Learn about email marketing

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Email marketing is a powerful channel that is highly effective, widely used, and generates a significant return on investment. While not new, email marketing is constantly evolving, with changing technological tools, customer expectations, and business strategies. During the peak of the pandemic, with more people at home and on their devices, email helped marketers connect with consumers.

Now, with customer interaction increasingly virtual, workforces growing more remote, and digital experiences at the heart of modern business, email marketing is as valuable as ever. Whether you’re knowledgeable or a novice, everything you need to learn about email marketing today is right here in this post.

In this email marketing guide, you'll learn about:

What is email marketing?

Email marketing is the use of email as a marketing tool to promote a company’s products or services and develop customer loyalty. As a form of digital and direct marketing intended to make people on a company’s email list aware of products and services, discounts, news, or other information, email is a way to interact with customers when they’re not actively buying.

The first marketing email was sent by Digital Equipment Corporation about a new product in 1978.

Email marketing campaigns are among the most popular and effective ways to grow an audience, sell products, promote your brand, and more. Email is a crucial part of any successful marketing strategy, improving lead generation, brand awareness, relationship building, and customer engagement.

Email has come a long way since 1971, when a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson dispatched what is generally considered the first message. In 1978, Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corporation, sent the maiden commercial email. With about 400 addresses on his email list, his messages about a new product generated $13 million in sales.

By the 1990s, the internet was widely available, people were using it to communicate instantly and continuously around the globe, and businesses realized the massive potential of email as a marketing channel. Today, approximately 4 billion people use email daily, and marketing emails are ubiquitous.

Certainly, there’s a reason spam folders and “unsubscribe” buttons exist. But the enduring value of a good marketing email is obvious — whether offering 10% off for subscribing, reminding someone about forgotten shopping cart items, or telling a brand story — especially when it contains a compelling message and appeals authentically to a customer’s needs.

The benefits of a good marketing email strategy

With social media, SEO, video, podcast, and so many other marketing channels fragmenting audiences and competing for attention — and with email campaigns competing against each other for clicks and credit cards — it’s fair to wonder if email marketing still works.

Make no mistake — email marketing continues to be enormously influential.

Email marketing can generate a 3,600% ROI.

Email can generate an incredible 3,600% return on investment. Even with the growth of social, SEO, and other channels, email remains one of the most effective marketing strategies because of the simple fact that most people have email and use it often, including on their mobile devices.

There are many benefits of good email marketing, including:

  1. Increased conversions and deals by offering exclusive discounts or sending abandoned cart emails
  2. Improved awareness by reappearing in your audience’s inbox at regular (but not incessant) intervals
  3. Better customer relationships, primarily through personalization and automation
  4. Prompting readers to take another action, such as visiting your website or blog, shopping for products, or something else
  5. Results can be easily and objectively measured, providing a clearer picture of the impact of your efforts

The global value of email marketing was $7.5 billion in 2020, according to Statista, and the market is projected to increase to $17.9 billion by 2027. Likewise, daily email users are expected to rise by 600 million over the next 3 years.

How email marketing works

While the tools and techniques for doing it better than everyone else have become more sophisticated, email marketing is fundamentally simple and requires just a couple of things to get started: a platform to send emails and people to receive them.

The platform

The platform comes from email service providers (ESPs), technology vendors that offer software enabling brands to run email campaigns, including design, management, automation, and other functionalities. Most ESPs allow users to produce and personalize content, upload a subscriber list, and deliver emails, though different businesses will generally need different features.

An ESP helps brands maintain subscriber loyalty and nurture their customers. For most companies, especially large enterprises that require technology to support communications at scale, ESPs are a better solution than sending mass emails from your inbox for several reasons, including:

Nearly 40% of emails are viewed for eight seconds or fewer, so it’s critical you make it quick and easy for recipients to see what’s important about your message.

The people

Successful email marketing requires an active list of subscribers to receive your messages. This is a database of contacts who’ve not only demonstrated interest in your brand but explicitly opted in and consented to receive your marketing communications. Permission-based marketing is vital for complying with data protection laws and maintaining your brand reputation.

Some options for building your email list include:

One of the best ways to get people in your target audience to join your email list is with a lead magnet — an offer that entices them to sign up. This could be a coupon, special access, or premium content, such as a free eBook that provides value to the recipient in exchange for their email address. Great content is a meaningful way to attract and grow your audience.

How to get started with email marketing: 7 simple steps

The process of getting started with email marketing varies based on a company’s needs and the type of email service provider with which they’re working. It could be very easy or quite complicated and heavily depends on the size of your company and your overall goals. No matter where your organization falls on that scale, these seven steps can help you to start building a successful email marketing campaign:

Step 1: Put the plan — and the goals — on paper

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As with any business plan, it’s important first to lay out what you’re hoping to accomplish before taking action. You need to create an email marketing plan with stated goals, clear expectations, and ways to measure performance. Here are some things to consider when developing an email marketing strategy:

Step 2: Choose an ESP

There are lots of ESPs on the market, so how do you know which one is right for your business? The answer depends on factors like your needs, budget, audience, objectives, and skill level. ESPs offer a range of features, some of which will be important to you and some of which won’t matter much. Here are some key features to look for when comparing ESPs:

The best ESPs also offer features like central workflow and customer data management so you can see the whole customer journey at once, as well as managed cloud services that improve ROI. With Adobe Campaign, Adobe's B2C email marketing and omnichannel campaign management application, you can use rich customer data to create, coordinate, and deliver dynamic campaigns through email, mobile, offline channels, and more.

