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Introduction

Editor’s note: this post was updated for accuracy and freshness in August 2021

When you run an agency, any email campaign strategy requires significant planning and forethought. Your clients come to you for certainty—and you can’t deliver that without a comprehensive plan. By spending adequate time planning your email marketing strategy, you can meet your client’s goals more effectively and create the best campaigns possible.

This guide will explain everything your agency should consider when planning a campaign. It will also provide you with a detailed example of an email marketing campaign strategy in action, as well as a Q&A to help make sense of it all.

Chapter 1

With an email marketing strategy, planning is essential

As an agency, you might consider the planning phase to be outside your scope. Shouldn’t the clients think about their goals? Their objectives? Their milestones? And while it’s a valid approach to defer to your clients on objectives, your agency should have a say. You don’t want to create beautifully designed but ineffectual emails.

If you can help clients create effective campaigns, on the other hand, they’ll be happier. You’ll be able to charge more for your services. You’ll be more than a generalized marketing agency; you’ll be a specialized email campaign strategy consulting agency with specific experience generating results.

But results like these will require a clear plan upfront.

Without one, the emails you create might lack structure. This means readers may find it difficult to navigate it. And it doesn’t matter how good it looks—ultimately, the purpose of your email is to reach your clients’ objectives.

So how can you create a useful email newsletter? You need to start with more planning upfront. Ask the following questions:

  • What’s the purpose of the email strategy?
  • Who are the people who will read it?
  • What is that audience expecting to receive?
  • What will define “success” for this project?

Let’s say your agency has been approached to create an HTML email strategy. Before you ever open Photoshop or your favorite text editor, it becomes your agency’s job to find the answers to these questions. You don’t want to end up with a beautifully coded email that only gets seen by email filtering software.

To get seen, you have to first create effective emails. And to accomplish that, we’ll steer you through the principles you need to apply to plan an effective email marketing strategy for 2021.

Chapter 2

A detailed example of an email marketing campaign strategy

We’ll start with The Modern Henchperson Magazine’s email strategy.

Okay, we made it up. But bear with us, because this example will help you pin down a strategy for your next campaign.

Imagine there was a magazine for today’s busy supervillain. That supervillain has no time to do basic death trap maintenance. They don’t have time for the Homeowner Association because their volcano lair is quote-unquote “not up to code.”

So they hire a henchperson. And these henchpeople need to be on the path of continual improvement if they’re going to do all a henchperson has to do: fire guns inaccurately at James Bond, fill gas in the submarine, and break out in an evil laugh at the right moments.

Now, pretend your agency has talked with Modern Henchperson Magazine about their email marketing strategy. You know the audience: the busy henchperson. But that’s all you know for now. Your agency can use the template below to ask questions about the email marketing strategy that will help inform everything you do:

The Modern Henchman Magazine email marketing strategy client briefing

Who are you sending these emails to?

  • Current subscribers of the print magazine
  • People who sign up on our website
  • Customers who purchased from our site

What is the main reason for sending these emails?

  • To increase sales of our Modern Henchman line of products, by encouraging people to buy for the first time and by making readers repeat buyers

What type of emails are you planning to send?

  • Customer newsletters
  • Subscription reminders
  • Invoices and purchase receipts

What type of content do you want to send?

  • Special offers
  • Informative articles that tie into our products

How often would you be sending emails?

  • The newsletter will be sent once a month, with other reminders and notifications, as required

Do you have an existing visual design you would like the email to match?

  • Yes, the website at modernhenchman.com

Do you have examples of email marketing campaign strategies that you like?

  • Amazon.com product emails
  • Apple sales emails

That’s a good start. Let’s say your client has identified a need to stay relevant to its current subscribers and past purchases. After all, those are the people most likely to purchase from them in the future. To the client, sending an email newsletter or offer to their customers once or twice a month is a very cost-effective way of staying in touch.

It also keeps them in their customers’ minds, ensuring that, when they need a freeze ray or an exploding hat, modernhenchperson.com is their first stop.

