How to get started with email marketing

You’ve seen all the stats. You’ve scoured over the infographics. You know email marketing is not going away anytime soon. So where do you begin? How do you get started and send that first email?

As we’ve been sending regular email newsletters ourselves, and on behalf of clients since 2007, we know a thing or two about them. We’ve tended to use two systems: Campaign Monitor and more latterly, Mailchimp.  Both have superb features to enable you to send emails that work across multiple devices –especially mobiles. This is important as towards the end of 2013 mobile email opens exceeded desktop for the first time, and this is set to continue. It’s no longer something you can ignore.

I’m going to focus more on Mailchimp as straight off the bat it allows you to send up to 12,000 emails to 2000 or fewer subscribers per month, absolutely free. This is a great option to start with, without costs inhibiting you. But there are many other systems around such as Mad Mimi, Constant Contact and bluehornet amongst others, where the same principles outlined below apply.

1. Setting up your list

When creating a newsletter, you need to have people to send it to! That should go without saying. First tip: don’t go out and buy a list. The whole point of email marketing is that it’s permission-based.

When we were setting up our list to send out RMLalchan newsletters, we could have simply added you, our clients and previous clients automatically.  This would have created a nice big list to send to. However, we are strong believers in permission-based marketing so sending an email to all our contacts, asking if you wanted to join our list, made much more sense. You’ll end up with a smaller list, naturally, but it’s worth so much more as every subscriber has given their permission.  Read our email strategy blog post which explains this in more detail.

Here are some other ways to start off promoting your list:

  • Add a subscription form to your website
  • Integrate a subscription form on your Facebook page
  • Post a link to your subscription form via Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media channels
  • Use an app -such as Mailchimp’s Chimpadeedoo, to sign people up at events
  • Look to offer something to entice visitors to sign up. Remember, they are parting with their own email address. What’s in it for them?

2. Designing your newsletter

Once your list is set up and the email subscriptions start to increase, you now need to put together your first email. If you’re going to be doing this yourself, before even thinking about the look and feel make sure you focus on the content. Use some of the advice we posted previously, and keep thinking ‘What’s going to connect with my target audience?’. Don’t just think about the information  you need to ‘blast’ out.

Here are a few ideas for content that you might include in your newsletters. Note these are general ideas and not all will be relevant to your industry or type of newsletter and will also vary depending on size of your business. You also don’t need to use several of them. You could easily have a simple newsletter with one actionable tip of the month.

  • Editorial - much like a magazine, this can be a thought for the month linking to a longer blog post. It can give a personal feel to the newsletter if you include a photo and sign off as the editor
  • Actionable tip of the month
  • Day in the life of...
  • Upcoming events
  • Latest news
  • Competitions
  • Links to blog posts - this lets your email subscribers view your blog posts first before you promote them to a wider audience
  • Special offers for subscribers
  • Testimonials
  • Reviews
  • Case studies
  • …lots more

Don’t overcrowd your newsletter, but at the same time, don’t assume it has to be extremely short. You have to remember who is reading it, when and where they are reading it. Sometimes, subscribers may scan your email when its delivered, not having the time to read it there and then, but then read it in full days later as they get more time. I must admit, I do this a lot.

The look and feel of your newsletter is also important. It should connect subscribers with your brand, being consistent and maintaining the same styling and personality.

Mailchimp have recently revamped their system to include a fully fledged, drag and drop, email designer. This really does allow anyone to get up and running quickly, and to produce professional-looking emails. However, it still does require some design know-how to match with your existing branding and we are often commissioned to design high-quality templates for clients who don’t have the internal resource to do this.

3. Testing your newsletter

Now you’ve constructed your email, it’s time to test it. Make sure you send a test to yourself, ideally using the email system that your target audience are likely to be using. For example, if you have lots of Gmail users, make sure you test on Gmail. Same for Outlook and mobile email apps.

A lot of importance is attached to the subject line of your email. Think about the email newsletters you receive - what are the subject lines of those you immediately click on, as opposed to those you don’t? There has been an awful lot of research carried out on creating the best subject line. Take note of it.  In Mailchimp you have a wonderful feature called A/B Testing. This allows you to send out two batches of newsletters to a proportion of your mailing list and the most successful subject line is then used when sending the newsletter to the rest of your subscribers. Let’s give a more specific example relating to subject lines.

You may have two good subject lines and you’re not sure which is going to be the best. You can pick 10% of your list to be sent the newsletter with subject line A and another 10% with subject line B. Whichever has the most opens after a given period will determine the subject line used when sending the final 80%.

You’re not limited to doing this testing with just subject lines. You can also test the best time to send your email or even different ‘From’ names. Very useful.

4. Scheduling to send

The good thing about almost all email marketing software is that you can schedule your emails to go out at a specific time. Just like subject lines, a lot of research has been carried out about the right time to send your newsletter. However, as good as the statistics are, each business is different and the best way to find the most appropriate time is to keep trying different times and check your open rates yourself. I would test for the first three - six months (or issues of your newsletter, if weekly) and then you should have the data to make the correct decision.

Another advantage of scheduling is that you can create several newsletters in advance. It’s not unknown for me to schedule three weekly newsletters ahead of time, which enables me to plan ahead. If I'm in ‘newsletter writing mode’, it’s sometimes easier to just copywrite content for several ahead of time.

5. Analysing results

So now you’ve set up your list, designed your newsletter, written the content and sent it out. Well done! Now is the time to assess how well it has been received. With Mailchimp you can download an app which provides reports on your newsletter performance. It includes data such as:

  • Open rate
  • Click rate
  • Number of opens
  • Number of clicks
  • Unsubscribes
  • Forwards
  • Bounces
  • ...and more

This is all extremely useful information. However, it’s easy to get too caught up in the statistics and read the wrong thing into it. For example, most people’s email opens dropped at key points last year. If you didn’t know that Gmail had introduced a couple of new features (marketing tabs and automatic image downloading) you could be at a loss as to why your newsletter suddenly seemed unpopular. Keep checking sites like as they provide a very informative monthly video about stats on email marketing industry performance.

So that’s it. You should be well on the way to having a successful newsletter, allowing you to keep regularly connected with your customers. It doesn’t end here of course. You need to keep on top of each issue, refining it where necessary, to keep on making your newsletters even more effective.