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Introduction

Article originally published in November 2015 and updated March 2019.

Like anything else, your email campaign strategy also requires significant planning and thought. By spending adequate time planning your email marketing strategy, you’ll be able to meet your client’s goals more effectively and provide subscribers with the best campaigns possible.

Planning an Email Marketing Strategy

This guide will explain everything you should consider when planning a campaign and provides a detailed example of an email marketing campaign strategy, as well as a Q&A.

Chapter 1

With an email marketing strategy, planning is essential.

As designers, we might consider the planning phase to be outside our scope, simply to be handled by the client. Although this is a valid approach, it can lead to a beautifully designed but ineffectual email.

If we can help our clients to create campaigns that actually work, they’ll be happier and we can charge more for our services as specialized email campaign strategy consultants.

Without a clear plan up front, an email can lack structure and end up being difficult for readers to make sense of or navigate.

If we want to create a really useful email newsletter, we’ll need to do more planning beforehand. What’s the purpose of the email strategy? Who are the people it will be sent to, and what are they expecting to receive? What will success look like for this project?

When you’re approached to create an HTML email strategy, it will be your job to find answers to these questions before you open Photoshop or your favorite text editor. Otherwise, you may end up with a gorgeous, beautifully coded email that’s only ever opened by filtering software.

Rather than just explain how you can apply planning principles to your next project, we’ll take a typical client and work through the planning, designing, and coding processes required.

Chapter 2

A detailed example of an email marketing campaign strategy

Today’s busy supervillain has no time to do basic death trap maintenance or deal with the Homeowner Association over concerns that their volcano lair is “not in keeping with the area.”

Enter the henchman (or henchperson, if you prefer). Every villain needs at least one henchman to fire inaccurately, put gas in the submarine, and laugh at all the right moments.

But good henching doesn’t just occur by chance, and successful henchpeople need to be on a path of continual improvement. Modern Henchman magazine is the journal of choice for the professional henching community.

We’ve visited them in their decidedly non-secret lair and chatted about their ideas for a new email newsletter, and they’ve agreed to work with us to make it happen.

To kick it off, we’ll need to answer some basic questions. These questions will always be more or less the same, whether you’re working for a client, an internal team, or your own startup (in the latter case, they’re questions you need to be asking yourself).

You can find these questions in an editable document included in the book’s code archive download, and use them for your own projects.

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 strategy that you like?
  • Amazon.com product emails
  • Apple sales emails

Our client realizes that subscribers with an ongoing connection and past purchasers are the people most likely to purchase from them in the future. 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, modernhenchman.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

Any time you approach a design challenge, you need 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, we can restate them in the form of measurable goals. These goals should also be as specific as possible.

Our 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. We 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 follow-up discussion that can help them clarify in their own minds what they want to achieve through their email marketing strategy. For our 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

All 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 producing goals. It is also to encourage our clients—and ourselves, as designers—to think carefully about why we are sending the emails in the first place. After all, if the person or company sending the email does not really know the point, the chances of the recipient caring about it are very poor.

Chapter 4

Measuring the success of an email marketing campaign strategy

Once we have one or more goals in place, we’ll need to set up the tools or processes that will be used to tell if 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 opened 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 we send. The historical measurements will quickly tell us if our changes are successful or not.

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

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

Chapter 5

Developing a content strategy

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

That’s all true, but websites and emails really are two different 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

We tend to think of websites as being an online storefront, in that people actively come to our site, whether directly, by searching, or by following a link. When a visitor comes to our website, they normally have some idea already about what they’re expecting to find. Visually, the site takes up their 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 and is surrounded by other items competing for attention. Folders, notes, and other emails fight to be noticed.

We also need to consider that at least half of all subscribers will read our emails on their mobile device. This will affect the way we design our email and the way we 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” converts, our email will be just another item in a long, long list that’s interrupting their real work. We’re asking them to pay attention to our email and, usually, to take some kind of action. In return, we owe them an email that doesn’t take up more time than is necessary, is easy to read, and is actually useful.

Before we cover the visual aspects of HTML email design, we need to know what content our design is going to be centered around. 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

We tend to think of websites as being an online storefront, in that people actively come to our site, whether directly, by searching, or by following a link. When a visitor comes to our website, they normally have some idea already about what they’re expecting to find. Visually, the site takes up their 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:

Planning the Modern Henchman email marketing strategy

Our client has provided us with this list of content for the Modern Henchman newsletter to develop our 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

Now we 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?” Modern Henchman request 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. We 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 we can rank our content according to what best supports the desired action and 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, we can now create an outline for the newsletter, establishing a structure we can carry through from edition to edition. Based on responses from subscribers, we may change this over time, but will always keep our goals clearly in view.

Our final step before we launch into the visual design is to gather all the content for our 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 a cheat, 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, we just need representative content that we can build our design around, so creating a dummy sample issue with some content from the website is a good idea.

Lorem ipsum

I recommend you 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 placeholder that turned out being totally different in length, style, and shape from the actual content. The design has then had to be tweaked, well after it should’ve been finalized.

Chapter 6

HTML email marketing tips: Q&A

Before we move onto designing our email, we’ll go over some common email questions your client may ask and suggest 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. It also means you should toy with the size of your font in relation to the amount of copy.

As always, keep your client’s audience in mind, as their needs or expectations may be different.

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

On the other hand, if you can carry your point across in a few paragraphs, you could save your reader time by giving them everything they need without having to click a link.

Consider your goals for each email campaign strategy. Which action do you want your readers to take? If your goal is to get them onto your website, it might be wise to give write a short (2-3 sentence) teaser and encourage them 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 (registering for the event) 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.

What is the best time to send?

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

You want to send your 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 your 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 your content and your audience. Some types of content will lend themselves to a Monday morning arrival (professional blog updates, for example) while others are more appropriate for after-hours campaigns (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, you have 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%. Prepare yourself, because, as your list grows, your open rate will likely fall 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.

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. Emails based on triggered events have some of the highest average click-through rates: 10.75%. Meanwhile, autoresponder emails also have fairly high average click rates of 6.56%.

How can I avoid my email being filtered?

The vast majority 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.

Chapter 7

Wrap Up

Marketing, especially email marketing strategy, involves a lot of unknown variables: your client may have unrealistic goals and you can’t predict how your subscribers will react. With comprehensive planning, you can take back some control.

By thoroughly planning an email campaign strategy, you can track metrics more effectively and put results into real-world numbers. Like any other aspect of marketing (or life in general), thorough planning your email strategy is essential for producing 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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