How does email marketing work? Introducing ESPs
Businesses use what’s known as an Email Service Provider (ESP) to send marketing emails.
An Email Service Provider is software that sends and manages email marketing campaigns.
It’s also referred to as an email marketing platform, email marketing tool, email marketing service, or email marketing software.
Now you might be wondering, can’t I just send marketing emails with my regular inbox provider? Do I really need to pay for this additional email service?
Technically, it’s possible (we even explain how in our guide to sending mass email with Gmail). Beware, though. You’re likely to run into problems with limited email bandwidth, design, and more importantly, email deliverability. Here’s why:
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, etc. are designed for personal use — not for email blasts. So when mass email is sent from an ISP, it’s easily flagged by spam filters and your account can be disabled for suspicious activity.
ESPs on the other hand have the necessary infrastructure in place to ensure email deliverability — the ability to land emails in the inbox. If you want to set yourself up for email marketing success from day one, get yourself a dedicated email marketing service.
How to start email marketing: what do I need?
Keeping it simple, there’s two main things you need to run email marketing campaigns.
1. Email marketing software
As we’ve just explained, a dedicated email marketing provider is the way to go. Sending marketing emails through an ISP will only put your brand and email sender reputation at risk.
2. An email list
This list contains the email addresses of interested subscribers who have opted-in to receive email communications from you.
Yes, that’s right — opt-in. Because here’s the thing about email contacts:
Everyone on that email list needs to have given their express permission to be there.
What does that mean?
It means they agreed to receive emails from you when they entered their email address into an email signup form on your blog, website, landing pages, social media, or anywhere else. In email terms, this process is referred to as ‘opting in’ (‘opting out’ would be an unsubscribe).
Permission-based marketing is essential to conform with data protection laws and safeguard the integrity of your brand. After all, nobody likes a spammer.
Still with us up until now? Great, because here’s where it gets exciting — learning how to launch an email marketing strategy, starting with your first email campaign.
How to launch your first email marketing campaign in 8 steps
1. Choose the right email marketing software
The first step is finding an ESP to send and manage your email campaigns and email subscribers.
Popular email tools include Sendinblue, Mailchimp, Constant Contact, Convertkit, Mailjet, Mailerlite, and HubSpot — to name a few.
With hundreds of ESPs on the market, it’s hard to know which one is right for your business. And it’s easy to get sucked in by shiny bells and whistles you probably don’t need (not yet, anyway).
Evaluate your needs. Distinguish between must-have features and nice-to-have features. Make a list.
Here are some questions to narrow it all down:
- What’s your budget? If it’s very limited, then cheap email marketing services should be your starting point.
- What kind of emails do you plan to send, and how often? This’ll give you an idea of your required email volume (i.e. number of email sends).
- If you’ve already got a list of opt-in contacts, how many are there?
- What’s your skill level when it comes to designing emails? If you’re a complete beginner you’ll want a drag and drop email editor as this is easiest to use. Email templates will also come in handy. Inversely, if you prefer to code emails from scratch, you’ll surely be on the lookout for an HTML editor.
- Do you plan to set up automated email workflows? See what the potential ESP offers in terms of email marketing automation. Some solutions only offer basic autoresponders.
- If your business communicates with different buyer personas, what segmentation capabilities are offered?
- Will your business be sending transactional emails (note that these are not considered email marketing). Some folks like to manage these emails with a separate service, others prefer all emails under the one roof with a tool like Sendinblue.
It’s also a good idea to consider your future needs. Found an ESP you like? Do some simulations: Ok, if my list grows to X, how much will this ESP cost? If I want to add X to my strategy, does this ESP have the feature-set to support me?
A bit of optimistic projection into the future is good, but don’t get carried away. Focus on the essentials for now.
Pricing by email volume vs. pricing by subscribers
As you’re exploring different options, you’ll notice most providers base their pricing on the number of subscribers.
Lots of email marketing solutions will try to lure you in with cheap entry plans for a small number of subscribers (often 250 or 500). The catch? The prices tend to jump significantly once your list grows beyond these limits (as is the case with Mailchimp).
And hopefully your list will grow because that’s kind of the point. But it sure would be a shame to end up overpaying for email in the long run.
2. Build your email list
Can’t send email campaigns without anyone to send them to. Time to start building a list of engaged, opt-in subscribers.
Most ESPs let you create subscription forms to be embedded on your website.
When creating a subscription form, be super clear about your signup promise — what kind of email content will the subscribers receive and how often?
If you promise a bi-weekly email newsletter with content marketing tips, stick to that. If you start sending unrelated promotional content, expect people to unsubscribe (or worse, mark your emails as spam!).
Remember: People trust you enough to give their email address in the first place, don’t abuse that trust.
Add opt-in forms to your website and other places
Place your email subscription form in highly visible places where people will definitely see it.
Typical subscription form hotspots include blog posts, the homepage, and contact page.
Share forms on social media by including a link in your bio or posts.
Run an ecommerce store? Include a signup option as part of the checkout process.
Supercharge your list with content upgrades and lead magnets
Nothing makes a list grow faster than premium content.
Create an exclusive ebook, report, checklist, or infographic. Offer the user to download it for free in exchange for their email address.
Special offers and discounts are a great way to get people onto your list. Clothing brand Mango offers 10% off your first order when you subscribe to their newsletter.
3. Set up a welcome email for new subscribers
When someone signs up to your email list, you’ve got their attention. Now’s the time to engage them even further with a welcome email.
A welcome email is an automated message sent to new customers and subscribers. The idea is to introduce your brand and any content that’ll establish your relationship with the subscriber — a welcome discount, link to latest articles, useful information, etc.
