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15 ways to improve your email marketing campaigns

Despite many years of predictions that email marketing would be replaced or fade away, that day has yet to arrive. In fact, email marketing remains one of the most effective ways of reaching prospective and existing customers.

[ Related: 14 digital marketing mistakes to avoid ]

Of course, there is always room for improvement with any marketing method. So to find out how businesses, especially small and midsized ones, can increase the effectiveness of their email campaigns dozens of email marketers and small business experts offer their top 15 tips for creating emails that recipients will read and click on.

[ Related: 7 ways small businesses can leverage customer data ]

1. Segment your email lists. “You may have subscribers who are interested in different types of emails, such as coupons, events or news, but not necessarily all three,” says Sarah Vandenberg, founder and CEO, Vandenberg Digital Communications. So it’s important to understand who you are sending emails to. “For example, if you offer discounts for students or for retirees, consider segmenting your email lists by age group. If you have a press release, email it to a dedicated media list rather than your full one. [Providing] relevant messages to your [subscribers and customers] can encourage higher open and click-through rates and fewer unsubscribes.”

2. Make sure your emails are mobile friendly. “Research from Litmus [and BlueHornet] shows that 71 percent of people will delete an email immediately if it doesn’t display correctly [on their mobile device],” says Cynthia Price, vice president, marketing, Emma, a provider of email marketing services and software. “To avoid [your email] being sent straight to the trash, it’s important to focus on creating mobile-optimized email content that is eye-catching and engaging on a smartphone.”

To that end, she advises that marketers “opt for a single-column design that works well with the vertical scroll. Use big images and bold headlines [though many marketers advise brands NOT to use big images]. Include plenty of white space for easy scanning. Keep your subject lines short. And make sure your CTA buttons are large enough to be easily tapped – at least 44 pixels squared.”

“Email marketing services like MailChimp allow you to test how your messages look across a variety of devices and in different inboxes, such as Gmail in Chrome or Outlook 2011, and make sure that your designs display correctly wherever they’re sent,” says Vandenberg.

But if you’re not using an email service that lets you test how your messages will look on different devices, use responsive design to create your emails.

Yesmail’s latest benchmark report found that brands with responsive design in all of their emails garner a 55 percent higher mobile click-to-open rate (CTO) than brands that have not implemented responsive in any of their campaigns,” says Ivy Shtereva, director of marketing at Yesmail.

3. Consider text-only emails – or not using image-based emails. “We [found] that a simple text-based email with links to our content or product works the best,” says Copley Broer, who runs LandlordStation, which provides online tools and content to property managers and landlords throughout the country. “Images look pretty but most email clients like Outlook block them automatically which means that most people just see broken stuff instead of the pretty image. So we write very short but descriptive paragraphs with links to the site and we tag those links so we can see what people are clicking on and what they aren't.” 

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4. Have email come from a real person (as opposed to ‘noreply’). “Sixty-four percent of subscribers open an email based on who the email is from,” says Steven Macdonald, digital marketing manager, SuperOffice. “No one likes receiving an email from donotreply@example.com.” So next campaign, have your email come from a member of your marketing or customer service teams, or even your CEO – and let people know how to respond, so their reply won’t get bounced or ignored.

5. Make your subject line compelling and to the point. “You win or lose with the subject line in your email, so make it as compelling as possible,” says Michael Weiss, cofounder & managing partner, C-4 Analytics, a digital marketing agency. “Either spell out an offer that your customers will find irresistible, such as, ’50 percent off our most popular software,’ or inform customers of something special that's happening, such as, ‘Duck a l'Orange is back on Tuesday!’ This is even more effective if you have a segmented mailing list tailored to specific buying habits of your customers.”

“Subject lines can make or break a campaign,” says EJ McGowan, senior director & general manager, Campaigner. “They have to be compelling enough to persuade contacts to open the emails, but friendly enough to not turn them off. First and foremost, keep them short; lines with fewer than 50 characters have higher open rates, and anything over 50 runs the risk of being truncated,” he explains. Also, “try to convey a sense of urgency in the subject line with a special announcement or limited-time sale, but don’t be too pushy.”

“Short subject lines that drive urgency – [such as] ‘Last chance!’ ‘Ends tonight!’ etc. – get opened,” says Sean Hay, director of retention, Sunglass Warehouse. “We see up to 8 percent higher open rates than average [when we do this].” That said, the email’s “success in driving revenue depends on the offer contained in the email.”

6. Personalize your email. “Email blasts that clearly have no customization won’t resonate well with your contacts,” says McGowan. “But personalization, when done right, can both encourage contacts to open the emails and then interact with the content on the inside.

“Start with the basics, like adding first names to the subject lines,” he suggests. “If you have it, use more advanced data in the body of the email to offer a compelling call to action. For instance, use past purchase behavior to determine which specials might be most intriguing to certain contacts,” he says. “Whether basic or advanced, the more recipient data you can use to personalize the messages, the more impactful the campaign will be.”

“In place of the mass emails of days gone by, subscribers want highly relevant messages that fit their unique interests and pain points,” says Kraig Swensrud, CMO, Campaign Monitor. “This sentiment was echoed in a Janrain study, which showed that 74 percent of online customers are frustrated when they receive content that has nothing to do with their interests. The good news is that personalization in email marketing is proven to increase click-throughs. Emails with personalized subject lines are 26 percent more likely to be opened.”

