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In 2021, email users sent and received nearly 320 billion emails per day. With so many messages circulating, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd, which is precisely why it’s so critical to follow email marketing best practices whenever you write a new message to the people on your list.

What exactly is a best practice? It’s an accepted process or procedure that makes it easier to achieve your goals. Whether you want to increase your click-through rate, generate more leads, or bring in more revenue for your company, using tried-and-true email marketing techniques can help you get there.

At The CMO, we’re all about helping marketers make their campaigns more effective. This guide to email marketing best practices is packed with actionable tips to help you build a profitable email list, write effective messages, and build trust with your audience. You’ll also learn how to use A/B testing and design principles to make your campaigns even more successful.

Organize Your Email List

The first step to succeeding with email marketing is to segment your list. Segmentation ensures that your emails reach the most relevant audience, which can increase your open rate and may even prevent recipients from hitting that dreaded 'unsubscribe' button.

Why is segmentation important? Like other forms of content, email messages must be highly relevant to the people receiving them. If you sell a product aimed at women between the ages of 40 and 50, you want to make sure your emails are going to those women, not men between the ages of 18 and 24.

One of the main benefits of segmenting your list appropriately is that you can tailor your emails to the members of each group. Imagine that you’re in charge of email marketing for a company that sells skin care products. Instead of sending the same emails to everyone on your list, you might want to segment your list into multiple age groups or even skin types.

When you send out an email, you can write a message that matches up to the needs of people in a particular segment. For example, if you’re writing for younger audience members, you may focus on the importance of using the right face wash to prevent acne. Older recipients may benefit from tips on getting rid of age spots or reducing fine lines and wrinkles. The more relevant your content is to the reader’s needs, the more likely they are to enjoy it.

Ensure Recipients Opt In

In the United States, you’re allowed to send marketing messages without asking for permission. What’s the catch? Well, if someone asks you to stop emailing them, you have to comply. These rules are outlined in the CAN-SPAM Act, which Congress passed in 2003 to address unwanted email complaints.

If your business is international, you should know that other countries have stricter laws. Canada forbids marketers from sending commercial messages to recipients who haven’t given prior consent. European countries have the same rule, but in addition, you must tell people exactly how you will use their data.

In all three locations, every commercial email you send must include opt-out instructions. The United States and Canada also require marketers to allow recipients to opt out at no additional charge. Each violation of the CAN-SPAM Act is subject to a fine of up to $46,517, so it’s essential to comply. Make sure every email you send has an 'unsubscribe' link or button at the bottom.

Single Opt-ins vs Double Opt-ins

One way to make your email marketing campaigns more effective is to require a double opt-in instead of a single opt-in when someone signs up for your list. A single opt-in is exactly what it sounds like—the new subscriber simply has to use a sign-up form to give you their email address. In contrast, a double opt-in requires the subscriber to confirm their subscription.

Although it’s easier to set up a single opt-in, there are some benefits to using double opt-ins. For example, bots can easily sign up for your list, but they can’t confirm via email. This makes it much easier to keep scammers off your list and preserve your company’s reputation. Additionally, a subscriber who’s willing to take that extra step is likely to have a genuine interest in your products or services, so you may see an increase in your open and click-through rates.

Be Thoughtful About Email Design

email design graphic

Alina Wheeler, a brand consultant and experienced designer, once said that “design is intelligence made visible.” Great copywriting is important, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to successful email marketing.

Thoughtful design starts with your brand image. You want customers to automatically associate your email messages with your company, so use the same color scheme, logo and language in your emails as you do on your website and printed marketing materials.

Basic Design Principles

Whether you plan to use email templates or design every message from scratch, don’t forget to use plenty of white space to prevent subscribers from getting overwhelmed. Your email designs should also be intuitive, or easy for recipients to navigate without having to read formal instructions or guess at what they need to do.

Intuitive emails typically follow a Z pattern or an F pattern. The Z pattern assumes that people read emails like they read books or magazines: starting at the top left, moving right across the page, and then moving their eyes to the bottom left side of the message.

Not everyone uses the Z pattern while reading, so you may want to experiment with the F pattern. This pattern, which works best for content-heavy emails, assumes that email readers scan the content instead of reading it thoroughly. As such, the longest lines of content are at the top of the email, followed by progressively shorter lines of text. Think of the F pattern kind of like your sales funnel—broad at the top and narrow on the bottom.

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The Importance of Responsive Design

Many email marketing tips focus on writing great email copy or picking just the right color scheme, but don’t forget to make your emails mobile-friendly, AKA responsive. Campaign Monitor reports that more than 70% of people read emails from their phones. You don’t want to drive them away by making it difficult to navigate your emails.

