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The 2021 Guide to Small Business Email Marketing

10+ min read • Oct 20, 2020 • Jesse Sumrak

Want to know which marketing channel has the highest ROI? Email. Yes, that’s right—this relatively archaic form of communications boasts an impressive 4,400% ROI, a number most other marketing methods don’t come close to reaching.

Facebook marketing, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, and search engine optimization (SEO) steal the modern marketing spotlight. They’re new(er), flashier, and powerful—and certainly deserve a spot in any marketing strategy. However, you can’t beat the classics.

Email isn’t flashy, but it sure is effective. 

As a small business owner, you have a lot on your plate. Growing a small business is hard work. You’re probably the CEO, recruiter, sales manager, bookkeeper, marketer, and likely a lot more. It’s a lot of hats to wear, but someone has to do it.

With your marketing duties alone, you have plenty to do:

  • Social media marketing
  • Search engine marketing
  • Outdoor marketing
  • Creative design
  • SEO
  • Content marketing
  • Email marketing
  • And so many other options

It’s impossible to do everything—you have other aspects of your business to run, too. That’s why it’s critical to zero in on the channels that give you the most bang for your buck, like email.

While an effective email marketing program isn’t quite as simple as logging into your Gmail account and generating sales (wouldn’t that be nice), it’s fortunately simpler than most marketing channels. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to launch, maintain, and advance a dynamic email marketing program.

First, let’s look at a few stats to whet your appetite for email.

Email Isn’t Dead—Far From It

Closeup of person typing email

Email is alive and kicking. Years ago, many predicted its unavoidable demise—but they’ve been sadly mistaken. Sorry, Zuckerberg. It turns out email is still gaining traction, even amongst Gen Z and millennials.

Here’s why this matters to you:

Still not convinced? While the past and present have been positive for email, the future looks bright, too. Here are a few compelling stats on email usage from Twilio SendGrid’s 2019 Email Benchmark Report:

  • Average email-open rates are still about as high as they were 3–4 years ago (14.5%)—it’s never too late to join the email marketing game.
  • Every generation across the US and UK ranked email as their #1 most essential communications channel—over other competitive channels like social media and text messaging.
  • 37% of respondents like to receive emails from certain companies daily, while 40% prefer emails once or twice a week—that’s a lot of requested touchpoints. And requested interactions are much more valuable than forcing your audience into a touchpoint with something like a YouTube ad or display ad.

Email’s not going anywhere anytime soon. This profitable channel is worth a significant investment of your time, money, and resources—and, fortunately, you don’t need a perfect program to start seeing a healthy ROI.

Below, we’ll walk you step-by-step through the process of creating a top-notch email program.

Use an Email Marketing Service

Email marketing services provide advanced features and functionality to help you send better emails to your customers. Services like Twilio SendGrid, Mailchimp, and Constant Contact offer valuable email tools like:

  • Automation
  • 3rd-party integrations
  • List management
  • Segmentation
  • A/B testing
  • Email templates
  • Scheduling
  • Scalability
  • Deliverability
  • And more

Find the email service provider that best fits your business’s needs. If you’re debating which one to choose, play around with the free plans, trials, and demos to see which you like best.

Remember, you can always switch providers in the future. It can cause a minor headache, but it’s not too complicated—so don’t roadblock yourself with paralysis by analysis. Choose a program and move forward with confidence.

Start Collecting Email Addresses

Person seeing confirmation email

Now that you have a reliable platform to store and maintain your contacts, it’s time to start collecting email addresses. There is a right way and a wrong way to go about this, and it’s critical you don’t damage your email reputation by using black-hat tactics.

Bad Email Collecting Tactics

The wrong email collecting and sending methods can cause substantial problems now and in the future:

  • Your email account could be shut down.
  • Your sender reputation could be damaged, leading to more of your emails going to recipients’ spam folders instead of their inboxes.
  • Customers may not receive your critical emails (like password resets, receipts, shipping notifications, etc.).
  • Recipient engagement may drop, causing more of your messages to land in the spam folder.

Email-collecting shortcuts may give you a few immediate results and sales—but they’ll almost always cause more harm in the long run. In the end, it’s best to avoid them entirely.