Now that we have our client brief, we can start to work out what needs to be done in order to complete the project. The first step is to define in more detail what a successful project will look like.

Chapter 3

Setting goals

With the client brief behind you, your agency now enters the design challenge phase of the process. And any time you approach a design challenge, you have to have a clear target in mind. This is no less important for an email newsletter than it is for a website or printed matter.

Taking the client’s answers from our initial brief, your agency can restate them in the form of measurable goals. These goals should also be as specific as possible.

The client has said they want to increase sales to print subscribers, and convert new customers from email-only subscribers to active customers. That’s a good start, but it’s wise to try to nail down some more specific goals.

For example, what exactly do they mean by “increase sales”? Is it enough to have just one more sale? That might sound ridiculous, but there are some products and services where a single sale could pay for an entire year of email campaign strategy. 

Your client may sell consulting services for thousands of dollars per engagement or they may sell Web 2.0 gradient stickers for a dollar per box. You need to be detailed and specific in order to set useful goals.

Some clients may be uncomfortable giving you specific financial information. They might instead state their goals in terms of the number of visitors arriving at their site from links in the email. If they know that 1.8% of website visits convert into a sale, knowing how many people visit the website from the email can be roughly converted to a dollar value.

Sit down with your client and show them some example goals you have come up with based on their brief. That may lead to a follow-up discussion that can help them clarify what they want to achieve through their email marketing strategy. For this client, we might suggest this primary goal: generate at least $400 in sales directly from newsletter subscribers within the first week of each email being sent.

Your client may not have a goal that’s directly tied to a financial return. For some businesses, a reply from the reader might be exactly what they want to achieve. Here are some other examples of goals you could consider:

  • Re-establish direct contact with 5 previous clients
  • 40% of subscribers open the email
  • 20% of subscribers click at least one link
  • 30 people visit this specific page on the site

These goals can be easily measured so you’ll be able to identify when you’ve achieved them. Sometimes that won’t be possible. For example, it may take years for a customer to commit to buying a new warehouse layout system or mainframe installation. The measurable goals in those cases could be about maintaining a relationship, where the measurement is email replies received from the customer.

This process is about more than just hitting goals. It is also to encourage your clients—and your agency—to think carefully about why everyone is sending the emails in the first place. What if the sender isn’t enthusiastic about their newsletter? Chances are that will come across to the eventual readers.

Chapter 4

Measuring the success of an email marketing campaign strategy

Once you have one or more goals in place, you’ll need to set up the tools or processes to discover whether those goals have been met. That might include sales figures from a certain department, reports from your email service provider, or analytics from the website.

If you’re using specialized software (whether internal or external) to send the emails, a lot of these measurements may be provided for you as part of the package. The kinds of figures you can expect to be able to track are:

Open rates

How many of the people who received the email actually read it? This number is calculated by monitoring the download of tracking images inside each email. However, many email clients don’t download images by default, so not every open can be recorded. Similarly, some email clients only show plain text, with no downloaded images.

Click rates

How many of the people who got the email actually clicked on a link? Typically, email sending services redirect each link through their own tracking service to record those clicks.

Forwards

How many people actually used the “send to a friend” function to forward the email? (We’re assuming that your software has this function.)

Unsubscribes

How many people chose to unsubscribe from further emails using the software’s built-in unsubscribe system?

Conversion rate

How many people who clicked through went on to actually buy, download a trial, or perform another action you can track? Software like Google Analytics can be used to record these actions and tie them back to particular sources, including your email campaigns.

The most important measurement isn’t the raw numbers themselves, but the change in these numbers from one campaign to the next (also called the trend). After we send each campaign, we’ll be making changes to the email marketing strategy content and design, even to the day of the week and time of day that you send the emails. The historical measurements will quickly tell you if your changes are successful or not.

You’ve reached the point where you have goals for the email campaign strategy and you know how to tell if we’ve reached those goals. Only now should your agency start putting together a plan for the HTML email itself.

Emails are built with the same technologies as websites: HTML and CSS. However, there are some big differences in what makes an appropriate design for email strategy.