Here are just a few tips to help you make it easy to read your email messages on a wide variety of mobile devices:

  • Use a one-column layout whenever possible.
  • Avoid putting multiple hyperlinks in the same line of text. It may be difficult to click the right link on a small screen.
  • Send a test email first to make sure that your messages look good on both smartphones and tablets.
  • Use alt tags on your images. Not only do alt tags improve accessibility for people with vision problems, but they’re also helpful if your images don’t load on the user’s phone due to a poor connection or other technical issue.
  • Put your most important CTA near the top of the email (“above the fold”). This makes it more likely that readers will see them, which could increase conversions.
  • Make CTA buttons a little larger than usual so it’s easy for readers to click them on smaller screens.

Additional Tips

Once you have a visually appealing, responsive design in mind, include links to your website and social media accounts to make it easy for potential customers to learn more about the business. Instead of using a no-reply email address, set up a monitored email account. This allows potential customers to contact your company without overwhelming your colleagues with an influx of messages.

Consider Frequency & Deliverability

One-third of marketers send one email message per week, while 26% send messages multiple times per month. But before you start copying what everyone else is doing, take a minute to think about what’s best for your company and your subscribers. There’s no cookie-cutter email marketing plan that works for every business, so use email marketing analytics tools to test and revise whatever plan(s) you come up with.

If your company is new to email marketing, you may want to try sending out a message once per week just to get your feet wet and find out what works for your audience. As you get more comfortable with writing copy, finding images, and adding CTAs, you can start sending out a few more messages per month until you hit your sweet spot.

Deliverability is another important consideration. Just to refresh your memory, this term refers to the likelihood of an email reaching a subscriber’s inbox. Email service providers (ESPs) often penalize senders who have low rates of engagement, so you don’t want to overwhelm subscribers with a daily email if you’re not getting consistently high open rates. Here are a few additional tips for increasing deliverability:

  • Require a double opt-in. As we mentioned earlier, using a double opt-in process makes it more likely that the people on your list want to hear from you, leading to increased engagement.
  • Avoid common spam phrases in your subject lines. “Click now!” and “Big bucks!” are just a couple spammy-sounding phrases that can trigger spam filters and get your emails blocked. Using all capital letters can do the same.
  • Remove inactive users from your list. Weeding out uninterested subscribers makes room for people who truly want to open your emails and read them. As a bonus, this could naturally increase your open and click-through rates.
  • Avoid purchasing email lists. If you do, you might find yourself on an ESP’s “deny” list, blocking your ability to send emails with that provider.

Send an Initial Welcome Email

When someone signs up for your email list, you should send a welcome message right away. Otherwise, they might be left scratching their heads and wondering if their subscription request went through. Even if you require a double opt-in, it’s still a good idea to send a welcome email right away instead of making new subscribers wait to receive your next scheduled newsletter.

Follow these tips to create an effective email that welcomes new subscribers, establishes your company as trustworthy, and gets them excited about your next message:

  • Write a clear and compelling subject line.
  • Greet the subscriber by name. If you haven’t been asking people to provide their names when they sign up for your list, start doing so immediately. Collecting names allows you to personalize each message, increasing engagement and helping to build strong relationships with your subscribers.
  • Give new subscribers something to do. You don’t want them twiddling their thumbs waiting for a newsletter that doesn’t come out for another week. Encourage them to explore your website, download one of your free reports, or take some other action that helps them learn more about what you offer.
  • Encourage new subscribers to follow you on social media. Make sure the welcome email includes links to each profile.
  • Make sure the email has an unsubscribe link to ensure you’re in compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act and other relevant laws.

A/B Test Your Email Marketing Campaigns

AB testing graphic

Even if you’re using the best email marketing tools, there’s always some room for improvement when it comes to emailing people in your target audience. To maximize your conversion rates, you should be doing regular A/B tests to compare the performance of different elements of your emails.

If it’s been a while since you’ve done A/B testing, here’s a refresher on how it’s used. When you do this type of test, you send out two versions of the same email to determine which one works better. The key to using A/B testing effectively is to change just one element of the second version. If you change multiple elements, you won’t be able to determine which one had an impact on your open rates or click-through rates.

A/B testing has several benefits:

  • You learn about what subscribers are most interested in reading.
  • You have the opportunity to eliminate ineffective email marketing tactics, saving your company time and money.
  • Testing allows you to create more effective content, increasing engagement and building trust.
  • You can test changes before implementing them, reducing the risk of failure.
  • A/B testing may help increase conversion rates, generating more revenue for your business.
  • It’s one of the most cost-effective ways to gather data about your audience.

Email Subject Line

Your subject line is one of the most important elements of your email, as it’s the first thing recipients see. If it’s not compelling or relevant to their needs, they may delete the message without ever opening it. Think of your subject line as the cologne or perfume you’d wear on a first date. You want something pleasant, not something that has people desperately searching for fresh air.

