Headline article image What is email marketing (and why you need it)

What is email marketing (and why you need it)

What is email marketing and why it should be high on your small business priority list

For brands and businesses trying to capture their customers’ attention in today’s all-consuming age of information, the number of marketing channels available can seem endless – and overwhelming.

From TikTok videos to influencer campaigns to webinars and everything in between, when it comes to effectively targeting your audience it can be difficult to know where to start – or where to stop. While it’s no secret that marketing technology innovation is exploding, there’s one channel that continues to outperform the rest when it comes to return on investment (ROI), and it’s been generating the big bucks for brands since the ’70s. Enter: email marketing campaigns.

Today, experts estimate the average person checks their inbox 15 to 20 times a day, meaning email newsletters or offers is an integral part of any successful brand strategy. But what do marketing emails encompass, and why is it (still) so important? Let’s break it down.

What is email marketing?

When asking, "What is email marketing?" be prepared for a variety of answers. Email marketing is the use of email as a direct channel to promote a product or service or build a relationship with your customers. Most often, it’s used to generate sales or leads through the use of incentives or advertising material. Essentially, anytime a business sends an email that isn’t to confirm a purchase or respond to a specific query, it can be labeled as part of a broader email campaign and overall strategy.

While marketing emails have been around for decades, the possibilities and segmentation opportunities within the field have evolved significantly, as have email marketing tools.

Where email marketing was once used to send mass communications to a big list of subscribers, there is an increasing focus on personalization, and sending more targeted communications to subgroups like your VIPs.

What are some common types of email marketing? 

The explanation to this question should always be followed by the elaboration that there are, in fact,  various types of email marketing that brands can utilize to build customer rapport and drive conversions, including (but not limited to):

The welcome email: Your customers will never be more interested or engaged with you than the moment they’ve just signed up to your email list. Therefore, your welcome email presents a crucial opportunity to build rapport right from the start with a catchy subject line and engaging content. Research shows that 81 percent of retail shoppers start researching online before deciding on their purchase, and many brands use the welcome emails to start building a customer journey that is more likely to lead to a conversion down the line.

The lead-nurturing emails: As the name implies, this type of email marketing strategy involves sending a sequence of strategically connected emails to gradually encourage your customer to take action. Lead-nurturing emails (or lead-gen emails) can be used within your marketing strategy to promote or sell your product or services – or they can help promote content marketing initiatives such as webinars or blog posts. It’s important to send the lead-nurturing emails at the right time to new email subscribers and monitor the open rate of these to ensure they're impacting existing or potential customers in the right way. For example, if someone has just signed up for your email newsletter, don’t assume they’re ready to buy. Start by adding value and building a relationship – send them some tips on how to dress for the season, use your product or keep their pet healthy. When you’ve gained an understanding of what piques their interest – and built a relationship – you can start notifying them of the products or services you can offer.

Transactional emails: These are targeted, singular emails triggered by an action your customer has taken onsite, such as confirming an e-commerce purchase and providing shipping details or confirming an appointment booking with the time and date. They tend to have a high click-through rate (CTR) because customers know they’re coming and value the information provided.

The newsletter: One of the most common email marketing campaigns, newsletters are a great way for brands to stay top of mind among their customers. Many retailers use newsletters to showcase their bestselling products and discount items or offer adjacent content marketing (such as tips and advice stories or interviews with people aligned with the brand). Meanwhile, service providers often use e-newsletters to showcase employees, share company updates or announce special discounts.

The abandoned cart email: These are automated emails designed to re-engage customers by reminding them of the items they were interested in. When done well, they can be an excellent way for retailers to recover lost sales – research has shown that 10.7 percent of shoppers will complete their purchase after opening an abandoned cart email. This can be done with a clear subject line and quick note that the product is still available. 

Is email marketing worthwhile for your business?

To put it simply, yes. Here’s why:

It’s personal: Your customers want to feel seen, heard and special, and no channel can achieve this like email. Research shows personalized emails can increase revenue by as much as 760 percent. In an era of oversaturation, personalization is a marketer's secret weapon. Alana Pozzebon, senior global media manager at luxury fashion label Stella McCartney, says email offers an unparalleled level of relationship-building compared to other channels.

