Six Practical Email Marketing Strategies for Your Small Business

From SEO to social media, from AOL to Amazon, the last two decades have brought incredible advances to digital marketing. Through it all, one marketing channel has consistently outperformed most others: email marketing. It’s a core revenue driver for eCommerce businesses large and small.

Today we’ll take a look at a new trend in digital marketing—big data—and explore whether it’s feasible for a small business. Then we’ll give you six email marketing strategies that any business can use to create and maintain stellar email marketing results.

Big Data Marketing: Does It Work for Small Businesses?

Recently, the idea of “big data” has taken digital marketing by storm, and it’s hit email marketing too. Email marketing tools are more powerful than ever. We now have access to a firehose of customer and sales data. Significant advances have been made in the realm of behavioral insights and predictive analytics. Cutting edge, full-service marketing platforms put the power of big data into anyone’s hands.

With these tools, merchants can predict the future by analyzing the past. We can collect data on our users and create customer profiles based on their shared characteristics. By examining the historical behavior of customers within a profile, we can predict how a certain customer who also fits that profile will respond to specific content or promotions. When used well, big data can significantly increase conversion rates and revenue.

But here’s the rub. Collecting, analyzing, and then acting on big data isn’t cheap. These top-shelf marketing platforms can cost an arm and a leg. Getting your money’s worth often requires a full-time employee dedicated to the role. That old adage holds true; you get what you pay for. But so does another (less well-known) adage: “Your marketing expense shouldn’t exceed your business revenue.” In short, the cost involved with big data marketing just isn’t feasible yet for many small businesses.

The Alternative: Focus on Strategy

So if big data is too expensive, how can a small eCommerce brand optimize and grow its email marketing?  

For many small businesses, marketing strategy is far more important than technology. You do need a solid email marketing service, but you can choose from many more affordable options on the market. They don’t include the whiz-bang tools offered by the pricey alternatives, but they’ll get the job done. At Gauge we’ve worked with merchants across dozens of industries, and we can confidently say that below a certain cost threshold, the platform doesn’t really matter. It’s what you do with the platform that counts.

Despite advances in tech, email marketing strategy hasn’t changed much over the past 15 years. Successful email marketing is a long-term endeavor. It requires attention, consistency, patience, creativity, and most importantly, time.

Strategy #1: Build Your Lists

Building and maintaining a strong email marketing database is the key to successful email marketing. As your email list grows, your email marketing revenue will also grow. This prompts two questions:

  1. How do you grow your email list?
  2. How do you keep these customers engaged in your email campaigns (and keep their cursors off the Unsubscribe button)?

Here are some practical ways to build your email lists. Regardless of the method you choose, start collecting email addresses today, and then never stop collecting.

Shrinking Customer Hesitations

Ultimately, you have to ask the customer for their email address. Years ago, getting this information was difficult. People considered their email to be a very personal and private platform. But that mindset is changing quickly, for a few reasons.

The first: As technology has evolved, email service providers have found ways to accommodate marketing in a way that feels less obtrusive to recipients. For example, Gmail’s Category feature lets users automatically funnel marketing emails into a designated inbox. It’s a convenient way to reduce inbox clutter without using that unsubscribe button.

Another reason is that customers understand why you’re requesting it. I know that if I give a merchant my email address, they’ll send me marketing material. I like saving money on things I want to buy. If I like the brand, I’m happy to exchange my email address for the special offers and promotions I know I’ll get in return.

Brick & Mortar Email Collection

If you’ve got an online shop and a brick-and-mortar location, your email collection opportunities double. In-store promotions and emailing receipts are very effective strategies for email acquisition. These techniques are personal and conversational; they instill trust. Simple enough.

Digital Email Collection

But how do you win over your digital customers? Putting an email signup field in your site’s footer isn’t enough anymore; their success rates are abysmal. Online shoppers are savvy. They know exactly why you want their data and they know how to find the very best deals online. You’ve got to offer these shoppers an incentive for signing up.

Most basic email platforms offer entry and exit pop-up modals you can use to offer a one-time discount in exchange for an email address. We’ve all seen the “Sign up for a 10% discount!” pop-ups. They’re popular because they work!

The tricky part is turning a one-time purchaser into a repeat customer. You’ve got to follow through on the swing by making the most of all additional connection opportunities. Consider ways to incentivize your transactional emails or review requests. Drop a few free stickers or include a discount code in your packaging. Even creating a beautifully packed box with your brand’s special touches will help set you apart from the competition.

