On this page
You might think that your email marketing engine is a well-oiled machine, but there’s always room for improvement right?
Which is why we put together this list of 20 email marketing best practices so you can fine tune your marketing strategy, and reach out to your customers in the most effective way.
1. Create an exclusive club.
Making your email subscribers feel special is a great way to generate excitement for the content or offers you are sending them and it’s a powerful community building tool.
Exclusivity can be subtle, like the Apple example below, or it can be overt, like the Groove example.
Whenever Apple launches a new product, customers camp outside their stores to get their hands on the latest device. By offering a pre-order, Apple can cash in on that excitement without putting additional stress on their retail stores. With free shipping as an added incentive, these emails will no doubt drive huge sales before the iPhone 6 is even released.
Groove’s Alex Turnbull takes a more direct approach. He emails new posts out to blog subscribers before they are available to people who read via RSS feeds or social media.
As a subscriber, you’re getting this link about an hour before the post goes live on our blog’s homepage.
Each email he sends begins with the words “Early Access”.
It makes email recipients feel like they are part of an exclusive club because, well, they are! Over the course of that hour, Alex can collect feedback and make any changes he feels would improve the post as more people see it.
2. Show that you care.
Your email subscribers getting dozens, if not hundreds, of other emails every day. They are constantly being asked to start a free trial, download an e-book or follow someone on Twitter.
There’s an overwhelming amount of noise in the inbox. Showing your recipients that you care goes a long way towards earning their trust, and is a key email marketing best practice. In this example of Squarespace below, they take a friendly approach to urgency. False emergencies – “LAST DAY TO SAVE!!!” – comes off as desperate. Squarespace acknowledges the reality of our busy lives and offers a chance for an extended trial.
Everyone gets busy and you may not have had enough time to evaluate Squarespace.
Buffer’s Kevan Lee told us that his best email advice is to “Delight your subscribers”. Dropbox took that advice to a new level with this email. They gave me 10x the storage space for the same price! Do you think I’ll open the next email they send? You bet.
- We’re giving you 10x the space — for the same price. You’ll have 1 TB of space for your photos, videos, docs, and any other files you want to keep safe in Dropbox.
- With new sharing controls, we’re making it easier to manage access to the stuff you share. You can set passwords and expiration dates on your shared links and grant view-only access to shared folders.
- Keeping your stuff safe is our top priority. For extra peace of mind, remote wipe lets you delete your Dropbox files off a lost or stolen device.
Of course, this a major business decision, not just an online marketing tactic but the decision reflects Dropbox’s mission as a company: to make their customers happy. Email is just an extension of their core beliefs.
Thanks Dropbox. 🙂
3. Ask for feedback.
As long as you aren’t pushy, it’s okay to ask for help.
I get lots of emails from RunKeeper but this is the first from Tom Boates, the company’s VP of User Experience. This is an interesting way to help users get to know the company they are supporting and it could also help users get a better product in the future.
Doing so would be a great help to myself and the team here in making sure we are providing you with the best experience possible.
If you ask for help, be genuine and people will respond.
Feedly takes a similar approach by introducing me to someone new in the company. They aren’t begging me to come back, they are simply asking what led to the cancellation. The company has earned a reputation for being trustworthy and innovative, so I was happy to offer candid feedback.
If you are going to ask for feedback, you need make it dead-simple. Dollar Shave Club, as we’ve written before, is driven by experience. The subscription is easy, the blades are good and the email marketing is captivating. Everything about Dollar Shave Club is a pleasure, including their survey emails.
The easier it is to leave feedback, the more people will do it.
4. Use social proof.
From the KISSmetrics blog:
Social proof a great email marketing best practice to pay attention to, and is the reason sites like Yelp continue to thrive. Consumers trust what other consumers think. The same principle can easily be applied to email marketing. It’s best used subtly, as you don’t want to toot your own horn.
Look how FlightFox casually mentioned that 97% of customers would recommend the latest version of the service. That’s a stunning number, and it’s included in an email about a new blog post.
If you have a number like that to share, make sure everyone knows about it.
Many forums and communities take full advantage of social proof. Because they have active users, they can parlay engagement into more engagement. Quora, who we’ll discuss more in this post, does this beautifully. Readers can use the number of votes on a discussion to decide which link to click.
GrowthHackers takes a similar approach but with even more emphasis on their users’ activity. If a GrowthHackers discussion has 20 comments, you know there is good information being passed around.
If you don’t have a forum, consider including social share numbers in your newsletters. The effect is the same – readers want to know what their peers are interested in.
5. Get personal.
“Only strong people are comfortable talking about their failures.” – Hayes Drumwright, CEO of Trace3, a $300 million company
Email is a good opportunity to humanize your brand. The inbox is a intimate place, mostly used for personal conversation. Your presence there is a privilege, so do your best to write like a human. It’s okay to talk about challenges, obstacles and even failures. Readers can relate since they are likely facing similar situations with their own lives and businesses.
In the email below, Noah Kagan discusses a very personal conversation he had with a friend about his blog. How many marketers have ever felt overwhelmed with their work? All of them!