“Email marketing offers a direct conversation channel between a brand and a consumer. We can use promotional content to speak with an individual, rather than at them, unlike other platforms like print and even social media. Receiving an email addressed specifically to you, with a special discount offer for your birthday along with recommendations based on previous purchases, is a powerful customer experience.”

It’s cost-effective and scalable: Studies show that marketers receive a staggering $36 for every $1 spent on email marketing and that email marketing has a conversion rate of 2.3 percent, compared to 1 percent for social media. Unlike print or social campaigns, you don’t have to pay exorbitant fees to a third-party platform for their space or audience because you’re sending direct communications to your own. You can decide how much you want to spend on your email marketing, whether that’s hiring a dedicated email specialist and graphic designer, paying for high-proficiency software or simply doing it yourself.

Sabri Suby, author of Sell Like Crazy and founder and head of growth at leading marketing consultancy King Kong, says: “Email is the engine that’s generated millions of dollars for my marketing business. It can sell to 10 people as easily as it can to 100,000 people. In other words, it scales! I once spent 30 minutes writing an email, which has made AU$467,163 to date. Thanks to the power of email marketing and automation, this one email has been a workhorse that keeps grinding to bring in revenue, with no further input from me.”

It can reach a vast audience: Profitability and personalization aren’t the only benefits that email has over other marketing channels – it can also reach the most people. Having an active email address is the prerequisite for an account on any other digital platform, so in effect, it’s the currency of the internet. Research shows that 61 percent of consumers choose email as their preference for hearing from brands.

Chad S. White, head of research at Oracle Marketing Consulting and author of Email Marketing Rules, says: “Email marketing gets headlines for being inexpensive and generating a really high return on investment. However, its greatest strength is that everyone has an email account – and that consumers prefer to hear from brands via email than through any other channel. And this preference for email has held strong in survey after survey for well over a decade.”

It’s yours to control: In addition to having to pay to reach followers on social media, you’re also at the mercy of the platforms’ algorithms. “It is a huge risk to build a business on a platform owned by somebody else,” Suby says, pointing out that social media platforms regularly change their algorithms, which can affect your ability to reach your followers. 

It provides valuable customer insights: Email marketing is incredibly data-driven and measurable. With the right software, you can analyze click-through rates (CTR), bounce rate and conversion rate, and conduct A/B testing. The data you gain around the content or messaging that’s resonating with your email subscribers – and which campaigns convert – can be used to optimize your marketing activity across all channels.

How to get started with email marketing

We know why email marketing campaigns are worthwhile for your business, but it’s important to look before you jump into this powerful channel. Here’s how to get started:

Learn the law: Before you do anything, it’s essential that you have a comprehensive understanding of the data and privacy regulations for email marketing in the region that you’re sending to. The US must comply with the CAM-SPAM Act, while Australia, the UK and the EU must adhere to the GDPR policy. If you’re sending emails to multiple regions, you must tailor your practices to their laws, not the law of your origin country.

Choose your email service provider (ESP): Next, you need an ESP to help you create and store your subscriber list, create an email template and provide your insights. There are a number of email marketing platforms that can do this, depending on your budget and the size of your email list. For example, early on, you may be focused on how to build an email list from scratch. Choosing the right ESP is important to optimize your email’s deliverability.

Salesforce and Hubspot are among the bigger players in the industry, but there are plenty of options for smaller budgets, too. Suby suggests: “A great place to start if you have a smaller-sized list (under 10,000) is MailChimp, which has some of the best deliverability in the industry. Some other good email marketing platforms are ActiveCampaign, GetResponse, AWeber and Drip.”

Build an email list of the right people: Most ESPs will let you create a subscription form to embed on your website, and one of the easiest ways to drive sign-ups is by creating an offer or incentive, such as 10 percent off their next purchase. But remember, you’re looking for the right subscribers, who will increase your open rate, not just any subscribers.

Pozzebon explains: “The quality of your leads is crucial in your capture phase. If you are actively recruiting people who are in the market for your brand, it’s going to be much easier to get your message across. Personalization is key here – ensure you quickly send new sign-ups a welcoming email to start building a positive relationship with your brand.”

Define your goals and key messages: An mail capaign can deliver a range of outcomes – whether that’s nurturing new leads, re-engaging lapsed customers, announcing sales and discounts, recovering lost sales, or confirming a purchase or booking. Before you construct your email, make sure you understand which objective you’re focusing on. And, as White says, don’t be afraid of a bit of repetition.

