesses can track email marketing data in granular detail. This means they can assess everything from open rates to link clicks, and other metrics that can inform their strategies.
  • It’s customizable: Unlike direct mail, emails are easy to customize, and can be tweaked for different audiences.
  • It’s great for shareable content: Email is not only quick and easy to send; if you get your content right, it’s quick and easy to share, too.
  • It’s excellent for building brand awareness: Even if customers don’t engage immediately, receiving consistent emails from a brand will gradually raise their awareness.
  • It’s permissions-based: When contacting an email subscriber, you know they’ve specifically opted-in to receive your messaging. This makes email marketing much more like a conversation, and very different from other forms of digital marketing, which act more like a loudspeaker.

Cons of email marketing

  • Spam filters are an ongoing problem: Even for legitimate marketers, spam filters prevent many emails from reaching their destination.
  • There are complex regulatory requirements: Consumer privacy legislation can cause headaches for marketers—especially as different jurisdictions have different rules, such as GDPR.
  • It can be hard to stand out: The sheer number of emails people receive means that everyone is your competition. It’s easy for emails to be ignored or deleted.
  • It’s easy to unsubscribe: Even with the best-crafted email campaign in the world, if it hits someone’s inbox at the wrong moment, they can easily unsubscribe. Then you’ve lost that customer for good.
  • You must tackle design issues: Modern email marketing needs to deliver a stand-out brand experience, while being readable on an increasing number of devices. This means using responsive design and being aware of file sizes and attachments.
  • It’s costly to get wrong: A piecemeal approach or poorly-targeted email marketing campaign can be costly to your strategy—both in terms of lost revenue and wasted time.

3. What are the different types of email marketing?

To better understand email marketing and mitigate the risks of getting it wrong, it helps to understand the different types. Broadly speaking, there are four main categories of email marketing. These are:

  • Newsletters
  • Promotional emails
  • Transactional and customer service emails
  • Behavioral emails

In this section, we’ll explore each of these in a little more depth, defining what they are and how each fits into the overall sales and marketing process.

Newsletters

Newsletters allow you to share relevant and valuable information directly with your network of subscribers, which might include existing and prospective customers. In terms of email marketing, newsletters are generally designed to inform rather than push products or services. By sharing valuable information, you can cement your position as an industry expert, building brand loyalty, awareness, and trust. 

Overall, newsletters are great for building a digital rapport. However, you should avoid using them to make the hard sell. They are more about creating engaging, shareable content and are often used to target prospective customers in the early stages of the digital marketing funnel.

What sort of content do newsletters contain?

While they may contain gentle product promotions, the best newsletters usually focus on thought leadership content. This might include the latest industry insights, news, knowledge, and tools.

They often have exclusive content (such as free white papers and user guides) or top tips, blog posts, and other articles. An interior design brand, for instance, might share a blog on how to create mood lighting for different occasions. While this won’t involve pushing their range of lampshades, it might encourage recipients to consider their lighting needs and see the brand as an expert.

Promotional emails

Promotional emails are used to make customers aware of products and services. By targeting those who’ve already expressed interest in your brand with relevant promotions, the potential benefits are clear. This is where you can start driving potential customers down the digital marketing funnel towards the sales end of the process. 

However, you should avoid sending promotional emails until you’ve built a foundational level of trust with a prospect. From a practical standpoint, it’s also good to know that promotional emails are more commonly blocked by spam filters. Only send them when you need to. 

What sort of content do promotional emails contain?

Promotional emails contain things like coupons, discounts, and other special offers. They might also include free admittance to events, webinars, or conferences. In general, promotional emails should be as specific as possible to the recipient, which is easier than it sounds. 

Since you can track everything (from clicks to bounce rates), you can quickly build a profile of each recipient’s likely interests. For instance, following your newsletter, prospects who clicked on your mood lighting blog post could be the perfect cohort to send a promotion for living room lamps.

what is email marketing example

Transactional and customer service emails

Transactional and customer service emails are sent to customers following a commercial engagement, such as product purchases or customer service queries. While they are not typically marketing emails, they have one benefit over all other types of email: high open rates. These are emails that customers want to receive, providing brands with an opportunity to gently reinforce brand engagement and loyalty.