The post goes on to offer some ways to deal with the challenges of growing a blog. Identifying a pain point, then offering a solution is an age-old strategy that’s still effective today.
Clarity, a service to help entrepreneurs and marketers grow their business, takes a different approach by telling the story of their own company. The tactic is different but the strategy is the same: relate to the same pain points as the user and offer solutions.
The first few companies I started completely failed because I didn’t know what I was doing. In hindsight, the ideas were great – a vacation rental website and a web hosting company – but I just didn’t know how to reach my customers and execute against a market that was big enough for me to scale.
When I was 26 and 2 years into my third company, Spheric, I decided to change my approach. One late night – out of desperation – I sent a cold email to a former minister of my province. I figured that if anyone cared about my business succeeding, it would be him. Even though the business was slowly growing, I was scared that it would all come crashing down.
That cold email changed my life.
6. Make conversion a habit.
Recently I was chatting with David Sherry, co-founder of Death to the Stock Photo, about his company’s email strategy. They’ve grown their business almost entirely with email – we’ll look at an example later in this post – and he offered some magical advice:
“Make conversion a habit.”
It’s simple but seriously profound. He builds opportunities for small conversions into every email so that people get used to converting. This can be as simple as “Follow me on Twitter” or as significant as “Upgrade your account”.
In David’s case, they include free stock photos in each email which can be downloaded. People are used to clicking his emails because there is always value in converting.
Buffer is great at this too. In the transactional email below, they are aiming for a small conversion: user engagement with their app. By creating pre-made tweets, they make it as easy as possible for the user to convert. The conversion doesn’t directly result in revenue, but it does get users in the habit of 1) clicking their emails and 2) using the app.
Email Insights builds in even smaller calls to action. In the email below, they are looking for feedback on their product but also ask the user to connect with the founder, Chuck Blake, on LinkedIn.
Again, the conversion doesn’t directly create revenue but if the user does it, they will be exposed to more content from Email Insights and they can get a feel Chuck’s experience and personality.
7. Include downloads.
The number of emails sent and received with attachments increased 43% on daily basis percent from 2009 to 2013, according to Radicati. During that same period, emails without attachments increased by 27%.
Email is the perfect platform to exchange files.
Marketing emails usually don’t contain files – the focus is on messaging, calls to action and design. Why not add some utility to your emails?
As discussed above, Death to the Stock Photo does this beautifully. They only send one email per month but each contains a downloadable file of stunning “non-stock” images that you can use on your blog or in your email.
Their emails delight users not only because of the stylish design but because of their utility. This email empowers the user to take action and the habit-forming nature makes it easier to ask users to upgrade to their premium level.
Brian Gardner developed the WordPress Genesis Framework along with a number of themes and code snippets. His newsletter often contains free downloads that you can use spruce up your WordPress site. (The share buttons we are currently using were created by Brian.)
I love getting Brian’s email because I know they contain real value. Regardless of the subject line, I open Brian’s emails because he consistently delivers utility.
8. Tell readers what to do next.
The cardinal sin of conversion is failure to make the next step abundantly clear. How can someone convert if they aren’t sure what to do?
Conversion Rate Experts stress this over and over again:
Be clear and direct with your users, telling them exactly what you’d like them to do.
Look how seriously Backlinko’s Brian Dean takes this advice. This email was sent immediately after registering for a webinar and he, quite literally, tells me exactly what to do next.
The idea is simple: just add the the webinar to your calendar. Not only does this reinforce the behavior pattern of clicking Brian’s emails but it also increases the chances that the registrants actually attend the webinar. Once it’s on the calendar, they will get alerts from their phone and/or computer … it’s like free marketing.
Answering the question “What should I do next?” is also a great way to boost engagement with a SaaS app. Wedgies, a tool for creating social polls, sent me this email right after I registered. Without a nudge in the right direction, you risk losing users before they ever have a chance to experience your app.
In KISSmetrics’ case, a new user has to take a next step or they won’t get any value from the tool. Clearly, they’ve heard this question before, which is why the present it in bold text and in quotations, as if the reader is asking it out loud. They keep the language very simple, then present a button, with a contrasting color and friendly copy, to move the user onward.
The next thing you should do is create events so that we can start measuring important areas of your business.
9. Keep readers on their toes.
This tip is an unconventional email marketing best practice, but is proven to work.
On one hand, you want your readers to know what to expect in your emails. In HelpScout’s case, that means a great blog every Wednesday without fail. In ProductHunt’s case, that means five new products every day. The user never knows what those products will be but they have come to expect value from these emails, which is why they are opened at such a high rate.
ProductHunt is a email-first startup, meaning that it started as a newsletter and later grew into a website, podcast and mobile app. While it might sound counterintuitive to keep readers on their toes, the strategy has been proven by ProductHunt as well as other companies, like Timeop and iDoneThis.
First Round Review published a detailed account of ProductHunt’s growth which we highly recommend checking out.
“Even though the email was super basic, it gave me validation that people cared about this content,” says Hoover. And when he eventually decided to build the site, the email list became the most important asset and springboard for driving traffic and keeping people coming back again and again. It’s continued to swell as Product Hunt has gained momentum, a constant source of new fans and online marketing opportunities.
