We all know about sales funnels – it’s a widely (and sometimes over) used term that is deeply embedded in the vocabulary of business owners and marketers. That said, there are two questions many small-mid sized business owners ask: How do you turn traffic into a lead? How do you turn a lead into a conversion?
In 2015, DMA’s National Client Email Report indicated the following: email marketing generates an average ROI of 3,800% (read: for every dollar spent there’s a $38 return). That number may seem obscenely high – and it is – but aside from the fact that the Direct Marketing Association wouldn’t lie, nurturing your leads is a surefire way to get a conversion, so it’s not too hard to believe.
When done right and by simply following best practices, such as segmenting your lists and testing your campaigns, your email marketing campaign can fix your leaky funnel and provide you a great ROI. It’s a great tool to ensure that you not only stay in touch with your prospective clients but also reignite your relationship with the old ones.
From the best email service providers, to “how to avoid the dreaded spam filter” and “how to use your CRM to segment your email list”, we’ve compiled the best practices, tips, and tricks into the Ultimate Email Marketing Cheat Sheet.
Table of Contents
1. The Top 3 Email Marketing Platforms
First things first, if you want to start email marketing, you’ll need an email automation platform, or email service provider (ESP), to get the ball rolling. In the endless sea of tools, it’s tricky to find which one works best for you. With the small-medium sized business owner in mind, we’ve gone ahead and given you our Top 3 favorite ESPs.
Mailchimp is one of the big names and leaders in email automation and, chances are, if you’ve heard about email marketing, you’ve heard of MailChimp. Why is it so popular? Because it’s easily one of the best ESPs out there. Jam packed with over 750 integrations, an amazing drag and drop email builder and easy list segmentation, Mailchimp is an email marketing all-star.
Pricing (monthly membership)
- Free – up to 2,000 subscribers / 12,000 emails per month
- $10/month – up to 500 subscribers / unlimited emails
- $15/month – 501 to 1,000 subscribers / unlimited emails
- $20/month – 1,001 to 1,500 subscribers / unlimited emails
- $25/month – 1,501 to 2,000 subscribers / unlimited emails
Experience Level Required:
Mailchimp boasts a wide array of features, from drag and drop email design to the ability to import excel lists.
- Build mail lists
- Custom forms
- 750+ Integrations
- Full featured API
- Design your own templates
- Template Gallery
- Image and file hosting
- A/B split campaigns and multi-variate testing
- Social media plugins
- Automation workflows
- Download PDF newsletters
- Create multiple campaigns
- Real-time reporting
- Complete Email Analytics
- Online knowledge base and tutorials
- Custom signup forms
- Import Excel lists
- eCommerce integration
- Customizable email templates
- Mailing list management
- Drag & drop interface
- Web analytics
- Campaign analysis
- Mail Merge
- Campaign archives
- Data synchronization
- Email and sign up form templates: There are a ton of them and they’re customizable – all you need to do is enter your content.
- Drag and drop builder: You don’t need to be a design guru, or even very tech-savvy. Mailchimp’s email builder is so easy to use and allows you to create beautiful and captivating emails in minutes.
- Easy segmentation: You can segment your lists with only a few clicks of a button.
- Integrates with over 750 platforms: Which means your life will be a lot easier when it comes to automation and just about everything else.
- Graphed reporting: Making it incredibly easy to understand how your campaigns are doing.
- Preview emails on desktop and mobile: All without needing to send a test email to yourself!
- Email Automation: Not so much of a big deal to new email marketers, but for experienced marketers, they may not be too impressed with Mailchimp’s advanced automation capabilities.
- Autoresponder feature: It’s not included in the free membership.
One of the newest ESPs on the market, Drip has received an overwhelming amount of positive reviews and was recently bought by LeadPages. What makes it so great? A free membership that comes with the same perks as a paid subscription, an innovative visual campaign workflow feature, and an array of email sequence blueprints.
Price (monthly membership)
- Free – up to 100 subscribers / unlimited emails
- $49/month – up to 2.5k subscribers / unlimited emails
- $99/month – up to 6k subscribers / unlimited emails
- $149/month – up to 15k subscribers and customized branding / unlimited emails
Experience Level Required:
An endless list of features, Drip offers every one of their services regardless of your monthly plan.
- Visual campaign builder
- Customer journey view
- Dynamic email personalization
- Automation rules
- Fbook Lead ads integration
- Lead scoring
- Workflow goals
- No duplicate subscribers
- Workflow exits
- Custom Events
- Email capture forms
- Conversion Analytics
- Modal and exit intent forms
- List pruning
- Web activity tracking
- User interface: it’s simple, intuitive, and easy to understand/navigate.
