Email Marketing: The Definitive Guide

Email Marketing: The Definitive Guide

This is the ultimate guide to email marketing.

So if you want to:

  • Build your email list
  • Improve your open rates
  • Write amazing newsletters
  • Turn more subscribers into customers

Then you’ll love this new guide.

Let’s get started.

Email Marketing: The Definitive Guide

Chapter 1:Email Marketing Fundamentals

Email Marketing Fundamentals

In this chapter we’re going to cover the basics of email marketing.

(Including what it is, why it works and why it’s still important)

I’ll also show you how you can use email marketing to grow your business.

What Is Email Marketing?

Email marketing is the digital marketing practice of communicating with leads and customers with email. Common email-based marketing messages include email newsletters, promotional campaigns and event announcements. Email marketing typically has a significantly higher ROI than many other marketing channels (like social media).

The #1 thing that makes email marketing more effective than SEO and social media is that you have a direct line to your audience.

Email marketing gives you a direct line to your audience

But with new platforms like Tik Tok and LinkedIn Live on the rise, does old school email still work?

Let’s find out…

Does Email Marketing Still Work?

I’m not going to bore you with a million stats.

Instead, I’m going to quickly show you why email marketing still works GREAT.

The average email subscriber is worth $37.66 (DMA).

The average value of an email subscriber

Email marketing’s ROI is 38:1 (Litmus).

Email marketing's ROI is 38:1

This super high ROI is probably why 86% of marketers consider email “important” or “very important” (DMA).

Importance of email marketing to organizations

Why Email Marketing Still Works

Why does email still work so well?

#1: With Email, You Own The Distribution

This is a big one.

When a new subscriber signs up to your list, you have a direct line to that person’s inbox.

That’s simply not the case with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… or any other social media platform.

In fact, a 2019 study found that Facebook organic engagement plummeted to less than 1% (RivalQ).

Facebook organic engagement was less than 1% in 2019

Contrast that number to the engagement rate you get from email.

The average newsletter open rate is 20.81%… 20x higher than Facebook post engagement (MailChimp).

Email has higher engagement rates than Facebook

#2: People WANT to To Get Marketing Messages via Email

People don’t go on social media to see ads.

In fact, 45% of consumers report that social media ads are annoying (AdWeek).

High numbers of consumers find social media ads annoying

On the other hand, people don’t mind marketing messages in their inbox. In fact, they expect them.

For example, one study found that 86% of consumers prefer to get email-based marketing messages over Facebook ads, TV commercials and display ads (HubSpot).

Email and sponsored ads generate the most neutral response

#3: Email Converts REALLY Well

Sure, email has a better reach than social. But does that translate into more sales?

Yup!

In fact, when it comes to turning browsers into buyers, nothing beats email.

Email converts 40x more leads into customers than Facebook and Twitter combined (McKinsey).

Email converts 40X better than Twitter and Facebook

A third of people that subscribe to a retailer’s newsletter end up making a purchase (eMarketer).

1/3 of subscribers to retail newsletters make a purchase

These stats are nice and all. But you’re probably wondering:

“How do I get started with email marketing?”.

Well, that’s what our next chapter is all about…

How to Get Started With Email Marketing

At a high level, here’s what you’ll need to get started with email marketing.

  1. Develop an email marketing strategy: figure out how email will fit into the rest of your online marketing.
  2. Sign up for email marketing software: this is how you’ll send emails to your list.
  3. Build your email list: get more subscribers with ebooks, reports, lead magnets and webinars.
  4. Create an autoresponder: setup an autoresponder that automatically sends new subscribers helpful content.
  5. Track and improve: improve your email marketing based on open rates, click-through-rates, conversions, unsubscribes and feedback from subscribers.

Chapter 2:How to Build Your Email List

How to Build Your Email List

The first step of any email marketing campaign is to build your email list.

In this chapter I’m going to show you exactly how to build your email list using strategies that are working right now.

In fact:

These are the same exact list building techniques that I used to grow my email list to 144,648 total subscribers.