Today, the email list tops 43,000 subscribers.
Now, the examples.
ProductHunt goes big on email. Every email they send is loaded with new apps, tools and products that are validated with social proof. You never know what you are going to get but you always know it’s going to be something really good.
Quora’s emails are like a box of chocolates … you never what you’re gonna get next. Here are some recent subject lines from Quora digest emails. They are borderline random and range from bizarre to practical, but they are always intriguing.
This strategy is easier when you have user generated content like Quora and ProductHunt. Quora also employs social proof in their emails to validate the quality of the links they include.
10. Use the same subject line every time.
This is another tactic that might be considered unconventional but it’s actually very effective if your users trust you and your brand. It’s a good idea to do this with transactional emails, like receipts, to make it very easy for users to find and reference them. But the tactic can be useful for newsletters and marketing emails too if you send them on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
Remember, you want your recipients to look forward to your emails so much that it doesn’t matter what the subject says.
Alexis Madrigal sends his newsletter, 5 Intriguing Things, every single business day.
That’s a lot of emails and it would be a struggle to come up with a new subject line every single day. More importantly, thought, Alexis’ newsletter is highly anticipated by its recipients so the subject line doesn’t matter. It’s delivery each morning is familiar but still exciting.
The Email Institute does this for their weekly email newsletter as well.
PetaPixel, who sends a massive daily newsletter, does this but appends the date to each newsletter to make it easy for readers to keep track of them.
11. Use referral codes.
Referral codes work because everyone wins: the referrer, the referree and the business.
According to ReferralCandy, 83% of satisfied customers are willing to refer a product or service but just 29% actually do. If you can motivate them to refer friends and family, it’s makes conversion a breeze: 92% of consumers trust referral over ads.
Adding referral codes to your emails is one way to turn every email into a sales opportunity.
Uber kills this. This is the footer of every Uber receipt (and here’s a more detailed look):
Refer a customer and you get an email like this. Not only is it fun get credit towards your next ride, but Uber is reinforcing the behavior by asking you to do it again. It’s a super smart strategy that has helped Uber grow fast:
95% of all our riders have heard about Uber from other Uber riders. Our virality is almost unprecedented. For every 7 rides we do, our users’ big mouths generate a new rider.
Dollar Shave Club puts even more emphasis on referrals in their emails:
Why would anyone not do this?
Well, you must have complete confidence in your brand to attempt to turn customers into salespeople. They, in turn, must be confident enough in your product to tell friends and family about it. If your product rocks, including referral codes in your emails is a no-brainer.
12. Use buttons.
Here’s the simplest email marketing advice you’ll ever receive:
If you want people to click, use buttons.
There are plenty of case studies on the topic. Campaign Monitor, for example, got a 28% increase on click-thrus when they A/B tested emails with and without buttons.
When it comes to writing copy and designing buttons, we always refer to conversion expert Joanna Wiebe:
What should my button say?
A great rule of thumb when writing a call to action is to make your button copy complete this sentence:
I want to ________________
What should my button look like?
- A 3D effect
- A contrasting, non-grey color
- Feedback on hover (e.g., different color)
- Whitespace around it
- An arrow pointing to it with instructional copy
Examples of this email marketing are abundant but here are few designs we really liked.
This Evernote email employs soft colors and encouraging language. It tees up the call to action by explaining why Evernote is so powerful before coming on strong with a bold, green button.
In this example from CreativeLive, there is no mistaking what they want you to do. The call to action is bold, simple and direct.
13. Overwhelm users with value.
Good examples of this are too massive to include as screenshots. Click the links below to see them.
The first thing we should say about these emails is that they aren’t for everyone.
The second thing we should say is that they are for someone.
Think very carefully about your niche before creating and sending an email this massive. Here’s why these emails work for their respective audiences:
- In PetaPixel’s case, they are appealing to hardcore photographers, people that eat, sleep and breath gear, software and reviews. The more, the better.
- TucsonTopia is strictly a local publication. Their weekly email is super valuable because it contains tons of information about timely local events.
- Brain Pickings is a different kind of beast. Every email is an intellectual adventure. Maria Popova pours her heart and soul into it and has grown a massive audience as a result.
Again, not for everyone it’s something to consider if you think your audience would embrace it.
14. Remind readers what you do.
When we asked Belle Beth Cooper for her best email advice, here’s what she told us:
Don’t expect people to remember what you do – it’s your job to remind them, every time.
Every email we send about Exist, whether it’s to existing users or people who signed up for our mailing list months ago, includes a link to remind them what Exist is. And that link gets clicks every time.
It’s almost too simple. When we checked out the emails from her budding startup Exist, we found she does exactly that.
This is probably the simplest marketing strategy tip in this blog post and there is nothing to lose by implementing it immediately. Don’t overlook the little things.
Want to send more personalized mobile and email messages to your users?
Check out Vero, customer engagement software designed for product marketers. Message your users based on what they do (or don't do) in your product.
Learn more about Vero and consider signing up for a free trial. No credit card required.