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Fall In Love with Email Marketing. A Comprehensive Guide – Part One

Email marketing is alive and kicking, and it’s successfully creating meaningful opportunities for millions of businesses.

Is it working for you, or are you still trying to figure out your metrics from your messages?

Short of picking up the phone or visiting each of your contacts individually, sending a carefully crafted marketing email remains the most effective way to deliver a personalised, tailored message, and one that allows recipients to digest it in their own time.

Just imagine having a direct line to your audience’s world, a connection that reaches into their daily lives with a ping. Imagine giving people a gentle, unintrusive nudge that reminds them of your presence. One that tells them what you do, what you know, and how you can help them.

This is the magic of email marketing, where the combination of curated content and strategic timing can spark an idea that becomes a meaningful conversation and develops into a relationship.

What can you expect from this three-part article about email marketing?

You can expect to learn a lot about what to do and what not to do. You can expect to want to do more with email marketing for your own business. And if you make it to the end of Part 3, you’ll be tooled up to make email marketing really work for you.

On the face of it, email marketing looks straightforward enough. And in some respects, it is. You choose a platform (there are dozens), you choose a template (there are hundreds if not thousands), you choose who to send to (how many/where do you start?), you write some content, and you push the send button. What could be simpler?

In reality, email marketing is actually pretty complex, and there’s a lot to understand if it’s going to be effective, stay within the law, reach its destination, and not alienate your recipients.

Get it right, and it becomes a smooth, seamless conduit between you and the people you want to communicate directly with. Get it wrong, and it can have a disastrous impact on both your reputation and your entire company’s ability to communicate, thereby crippling your entire business.

Hopefully, I’ve got your attention now.

This is indeed a long and comprehensive article, which is why it’s split into three parts, but if truly understanding email marketing is your goal, buckle in, grab a large coffee (and maybe some lunch), and let’s begin.

Here’s a quick summary of what’s covered:

Part One:

  1. How it all began and what went wrong
  2. A quick email marketing history lesson
  3. The law and GDPR – six bases for processing data
  4. Frequently Asked Questions 1-5
  5. Round-up and key takeaways
  6. Terminology Navigator 1-10

Part Two (click here):

  1. Recipient lists: Build them or buy them?
  2. Stats: What to look for and what they mean
  3. Spam: Implications for your business and how to avoid it
  4. Frequently Asked Questions 6-10
  5. Round-up and key takeaways
  6. Terminology Navigator 11-20

Part Three:

  1. Top reasons emails go into spam
  2. Ethical marketing
  3. Some dos and don’ts
  4. Frequently Asked Questions 11-15
  5. Round-up and key takeaways
  6. Terminology Navigator 21-30

1) How it all began and what went wrong

Thirty years ago, email marketing was little understood and scarcely used. However, with minimal competition and a lack of social media distractions, email marketing was remarkably effective for those who understood it and embraced it.

Of course, the audience was relatively small in the early years, but that meant the impact email marketing had on creating awareness was all the more significant.

Unfortunately, as popularity surged, email marketing became a playground for scammers who had found a new way to reach an unsuspecting, gullible audience en masse..

In fact, during the 90s, the volume of spam emails rose so significantly that by 2001, it was estimated that of the billions of emails sent daily, 85% were spam.

As a result, in 2003, the first national standard for sending emails was enshrined into law in the US.

And in January 2004, Bill Gates publicly announced that “Spam will soon be a thing of the past.” Nice sentiment, Bill, but five months later, Howard Carmack was convicted and sentenced for sending 800 million spam emails. They might have stopped Howard in his tracks, but Spam definitely didn’t stop with him being jailed, as whoever he passed on or sold his lists to will forever remain a mystery.

So why is any of this relevant?

It’s relevant because, globally, people began associating email with spam. And, as they grew tired of the continual bombardment of phishing and scam emails, it forced businesses to shift their marketing focus.

Instead, businesses turned to the bright lights of social media because it felt like a safe and trustworthy environment.

Oh, the irony.

And now?