Let’s do this!

Optimize Your About Page for Conversions

If you’re like most people, your about page is one of the most-visited pages on your website.

Even better:

The people that go to your about page usually like you.

Which means they’re PRIMED to subscribe.

So I recommend putting at least one email sign up form on your about page.

For example, my friend James Clear (who has over 500k subscribers) includes a form at the bottom of his about page.

James Clear – Form

My about page is on the long side… so I use two forms:

Backlinko About forms

Create Squeeze Pages

If you’re serious about building your email list you NEED a squeeze page.

(In other words: a page designed to convert visitors into email subscribers).

Here’s an example from my site:

Backlinko – Newsletter page

As you can see, this page doesn’t give you many options. It’s completely focused on the offer (signing up for my newsletter). Which is why it converts at 14%.

Newsletter conversion rate

If you want to take this to the next level, you can create different squeeze pages for different audiences.

For example, HubSpot has 463 different squeeze pages. Each one offers a different lead magnet.

Squeeze page collage

Speaking of lead magnets…

Create Compelling Lead Magnets

Lead Magnets are the lifeblood of any list building campaign.

Why?

It’s REALLY hard to get someone to sign up for a “newsletter” or “21-day email course”. Instead, you need to offer people something they can use right away.

I’m talking about:

  • Checklists
  • Ebooks
  • Swipe files
  • Case studies
  • Templates
  • Videos

In other words:

The more valuable your lead magnet, the more signups you’ll get.

For example, 100 Days of Real Food offers up a full meal plan as a lead magnet:

5 real meals

Optimize Your Blog’s Homepage for Email Signups

Most blog homepages look something like this:

Normal blog homepage design

A list of their latest blog posts.

And hey, there’s nothing wrong with a blog post feed.

But if you want people to subscribe to your email list, you need to put your offer front and center.

In other words:

Design your blog’s homepage to convert readers into subscribers.

For example, my old homepage was your typical blog feed.

Backlinko – Old blog

And it converted HORRIBLY.

That’s when I realized that most of the big sites (like Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook) don’t feature content on their homepages.

Instead, their homepages are optimized for signups.

Pinterest – Login

So I decided to try the same thing.

The result? This new homepage.

Backlinko – Current homepage

My old blog feed homepage converted at 4.6%. The new one? 9.01%.

Old .vs New homepage conversion

95% better than my old homepage.

Legit.

Exit-Intent Popups

I’ll be the first to admit it:

I HATE popups.

In fact, I hate them so much that I swore I’d stop using them.

LinkedIn – Popups comment

Then one day I realized something:

Not all popups are created equal.

In other words, there’s a BIG difference between a popup that attacks you the second you land on the page…

… and one that offers something of value as you leave.

So about 6 months ago I decided to try popups again.

This time, I’d ONLY use exit-intent popups. And I’d ONLY offer super valuable stuff.

That way, I’m not annoying people with crap nobody wants, like this:

Annoying popup

Here’s the popup my team came up with:

YouTube Toolkit popup

Not only does it offer something cool, but this popup only appears if you’re leaving the site anyway.

That way, you’re not distracted from the content on the page.

So, how did the new popup do?

Before the popup my site’s overall conversion rate was 3.55%. After the exit-intent popup it shot up to 6.14% (a 72.9% increase).

Conversion rate before and after using exit intent popup

Very cool.

Use Content Upgrades

Content Upgrades are one of my all-time favorite list building strategies.

In fact, a single Content Upgrade boosted conversions on one of my blog posts by 755.2%.

Goal conversion rate

Here’s the exact process:

First, log in to Google Analytics. And find a blog post on your site that gets a ton of traffic.

Analytics – Page list

Next, figure out what someone reading that specific article would want.

For example, this guide gets 8,578 visitors every month:

Keyword Research post – Sessions

The problem is: it’s 4,623 words. That’s WAY too long for most people to read in one sitting.

Which is probably why lots of people asked me for a PDF version.

PDF request

So I decided that a PDF version of my guide would make a great Content Upgrade.