Here are five tests you can run to determine which subject lines are the most effective for your audience:

  1. Length: Do shorter or longer subject lines work best? According to Campaign Monitor, short subject lines are usually more effective, but remember that a cookie-cutter approach to email marketing just doesn’t work. You need to do A/B testing to determine how your audience responds to each type of subject line.
  2. Personalization: A/B testing allows you to determine if your audience members respond better to email subject lines containing their names. Think “Michael, are you ready to master project management?” vs. something like “Master project management today.”
  3. Questions vs. commands: Asking a question in your subject line is a great way to make people curious about what you have to say. Not everyone responds to questions, though, so you need to have some alternative formats in mind. Think “How do cucumbers improve your health?” vs. “Learn about the awesome nutrition benefits of cucumbers.”
  4. Clever/catchy: Does your audience respond to clever or catchy subject lines? You won’t know unless you do an A/B test. Something like “What do Albert Einstein and Harry Potter have in common?” is pretty intriguing, but that doesn’t mean your audience will automatically respond to it. They may prefer something more straightforward, like “3 leadership lessons from Albert Einstein.”
  5. Emojis/no emojis: We’ve come a long way from sending text-only emails. Not only can you include images and video clips in the email body, but you can add emojis right to the subject line. Experiment with using these symbols to replace certain words or enhance the rest of your content.

Preheader

In digital marketing lingo, a preheader is the snippet of text that appears after the subject line in a recipient’s inbox. Good email preheaders enhance your subject lines and give readers an extra reason to open your messages. You can make them even more effective by comparing one approach with another to determine which one results in the highest open rate.

Here are four common approaches to writing preheaders:

  1. Summaries: The simplest preheaders summarize the content of the email message. This gives busy readers a little extra information to help them determine if the email is relevant to their needs.
  2. Calls to action: Many inexperienced marketers make the mistake of putting their CTAs all the way at the bottom of each email. As you know, putting a CTA “above the fold” is a better approach. Incorporating a CTA into a preheader is even more effective because the recipient doesn’t even have to open the email to see it.
  3. Short vs. long: Your subscribers may have several things in common, such as personal interests or demographics, but that doesn’t mean they’re exactly alike. Experimenting with the length of your preheaders can help you determine whether your audience prefers long ones or short ones.
  4. Special offers: Increase the recipient’s sense of urgency by including a special offer in your preheader. Let them know that the email body has a discount code, a link to a free report, or something else of value. If they were on the fence about opening the message, this may get them to click.

Email Content

When it comes to email content, the world is your oyster. You can experiment with copy length (long vs. short), play around with emojis, insert video or audio, or try different fonts to see which ones get the best response. Just remember to keep your branding and different devices and screen sizes in mind.

Like other forms of content marketing, emails must be useful and relevant to your audience. Someone who signs up for tips on styling curly hair probably doesn’t want emails from you about running shoes or weight loss. This is why you can’t skip over the process of list segmentation. You need to know exactly who your audience members are and what they want from your company.

Follow the tips below to write promotional emails that get results.

Personalize Your Emails

When you think of personalizing your emails, you probably think of putting the recipient’s name in the subject line or greeting them by name at the beginning of the message. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways to personalize your content, but a good way to start is by making your email hyper-relevant to the recipient.

Here’s an example. Imagine you’re a marketing specialist for a restaurant supply company that allows consumers to buy cookware, utensils, and other supplies. Some of those consumers are complete novices, while others are experienced home cooks who probably already have their own mandoline slicers and food processors.

You wouldn’t send one of the experienced home cooks an email about choosing their first chef’s knife, just like you wouldn’t send the novice tips on using a blowtorch to make crème brûlée. Delivering highly relevant content can help you increase click-through and conversion rates, making your email marketing campaigns even more impactful.

Communicate Clearly

Puns, word play, and alliteration can all make your emails more interesting, but clarity should be your top priority. Make sure that your attempt to be clever doesn’t confuse your audience. For an even more successful email marketing campaign, make sure the body of your email matches up with the subject line. Recipients will be scratching their heads if your subject line mentions coconut ice cream and then they open the email to find content about pistachio farms.

Another way to communicate clearly is to tell recipients the reason for your email right up front. A good example is a dentist’s office that sends out emails to remind patients that they’re due for cleanings or other follow-up care.

Use Feature-Benefit Writing

Any experienced marketer knows that feature-benefit writing is where it’s at when it comes to writing effective copy. For better email results, make sure that your messages focus on benefits instead of features. Here’s an example.

Put yourself in the shoes of a marketing manager for a beauty company. Imagine that your team is working on an email about a new body butter. It’s okay to include a few features, such as the size of the jar or a few of the ingredients, but the bulk of the message should focus on the benefits of using the product. Benefits are the desirable outcomes that users can expect if they buy your product.