What sort of content do transactional and customer service emails contain?

Transactional emails generally contain things like confirmation of purchase, invoices, annual statements, delivery confirmations, and details on returns or exchanges. Essentially, these are all emails sent in response to direct customer engagement. 

Customer service emails are slightly different; they might focus on customer complaints, queries, or follow-ups on a free trial. Transactional and customer service emails are not the place to heavily promote yourself. However, because they have high open rates, this is your best opportunity to create a memorable brand experience. 

Make sure your transactional emails are prompt, personable, and appropriate. And, of course, they should meet a customer’s needs. Then, if it’s right to do so, you can use the opportunity to gently up or cross-sell relevant products and services.

Behavioral emails

Behavioral emails are automated emails sent to subscribers when they engage with your brand across digital channels. This might include your website, social media, or previous email campaigns. Behavioral emails are similar to transactional emails but are more opportunistic. 

Whereas transactional emails are those you are obliged to send, behavioral emails capitalize on a prospect’s brand engagement to cultivate further connections. We call this ‘behavioral’ email marketing, because it directly responds to a customer’s behavior or action. Something to note here: while you’ll find many articles online listing dozens of different email marketing types, the truth is that most of them fall into this category.

What sort of content do behavioral emails contain?

As you build profiles of your customers and their past interactions with your brand, you can start producing sophisticated and personalized messaging. Early in the sales cycle, for example, if someone subscribes to your newsletter, you might send a welcome email. If a prospect carries out a free trial, you can send them additional information the following day. 

After purchasing a product, maybe you’ll send a product review request, or a shopping reminder if a customer abandons their cart. Or maybe you’ll even set up re-engagement emails to send, say, three months after a customer’s last transaction. You get the idea. 

Ultimately, behavioral emails are not strictly necessary (in the way that transactional emails are) but still respond to a customer’s actions. They are a great way of discreetly (or overtly) reinforcing a positive experience of your brand.

Now we have an idea of the four main types of email marketing, what do you need to get started?

4. What do I need to create an email marketing strategy?

Each of the four types of email marketing—newsletters, promotional emails, transactional emails, and behavioral emails—requires a unique and carefully devised strategy. However, some general steps apply to all four.

From a practical standpoint, you require three things before you can start devising any kind of email marketing strategy. These are:

  • An email marketing provider: While it’s technically possible to deliver your mass email marketing campaigns entirely in-house, email service providers can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. They also provide detailed metrics so you can enhance your email marketing strategy. Which provider you select will depend on your specific needs. Some popular providers worth considering include Hubspot, Mailchimp, and Moosend.
  • A contact list: Before sending an email campaign, you need recipients! Some brands will purchase email lists. However, this is generally considered unethical and, frankly, less effective. Instead, you should aim to build a list of relevant, interested customers. There are many ways to encourage new opt-ins and sign-ups. You can do so by offering compelling product upgrades, promotions and deals, loyalty programs, free resources, and creating highly shareable content to disseminate on social media.
  • A clear objective: Before devising any email marketing campaign, you should be clear about what you are trying to achieve. Are you building brand awareness? Do you want a list of positive customer reviews? Or are you selling a new product? Always have clear success metrics in place. For instance, when promoting a new product line, choose a particular percentage increase in revenue to give your strategy a clear goal to work towards.

Now, presuming you have all of these in place, how best can you develop a strategy that works?

5. How to develop an effective email marketing strategy: Top tips

Here are a few tips for getting started with your email marketing strategy:

Be consistent and timely

Although it’s best not to bombard your subscriber list you should aim to keep in regular contact. A steady, drip, drip approach is the best way to build awareness and trust in your brand. Remain consistent too. Always maintain some aspect of your tone of voice and visual branding, even if you’re sending different campaigns. This will help subscribers recognize your emails. And wherever possible, target subscribers with messages relevant to their needs at a given moment in time (just-in-time marketing).