- Workflows: This is a new feature that hasn’t been done before, and we love it. With workflows, you can visually map/graph out your automation sequences.
- Email sequence blueprints: Don’t sweat your sequence, Drip comes with quite a few pre-loaded campaigns built right into the platform, so you can focus on creating the right content.
- Tutorials: Helpful tutorial videos throughout the website.
- Templates: No templates or visual builders. You’ll have to be well-versed in HTML, or hire someone who is, if you want your email to look a certain way.
- Split testing: Only available testing is for subject line, from email, or time of day.
When you search “Email Marketing Platforms”, I can almost guarantee you that Intercom is not going to show up until at least page fifteen. Kind of makes you think why it even made the list. Simple: it’s the best-kept secret around. Although pricing is a bit on the steeper end, you can track your customer’s journey, add endless tags to segment your lists, set up complex rules for automation, and split test with the click of a few buttons.
Screenshot: Intercom Engage
Price (monthly membership)
*Note: Pricing for Intercom Engage is a little more complicated than necessary. Since the platform isn’t solely for email automation, prices are based on the amount of users you have on the platform. Pricing increases based on the number of users you have. As a point of reference, here are a few pricing schemes for the Intercom Engage (standard).
- 14-Day Trial – Free with any user amount
- $85/month – 250 people / unlimited emails
- $110/month – 800 people / unlimited emails
- $128/month – 1,500 people / unlimited emails
Experience level Required:
Intercom offers a wide array of features and, when you add their additional services, the list grows!
- Audience targeting
- Outbound messaging
- Auto messages
- Message stats and goals
- A/B testing
- Custom email templates
- Smart campaigns
- Email delivery windows
- Premium integrations
- Unbranded messaging
- Easy split testing: You can split test with literal ease. Intercom will randomly split your list and allow you to create two versions of the same email in one campaign for you to test.
- Intercom is an all in one: There’s a lot more than email automation available to you, such as sending messages to users inside your web or mobile app. Note: you’ll have to purchase the other features.
- Easily tag and set: You can apply tags for pretty much everything. Using Intercom’s webhooks increases your segmenting ability.
- See what your leads/customers are doing: what step they’re on, when they last logged on or visited your site, and more!
- Automation the way it should be: Set rules. They can be complex, or simple. Set autoresponders. Set email sequences. It can all be done, and it’s glorious.
- Templates: There’s four of them, and to be honest, they’re on the “boring” side. You’ll have to create your own HTML template or hire someone to create one for you.
- Price: Intercom is loaded with features, which is great… but costly. There is no free subscription, and if you want to use the other great services Intercom offers, like live chat and a support base, then you’ll have to pay for it.
Features in Comparison
2. Growing Your Email List
Before you can even start email marketing and lead nurturing, you need leads. Most importantly, you need qualified leads. Although it’s easier to buy a list of people who meet your target demographic and send them an email blast letting them know about your company: 1. There’s a very good chance half of your emails aren’t going to even see the light of day thanks to spam filters, 2. Even if your emails do end up in your target’s inbox, an email from someone they don’t even know is unlikely to even get opened.
It is incredibly important that your email list is composed of opt-ins from people who have shown interest in your business. This not only increases your ROI and metrics but will allow you to actually test your campaign accurately.
How do you grow your email list?
Get the right traffic to your website. Whether it be paid search marketing, display ads, content marketing or social media advertising, the higher quality of traffic you lead to your site, the higher chance that they’re going to either a) convert directly from your website or b) opt-in to your email list. Keep in mind, if you’re not a marketing/advertising guru, needls advertises on Facebook and Instagram for you, getting you the highest quality of traffic.
So, now that someone is on your website, you should have an opt-in/call-to-action that’s impossible to ignore… and at least on four other places on each page.
Having an incentive for your visitors is a great way to grow your list as well. If you’re an eCommerce website, a modal (or popup) that offers a 10% discount code when after signing up works wonders; if you’re offering professional services, offer an exclusive blog post, article or newsletter. Another great tactic is to have an “Email to a friend” button on the bottom of your blog posts – that allows you to gather the reader’s email and their friends!
Read more about the importance of a strong landing page here.
3. Segmenting Your Email List
Surveys showed that 58% of total email revenue was generated by segmented and targeted emails. Mailchimp states that open rates for segmented emails are 14.06% higher than non-segmented campaigns, and – get this – emailing segmented lists had a 54.79% higher click-through.