Finally, feature your Content Upgrade in your post.

You can offer it at the top of the page:

PDF CTA

At the bottom of your page:

What to do next

Or both.

That’s all there is to it.

Chapter 3:Email Campaign Templates

Email Campaign Templates

Now it’s time to show you how to create emails that get opened and clicked.

Specifically, I’m going to share four proven email templates.

These templates are specifically designed to help you crank out super valuable email content that your subscribers will love.

So if you’re ready to start sending emails that people WANT to read, this chapter is for you.

The Content Newsletter

The Content Newsletter is a newsletter that provides 100% pure value.

The value can be in the form of a handful of tips. Or links to helpful resources. Or a personal story.

The exact type of value doesn’t really matter. As long as you don’t pitch anything, you’re good.

In fact, pure value newsletters are so rare that your subscribers will LOVE you for them.

For example, I sent out this Content Newsletter a while back:

How to create content – Email

(A handful of copywriting tips)

And dozens of people replied to my email to thank me.

Email collage

With that, here’s the template:

The Content Newsletter

Intriguing Subject Line

Use a subject line that will make someone curious about what’s inside your message.

For example, I used the subject line “How I Got 45.5% More Traffic (In 7 Days)” for one of my Content Newsletters. And that email got a 32.3% open rate.

How I got traffic – Subject line

Bold Opening

Start your newsletter off with something SUPER compelling.

That way, you hook your reader right off the bat.

Personally, I like to kick things off with a mini story.

Backlinko – Personal story email

But you can also use a straightforward intro that previews what’s coming next.

Backlinko email – Straightforward intro

Either way works.


Valuable Content

Now it’s time to deliver the goods.

If you’re not sure what to write here, I recommend going with a list of 3-5 actionable tips that people can use that day.

Otherwise, you can teach your subscribers an important lesson in the form of a story.

Backlinko email – Story

Or curate links to content that will help your reader achieve a specific outcome, like this newsletter from Ramit Sethi.

Email links

CTA

Nope, you’re not pitching anything in your Content Newsletter.

But that doesn’t mean you should skip your call-to-action.

So:

How can you use a CTA if your email is 100% value?

Well, when I send out a story to subscribers, I use a CTA that asks people to reply with their opinion or take.

End with a CTA

Or let’s say you just sent out a list of links to Paleo breakfast recipes.

Your CTA could be to try one of the recipes this week.

The type of CTA you go with isn’t that important.

The important thing is to always include a CTA in your newsletters.

That way, when you DO pitch something, your subscribers aren’t caught off guard.

The Marketing Offer

The Marketing offer is just like it sounds:

It’s an email that pushes your subscribers to make a purchase.

(Usually in the form of a limited-time sale).

Here’s the template to follow:

The Marketing Offer

Straightforward Subject Line

No need to be super creative.

Instead, just let people know about your offer.

Here’s an example from Red Dress Boutique.

Red Dress – Subject line

The Offer

Start your email off with a line or two that describes your offer.

You don’t want to get cute here. Just outline what your offer is and why it’s worth paying attention to.

Email intro – Offer

The Details

So you just outlined your offer. Now it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty.

Here’s where you outline a few key details about your offer, like:

  • Start and end dates
  • Key benefits
  • Story behind the promo
  • Any conditions or limitations

Here’s a real-life example:

Babyletto – Offer

One thing to keep in mind here is that you don’t want to overwhelm people with details.

Remember: it’s impossible to close the deal inside of your email. After all, they have to actually go to your site to buy. So let your landing page do most of the selling.

In short: the goal of this section is to get people to learn about your offer and visit your website.


The CTA

Nothing fancy here. Just a strong CTA that lets people know exactly what to do next.

Shop now – CTA

The PS

A PS is an underrated little tactic that can easily double your conversion rate.

Why?

Because lots of people will skim your message… but stop and read your PS word-for-word.

That’s why I recommend using a PS in almost all Marketing Offer emails. All you need to do here is summarize your offer and include another call-to-action.