First, let’s get the shady methods out in the open so that you know what to avoid:

  • Buying lists: This is a huge no-no. Never purchase an email list from anyone, no matter how legit it sounds. These people never opted in to receive your emails—so your messages become as obnoxious and unread as the 5 envelopes in your physical mailbox that all read “URGENT: READ NOW!”
  • Renting lists: Renting isn’t okay, either. While you’re not taking ownership of these email addresses per se, it’s still wrong to email recipients who haven’t expressly given you their permission.
  • Scraping lists: Just because you find an email address on the internet doesn’t mean it’s okay to add it to your list. Whether you mine them manually or use bots to do this dirty work for you, it’s not okay to send emails to addresses you scraped on the internet.

So, what’s the right way to build a legit email list, then? Great question! 

Good Email Collecting Tactics

The European Union’s new privacy law, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), went into effect May 25, 2018. It’s a massive document filled with legal jargon—so these are the highlights you need for email marketing. To gain legal permission to email a person, you need to collect consent that is:

  • Freely given
  • Specific
  • Informed
  • Unambiguous

Basically, this means your recipients need to know (and agree to) what they’re getting into when they hand over their email addresses. That means if a customer hands over their email address when making a purchase, that doesn’t permit you to send them marketing emails unless they consent to that specifically.

To start collecting email addresses, use sign-up forms. These forms could be included on your home page, placed in a sidebar or footer, added to pop-ups, embedded in an article, or even listed on a sheet of paper at your local event (an old-school tactic, but respectable at times).

Ask for your audience’s email address in exchange for something valuable. You may trade guides, downloadables, coupons, newsletters, information, giveaways, or a variety of other items of interest to incentivize sign ups. Using sign-up forms is a legitimate practice—just make sure your customer’s consent is “freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous.”

Once you have your customers’ email address and consent, you’re ready to start the nurturing and conversion process. 

Send a Welcome Email

New Email Notification on screen

First impressions matter. Don’t make your customer’s first email interaction be a sales pitch or anything like that—play it cool. Start with an introduction. This is typically done through a welcome email.

A welcome email is the first message you send your new recipients. This email should validate their decision to opt into your list and set the tone for all future communications. Introduce yourself and set clear expectations. Your welcome email doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Keep this email short, sweet, well-branded, and friendly.

Here are some topics you could include in your welcome email:

  • Share a short history or story about your brand. This could include who you are, what you do, and what makes you unique.
  • If someone signed up for an incentive (e-book, discount, exclusive content, etc.), make sure you deliver.
  • Send a thank you. Remember, your recipient has given you private access to their valuable online identity—say thanks. You might even want to give your recipients a small discount or something similarly nice.
  • Set expectations. Let your recipients know how many emails you plan on sending them and what kinds of content they can expect. This is an ideal time to provide your customers with an email preference center—this allows your audience to tailor their email interactions with you by choosing which kinds of messages they’re interested in and the sending frequency.
  • Provide how-tos. If you’re welcoming a new user or customer, you can take a second to provide a brief overview of how to get started.

Segment Your Audiences

Your audience may have a lot in common, but they also each have unique wants and preferences. Segment your audiences so that you can send targeted messages that best resonate with each individual.

For example, if you’re an athletic-clothing retailer, your male hiking recipient might not care very much about your female cycling clothing sales. Instead, use sign-up form data and email interactions to segment him into a more appropriate list—perhaps an email newsletter about hiking, camping, and backpacking equipment.

Customers are most likely to unsubscribe from your email communications when they see irrelevant messages or receive too many emails. You can avoid this issue by using a preference center. Instead of having an opt-out button in your emails, let customers pick and choose which emails they’d like to receive. Some customers might want to unsubscribe from all your messages, while others might just want to receive your monthly newsletter—give them options.

Set Up Simple Email Automations

Marketing Automation Concept Graph

Email automation can help to clear your busy plate. Most email service providers offer automation features that allow you to send emails based on specific criteria. For example, if someone signs up for your email list, they’ll automatically receive a welcome email. Or if someone makes a purchase, they’ll automatically receive a review request in a few weeks.