Step 3: Build an email list

You’ve set goals and got your ESP, but now you need a list of people to email. To scale your business, it’s best to add a subscription sign-up form to your website — either embedded or as a pop-up — to collect customer data. You can use your ESP to create an email sign-up form that can be shared on social media as well.

You’ll also want to finalize a lead magnet that incentivizes people to opt in to receiving your newsletter. If you’re a retailer, that might be a coupon for discounted products. If you’re a service provider, it might be a free trial or access to gated content like an eBook. Whatever lead magnet you settle on, it should be something that delivers real value to prospective customers and compels them to join or stay on your email list.

The average open rate for a marketing email is 25.4%, while the average click-through rate is 1.3%.

Step 4: Design emails

How do you get your emails to stand out from the crowd? By combining the right strategy and message with the best design. Start with the basic email templates that come with your ESP and edit them to match your brand guidelines. You can use the drag-and-drop editor to add content, colors, images, and styles. Save the template so you can use it every time for brand consistency.

Get inspired by design trends. Make sure your copy is clear, concise, and easy to read, broken up by larger headlines, smaller digestible chunks of text, and white space. Use web-optimized images that load quickly. Include alternate text. Be consistent with branding so people recognize your emails. And remember, the majority of emails now are opened on mobile devices — so ensure your designs are fully responsive and optimized for any screen.

Step 5: Test, test, test

Email marketing is as much a science as an art, and a proven way to find out exactly what works for your brand’s audience is to test. Test deliverability by sending to friends through different internet service providers. Use A/B testing to try different subject lines, email copy, and CTAs. Test sending messages on different days and times.

The only limit to how much you can test is your own capacity for trying to perfect email marketing. Keep testing, refining, and optimizing your approach until you find what works best for your campaign and audience.

Step 6: Schedule to send at the best time

Most marketers believe it’s important for organizations to implement a rule for frequency of contact. What that frequency actually is depends on your campaign goals, content type, email performance, and more. But making and sticking to a schedule helps you stay on track and avoid going dark for a period of time.

An ESP can help you automatically send out emails that are scheduled in advance and provide testing and insights to discover when your target audience is checking email. It’s critical to send emails when recipients are paying attention, receptive to your marketing messages, and inclined to engage. At the very least, you should figure out which days and times your audience tends to open emails and when they’re more likely to click through.

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Step 7: Review and evaluate

While benchmarks for email campaign performance vary widely based on industry, audience, and more, there are a few marketers should know. Here are three of the most important metrics and their averages across all industries, according to Smart Insights:

What’s next? Email marketing automation

Let’s face it: Marketers are busy, consumers have endless choices, channels are always changing, and competition in every industry is fierce. Automation makes email marketing fast and easy, streamlining tasks like segmentation and message-sending while gathering insightful user data that helps campaigns grow smarter, stronger, and more successful.

Email marketing automation makes it simple to identify, target, and segment your audience. You can segment audiences in several different ways, including:

Many of these events trigger automated campaigns with their own subgroups and strategies.

Marketing automation can improve engagement and growth easily and instantly. With Adobe Marketo Engage, marketers have a complete toolkit to deliver winning lead-based and account-based marketing, from acquisition to advocacy.

Email marketing FAQs

Should I buy an email marketing list?

No. First, most ESPs require permission-based emailing, so they’re not allowed to send to purchased lists and won’t work with them. Second, sending unsolicited messages and storing someone’s data without their consent is illegal in many places. Third, recipients are likely to mark such messages as spam, which damages your reputation and could land you on an email blocklist. Fourth, some email addresses on purchased lists are inactive spam traps.

Remember, people don’t give their email addresses away for nothing — you have to earn the right to be in someone’s inbox. Buying lots of random email addresses and cold messaging them is a good way to receive resentment and an unsubscribe click. Marketing is always about developing authentic relationships, and that’s just as true with building an email list.

People don’t give their email addresses away for nothing — you have to earn the right to be in someone’s inbox.

Are there email laws I need to know?

Yes. With the rise of email marketing came consumer protection and privacy laws. In 2003, the United States passed the CAN-SPAM Act, which requires commercial or promotional emails to be marked as such. Senders must be honest and transparent about who they are, what they’re sending, and how they can be reached. Recipients must be allowed to opt out easily and promptly. The penalty for violation of the law can be a fine of more than $40,000.

In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation requires the protection of personal information and applies to all EU nations, as well as any entity that interacts with EU parties. Elsewhere, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries have similar laws, and it’s important to be aware of all regulations relevant to your location, industry, and application.

Get going with email marketing

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Email marketing can help you reach and connect with your audience to promote your brand, improve lead nurturing and customer relationship management, and increase sales.

Learn more about Adobe Campaign and how it can take your email marketing strategy to the next level.

Watch a demo