"PS" CTA

The Announcement

With “The Announcement” email you’re not pitching a “10% Off Sale”. That type of thing works best with The Marketing Offer template I just showed you.

Instead, you want to save this template for BIG announcements, like:

  • Brand new product or service
  • Live event
  • New version of a popular product
  • Limited-time product release
  • Important features added to an existing product

Here’s the template:

The Announcement

Subject Line=”Introducing” or “Announcing”

You want to make it clear that your announcement is a big deal.

After all, you’ll probably only send one or two Announcement emails per year.

So don’t be afraid to use terms like “Introducing” or “For the first time” in your subject line.

For example, here’s the subject line I used when I launched a new version of my flagship course:

SEO That Works email – Subject

Compelling Lead

You have a few different options here.

You can jump right into your product announcement:

SEO That Works email – Intro

Or you can build up a little bit of anticipation, like Marie Forleo does here:

Marie Forleo email – Build anticipation

The Big Reveal

Now it’s time to outline what exactly you’re announcing and why it’s important.

For example, in this announcement email BuzzSumo quickly outlines what makes their new feature unique.

BuzzSumo – Offer outline

Clear CTA

Now that your reader is pumped about your announcement, let them know the next step.

If it’s a product, your CTA should tell people to head over to your sales page and sign up.

If it’s a new service, you might ask people to fill out a form.

Either way, let your subscriber know EXACTLY what to do next.

The Blog Post Newsletter

When it comes to content promotion, email is king.

For example, I published this post earlier this year.

SEO Strategy page

And to get the word out, I sent a newsletter out to my email list:

SEO Strategy – Email

I also posted a Tweet.

SEO Strategy – Announcement tweet

The Tweet got 962 clicks. And the newsletter got 15,744 clicks.

Blog Post Newsletter .vs. Tweet

That’s 16x more clicks.

With that, here’s the template I recommend:

The Blog Post Newsletter

Subject Line=Blog Post Topic

I’ve tested dozens of subject line templates over the last six years.

And when it comes to promoting blog content, I’ve found that your blog post topic itself works GREAT.

For example, when I launched this guide to mobile SEO, I went with the subject line: “Mobile SEO”.

And that dead simple subject line led to a 44.6% open rate.

Mobile SEO – Open rate

The Lead

The type of lead you use depends a lot on your blog post’s topic.

For example, if the topic is something personal, include an anecdote:

GrowthLab email – Personal anecdote

If it’s newsworthy, you want to write something like: “As you might have heard, a new study found…”.

Or you can just let people know that you published something new:

Email announcing something new

Bulleted List

Next, list 3-4 things that someone will learn from your post.

Don’t give away the farm here. Instead, you want to build up excitement for your new content.

Here’s an example from one of my newsletters:

Mobile SEO – Email

Link To The Post

Finally, add a link to your post.

This can be a normal link:

Text link to post

Or a big ol’ button:

Blue CTA

Chapter 4:How to Get Super High Open Rates

How to Get Super High Open Rates

Now it’s time for me to show you how to get SUPER high open rates.

In fact, I consistently get 35%+ open rates on newsletters that go out to 100k+ subscribers.

(Which is double the industry average for a list that size)

Let’s get right into the strategies.

Optimize Your Send Time

You want to send emails…

  • When people are awake
  • When people’s inboxes aren’t crowded

That’s why I DON’T recommend scheduling newsletters for first thing in the morning.

Otherwise, your message gets buried in someone’s crowded inbox.

Don't schedule newsletters for first thing in the morning

Instead, send your emails out when your subscribers’ inboxes are empty. This is usually late morning or early afternoon.

That way, your newsletter will pop up at the top of their inbox.

Send newsletters when your subscribers' inboxes are empty

That said:

There’s no “best time to send an email” that works for everyone.

You need to test different send times to see which times get the highest open rates for you.

For example, after testing a dozen different send times, I found that 11am Eastern works best for our subscribers.