“New email marketers sometimes struggle with what to promote and what to say. It’s important to recognize that very few of your subscribers are going to read every email you send, so it’s okay to have some repetition. For instance, you can promote an offer and then promote it again the day before the offer ends, tweaking the initial message to emphasize the impending expiration. Or the primary message of your last email could become a secondary message in your next email. Just like in advertising, it pays to emphasize important messages through repetition with small variations.”

Craft an engaging email: Your subject line and preheader copy will essentially determine your open rate. They need to be strong, punchy, engaging and informative.

Once your audience is through the first hoop, the rest of the copy needs to be engaging and personable in tone – you’ve dropped into their private inbox, remember. Ensure key messages are communicated clearly, and most often, less is more when it comes to text or copy. Don’t waste their time with huge bodies of text and distract the reader from clicking through to your website. Following your subject and preheader, Suby says this sequence is best:

Lead: Drag them into your copy by captivating them with an interesting statement or ‘pattern interrupt’ that jolts them to attention.

Body: Fascinate them with a gripping or unusual story or example.

Call To Action: Get them to click, share, buy or do whatever the primary call to action of your email is.

Design also plays a huge part here. If you don’t have enough money in the budget for a graphic designer, most ESPs offer email templates, and platforms like Canva make simple design accessible for everyone.

Track and evaluate: An often-overlooked step in the email marketing process is implementing regular evaluation or analysis. 

Take time to examine your analytics and see what time of day people are most likely to open your emails, which subjects and preheaders get their attention and what kind of content keeps them most captivated. And – more valuably, what has the reverse effect? As White says: “Measure your negative performance metrics, not just your positive ones."

Do’s and don’ts for any email marketing strategy

You’ll learn most of your marketing skills with experience, but here are a few do’s and don’ts to save you some potentially hard lessons in future.


  • Maintain quality control of your subscriber list: White advises: “Use double opt-in and other safeguards to protect yourself from error-prone, low-quality and bot-vulnerable subscriber acquisition sources.”

  • Include an unsubscribe link in every email: Customers have a right to choose what is being sent to them, and an easy “opt-out” in every email is a baseline expectation. If you make this difficult or hide the link, you may frustrate consumers and be in breach of their privacy and data protection regulation.

  • Invest time in fantastic copy and creative ideas: Suby explains: “The whole idea is to remove yourself (and your email content) from the norm. If your email could belong to any other business and shows no signs of individuality, why should your reader care?”

  • Test the sendability of your emails: There’s little point in spending hours – or longer – crafting the perfect email if it gets caught in spam filters or looks poorly formatted with blocked images. This is particularly important if your emails contain lots of images or multimedia elements. There is a range of free and paid tools that will test your emails in a variety of email providers. For example, Litmus (a paid tool) and MailNinja (free).


  • Take their trust for granted: Your consumer gave you a direct line of personal communication; don’t abuse it by spamming your email list with irrelevant emails or flooding their inbox with three emails a day. You’ll lose their business and damage the relationship.

  • Send mixed messages: Pozzebon advises: “Your customers are busy, and [they’re] receiving countless marketing messages all day long. Don’t bombard them with multiple messages within each email, because none of them will leave an impact. Simplicity is most effective.”

  • Leave it up to chance: Suby says: “Timing is really everything. Get to know your audience. Find out when is best to email them, and in which tone of voice. Whatever you can do to make it personal, do that! Test everything, then analyze your data to see [which content produced] ... the best traffic and conversions.”


Email service provider (ESP): A platform or service that enables brands to send emails to subscribers.

Click-through rate (CTR): The rate at which viewers click on the link in your email message. It’s calculated by dividing the number of views by the number of clicks and multiplying by 100 to convert to a percentage. A high CTR means your messaging and content is effective and engaging enough to drive viewers to take action.

Bounce rate: The rate at which viewers leave (or “bounce” off) your webpage without taking action. A high bounce rate is a sign that your messaging or content is not resonating with the people you’re driving to your page.

Preheader: The short summary sentence of an email that shows up underneath the subject line. A strong opportunity to stand out in your customer’s inbox.

A/B testing: A method used by marketers to compare two or more types of messaging delivery for the same campaign by sending it to the audience at random and comparing results.

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Written by
Lizzie Mulherin
Lizzie Mulherin is a content marketer and copywriter.
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