To think that all of your customers, potential or current, are the same is… well, it’s rather misinformed. If you owned a bakery, you wouldn’t assume the same customer who buys the low-carb low-fat banana muffin is the same as the customer who orders the full-fat cinnamon bun with extra cream cheese frosting. Each visitor to your website, each potential client and current customer fall under different segments. Now, these segments can be as precise as the last item they looked at on your online store matched with their age and gender, their education level and career, or as general as their geography – either way, by segmenting your lists you now hold the power of actually communicate with your clientele in such a way that garners a response (and hopefully a conversion).
With pretty much any ESP, you can segment your list on the fly as you create your email campaign. Here’s an example of setting up a segmented email broadcast with Drip:
Know your buyer personas
The key to effective list segmentation is understanding and knowing your buyer personas.
The function of a buyer persona is to create a clear picture of your customer profiles, allowing you to properly understand and communicate with each sub-section. Some actions you can take to start gathering the appropriate data to identify your buyer personas would be to interview and ask your current and potential customers questions through online forms and questionnaires (perhaps with incentives like discount codes, or as a mandatory step prior to downloading your eBook or newsletter), engaging in conversations with your clients or sales team, or taking a look at your Google Analytics to determine your customer’s journey to get to your website.
A great tool to use to create your buyer persona’s is Hubspot’s Content Mapping Template. You can download it for free here.
Segmenting with a CRM
The right CRM (Customer Relationship Management system) is your best friend. As we mentioned in our last blog post, the benefits of a CRM are endless: you can streamline communication with your leads, ensure that your entire team can keep up with all correspondence with clients, track and organize your incoming leads, set reminders for follow-up calls and tasks, and a whole lot more.
One of the best uses of your CRM is to track and segment your leads. Every basic CRM has tags that differentiate the paid and unpaid members of your list, and with more evolved CRMs, you can tag members of your list by their professions, the type of client they are (eg. for us, we would have a tag for regular platform users and another tag for our agency platform members). If you’re a real estate agent, maybe your tags to differentiate your leads are “commercial” or “residential”, or “buying” vs. “selling”. Either way, use specific tags to segregate your leads and clients.
You’ll need to integrate your CRM with your email service provider. Whether it’s Mailchimp, Aweber, Intercom or GetResponse, most (if not all) ESPs allow for easy integration with CRMs. Once that’s all done, you’ll have the ability to easily segment your lists and create custom email content for each type of client in a click!
Event based segmentation
This is probably one of my favorite segmentation methods. Have you ever done a little online shopping or window browsing (pun intended), only to then have an email sent to you a couple days later with the items you browsed and suggestions
Setting rules to automate emails
Another nifty little trick that you can do to actually “automate” your email marketing, is to set rules so that an email is automatically sent when an action is completed. So, let’s see what that would look like, using us as an example:
We’ve captured a new lead, and in our CRM, we’ve added the tag “Lead”. Since our CRM is integrated with our email service provider (in our case, Intercom), the contact will automatically be pushed to Intercom, where additional, automatic tags will be applied as a part of its features. So, our “Lead” has been additionally tagged as “Agency User” and “Registered” with the date of registration included. What now?
We’ve set a rule in Intercom that, if a lead that is a) an agency and, b) registered 48 hours ago, then a specific email will be sent to them.
Depending on the ESP you choose, you can set rules that are rather general or even as specific as “If contact does not open email in 3 days, send Email_v2; if the contact does open email but does not click through, in 2 days send Email_v3”. This specific, event-based email automation allows you to send tailored messages that reflect each client/lead journey, that will ultimately increase your chances at a conversion.
If you use Mailchimp, you can use one of the pre-loaded automation flows – they’ll save you quite a bit of time:
Webhooks are available through your ESP. Like the Facebook Pixel Code, a webhook is a small piece of code you insert into specific places on your website to track events. It’s almost like an “If this, then that” scenario, except for the fact that webhooks don’t perform an action, but instead push that collected data elsewhere (eg. your ESP) in real-time.
This is what I absolutely love about webhooks and event-based email automation; you can gather data that a) shows you a little more insight on your demographic and their interests, and b) you can craft very personalized emails that almost always garner a second look, if not a sale.