Setting up automations is relatively simple, and it’ll remove a lot of your nitty-gritty responsibilities. Start simple with automated welcome emails. Down the road, you can get more complex and start adding upsell and cross-sell automations, too.

A/B Test Your Emails to Find What Resonates

A/B testing is a simple way to improve your email program. A/B email testing is the process of creating various emails with slight differences to determine which option performs better.

Twilio SendGrid, for example, allows you to create multiple variations of each email—they’ll test a certain percentage of each variation on a small portion of your list and send the most successful version to the bulk of your recipients.

A/B testing is a great way to discover what resonates most with your audience. For example, you may find that emails with a discount in the subject line get more opens than those without. Or you may see that emails with a green background perform better than those with a red or blue background. These insights can inform your strategy for future email campaigns.

Follow Email-List Hygiene Best Practices

The world of email has rules. Follow the rules, and you’ll boost your email marketing campaign’s performance. Ignore the rules, and your program will suffer.

The most important part of any email marketing program is its email list. To maintain a legitimate and healthy list, you’ll need to follow a few best practices:

  • Honor unsubscribes: If someone unsubscribes from your list, stop sending them emails. If you don’t, customers may flag your emails as spam, which will decrease your chances of landing in the inbox with other recipients.
  • Regularly clean your list: If users aren’t opening your emails, you’ll need to remove them from your sending list. Check to see who’s not opening your emails. Sending to unengaged recipients can damage your sending reputation. While you’re at it, check for bounced and invalid emails, too. Sending to nonexistent email addresses (fake or mistyped) can hurt your delivery rates, too.
  • Confirm email subscriptions: When someone gives you their email address, send them a double opt-in email to confirm their intent. This will prevent bots and other bad email addresses from landing on your email list.

Regularly Review Your Sending Stats

Two people reviewing statistics on computer

Just like you’d do with your financial documents and other business metrics, it’s important to sit down regularly and review your email-sending stats. Your email service provider will provide several telling metrics:

  • Opens
  • Clicks
  • Click-through rates
  • Unsubscribes
  • Spam reports
  • Etc.

Look for trends and anomalies to find ways to improve your program. If open rates are dropping, then you know you’re going to need to make some changes. And if an email had an incredible click-through rate, dive deep into the campaign to find out what caused the jump so you can replicate its success in future emails.

Looking at the data will also reveal which days and times work best for your recipients and what kinds of content resonates best with them. Your email stats can even provide critical insights to improve your other online and offline marketing efforts.

Hire Help When Necessary

Email can be simple and straightforward, but it also has some advanced functionalities that require an expert’s touch to master. If you’re experiencing any difficulties (like delivery issues) or want to take your program to the next level, you’ll likely need to hire an email specialist.

Most email service providers provide extra expert help at a small cost. Mailchimp provides “specialized service partners” who can help you to do everything from building out automations to designing custom templates. Twilio SendGrid provides email experts who can partner with you to set up your program for success, resolve sending issues, or offer ongoing consulting.

You could also find and hire an email specialist on a part-time or contract basis from your LinkedIn network or another recruitment platform. Just make sure your candidate is trained and familiar with the specific email service provider you’re using.

Make Email a Big Part of Your Small Business

Make email a marketing priority as soon as possible. This program can take a little time to pick up momentum, but once you start collecting email addresses and sending campaigns, you’ll quickly gain traction.

It might seem counterintuitive—but given consumer preferences discussed previously, you should establish your email program before you even start optimizing your social media profiles. Email is where modern customers want to communicate with your business, so don’t wait to satisfy their demands.

Email might seem like a teeny-tiny part of your marketing program, but it can make a monolithic impact when used correctly. Follow the steps above, and you’ll be well on your way towards creating your business’s most lucrative revenue-driving channel.

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Jesse Sumrak

Jesse Sumrak is a Social Media Manager for SendGrid, a leading digital communication platform. He's created and managed content for startups, growth-stage companies, and publicly-traded businesses. Jesse has spent almost a decade writing about small business and entrepreneurship topics, having built and sold his own post-apocalyptic fitness bootstrapped startup. When he's not dabbling in digital marketing, you'll find him ultrarunning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Jesse studied Public Relations at Brigham Young University.