Twenty years later, social media platforms are saturated with the widest variety of content the world has ever seen, and that includes the constant barrage of promoted and paid, highly targeted advertising. And if that isn’t enough to put people off, social media is also unquestionably the primary source of fake news.

Email marketing never really went away, and it’s had time to evolve and grow up. For example, it’s capable of delivering multiple versions of highly targeted content to diverse groups of recipients inside a single email newsletter – and delivering them at the same time of day for everyone according to their individual time zone.

Email marketing is a serious distribution and delivery tool, and more than 80% of businesses are said to be using it on a regular basis, whether or not it’s part of a specific campaign.

So, why the switch?

Modern-day marketing is all about engagement, and email marketing is seen as the best way to provide a personal touch. It’s a way to cut through the noise and speak directly to individuals and to their needs. Ok, so there’s noise in email marketing, too, but at least recipients have control over what they choose to see.

It’s just a great communication tool.

I want to do business with a company that treats emailing me as a privilege, not a transaction.

Andrea Mignolo

2) A quick email marketing history lesson

The early days (1978-1990s)

  • 1978: The first recognised email marketing campaign was sent by Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corp. He sent an email to approximately 400 potential clients via ARPANET (a precursor to the internet), promoting DEC products. This email reportedly generated $13 million in sales.
  • The 1980s: Email marketing was still in its infancy, mostly used internally by academics and corporations. However, with the growing popularity of personal computers and online services like CompuServe, more businesses began to explore the potential of email for marketing.
  • The 1990s: The internet became more accessible to the general public, and with it came the first mass-market email services like Hotmail. Businesses started to recognise the potential of reaching a wider audience through email. Unfortunately, but nonetheless, predictably, this also saw the rise of spam emails, leading to the need for regulation.

The birth of email marketing platforms (2000s)

  • Early 2000s: The introduction of regulations like the CAN-SPAM Act in the US (2003) provided guidelines for commercial email use, including requirements for unsubscribe options. This period also saw the birth of email marketing platforms like Mailchimp (2001), which offered businesses tools to manage email campaigns more effectively.
  • Mid-2000s: Advancements in email marketing tools allowed for better segmentation and targeting, personalisation, and tracking of email performance. HTML emails became popular, allowing for more visually appealing and interactive content.
  • Late 2000s: The concept of opt-in email marketing gained traction. Businesses started focusing on building lists of subscribers who explicitly agreed to receive marketing emails, improving the quality and engagement of email campaigns.

Integration and automation (2010s)

  • Early 2010s: The integration of email marketing with other digital marketing channels, like social media, allowed for more integrated marketing strategies. The use of big data and analytics tools enabled more sophisticated audience targeting and personalisation.
  • Mid to late 2010s: Automation became a key feature, with platforms offering automated responses based on user behaviour, segmented emailing, and triggered email series. This allowed for more efficient and effective campaigns with less manual effort, but it added significantly to the volume of emails being sent.

The era of GDPR and Data Protection (Late 2010s-Present)

  • 2018 – The introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) marked a significant shift in email marketing, placing stricter controls on data privacy and consent. Businesses had to ensure explicit consent for email marketing, with clear, single-touch opt-out options.
  • Post-GDPR: The focus moved towards transparency, privacy, and building trust with subscribers. The quality of email lists became more important than quantity, with an emphasis on more engaging content and adding value to the subscriber.

Throughout its history, email marketing has evolved from a novel, unregulated medium to a sophisticated, data-driven strategy that prioritises user consent and engagement.

Unfortunately, marketing emails can still border on what feels like an intrusion rather than polite engagement – even when someone has subscribed to receive them.

Amazon, for example, makes logging out of your shopping account less than obvious. Why? How else do you think the marketing emails you receive from Amazon are tailored to the products you’ve been casually browsing?

What? You didn’t think anyone was watching? They track your every movement whilst you’re logged into your Amazon account.

While that level of sophistication is out of reach for most businesses, it’s also not how every business wants to operate, anyway. And it’s fully within your remit not to.