4. Define the goal of your email marketing campaign
Now that you’ve started building your email list, it’s time to think about what you want to achieve from this first campaign.
Every email marketing campaign needs to have a clear goal.
Examples of common goals include:
- Promoting a new product
- Sharing a discount with loyal customers
- Getting more downloads for your latest ebook
- Updating subscribers on some important piece company news
Your goals can either be hyper-specific or broad — as long as they fit with your business and your audience.
With a clear goal in mind it’ll be easier to create your email content. Which brings us to the next step:
5. Build a responsive-design email
You might be wondering, do I need to hire an email designer?
If you’re bootstrapped and on a budget, then no. You don’t need one. To make things easy, most email marketing services have some form of Drag & Drop email editor. These are great for producing clean, simple, hassle-free designs.
Of course, that’s not to diminish the value of having a dedicated email designer, especially for ecommerce. An email designer will help you stand out from the crowd with custom templates. It’s definitely something to consider down the line — or even now if you have the means.
Anyway, if you’re going full-on DIY email marketing, just play around with your ESP’s editor until you’re satisfied with the end result.
And remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Don’t get hung up on creating a fancy design for the first email newsletter. Keep it simple. You can always build upon this later on as your skills grow.
Of course, one way to go faster is with customizable email templates.
Save time with ready-made email templates
Email marketing templates are the perfect shortcut to a standout email design.
If your email marketing service offers templates, pick one you like and personalize it to match your brand colors and font.
Re-use the template over and over for future email newsletters. All you’ll be doing each time is updating the content. Quick and easy.
Sendinblue has over 70 templates in its email template gallery. There are also plenty of free email templates available from other sources.
6. Craft your email copy
You know your goal, you know your target audience, now let’s fill that template with words.
Your email copy needs to offer value and speak to topics that interest your audience. You also need to nail down the tone of voice.
To write persuasive, engaging email copy, keep these tips in mind:
- Ask yourself: What does my audience need from me? How can I help?
- Imagine you’re writing to one person
- Show your personality
- Tell a story
- Write to instill curiosity (starting with the email subject line — more on that below)
- Use a conversational tone, i.e. write the way you speak
- Break up the copy with short paragraphs and use bullet points where possible
The email signature should be the name of a real person. This is more personal than a faceless brand logo.
Don’t have much copywriting experience? Don’t worry. Writing emails is something you can practise and improve with time.
7. Optimize your email open rate, clicks, and conversions
There are a number of ways to boost your email open and conversion rate, starting with your email sender name.
Use an easily recognizable sender name and address
When you get an email, what’s the first thing you look at? Who it’s from, of course.
The sender name answers the recipient’s first subconscious question: Is this genuine or is it spam?
The best way to reinforce trustworthiness and brand recognition is to incorporate your brand name into the sender name. There are several ways to go about this:
- Your company/brand/newsletter name on its own
- A combination of brand name and your first name (e.g. Emma at Sendinblue)
- A distinct sender name to differentiate specific types of email content (e.g. Sendinblue Product News)
To be easily recognized in the inbox, use the same sender name and address for all campaigns.
Avoid no-reply email addresses as these diminish trust in your brand and prevent subscribers from reaching out with questions. You want engagement from your audience — why close off a potential means of communication?
Optimize your email preheader/preview text
The email preheader (or preview text as it’s also known) is the snippet of text that appears after the email subject line on certain email clients and devices.
The preheader adds valuable context to your subject line and can significantly boost your open rates. The subject line and preheader should work together to start telling the reader a story.
Again, it should instill enough curiosity to make the reader want to open the email and learn more.
Fail to set a preview text and the email client will pull the first line of text.
‘View this email in your browser’ isn’t the most enticing, is it? Yep, you guessed it, customization is best.
8. Test your email campaign before sending
Always send a test email before officially hitting send. Small mistakes can easily slip through the cracks and harm your brand image.
Keep your eyes peeled for:
- Forgotten or incorrect links
- Text formatting errors
Have some team members proofread and check the test email on both desktop and mobile.
If you’re with Sendinblue, use the email preview feature to test different screen sizes and email clients.
And when all’s good to go, double check that you’ve selected the right email list.
9. Schedule your campaign for the right time
Rather than choosing a random day and time, be strategic. Choose a time that makes sense for your audience, based on what you know about them.
Most people tend to only visit their inbox a few times each day. Find a time that’ll put you top of the inbox when subscribers are checking their emails. This is sure to increase your open rates.
Email marketing campaigns tend to perform better when sent on Tuesday or Thursday in the mornings around 10:00 AM or in the afternoons around 2:00 PM.
It makes sense: Many people check their emails in the morning when they get to work, as well as after returning from lunch.
But, what works for most may not work best for you. It’s important to test different times to see where the sweet spot is with your audience.
Sendinblue Premium users get access to Send Time Optimization which selects the best time for each individual contact based on previous engagement data.
10. Monitor the campaign results
Analyzing key email marketing metrics will teach you how to do better in future campaigns. As a beginner email marketer, there’ll always be areas of improvement.
Most ESPs have an analytics dashboard with at least the following metrics:
- Open rate: The ratio of the number of people who opened your email divided by the total number of recipients.
- Click-through rate: The ratio of the number of people who clicked on a link in your email divided by the total number of recipients.
- Unsubscribe rate: The number of people who unsubscribed divided by the total number of recipients (hopefully, as close to zero as possible). If this number is high, you need to review your email frequency and segmentation — we’ll look at this in more detail shortly.
- Bounce rate: The number of emails that failed to deliver divided by the total number of emails sent. Soft bounces are due to temporary issues like the recipient’s inbox being full. Hard bounces, on the other hand, are due to permanent issues (e.g. an inactive email address).