11am Eastern is perfect because people on the east coast and in Europe are at work. And by 11am they’ve already cleared out their morning inboxes.

That said, Backlinko is B2B.

If you’re in B2C, it might not make sense to send to people’s personal inboxes while they’re at work.

Again, it’s different for every business.

That’s why I recommend testing a bunch of different times to find the best one for you.

Send People a GREAT Welcome Email

Most welcome emails look something like this:

Generic Welcome email

As my Mom told me: “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”.

And this type of welcome email makes a TERRIBLE first impression.

So:

What should you do instead?

First, warmly welcome people to your newsletter.

Welcome text in email

It’s not 1996. No one is excited to sign up for a newsletter.

In fact, new subscribers are on guard. They’re looking for ANY reason to unsubscribe.

Reassure them. Let them know that they made the right decision.

Next, layout the deets of your newsletter.

Specifically, cover what they can expect in the next few days or weeks.

Cover publishing expectations

Finally, end with a call-to-action.

This can be a CTA to check out a few resources from your site that you recommend. Or a link to your latest products.

For example, when I first started Backlinko I asked new subscribers to reply with their #1 struggle:

End with a CTA

Not only was this a goldmine of blog content ideas, but it helped me establish a strong relationship with new subscribers.

Friendly email

Remember: These are brand new subscribers. So you don’t want a hard sell CTA.

But you DO want to get them in the habit of taking action.

So don’t skip this step.

Follow “The 80/20 Rule” of Email Content

The 80/20 Rule of Email Content is simple:

80% of your emails should provide value.

And 20% should pitch your products and services.

Follow the 80/20 rule

For example, I usually send about 10 pure-value messages for every sales email.

That way, I don’t burn out my list.

And my subscribers know that when I send something, it’s worth opening.

(Which, at the end of the day, is the real secret to increasing open rates).

To be clear:

“Value” doesn’t have to be in the form of content.

For example, let’s say you run an ecommerce site that sells paleo protein bars.

Well, a 25% off sale for your new line of bars is valuable to people that are in the market for them.

Even so, it’s not a bad idea for ecommerce sites to send value-packed newsletters too.

For example:

Value-packed email from ecommerce site

Optimize For Gmail’s Preview Snippet

When someone’s deciding whether or not to open an email, they look at three things:

  • The subject line
  • The sender
  • The message preview
Optimize for Gmail's preview snippet

Most people sleep on the preview. And it KILLS their open rates.

In fact, your message preview is like a second subject line.

And if it looks like this, you’re in trouble:

Poor preview snippet

That’s why you want to optimize the first few lines of your message so it looks SUPER enticing.

Here’s a great example:

Bryan Harris – Enticing emails

Chapter 5:How to Improve Email Deliverability

How to Improve Email Deliverability

Let’s face it:

Email deliverability isn’t the most interesting topic in the world.

Most marketers would rather spend time building their email list or coming up with catchy subject lines.

But in my opinion, email deliverability is THE most important part of email marketing.

After all:

What good is an email list if no one actually sees your emails?

And in this chapter you’re going to learn how to get your emails delivered to people’s inbox.

Ruthlessly Delete Non-Openers

A few years ago I had a MAJOR deliverability problem on my hands.

My open rates went from 40% to 30% to less than 20%… within a few months.

It got so bad that some of my newsletters were getting 15% open rates:

Low open rate

And lots of subscribers were telling me that my newsletters were going to spam.

Emails going to spam – Notification

No matter how many different subject lines I tested or how many tweaks I made to my content, nothing seemed to help.

But there was one thing I hadn’t tried yet. Something I’d been putting off for months:

List hygiene.

In other words: deleting unengaged subscribers.

I had to try it. I couldn’t let my open rates continue to freefall.

So I logged into Aweber and deleted any subscriber that hadn’t opened an email in the last 4 months.

This meant deleting 28,018 subscribers from my email list.

Email list size

Did it hurt to delete those hard-earned subscribers?

Yup.

Did it work?

Heck yeah!

A few weeks later my open rates shot up like a rocketship.