Here’s how needls uses webhooks:
Let’s take our previous example. So, we have an Agency lead that registered a couple of days ago. Tags have been applied through both our CRM and Intercom. This agency lead then comes back to the website, logs in, and begins to create a campaign. Let’s say we have a webhook installed for when someone completes Step 3 (headlines and adtext). When our lead enters his last adtext and hits the next button, our webhook records that event and sends the data to Intercom, where a tag is applied to our lead’s contact. Now our lead also has the tag ‘Step 4_ no image’.
After 24 hours, a rule kicks in where an agency lead, who is registered and has the tag ‘Step 4_no image’, will be sent an email. That email will include some suggestions for free stock image websites, some tips and tricks, and most importantly, a strong Call to Action to get our lead to complete their campaign.
For many small-mid sized businesses who aren’t very tech-savvy or experienced with marketing, this may be a little too advanced. But, if you have the ability to hire someone to program your webhooks, do it.
4. Best Practices and Testing
There are some best practices when it comes to split testing. First and foremost, keep your lists neat and tidy – maintenance is key! Be sure to keep your list up to date, clearing out any invalid emails, and ensuring that there are no overlays in your segmented lists (the last thing you want to do is send two versions of a similar email to the same person).
On that note, you also want to make sure that your testing lists are divided at random. Sorting your list by activity, by sign-up date, or by email provider is, in short, a terrible idea that is likely to produce skewed results. Some ESPs have built-in split testing features, randomly splitting your list for you. If you’ll be splitting your list yourself, e find the best way to divide your testing list is alphabetically (eg. email_v1 is sent to A-K, and email_v2 is sent to L-Z). After your list is divided by letter, then go through your list to ensure that you two test groups have the same percentage of users who fall under different categories (email service provider, activity, sign-up date, etc).
You can easily test with some ESPs – Mailchimp has A/B split testing built right in:
Best practice for subject lines is to keep your subject line relevant to your email content. Anything misleading might result in a click to open the email, but if your email content doesn’t align with your subject line, your lead may easily ignore the rest of the email, or even worse, never open one of your emails again.
How your demographic views your email is also something to keep in mind. According to Litmus’ State of Email Report for 2017, mobile devices take up 54% of the market share, meaning that 54% of emails are viewed on mobile. But, that’s not totally new news: think about it, when you wake up in the morning, chances are, you’re checking messages and emails while still in bed. This should be kept in mind when composing your email subject line. Hint: A number of characters displayed on iPhones and Windows phones are around 40.
You should also keep in mind who your demographic is. Are you B2B? Will your emails be viewed during regular business hours? Will your leads be in their offices, on a desktop? If so, then you should know that the number of display characters for Gmail is 70; for Outlook, 60.
So, what should you test when in comes to subject lines? Here are a couple of suggestions:
- Emoji use – does your target demographic respond well to emojis?
- Tone – urgent, casual, funny, professional? What tone speaks to your demo?
Call to Actions
Just like on your landing page, your Call to Action (CTA) for your email marketing campaigns should be clear, concise and relay a sense of urgency. Play around and test different action items for your leads.
- Schedule a call vs. Learn More
- Checkout Now vs. Continue Shopping
- Register Now vs. Join Us!
One note to make when it comes to testing is to ensure that your CTA is congruent with the click-through page. Nothing is more confusing when you click “Checkout Now” and you’re led to the product page of a website. Make it easy for your leads to follow through on your call to action. Likewise, limit the amount of links in your email – muddying up your email with too many paths for your lead to take will result in an untrackable test. Keep it clear, keep it concise.
Other testing suggestions:
- Content: try different tones, different verbiage and even test out alternate email layouts
- Images: does having a captivating image at the top of your email result in a higher Click-through?
- Time of Day: morning vs. afternoon vs. evening – each segment will respond differently
- From Address: your name vs. your business name
5. Tracking Your Campaign
There’s no good in marketing if you can’t track your results. Luckily, there are quite a few ways to determine how your campaign is doing using the metrics available from your ESP and Google Analytics.
Key Metrics for Email Marketing
There are a few obvious metrics that you want to be on the lookout for such as Open Rate (CTO), Click-Through-Rate (CTR), Bounce Rate (BR), etc. That said, you should refer to industry averages to get a gauge on whether or not your stats are… stacking up.
According to Mailchimp, for a small-mid sized business, an average CTO rate falls between 20.62% and 21.53%, an average CTR is 2.43%-2.84%, and the average hard-bounce (inactive email) is 0.43% to 0.45%. For specific industry averages, take a look at the table below.