Chapter 5

Developing your content strategy

It’s tempting for web designers to think of HTML email as a one-page website. It’s just HTML and CSS, after all. A good number of people will be viewing the email in a web browser.

That’s all true. But websites and emails are two distinct types of media. Just as print designers had to acclimatize to the unique constraints and opportunities of the web, web designers working with email also need to adjust their thinking.

An email is not a website.

People tend to think of websites as online storefronts. People actively come to our site, whether directly, by searching, or by following a link. When a visitor comes to your website, they normally have some idea already about what they’re expecting to find. Visually, the site takes up a full browser window.

An email is a different case. Your inbox is more like your house than a storefront. Emails come to you without you taking any action. When they arrive, the visible area of the email may only be a fraction of the size of a web browser window.

Take a look at the typical email software shown below:

Your inbox is more like your house than a storefront. Emails come to you without you taking any action.

Notice that this Huawei email campaign strategy design appears formatted specifically for mobile users. Yet it doesn’t look bad on desktop, either.

The actual email takes up only a small percentage of space at the bottom. It’s surrounded by other items competing for attention. Folders, notes, and other emails fight to be noticed.

You should also consider that at least half of all subscribers will read emails on their mobile devices. This will affect the way you design our email and the way you write our content. As designers, we need to be respectful of the fact that our readers (or our client’s readers) have let us invade their personal space.

Unless readers are devoted “Inbox Zero” zealots, our email will be just another item in a long, long list that’s interrupting their real work. You’re now asking them to pay attention to your email and, usually, to take some kind of action. In return, you owe them an email that doesn’t take up more time than is necessary, is easy to read, and is actually useful. It’s a simple equation: deliver some content that’s worth delivering.

Before we cover the visual aspects of HTML email design, your agency will need to know what content you’re going to use. This will help in all other aspects of your design. Reach out to your client and get a clear idea of what they’re going to want to deliver in each email. Every client has their own idea of what should go into an email, and most will have an inflated sense of how important their email is to the people who receive it.

Email strategy in the real world

 

Planning the Modern Henchman email marketing strategy

Your client, the Modern Henchperson, has provided you with this list of content for the Modern Henchperson newsletter to develop the email marketing content strategy:

  • information on the featured product of the month
  • teasers for stories in the magazine
  • a link to send the email on to a friend
  • a featured article

Next, you’ll need a way to prioritize this list and narrow it down. A simple way to do this is by asking one more question: “What is the one action you want your reader to take after they read the email?” 

Pretend that Modern Henchman requests that “the reader should click through to learn more about our featured product” when they receive their regular monthly email.

Your client might seek a different preferred action from their readers, such as sending a reply, visiting a certain page, or forwarding on the email. You could go on to select perhaps two or three desired actions, but no more than that, as too many possible choices may paralyze the reader into taking no action at all.

Now you can rank our content according to what best supports the desired action. Your agency should ask itself: what will most likely meet our overall goals for the email campaign strategy?

Modern Henchman might end up with a priority list like this:

  • information on the featured product of the month (this directly supports our primary action)
  • featured article (building our reputation for knowledge)
  • link to send the email onto a friend
  • teasers for other stories

With this list, create an outline for the newsletter. Establish a structure you can carry through from edition to edition. Based on responses from subscribers, you may change this over time, but you should always keep the client’s goals firmly in view.

Our final step before launching into the visual design phase is to gather all the content for the first email. This can sometimes be a time-consuming task, typically relying on the client to provide material.

For Modern Henchman, we can grab a lot of the content for a typical issue from their website, which has the article archive and full product descriptions.

It’s okay to reuse content.

While you might think that repeating content from the blog or website is cheating, the reality is that most newsletter subscribers will rarely visit the website unless they’re making a specific transaction. The most recent statistics show that more than 90% of internet users still have no understanding of what RSS is, let alone how to use it to keep up with websites.

Even at Campaign Monitor, where customers are mostly internet-savvy web designers, we receive a much bigger response from our email campaigns than from our blog entries. Reusing materials from the website is a smart way to go and can save a lot of time.