Email marketing is fundamentally very simple. But as technology continues to advance and regulations evolve, strategies are also adapting. They focus more on personalisation, automation, and integration with other digital marketing channels, all while adhering to stringent data protection standards. Mostly.

3) The law and GDPR – six bases for processing data

Stay with me…

Underpinning the UK’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a set of rules that protects people’s personal data. It outlines six lawful bases for processing (handling or using) personal data, each serving as a valid reason for such activities.

A quick but important point about personal data: Post-GDPR, even a single email address is considered to be personal data. GDPR defines personal data as any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person.

The six lawful bases for processing personal data are:

  • Consent: The individual has given clear consent for you to process their personal data for a specific purpose.
  • Contract: The processing is necessary for a contract you have with the individual or because they have asked you to take specific steps before entering into a contract.
  • Legal obligation: The processing is necessary for you to comply with the law (not including contractual obligations).
  • Vital interests: The processing is necessary to protect someone’s life.
  • Public task: The processing is necessary for you to perform a task in the public interest or for your official functions, and the task or function has a clear basis in law.
  • Legitimate interests: The processing is necessary for your legitimate interests or the legitimate interests of a third party unless there is a good reason to protect the individual’s personal data, which overrides those legitimate interests.

Legitimate interests and email marketing:
The last of the six is an interesting concept. ‘Legitimate interests’ is the most flexible of the six lawful bases. But it requires a balancing act between your interests and the rights and freedoms of the data subjects (an identified or identifiable living individual to whom personal data relates).

You must ensure that your interests (i.e. you want to sell them something) do not override the rights and interests of the recipients (i.e. they don’t want to hear from you or they don’t want to buy from you).

‘Legitimate interests’ is not exactly a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but it does, potentially, allow you some wriggle room. To be clear, the term ‘wriggle room’ is not mentioned anywhere in the GDPR’s 261 pages of legislation.

Emailing existing clients and the ‘soft opt-in’ rule:
Under certain circumstances, such as with existing clients, the GDPR and PECR allow what is known as ‘soft opt-in’ (PECR is the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations). It applies when:

  • You’ve obtained the contact details in the course of a sale (or negotiations for a sale) of a product or service to that person;
  • You’re only marketing your own similar products or services, and
  • You provided them with a clear opportunity to opt out – both when first collecting their details and in every message thereafter​​​​.

There are limitations: You cannot assume blanket consent for all kinds of marketing. The marketing should be relevant and closely related to the products or services the recipient has previously engaged with.

Best practices for staying within the law with email marketing:

  • Before sending marketing emails, assess whether you have one or more lawful bases for processing the data under GDPR. If you’re relying on legitimate interests, conduct a Legitimate Interest Assessment (LIA). Here’s a Word doc from the ICO that you can use.
  • Always offer an easy way for recipients to opt out of marketing communications, respecting their right to privacy.
  • Commit to being transparent about how you’re using personal data and for what purposes.

While you can potentially email existing clients with marketing information or news updates under the ‘soft opt-in’ rule or ‘legitimate interests’, it is vital to ensure that your actions comply with GDPR requirements.

Remember – and this is really important – that the GDPR prioritises the protection of individual data rights, and your marketing practices should reflect this priority.

Email has an ability many channels don’t: creating valuable, personal touches — at scale

David Newman

4) Frequently Asked Questions 1-5

1. What is email marketing?
Email marketing is a form of digital marketing that involves sending regular emails to a select group of people, often customers, that promote products and services or convey helpful information. It’s a direct and effective way to connect with existing customers, or to to engage prospects to nurture them and convert them into customers.

2. Why is email marketing important?
Email marketing is vital because it’s highly cost-effective, provides a direct line of communication with your audience, and can be highly personalised. It’s known for delivering a high return on investment (ROI) by reaching customers where they are every day – their inbox.

3. How do I build an email list?
Building an email list involves collecting email addresses from people interested in your business or content. You can do this through sign-up forms on your website, social media channels, at events, or through online promotions. Offering incentives like discounts or free content can encourage signups.