Advanced: Using Google Analytics for Email Marketing
Google Analytics is a tool used by, well, just about every business owner that has an online presence – and for good reason. When discussing how to track social media campaigns with our Needls platform users, we always recommend setting up Google Analytics. It’s essential to see the bigger picture of your social media advertising campaign and what happens “beyond the click”.
What many novice email marketers don’t know is that you can also use Google analytics to track your email campaigns. Most ESPs either have an easy way to integrate Google analytics into your campaign.
The first thing you’ll need to do is set up Google Analytics Campaign Tracking. This enables you to see what you’re referring traffic is and what people are doing when they get to your website, such as how long they’re on your website, what page they leave on, etc. The thing is, with email marketing, although Google Analytics can see that your traffic is coming from an email, it can’t determine which out of the 50 you’ve sent out has resulted in your visitor. Basically, if you send ten different emails to a thousand different people, and 500 of them use Gmail, Google Analytics could show you that ninety people came from Gmail came to your website, but not from which particular email. Long story short: you’ll need to set up a UTM Parameters.
Screenshot: Google Analytics
If you haven’t set up Google Analytics to track your campaigns, check out this article from Google with instructions to get your custom campaign set up.
6. Avoiding Spam Filters
After going through the painstaking task of setting up your ESP, building a list, segmenting and testing, only to have your emails thrown away by spam filters before getting to your lead.
There are a number of ways to avoid the dreaded spam filter, many of them are simply best practices that you would already abide by, such as including an unsubscribe link in your email or using clear subject lines that are not misleading.
What is a spam filter and how do they work?
Aside from the CAN-SPAM Act and Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL), both your ESP and your recipient’s ISP use several filters to ensure that the emails you send and you receive are not spam. There’s an ever-growing list of requirements in order to make it through the layered filters, and as your email journeys from one filter to the next, it will be scored to see if it’s, well, “spammy.” As you can guess, if you score too high, your email won’t be delivered.
In terms of what the filters look for, that’s kept under lock and key, and for good reason – if spammers knew what was filtered against, they would find a way to squeeze through. We do know that spam filters check a few technical elements, such as your sending IP’s reputation, whether your email is authenticated, and the coding in your email. In addition, there some trade secrets that are simply best practices.
How to avoid the filters
- Don’t buy bulk email lists. The definition of spam is, quite literally, unsolicited bulk email. This is why growing an organic email list is so crucial. When someone opts-in to your email subscription, you’re a large leap closer to ending up in their inbox. On that note, be sure to use metadata in your campaign to personalize your email. Having the receiver’s name in the subject line or body of the email is always a great idea – spam filters want to know if the person you’re sending the email to actually knows you.
- Your ESP may send your emails through their IP or through your own. In either case, the reputation of the IP address the email is sent from needs to be pretty much crystal clear, meaning that if your IP has been flagged for sending spam before, chances are you’ll be flagged again.Seldom known fact: Your bounce rate affects your IP reputation. Yet another reason to ensure that your email list is up-to-date and maintained. You can check your IP’s reputation here or here.
- Don’t forget about your content. It needs to be clear, interactive and, most importantly, engaging.
- Lose the ALL CAPS and the excessive punctuation!!!!!!! Other formatting red flags include large font-size, the use of red text (and other multi-coloured text).
- Clean code. What does that mean? It means don’t copy and paste from Microsoft Word. “Messy” HTML can trigger a filter, and when you copy and paste from word, the formatting is carried over in the form of HTML. Word of the wise, use one of the many templates from your ESP if you’re not well-versed in coding or, if your budget allows, simply pay someone to design your email for you.
- CAN-SPAM and CASL both require, by law, that your email includes an unsubscribe link and your physical address in your email. So, by default, spam filters require it too.
- Don’t use shortened URLs. I know, sometimes they just look better… but spammers have quite a reputation shortening links.
- Email with a purpose and don’t bombard your list. All it takes is one contact marking your email as junk or spam. Get one too many abuse reports and your IP address can be blacklisted. (Pro tip: your email should have the same visual identity as your website/brand. Creating a harmonious experience from website to email ensures familiarity, and if people know who you are, they’re less likely to report your email as spam.)
- Don’t use “spammy” words and phrases, such as: Free, you won’t believe your eyes, no gimmick, no obligation, etc. Check out Hubspot’s comprehensive list of spam trigger words.
There is, undeniably, a lot involved in email marketing. It can be daunting, but don’t be fearful – everybody starts from somewhere, and developing an effective email marketing campaign can take a little time. Test your campaigns, grow an organic list, follow best practices and, most importantly, be excited!