Think Long Term

When choosing your signup incentives, it’s critical to focus on customer life cycle and lifetime value. Your goal is to acquire long-term customers. Develop your email collection strategy with this in mind. A blow-out contest to win a Caribbean vacation might net you thousands of new email addresses. But if they have no other interest in your brand, it will result in a high unsubscribe rate once the winner has been revealed. You don’t want just any email addresses; you want the right email addresses.

Social Media Email Collection

Social media can also be a great environment for email acquisition. Consider creating an enter-to-win ad on Facebook. Display this ad to your followers and a look-alike audience. Start small; offer a chance to win a $100 gift certificate.

I know what you’re thinking—what about the Caribbean vacation point you just made? Social media is a bit different because your social media followers are already more engaged with your brand than a casual site browser. The goal is to get those followers to cross platforms onto your site and then onto your email lists. Create a landing page on your site to further message the promotion, collect data, and encourage immediate shopping. This technique can be great for email collection and has the nice side effect of directly driving traffic to your webstore.

Strategy #2: Get Conversational

As small business owners, we often take our marketing very seriously—and rightly so. We devote our lives to creating a brand that has meaning and reflects the beauty of our vision. Email marketing is a core channel, and you absolutely should take its planning and execution seriously. But the marketing emails themselves shouldn’t read like a vision statement or business plan.

Email marketing is the perfect place to add some levity, color, and spice to your brand’s persona. The recipients are your inner-circle customers. They’ve invited you into their lives by volunteering their personal data. Letting them experience a deeper, more intimate message is a great way to build more trust and create lifetime customers. Who doesn’t want to be included on an inside joke or take a peek behind the curtain of their favorite brand? Your email audience has quite literally signed up for that!

Explore a few playful ideas with your email marketing.

  • Try adding a secret gift with purchase that only populates once the customer has added an item to the shopping cart. This is a great way to rapidly push your customer through the sales funnel!
  • Add a hidden CMS page called Beautiful Photo (or Fan Outfit of the Day, or Sweet Ride, or Adorable Baby Animal—whatever is brand-appropriate). Link to the hidden page in a weekly email, and change the photo each week. Change the photo for every email.
  • Tell half a joke and require a click-through to see the punch-line.

You might be surprised by how many people will click to see the photo or punchline. And then voilà, the customer is magically on your site and exposed to the onsite marketing for your current sale or campaign.

“No matter how beautiful or clever or “on brand” your email is, if the customer doesn’t click through to your site, it’s worthless. Experiment, track your metrics carefully and try to uncover what email content your customers are engaging with. Then do more of that!”

Strategy #3: Embrace Experimentation

Naturally, people like different things and respond to different messages. Yet every email database has a sweet spot—a preference, taste, or motivation shared by a wide array of your recipients. It’s your job to find that sweet spot and tailor your messages to it.

To really understand the motivations of your customers, you must experiment with your content and promotions. Experimentation can be nerve-wracking, especially for small businesses. Understand that you will experience marketing successes and failures. Let go of all preconceived expectations and let the data speak for itself. Occasionally your margin will suffer a little or a sale will not meet expectations, but each campaign is a learning experience. Use your insights to refine your strategy.

Promotions: Practical Examples

For example, say you need to liquidate an item. You might not consider a BOGO promotion, assuming it would completely sacrifice your profit margin. But that assumption isn’t necessarily true. You will sacrifice margin on the BOGO SKU. But the offer could also lure email readers to your site and tempt them to buy more than they otherwise would.

If the promotion increases your average order value beyond the value of the BOGO item or drives up your numbers for average products per conversion, your campaign would be a success. Will some customers capitalize on the BOGO promotion only? Yes, but don’t worry about that. Listen carefully to all the data before you decide whether a campaign was a success or failure.

Other promotional ideas

Include a free gift with purchase, offer free shipping with any purchase (or above a specific order value), or give a 5%, 10%, or 15% discount. These can all be effective ways to improve your click-through and conversion rates.

Finding the sweet spot applies to percent-based discounts too. Experiment by increasing your discount percentage incrementally and keep a close eye on your conversion rates. Your sweet spot will be just before your conversion rate stops increasing. I once found that my conversion rate didn’t change when I increased a discount from 15% to 20%. I learned that for my customers, 15% off was tempting enough to drive the purchase.

Experimenting with Content

You can also offer compelling content to move your customers from your email to your site. Try publishing an outfit of the day or recipe of the month. Consider using your New Arrival or Staff Favorite products to bridge the gap between email marketing and onsite shopping. Remember, the key to email marketing is to get the customers to your site. Experiment, track your results, and refine your approach.

Finding your sweet spots takes time, but the payoff is worth the investment. In the long run you’ll understand your database and know how to optimize your email marketing strategy. Just make sure you’re analyzing your data thoroughly and using it to inform your decisions.

