Welcome to our 2020 Guide to Email marketing. We created this guide to provide your business with the knowledge it needs to make email your top channel.
Let’s start with the fundamentals. Email marketing is governed by a set of iron-clad “best practices” that range from when you should send your email content to who you should send it to.
While these email best practices are often accepted at face value as hard rules, few marketers question their relevance in 2020 – or question whether certain common practices
Check out the top trends and ideas about email marketing that we discuss below. This data is valuable and well-researched, but the information also tells a deeper story about email marketing and provides insight that you can apply to your brand.
1. Email is not “Dying”
Email has moved beyond a marketing trend and has become a part of life – a utility akin to water or electricity. One of the main reasons “gurus” claim that email is a dying marketing tool is because they look at how young people communicate online. Teens and young adults often communicate via social media and chat apps, not email.
However, just because the average high school student isn’t drafting an email to chat with friends doesn’t mean this form of communication isn’t valuable in our day-to-day lives – or to your business.
2. B2B Has the Upside
It’s a complete misnomer that the younger generations are responsible for the decrease in the popularity of email marketing. Marketers often assume that email isn’t “fun” or “cool” and instead invest in influencer promotions and other social media options.
However, teens and B2C brands aren’t the ones driving down email use. It’s actually the B2B brands – companies that could significantly benefit from in-depth email communication – that aren’t using this advertising channel.
According to survey 4,494 email campaigns, 59% of B2B brands don’t use email marketing. The B2B brands that do only send out an average of one email marketing link once every 25 days.
When asked why B2B brands don’t use email marketing – or only send out monthly updates, they cite their customer sales funnels. As the Super Office team reports:
“Compared to more traditional consumer-facing marketing, B2B customers tend to have different buying motivations and the sales cycles can often take several months (or sometimes even years).”
Whereas a clothing brand can get away with sending daily promotional emails because of their short sales cycles, some B2B brands require months of meetings and contract negotiations to close a deal.
3. Email Serves Top-Funnel
Marketers chase social media trends because of the chance for increased “exposure.” They tend to lean on their social marketing efforts as a way to reach new people and improve their top-funnel marketing strategy. However, studies have found that email marketing is also used as a top-funnel strategy.
According to Convince and Convert’s 2019 state of email marketing report, the primary objective of email marketing is to increase engagement (67%) and increase awareness (59%). Lead generation and conversion rate improvements trickled in underneath. This data shows how brands use email as a marketing tool, and where people find value for it in their sales funnel.
Now, it’s definitely worth digging a little deeper into these insights to see whether or not you should be using email marketing for top-funnel efforts. Gerry Murray of IDC Research has found that most B2B companies spend 50% of their budgets (or more) on top-funnel awareness-focused efforts. They’re so focused on gaining exposure and getting people excited about their brands that they don’t have a full-fledged marketing process in place to move leads down into the middle of the funnel to convert.
Murray expects to see a shift where brands change their investment to focus on lower-funnel efforts in order to better connect with customers. This is where email can help.
While email can be an awareness and engagement driver, you can also use your existing email infrastructure to flesh out your mid-level marketing tactics. Your brand can segment more advanced customers and create targeted messages that drive interested parties into the bottom of the funnel.
4. Email Will Likely Be Your Highest ROI Channel
One of the main reasons why email marketing continues to be a resilient form of advertising – even for brands that specifically market to younger generations – is because of its exceptional ROI. It’s estimated that for every dollar you spend on email marketing, you can expect to get $44 back in return.
Not only does email marketing have an impressive ROI, but it’s also fairly inexpensive for most brands. According to WebFX, the average mid-size business will spend up to 20% of their total marketing budget to email and recommend a target spend of 16% to maximize results.
Now, every business has different factors that impact the cost of their email marketing efforts. The size of your email list, your industry, your average ticket and target audience all dictate what levels of engagement and sales you can drive from your email efforts.
However, the data cited by WebFX isn’t an anomaly. Several studies have confirmed that most marketers can spend pennies per email and drive a large ROI for their efforts.
5. In Email – Less Is More With Words
While many outside factors will determine your levels of success as an email marketer, there is also much in your control. First and foremost, the design and content of your emails will determine whether your audiences look forward to what you have to say or quickly move your newsletters to the trash.
One factor to consider with your design is length. The team at AWeber analyzed more than 1,000 email messages and found the average marketer included 434 words per email message.
This is another statistic that you will want to dig further into. The vast majority of emails sent contain fewer than 300 words.
The logic behind this is simple: in a world where the average office worker receives 121 emails per day (via DMR) marketers want to get to the point immediately before customers lose focus.