At this stage, your agency just needs representative content that you can build your design around. Create a dummy sample issue with some content from the client’s website.

Lorem ipsum

Avoid using lorem ipsum text as filler, even though it’s common in website design. Too many emails (and too many websites) have been designed using placeholders that turned out totally different in length, style, and shape from the actual content. The design has then had to be tweaked, well after it should have been finalized.

Chapter 6

HTML email marketing tips: Q&A

Before moving on to designing the email, let’s go over some common email questions your clients may ask by this point. We’ve also included some suggestions on how to handle them:

How long should an email be?

As short as possible while still being useful. Some businesses send very long and complex material in email form, but that’s rare. The typical inbox is exceedingly full already, so you don’t want to contribute to the problem. Get in, get your message across, and get out.

The current email marketing strategy industry standard is 20 lines of text, or 200 words, but don’t consider this a fixed rule.

From reviewing many thousands of newsletters for Campaign Monitor, the typical length for a content-heavy newsletter (as opposed to an invitation or simple notice) is two or three screens’ worth. This means you should toy with the size of your font in relation to the amount of copy. See what works—there’s no “one size fits all” here.

As always, keep your client’s audience in mind, as their needs or expectations may be different. You might also consider putting this in your original client brief, just in case your client has a clear picture in mind.

Should I put the full articles in the email, or just teasers and links to the site?

If you can carry your point across in a few paragraphs, you could save your readers time by giving them everything they need without having to click a link.

Consider your client’s goals for each email campaign strategy. Which action do you want the readers to take? If the goal is to get them onto a client’s website, it might be wise to write a short (2-3 sentence) teaser and encourage readers to click the link. A summary (without spoilers) will help convince them that the link is worth clicking.

If your goal is to get readers to register for an event, for example, you could just use the links along with their images and titles. In this case, you’re using the links to provide credibility for the ultimate action you want readers to take rather than using the articles themselves as the CTA.

This event email contains one main call to action (the RSVP button) along with supporting links to learn more about the speakers. You could follow this strategy when creating an email campaign strategy for health foods, parenting products, electronics, and much more.

This event email contains one main call to action (the RSVP button) along with supporting links to learn more about the speakers

Source: Really Good Emails

How often should I send emails?

There is no single answer. But in general, it’s better to err towards too few emails with your email marketing strategy rather than too many.

According to 2019 data, about half of your subscribers probably think you’re sending emails too often. 45.8% of people mark emails as spam when brands send out campaigns too often. Moreover, when asked how brands could improve their email efforts, 43.9% suggested sending less frequent emails.

However, if you send infrequently, your subscribers may forget that they’ve signed up for your list. 36% of people say they mark emails as spam because they never purposefully subscribed to the email list. It’s interesting to wonder how many of these people genuinely did sign up but the brand hadn’t contacted them in so long that they forgot.

36% of people say they mark emails as spam because they never purposefully subscribed to the email list.

Source: Campaign Monitor

You can also just ask your subscribers—as well as people who’ve just unsubscribed—how often they’d prefer to receive your content. Ask your new subscribers to fill out their preferences upon signup or send out a form to current subscribers.

You should also know some basic benchmarks, against which you can measure each campaign. More recently, 2021 email marketing benchmarks show click-through rates of 2.6%, click-to-open rates of 14.1%, and unsubscribe rates of 0.10%. If you’re seeing anything abnormal against these benchmarks, it’s a sign you may need to consult with the client and readjust your strategy.

What is the best time to send?

The answer to this question is simple. When do your client’s subscribers typically check their email? That’s your answer.

You want to send the emails out when you can safely assume your subscribers are already on their phone or device. If you send an email in the middle of the night, for example, it will likely be buried under ten other emails by the time a subscriber checks their phone in the morning.

According to our research at Campaign Monitor, email opens begin as people start their workday and continue throughout the day before tapering off into the evening. 53% of email opens occur between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., while 24% occur between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. as folks wind down for the night.