7. Have a clear call to action (CTA). “One of the biggest mistakes in email marketing is not having clearly defined calls to action,” says Milan Malivuk, director of Marketing at itracMarketer, an email marketing and marketing automation provider. “It doesn't matter if you're driving traffic to a page, getting people to call a number or asking for form submissions. If the reader can't determine what they're expected to do within 5 seconds, chances are they [will delete your email],” he states. “So when designing an email for a marketing campaign, test it out by showing it to a friend or spouse and give them 5 seconds to look at the email then see if they know what they need to do.”

“Each email you send out should have a stated and clear purpose, whether you want your subscribers to purchase, learn more or sign up,” says Vandenberg. “Don’t beat around the bush. Placing a bold call to action, say a button or graphic, in a prominent spot above the fold can generate more clicks and engagement than a simple ‘Click Here’ embedded in the text at the end of your message. The less scrolling and searching your subscribers need to do, the easier it will be for them to engage with you.”

8. Keep the preview pane in mind. “Remember, most recipients will view your email through a preview pane with the images blocked,” says Malayna Evans, vice president, marketing & business development, PWR New Media. “So make sure key information and calls to action are above the fold (the upper left quadrant in email) and visible even when images are blocked. Most recipients will glance quickly at the preview pane, the from line and the subject line (and pre-header if they’re on mobile) and decide whether or not to open your email based on those elements.”

9. Optimize your pre-header text. “According to Litmus, mobile opens represent 55 percent of all email opens; this makes pre-headers even more critical to improving response rates,” says Pam McAtee, senior vice president, digital solutions, Epsilon, a global marketing company. “Ensure your pre-header text supports your subject line and provides another reason to open the email by leading with an offer when relevant and using personalization and urgency (i.e., ‘ends soon’ or ‘expires tonight’) to engage the subscriber and drive your open rate.”

[ Related: 15 marketing experts to follow on social media ]

10. Be succinct – giving readers an option to read or learn more. “If you have a lot of content to share, consider including teasers for each section and then a ‘read more’ link to the full copy,” says Malivuk. “This will help you avoid forcing readers to scroll past one huge section of content to get to the other secondary pieces of content. This is especially [important] for mobile, where content tends to get stacked vertically [and] you risk a reader browsing the first topic, not connecting with it and then [deleting] the email instead of continuing on down to other content.”

11. Find out the best time of day to reach your target audience(s). “Don’t assume that all businesspeople will respond between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays,” says Nancy Gerstein, CEO, Creative Marketing Associates. “For an email campaign directed [at] attorneys, [for example,] we discovered a much higher open rate between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. After 9, a.m., we could see a significant drop off in the open rate.”

“When scheduling your emails, consider the time zone of those in your database,” says Jake Diserio, digital marketing manager, etouches, a provider of global event management software. “It is a good idea to segment your send times so that each area gets their message at optimal open times. We segment our sends by North America, APAC and EMEA regions, and have seen higher open rates when APAC gets their message in the morning versus North America, [which] prefers the afternoon.”

12. Allow customers to manage their email subscriptions. “One easy solution to reduce your list attrition rates comes in the form of a preference center,” says Shelly Alvarez, director of client services at PostUp, an email marketing company. “A preference center is a landing page on your brand’s website that allows your subscribers to change their email preferences [or unsubscribe].  Leverage your preference center and use verbiage [such] as ‘We understand your needs change. Would you like to receive emails from us less frequently?’ Then allow subscribers to select the frequency they would like to receive emails from you.”

13. Track your emails. “Use UTM codes so you can track post-click visitor engagement,” says Tara Chambers, director of marketing communications, Scott’s Marketplace, an ecommerce platform for local businesses to sell products. “Some email service providers generate these automatically, but if not, take the time to add them to every link in an email. Having consistent UTM codes in place allows you to see if your subscribers are converting, what pages they’re visiting or if they bounce immediately.” 

14. Constantly test. “Email marketers need to test everything, including subject lines, featured content, creative and send times,” says Meghann York, director of product marketing, Salesforce Marketing Cloud. “For example, one of our customers, Loxa Beauty, was trying to adapt its email content to appeal to a younger audience, so it used A/B testing to determine what resonated with that audience. Through A/B testing content and send times, the company found its customers were in buying mode Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but engaged with content most on Sundays – critical information that helped it increase open rates.”

Just remember when conducting A/B testing to “keep your variations subtle so that you can determine what any difference in open rates, click-throughs or conversions is attributed to,” says Malivuk. “Want to boost open rates? Test the same email with two different subject lines. Click-through rates? Use the same email, but change only the button positioning for your CTA. By constantly testing, you put yourself on a path to data-driven, constant improvement in your marketing efforts.”

15. Regularly update and cleanse your email list. “Remember to keep your recipient list as clean as possible,” says Victor Amin, a data scientist at SendGrid, a cloud-based email delivery platform. “Well-maintained lists consistently have higher engagement rates than older, neglected lists. Make sure you’re removing addresses that haven’t been engaged in a long time and segment your list by engagement.”

“Up to 40 percent of your subscribers are inactive,” says Macdonald. “Sending email marketing campaigns to subscribers that do not open or read your emails can negatively impact email delivery rates. Simply remove subscribers who haven't opened up an email within the last 12 months and instead focus on the subscribers that do engage with your campaigns.”

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