However, the team at also AWeber talked to a few marketers who write 900 words or more per email. They found that these promotional emails focus on quality over quantity.
Instead of sending a dozen emails per week, the company sends one or two powerful newsletters that are packed with information.
Additionally, some brands don’t use emails as a tool to drive traffic to their websites. Instead, they include the entire article content in the body of the email for subscribers to read. Does this go against the best practice of linking to a post to drive traffic to your page? Absolutely. But does it work for these companies and bloggers? You bet. Sometimes breaking out of the mold is your best bet for email marketing success.
6. Avoid Unsubscribes With Relevance
While most customers accept emails from brands as a given when interacting with them, more people than ever are reaching for the unsubscribe button when the email promotions aren’t what they expect.
Adobe reported that 33% of consumers say they will unsubscribe if the brand isn’t promoting something that they are interested in buying.
These unsubscriptions are the result of expected personalization from brands. A study by The Harris Poll of 3,000 consumers found 63% of people expect personalization as a standard of service when receiving promotional offers.
Furthermore, more than half of consumers (54%) are willing to share personal information with companies in order to receive better offers. In this era where personal information is a currency akin to oil, more consumers are taking control of what they want to see and what brands are allowed to know about them.
Brands that ignore this agreement and take the information without providing a better consumer experience risk alienating customers and quickly having their trust revoked.
In fact, the most frustrating experiences for customers include receiving promotional ads for items they have already purchased or when a brands fail to recognize them as existing customers.
Simply put, don’t ask your loyal customers to join your rewards program if they are already members. You won’t get the ROI you want and you will annoy your highest-valued buyers.
7. Open Rates are Up but Click-Thru Rates are Down
There are additional studies that reinforce the idea that consumer behavior toward email marketing is changing.
According to SendGrid’s global engagement email benchmark survey, open rates have increased over the past few years, but click-thru rates are lower.
The team at SendGrid cites a few reasons for these changes. Primarily, they point to email as a tool for receipts and confirmation messages – from Uber rides to fast food purchases – which now arrive via email. These messages count as brand emails, even though they really only provide documentary value for the customer.
Additionally, the SendGrid experts believe that customers have become more discerning over what they spend their time on. A customer might open your email if they like your brand, but won’t hesitate to delete it if they aren’t interested in the content. This, again, shows how a lack of personalization will hurt your brand.
8. AI is Becoming Invaluable for Email Marketing
If a small business spends $9 per month to manage their email efforts, how can they be expected to develop advanced personalization strategies and follow trends that multi-million companies immediately adopt?
The answer lies in artificial intelligence. Most off-the-shelf AI tools are free for basic packages or only use a small upcharge for advanced features. In fact, many email providers already utilize AI within the back-end of their products.
“Humans simply cannot replicate [the] degree of constant learning and optimize at the same pace [as AI],” Kyle Henderick writes at MarTech. “It would take a significant amount of A/B testing to eventually determine the most effective content, frequency and offers for each individual subscriber…the right AI tools have the potential to do this in seconds, freeing up email marketers’ time to think more strategically.”
As we will discuss later in this guide, no one person can handle the amount of personalization that your customers expect. An AI tool, whether it is added separately or built into an email service, will help SMBs better reach their goals without burning out their marketing team on menial tasks.
9. Expect Never Ending Change
We learn more about email marketing and customer behavior every year. Our technology also improves in ways we couldn’t imagine two years ago.
While marketers are better prepared and better informed to send effective email messages, customers are moving targets. Your buyers continue to evolve in their expectations of your brand and what they expect from your sales efforts. This means that no company can ever rest on its laurels and feel comfortable in its “best practices” because these practices are constantly changing.
In 2018, Google announced its plans to make email more interactive with its AMP support. This means that emails can update in real-time with dynamic content that engages the user. A travel site can change which hotels it promotes based on availability and a retailer can update its deals with the latest items.
Considering 26% of all emails are opened in Gmail, this investment is a huge change for email marketers. Interactive content and improved email automation is the future, and customers will continue to expect it from smaller businesses the more they see it in top brands.
Best Practices for Email Design
As you plan to grow your email marketing campaigns (or at least branch out from what you traditionally do) in 2020, your team should use this planning time to upgrade your email design and make your messages more compelling.
There are countless email marketing design guides across the web, with countless checklists that readers are expected to follow. As you read these, take them at face value and test them within your own campaigns. What works for one brand might not work for another.
That being said, these are a few proven design strategies that have worked for multiple brands in the past and have a proven track record. We recommend them as a good place to start as you evaluate your email designs in order to create more engaging content.