It’s a good idea to break your list up into segments based on geolocation (time zones) and send out emails during the subscriber’s ideal time.

You also need to consider the content and the audience. Some types of content will lend themselves to a Monday morning arrival: a set of henchperson “weekly tips,” for example. Others are more appropriate for after-hours campaigns, like happy-hour specials.

Is it okay to buy or rent an email list?

No.

Although there are services and products that claim to have fully opt-in, up-to-date databases, your agency has no real way of confirming that. Most email service providers and anti-spam systems take a very dim view of purchased email lists. You could wind up getting your sending IP address flagged as spam and irreparably damage your sending reputation.

World governments are also taking data security much more seriously. In a post-GDPR world, you could find yourself facing costly fines and damaging lawsuits by sending emails to people who did not actively give you permission to contact them.

Take the slower approach of building your own opt-in list over time. Not only will you avoid spam filters and legal trouble, but you’ll also have better campaign results.

What is a good open rate?

There’s no official answer here because open rates vary based on several factors. Each industry, for example, has its own average open rate.

Based on our research at Campaign Monitor, the average open rate across all industries is 20% to 40%. That was in 2020. Our 2021 email benchmarks saw 18%, which means that 20% may now suggest you’re performing above average. But every industry is different. And don’t forget that as your list grows, it’s possible your open rate will dip a bit.

Often the real question your client is asking is, “Why don’t I have 100% open rates?” so you’ll need to discuss their expectations and the reality of email marketing strategy with them. Share this information to help manage expectations of open rates. They should have the right context for what constitutes a good industry open rate before you start sending out their emails.

How many clicks should I expect?

This follows on from the previous question but is even less likely to have a reliable answer. Email marketing strategy industry reports tend to quote a 2-11% unique click-through rate as typical.

Like open rates, average click-through rates vary depending on the industry. Emails about niche hobbies, for example, tend to have much higher click rates than emails from vitamin and supplement companies.

Other factors also play a role in the click-through rate of your email marketing strategy. Standard email newsletters have lower average click rates at around 3.48% across all industries, though this too has dipped in recent years, almost up to 1%.

How can I avoid my email being filtered?

Most of the time, it’s your actual content and possibly your “From” address that filters are checking.

The best approach is first to avoid highly common spam words, and then test your email marketing strategy with as many different clients and filters as you can.

Personalizing your content as much as possible can also help avoid spam filters. Break your list up into different groups based on interests, age, gender, location, and other information. Create unique content for each small batch of subscribers.

Don’t send emails that contain one large image without any copy. Spam filters will catch these types of emails.

Always use a reputable email service provider to ensure you’re sending emails from a high-quality IP address. It’s also beneficial to verify your domain so that your emails carry some kind of authenticity in the eyes of email clients.

There are no easy solutions to spam filtering. The best you can do is to test. 

You should also keep an eye out for the “health” of the campaigns your client is sending out. For example, we’ve listed good “spam filter signals” you can review to make sure you’re taking on the right filter-avoidance strategy. High open rates suggest that people are anticipating the emails and enjoying them. High reply rates do the same, suggesting plenty of engagement from the campaign’s readers. One of the best signals of all: when users designate an email caught by a spam filter as not junk

If you want to be considered not junk, it comes back to your original content strategy. Are you delivering value that people want to keep in their inboxes? Going back to Henchperson Monthly, are you sending out emails that henchpeople will find useful and want to dig out of their spam filter?

Chapter 7

Wrap Up

Marketing is tough. It involves a lot of unknown variables. That’s especially true if you’re an agency dealing directly with clients. Those clients may have unrealistic goals, weird expectations, and more. And you can’t predict how their subscribers will react.

But with comprehensive planning, you’ll take back some of the control.

A thoroughly planned email campaign strategy lets you track metrics and discover results that translate into real-world numbers. Like any other aspect of marketing, planning is essential if you want to produce the best results. Take control over your long-term email marketing strategy by developing a campaign calendar. We have a guide full of suggestions to get you started.

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