Make it personal (but not overbearing)

People frequently think personalization means using a recipient’s name in an email, or having a hyper-friendly tone of voice. While this can be appropriate in the right context, there’s a fine line between friendliness and being overbearing. Too much corporate familiarity turns people off, as does letting on that you know too much about them. Instead, think of personalizing the messaging as anticipating their needs. 

Content should match what you know about their desires and past behaviors without stepping into the ‘uncanny valley’, where you spook them by showing that you know too much about them. For instance, if you know a customer is interested in a particular product, place this prominently in a promotional email amongst other special offers that might interest them less. You’ve personalized the email: they’ll gravitate towards the product they want, but by diluting this they won’t feel as though you’re spying on them.

Vary your messaging

While your brand should always sound like ‘you’ email marketing is a good opportunity to mix things up. For example, if you’re targeting different customer segments, adjust the language accordingly. Another option is to separate one cohort of customers into two groups. By sending each group a slightly different message, you can see which results in the greatest engagement, clickthroughs, or sales (known as A/B testing). You can then adjust future messages accordingly.

Develop device-agnostic content

From a practical perspective, optimize your email marketing for all devices. Many readers will open your email on their mobile device, not on a desktop. Most email service providers now have adaptive templates that manage this issue automatically, but it’s still something to keep in mind when you’re designing your layout and messaging. For instance, which copy are recipients likely to read first on different devices? 

Other considerations include attachments and embedded images or files, which can cause emails to bounce or be filtered if too large.

Don’t overlook the ‘from’ name and subject line

It’s important to focus on the body content of your email campaigns, but try not to overlook the ‘from’ name and subject line. As the first things readers see, these often mark the difference between whether recipients open your email or delete it. Ensure your subject line is short and punchy and gives them a reason to open the email. 

As for the ‘from’ name, make sure you’ve filled this out. You can use your company’s title, or—better yet—a named contact that the customer will recognize; another way to give your message a personal edge.

Don’t bombard your subscribers

Once people subscribe to your mailing list, it can be tempting to hit them with regular messaging—after all, you want to stand out from the crowd. And what better way to do that than by sending more messages than the competition? This is an ill-advised strategy. 

While it may seem like you have a captive audience, never forget that you’re only ever a click away from an unsubscribe. Only send messages when you need to and when a customer will welcome the email for addressing one of their needs.

Make the most of unsubscribes

Unfortunately, no matter how careful you are, some unsubscribes are unavoidable. If they happen, though, make the best of it! For example, if one of your campaigns leads to a higher or lower average number of unsubscribes versus open rate, check again. What about your email campaign might have encouraged more/fewer people to unsubscribe? What can you learn from this for future campaigns? 

Perhaps you had a special offer that people liked, or maybe there were spelling mistakes that put people off. There’s always something you can learn, even when something goes wrong.

Be transparent and avoid unsolicited emails

Always make it clear when a customer’s opting in to receive your email marketing communications. And never send unsolicited emails. Even if customers ‘technically’ signed up to your mailing list by carrying out a purchase, for example, it’s important to be transparent with them about the kind of messaging they will receive. 

You should make it as easy as possible for them to select which types of emails they are happy to get. Even if they opt out of all marketing communications, it’s better that they opt out of certain emails than unsubscribe from your entire mailing list.

Abide by regulations

All organizations have legal obligations when it comes to email marketing. These vary across national and international boundaries, so you’ll need to make sure you are meeting your statutory requirements. If not, you may be blacklisted, hit by a fine, or, at worst, face some other kind of legal action.

Every email marketing strategy looks different depending on the message you want to send. However, follow these tips, and you’ll soon be creating compelling email marketing campaigns that build awareness, loyalty, trust, and—ultimately—sales.

6. Wrap-up and further reading

In this post, we answered the question: what is email marketing? We’ve learned what email marketing is, how it came about, and its main advantages and disadvantages. We’ve also explored the four main categories of email marketing: newsletters, promotional emails, transactional emails, and behavioral emails, how they differ, and how best to devise a solid email marketing strategy for each.

To learn more about what a career in digital marketing involves, check out this free, 5-day Intro to Digital Marketing short course. You can also explore more digital marketing topics by reading the following introductory guides:

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