4. What are the key components of a successful email?
A successful email should have a compelling subject line, a clear and concise message, a visually appealing design, a strong call-to-action (CTA), and personalisation elements. It should also be optimised for mobile devices and include an unsubscribe option.

5. How often should I send marketing emails?
The frequency of emails depends on your business goals and audience preferences. Generally, once a week is a common practice, but monitoring engagement rates and adjusting accordingly is important. Avoid overwhelming your audience with too many emails as this can easily lead to people unsubscribing or even marking your emails spam.

5) Round-up and Key Takeaways

From its early days of novelty and minimal regulation, email marketing encountered significant challenges with being seen as spam, leading to widespread scepticism and disassociation. However, it’s clear that email marketing has evolved significantly and is now a more sophisticated and widely accepted marketing tool.

The advent of GDPR further transformed email marketing, enshrining the need for privacy and consent into law. And, for marketers and business owners alike, the balance between legal compliance and effective communication is crucial, ensuring that email remains a potent yet respectful tool in your digital arsenal.

With advancements in targeting, personalisation, and integration with larger digital marketing strategies, email marketing has re-emerged as a key engagement tool that is cost-effective and accessible to all business sizes.

6) Terminology Navigator 1-10

  1. Open Rate: This metric measures the percentage of email recipients who open an email. It’s a key indicator of how compelling your subject line and sender name are.
  2. Click-Through Rate (CTR): This is the percentage of email recipients who click on one or more links contained in an email. CTR helps assess how effective the email content is in encouraging recipients to take an action.
  3. Conversion Rate: This measures the percentage of email recipients who click on a link within an email and complete a desired action, such as purchasing a product or signing up for a service. It’s a critical metric for evaluating the ROI of an email marketing campaign.
  4. Bounce Rate: This refers to the percentage of emails that are not delivered to the recipient’s inbox. Bounces are categorized as either “hard” (permanent issues like a non-existent email address) or “soft” (temporary issues like a full inbox).
  5. Unsubscribe Rate: The percentage of recipients who choose to opt out of your mailing list after receiving an email. This metric is important for assessing audience engagement and content relevance.
  6. Subject Line: The title or headline of your email. It’s the first piece of text recipients see and plays a crucial role in influencing open rates.
  7. Spam: These are unsolicited, bulk-sent email messages, often with commercial intent. Emails can be automatically marked as spam by email software or perhaps a corporate firewall, and they will be redirected to a separate folder, thereby reducing visibility. Email marked as spam by the recipient can have a far-reaching impact, as it can add the sender’s domain to a global spam database, which may result in the domain being blacklisted.
  8. Segmentation: The practice of dividing your email list into smaller, more targeted groups based on specific criteria, such as demographics, purchase history, or engagement level. This allows for more personalized and effective email campaigns.
  9. A/B Testing: A method where two variations of an email (A and B) are sent to a small percentage of your total recipients. The better-performing email is then sent to the remainder of the list. This is used to optimize email elements like subject lines, content, and calls to action.
  10. Call To Action (CTA): A prompt in the email that instructs the reader on what action to take next, such as “Buy Now,” “Learn More,” or “Sign Up.” Effective CTAs are clear, compelling, and relevant to the content of the email.

To get the right message to the right person at the right time, you first need to get the right data to the right database at the right time

John Caldwell​

Coming up in Part Two

The design of your marketing emails is important. The structure is important, too. Consistency, readability, and formatting – they’re all important. But nothing is more fundamental to the success of your email marketing campaigns than who you’re sending the emails to.

And therein lies the problem.

If you’re a B2B business, you’re unlikely to have a busy sign-up form on your website that’s constantly feeding your mailing list. If you’re a new-ish business building your audience, you’ll have little to begin with in terms of numbers, so where do you begin, and what’s the right way to go about it?

Once you’re up and running and sending regular marketing emails, how do you prevent your emails from going into people’s junk folders or, worse still, being marked as spam? And once all that’s sorted, how do you measure what’s going on?

All of this, and more, is covered in Fall In Love with Email Marketing. A Comprehensive Guide – Part Two.

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
Find out more here


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