Note: many free or low-cost email providers will provide email templates that you can use. There are also dozens of free templates online. If you choose this option for your design, test different design options, or test the content within the designs, to see how your customers react.
QA Email Display on Multiple Devices
More than half of all email messages are opened on mobile devices – a number that is expected to rise over time. Not only should your email design be mobile-friendly, but the call-to-action that you include should also be large, prominent, and navigable. Few people who click on a link are going to be happy with a tiny screen that was meant for a desktop viewer.
Salesforce created a fascinating infographic that shares the exact CSS width and height for popular mobile devices. While many email providers (like MailChimp or Constant Contact) will adapt messages to fit various screens, it helps to know what your email content looks like on mobile so you can make adjustments for your target audiences.
To get the most out of your mobile optimizations, turn to Google Analytics and find the top devices that your customers browse from.
Below is a quick screengrab from the Devices subhead of the Mobile section (under Audiences) in Google Analytics. In this case, the company can see that as long as their email messages look good on an iPhone, they can create a positive mobile experience for at least half of their customers.
Know the Data Behind Subject Line Performance
Subject line advice is something that dozens of marketing experts will offer, but your actual best practices should be based on a combination of data and first-hand experience with your specific brand.
Too many people stick to a set limit on subject lines because they “heard it was recommended at a conference,” or “read about it in an article somewhere.” However, you may find that longer subject lines work better for your brand, or that your customers feel strongly about emojis one way or another.
Using this data, you can develop your own email subject line best practices to accommodate your customers. For example, you could develop guidelines where your subject lines are less than 60 characters to account for both Google and Outlook readers.
Alternatively, you could say that the core message needs to be addressed in the first 30 characters regardless of how long the subject line is. These rules are based on fact, rather than what a conference “email guru” recommends.
As you develop your subject lines, also look into the “pre-header” or snippet that most email providers display. This is typically a short sentence elaborating on the body of the email beyond the subject line. Testing these snippets as well can help you improve your open rate and overall engagement.
Humanize Your Email Marketing
Even if you are setting up automated triggers for various customer actions, look for ways to add a human touch to your email content. Remember, an inbox is part of a person’s online home – alongside their social media channels and other communication tools.
If you’re approaching customers with stiff or cold content, they aren’t going to welcome your brand or look forward to what you have to say. There are multiple ways you can humanize your email marketing – even if your brand isn’t particularly engaging. The following are a few options you can consider including:
- Give the sender an actual name, not just [email protected] or [email protected]. Even if the customer knows that the email is automated, this small step helps them picture a person behind the message. Don’t forget to sign off your emails with this name.
- Ask questions and have discussions in your email content. You don’t need to exclusively make statements and give calls to action in your email body.
- Provide multiple options for customers to choose from. This removes the pressure to take action and lets your customers consider their best choice.
- Use the first and second person. A sentence like “We are launching a new way for you…” is much more personable than a formal “ABC company is launching a new way for customers…”
Above all, talk to your customers as if you are speaking with them on the phone or in person. You can still send professional emails without speaking to your clients in corporate jargon.
For reference, a writer at the Harvard Business Review created a “Bizspeak Blacklist” that highlights words or phrases that put people off – whether you are trying to reach a B2C customer or sending a formal B2B proposal.
Find High-Quality Photos That Add to Your Message
The internet is becoming increasingly image-heavy, from the rise in the popularity of Instagram to the constant reaction GIFs shared across Facebook and Twitter. With this, more email marketers are opting for email designs that also feature a large hero image to draw customers in. There are still some best practices that stand the test of time for choosing images and developing emails that benefit your brand.
As analyzed the number of images in email bodies to try and find the sweet spot. They found that less is more, and too many images can actually put off customers.
When you think about it, these results likely have to do with brand messaging. If your email is packed with four or five (or more) messages, then your customers will get confused by your various calls to action and goals.
However, leading with one clear message – often in the main image – with only one or two supplemental images to support it, can guide customers to take the action you want.
For eCommerce brands, the image-heavy email trend is exciting. Ecommerce companies can develop email campaigns with bright lifestyle images featuring specific products to drive sales.
However, finding and using engaging images can cause stress for lead generation companies or brands that don’t have as much visual appeal as, say, Tiffany & Co. or Disney Cruise Lines.
For these brands, consider investing in a stock photo subscription instead of pulling free images on the web. For example, below are a few of the most common stock photos used in the marketing and business world. If your customers are familiar with the industry, they likely will have seen these photos multiple times on various blogs and will gloss over your message.
Investing a few dollars per month to buy quality images, or contracting a designer to create them, can drive better email marketing results and help your brand stand out from the pack.