Here are a few examples:

  • Contains vitamin E for smoother, silkier skin
  • Reduces wrinkles
  • Protects the skin from sun damage
  • Loaded with antioxidants to prevent premature aging
  • Reduces the appearance of stretch marks

Summarize Your Main Points

Email isn’t the place for a 2,000-word article on the latest tech trends, but that doesn’t mean you can’t send out a message when you have helpful new content available. Instead of putting the article in the email body, summarize its key points and include a link to the full piece on your website.

For example, if you publish a long-form article on the best e-commerce tools of the year, you can reveal two or three of them in your message and encourage email subscribers to click the link to learn about the other winners.

Landing Page

Emails and landing pages go together like peanut butter and jelly. If your landing page isn’t well-designed and relevant, it doesn’t really matter how much effort you put into crafting an email message. Your conversion rate is likely to suffer unless you pay just as much attention to your landing pages.

One way to experiment with landing pages is to use a different one for each email. Play around with CTA placement, headlines, and keyword usage to see which style of landing page is the most effective. Once you get the results of your first test, keep experimenting and refining your overall strategy.

CTA (Call to Action)

When you think of a call to action, you probably think of action verbs like click, call, and subscribe. If you’re in the mood to experiment, try using different email CTAs. These are some of the most common types of CTAs used in email marketing:

  • Event promotion: Use this type of CTA if you’re having a virtual or in-person event. Something like “Register now” is appropriate.
  • Social sharing: When you write a great piece of content, you want as many people as possible to read it. This type of CTA encourages readers to share the content via Facebook, Twitter, or another social network.
  • Closing the sale: Here’s where small businesses and large corporations alike can increase their revenue. CTAs like “Buy now” and “Add to cart” encourage readers to complete a sales transaction.

Automate

automation graphic

Marketing automation has made it much easier to connect with audience members. Instead of doing everything manually, you can use high-tech tools to save time and reduce stress. Many companies also offer email automation tools to help you manage your list and develop successful email campaigns.

One of the biggest benefits of email automation is that it allows you to set up a campaign in advance and schedule delivery for any day (or night) of the week. This gives you a chance to experiment with sending emails on different days or at different times—all without you having to bring a sleeping bag to the office or spend the weekend working.

It’s especially important to use automation tools for your initial welcome email. You can’t anticipate when a new subscriber will join your list—it can happen on a Tuesday at 4 p.m. or a Saturday at midnight. Since you can’t be in the office 24/7, automation ensures that new subscribers receive your email right away.

If you don’t already have a marketing platform with email capabilities, here are a few options to consider:

  • Mailchimp
  • Constant Contact
  • Omnisend
  • AWeber

Track Metrics

As you refine your email marketing strategy, it’s important to track a few key metrics. If you don’t do any tracking, you won’t be able to tell which changes are paying off and which ones are hurting you. At minimum, you should be tracking the following metrics for this marketing channel:

  • Click-through rate: CTR measures how many people clicked an image, button, or link within your email compared to the total number of messages delivered. For example, if you deliver 1,000 messages and 100 people click your link, your CTR would be 10%.
  • Open rate: This refers to the number of people who open your message compared to the number of subscribers on your list.
  • Bounce rate: Your bounce rate is the number of emails that couldn’t be delivered compared to the number of emails you sent. Emails “bounce” back for many reasons, such as technical issues and typos in a recipient’s address.
  • Conversion rate: Your conversion rate is the number of people who clicked a link and took a desired action compared with the total number of emails delivered.

Optimize

If we had to pick a great motto for the marketing industry, it would be “always be optimizing.” When you find something that works, it’s easy to get complacent and keep doing the same thing over and over again. That approach may work for a while, but the industry landscape is bound to change eventually.

Maybe a major competitor goes out of business, a researcher makes a major discovery, or a new social media marketing trend starts making waves. Optimizing your email marketing efforts ensures you can take advantage of these changes instead of getting left in the dust. Use regular A/B testing to identify what’s working and what isn't.

Make Your Email Marketing Work Smarter, Not Harder

Whew! We just gave you a ton of actionable tips for using email marketing best practices to your company’s advantage. Now it’s time to start implementing. Start small and then build up to bigger changes as you go along.

For even more helpful tips, join the leading community for leaders in marketing. Subscribe to The CMO newsletter to gain access to valuable content that can help you increase conversions and take the guesswork out of marketing.

By Stephanie Hood

Stephanie Hood is an experienced marketing professional and Editor of The CMO. With nearly a decade spent as Marketing Manager at Discover Holidays and Executive Editor at VIVA Lifestyle & Travel, she built her career leading editorial and marketing teams and strategies that turn six-figure budgets into seven-figure profits. She now enjoys connecting with the world's top executives to learn their secrets to business success, and shares those insights right here with her community of like-minded professionals. Curious what she’s uncovered? Be sure to sign up for The CMO newsletter.