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9 Great Email Marketing Case Studies (and Counting)

9 Great Email Marketing Case Studies (and Counting)

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Transparency is hot right now, but not in email marketing.

You can see how many Twitter followers a brand has. Lots of businesses blog about their audience growth. And some newsletters share their subscriber count as social proof.

But no one talks about open and click rates, ROI or impact on the bottom line. It’s taboo in the email world.

That makes it really hard to find email marketing case studies. If you want inspiration for your own campaigns, there aren’t many options. You can:

  • Read blogs like this one 🙂
  • Dive into ReallyGoodEmails.com
  • Sign up for newsletters and products to receive their emails

Other than that, all you can do is test your assumptions relentlessly.

We’d like to make it a little easier to read stories about great email campaigns so we collected some of our favorites. Here is the criteria for the case studies we included:

  • They are real case studies, not a best practices pieces.
  • They include quotes or data from the campaign creators.

That sounds simple until you start exploring the web for stories that meet those two rules. We’d like to add to this list so if you know of a great email story, let us know in the comments.

Together, these posts are long enough to be a book. So we turned them into one.

Download an .epub file

What Startups Can Learn from Watsi’s Wildly Successful Email Campaign

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This story is too nuanced to accurately summarize but here’s a primer.

Watsi is the first non-profit to be part of Y Combinator. They crowdsource healthcare funding for people all over the world. To drive recurring revenue, they broke out their monthly donation feature into its own product and launched it separately.

They used email to source early feedback, used social proof to create buzz and built a personalized newsletter to keep users informed about their donations.

Here’s a snippet from this post:

Part of showing people what they’re getting is investing in communications where you aren’t asking for anything. Instead, you’re thanking people for their business or their participation. You’re acknowledging your end of the deal where you’re committed to delighting and surprising them. This is something that for-profit startups tend to neglect – the importance of not just sending a receipt for a purchase, but honing that interaction to make customers feel something more.

Email marketing is isn’t a channel – it’s one layer of a customer-centric company. This case study reveals how complex (and truly valuable) it is to use email to grow a business.

Building a Newsletter Welcome Series from Scratch

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Help Scout’s signature flair is purpose.

As they considered how to welcome to new subscribers – and there are more than 51,000 – they knew that aligning business goals with a great experience was key. They pulled it off by ensuring each email sought to achieve a single, measurable goal.

helpscout autoresponder

Each of the five emails in the sequence is explained in detail, including the intended purpose and suggestions based on their own learnings.

How The Skimm’s passionate readership helped its newsletter grow to 1.5 million subscribers

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Building a profitable business with email is very different than using email to build a profitable business.

Watsi, for example, uses email to support their product. In The Skimm’s case, the email is the product. When newsletters become a business, it’s worth paying careful attention to their strategy. (We detailed an example of this in our Death to the Stock Photo case study.)

The Skimm’s email newsletter reaches 1.5 million daily. That growth has been fueled by an intense understanding of their target reader and an community that is eager to help. There are more than 6,000 “Skimm’bassadors” actively spreading the word about this business.

There’s a lot to learn here but if you take just one lesson, let it be this:

The Skimm focuses on women ages 22-34 in big cities throughout the country. They are busy, they’re on the go. It’s a professional audience. And we looked at what they do first thing in the morning. Your alarm goes off, you grab your phone, and you read emails from friends and family first.

It really made sense to us to introduce a product that fit in with that routine. And email is very much in the routines of the demo that we’re going after.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Meet your target audience where they’re already active.

How to Gather 100,000 Emails in One Week

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I hope you’re noticing a trend in these case studies: Pulling off a wildly successful email campaign isn’t easy.

Even when the goals are simple, the logistics tend to get messy. The smartest companies dig in anyway.

In Harry’s case, they used a landing page to gather 100,000 emails in the week leading up their launch. As a shaving company, they are competing against institutions like Gillette. The only way to outsell them is to out-maneuver them.

harrys prelaunch

Harry’s drove traffic to a landing page, asked for a signup, then used a referral mechanism to incentivize people to share the product. Those who referred friends earned free products. They gave away a ton of free razors that week but it cost way less than broadcasting the upcoming launch on traditional advertising channels.

This post gets into the nitty gritty of driving the traffic, managing the flood of interest and actually delivering the free products.

The Art and Science of Turning Free Trials Into Happy Customers

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If you’re a small startup, you’ll be able to relate to this story.

Alex Smith runs marketing at ContactMonkey. As a growing company with a small team, it became too difficult to onboard new customers one at a time. So Alex created a series of events in the application that trigger emails or pause existing campaigns.

The result was not only happier customers, but faster growth. Once the triggers were in place, ContactMonkey was able to guarantee that each customer received the right messaging at the right time.

This post shares the exact emails and triggers ContactMonkey uses to onboarding their users, along with some ideas for blurring the lines between CRM and email marketing.

The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign E-Mails

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I think this line will pique your interest about Obama’s last campaign: “Most of the $690 million Obama raised online came from fundraising e-mails.”

Hot damn.

The Obama campaign famously used a casual, conversational in tone in the email subject lines. The most famous subject line was simply “Hey.” Another – “I will be outspent” – raised $2.6 million on its own.

obama email marketing

Source: Slideshare

This didn’t happen by accident. The folks behind the campaigns tested incessantly, sometimes playing with a dozen or more variations on a single email. Here’s one of the most interesting findings revealed by digital analytics directo Amelia Showalter:

…these triumphs were fleeting. There was no such thing as the perfect e-mail; every breakthrough had a shelf life. “Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest,” says Showalter.

They bottled lightening over and over through rigorous testing and exceptional copywriting. The viral effect was manufactured, not serendipitous.

What We Learned From A Week Of Prototyping A Newsletter In Public

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When Buzzfeed began developing a daily email newsletter, the editors turned to Facebook for feedback. They shared their prototypes (here’s an example) with their own friends. They made each iteration of the newsletter public to ensure they could patch any holes before launch.

buzzfeed email

Interestingly, editor Millie Tran said the most useful part of this exercise was the intense focus on the product/market fit:

The most valuable thing about this exercise was that it allowed us to avoid getting too emotionally attached to any one idea early on and to keep tweaking and adjusting the product to be better.

As we’ve written before, email is an extension of your product and should be treated with the appropriate care.

Buzzfeed also wrote a follow-up to this post about using email to test early versions of their mobile app.

Learning vs. Selling

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This is a personal story based on my experience here at Vero. Last year, we created 14-step campaign to welcome new subscribers to the blog. The open rates were decent and we heard some positive feedback from customers about the campaign.

Then we nuked it.


Because it a) wasn’t helping us convert readers into customers and b) it wasn’t helping us learn about our readers. We replaced the entire campaign with a single email.

vero welcome email reply-1

Tons of people replied and we’ve been able to shape our content and emails to match our readers’ challenges and needs. The lesson is here to create opportunities to learn before you try to sell your product.

The Most Successful E-mail I Ever Wrote

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A single email can change a business.

Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, realized this after he created this masterpiece of a shipping confirmation email:

CD baby email

Source: Smashing Magazine

The email went viral. At the time, no one put any effort into their transactional emails. The personal touch resonated with a lot of people.

That one silly e-mail, sent out with every order, has been so loved that if you search Google for “private CD Baby jet” you’ll get over 20,000 results. Each one is somebody who got the e-mail and loved it enough to post on their website and tell all their friends.

That one goofy e-mail created thousands of new customers.

Simon Schmid calls this finesse the “personality layer.” Here are a number of other examples.

A few more case studies from the Vero archives:

And here’s a few suggestions from readers:

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