“With data-driven campaign optimization, you’ll see your email marketing produce real results, month after month.”

Strategy #4: Destination PDP

You know you need to get customers from your email to your site. But where on your site? Our answer is a Product Detail Page (PDP), for several compelling reasons.

The first reason: It simplifies the shopping experience. Great email marketing involves understanding your customer and delivering something you know they will love. Contrast these two messages:

  1. Hello Customer. Please take time out of your busy schedule to wander around my site. Maybe you’ll find something you like. If you do, I’ll give you 10% off your order. Please browse the store now!
  2. Hello Customer. You will absolutely love this new product; it’s perfect for you. And if you purchase now, you’ll save 10%. Shop this product now!

The discount is exactly the same, but the second message is more likely to convert.

The first message requires way too much thought and time. What if the baby wakes up, or the phone rings, or the internet times out, or the customer just can’t decide? The second message is much simpler. You show the customer a great product, they want it, and you make it super easy for them to view and buy. No thought required.

“The goal is to move the customer deep into the sales funnel as quickly as possible, and then make purchase simple.”

Another reason to move your customers directly to a PDP: You’ll turn that PDP into a landing page. Retailers often default to using their homepage as a landing page, but any page can become one.

Think about this from the perspective of a search engine. Suppose you sell gourmet honey, so your homepage header says “Gourmet Honey.” As search engines index the traffic to your homepage, your authority for that search term establishes itself over time. If you drive your email traffic to your homepage, you’ll only magnify that effect.

Now imagine a gourmet honey connoisseur (and potential customer) searches the internet for a specific product, like Tupelo honey. You may carry a full line of Tupelo honey, but if all of your traffic goes directly to your homepage and the phrase “Tupelo honey” doesn’t appear there, you won’t rank for that search term. A prime opportunity to win a repeat customer is lost.

You could address this directing some of your email traffic to the Tupelo honey page. As your traffic to that page picks up, search engines will begin to recognize your site as a good destination for Tupelo honey searchers. Over time, you’ll become more competitive for those search keywords as well.

Strategy #5: Every Email is a Marketing Email

Ah, the transactional email—it’s automatic, super functional, and straight to the point. Retailers often neglect these emails, but customers certainly don’t. Transactional emails have the highest open rate for any type of eCommerce email. This makes perfect sense; they deliver need-to-know information.

Use these emails to invite the customer back to your website. You could include a promo code for their next purchase, request a product review, invite them to follow your social media channels, or ask for feedback about their buying experience. Never miss an opportunity to interact with your customers!

High open rates turn transactional emails into prime marketing real estate. Yet far too often I receive an order confirmation or shipping notification with no branding or beauty. That’s like parking a dumpster in front of your panoramic window! It may be functional, but it’s got zero appeal.

Instead, customize your transactional emails to align with your brand. Think about their tone, imagery, and mood. It really is the little touches that make a brand special. Use them to present your brand in a memorable way and set it apart from the competition.

“Remember, you’re not merely selling products. You are creating a customer experience and a journey that has several direct touchpoints along the way. Make sure every touchpoint sends a message: We’ve thought about what you’d like and we care about your experience.”

Strategy #6: The Simpsons Effect

Finally, commit yourself to the process of constant improvement. I call this The Simpsons Effect.

The Making of an American Icon

In 1987 the Simpsons premiered on the Tracey Ullman Show. The animation was crude and the episodes were short, only a minute or two. But the creators were clearly onto something. Producer James L. Brooks and cartoonist Matt Groening used this series of shorts to develop the humor and really understand their audience.

Over time, the animation and content was refined. The team signed on with Butterfinger for an extensive advertising campaign. The commercials were funny and just edgy enough to hit their demographic sweet spot. The ads expanded their reach far beyond the audience for their original shorts, and that audience was engaged. Widespread interest opened the door for an animated sitcom deal with FOX. The rest is history.

The Simpsons started as a series of throwaway sketches to introduce commercial breaks, yet it became a beloved icon of American pop culture. What does the Simpsons story tell us about email marketing?

The creators knew they had something special. They invested time in understanding their audience, responded to the data, and capitalized on opportunity. Most importantly, they continually improved their delivery.

Never become complacent. Use every tool at your disposal to make each new email campaign better than the last. Discover as much as you can about your current customers. Explore ways to grow our email lists and gain new fans. Learn how to leverage your data. Experiment with your campaigns and track your results. Use your insights to create better campaigns that will delight and engage more customers. And then do it all again. Master these basics and your brand will be well on its way to becoming an icon in your sphere of influence.

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