Higher open rate

Today, I delete any subscriber that hasn’t opened or clicked on an email in 4 months.

And it’s one of the main reasons that I have an outstanding deliverability rate.

Keep Spam Complaints Low

Email services like Gmail, Yahoo and Outlook take spam complaints VERY seriously.

As they should.

If lots of people are marking your emails as spam, it sends a clear message that people don’t want to read your emails.

The question is:

How can you lower your spam complaints?

Well, there’s the obvious stuff… like sending great emails.

But you already knew that 🙂

Besides the obvious, here are two quick tips that I’ve picked up over the years.

Tips that have helped my spam complaint rate stay insanely low (approximately 10 complaints per 100k emails):

Backlinko email – Low complaint rate

First, make it REALLY easy to unsubscribe.

In other words, don’t be “that guy”:

Tiny "Unsubscribe" link

If you make someone hunt for an unsubscribe link, they’re going to give up and hit the spam button instead.

Instead, make your unsubscribe link super obvious:

Obvious "Unsubscribe" link

Second, don’t send a bazillion emails.

The fact is, most people hit “Spam” out of frustration.

(Especially for newsletters that they signed up for)

And nothing frustrates people more than a non-stop barrage of emails.

So if you send more than one email per week, consider condensing that content into a single, weekly email.

(Note: There are exceptions to this rule. For example: you may want to send 5 emails in 5 days for a big promotion or limited-time product launch. Just don’t make daily emails a habit unless that’s what people signed up for)

Test Short Subject Lines

Here’s something I recently noticed:

Newsletter with super short subject lines get the best open rates.

For example, the subject line “Great Content” got a 42.7% open rate:

"Great Content" subject line – Email open rate

This could be due to the simple fact that short subject lines get more opens than long subject lines.

But I have another theory:

Short subject lines help deliverability.

Here’s why:

Spam filters flag messages that contain certain words and phrases. And they put lots of emphasis on the subject line.

So the more words you use in your subject, the more likely one of them will get flagged:

Long subject lines can result in poor deliverability

But when you use short subject lines, you’re much less likely to get caught in the filter.

Short subject lines are less likely to get caught in spam filters

Again, this is just a theory. I have no concrete proof that short subject lines get through spam filters more often.

But if you’re having deliverability issues, it’s something worth trying out.

Use Double Opt-In

When it comes to the Single Opt-in vs. Double Opt-in debate, there’s no “right’ answer.

If your #1 goal is to maximize the sheer size of your list, Single Opt-in is obviously the way to go.

But if you want to maximize engagement and deliverability, I recommend Double Opt-in.

I’m a deliverability nut, so I personally use Double Opt-in. But it’s ultimately up to you.

Chapter 6:Email Marketing Software

Popular Email Marketing Services

In this chapter I’m going to quickly review five of the top Email Service Providers (ESPs).

Obviously, there’s no single “best email marketing provider” that’s right for everyone. The “best” option depends on your list size, marketing goals, and features that are important to you.

That’s why I’m not going to crown a winner here. Instead, I’ll highlight the pros, cons and use cases for each email platform.

So if you’re in the market for email marketing software, these reviews should help you choose the best option for you.

MailChimp

Mailchimp

You can use MailChimp to send simple newsletters. Or it can be a full marketing automation platform that taps into behavior-based messages and cart abandonment emails.

It’s one of the few platforms that lets you keep it simple. But if you do want to dig into more complicated stuff, you can.

Pricing is free up to 2k subscribers (with limited features). Their pro plans start at $10/month.

Constant Contact

Constant Contact

With a focus on drag-and-drop design and ecommerce platform integration, Constant Contact is definitely focused on the ecommerce market. That said, quite a few bloggers, nonprofits and service businesses use it too.

So if you run an ecommerce site, you might want to give Constant Contact a spin.

Plans range from $20-$45 and up depending on how many subscribers you have.

ConvertKit

ConvertKit

ConvertKit came out of nowhere to become one of the most popular email marketing platforms on the planet.

One thing that makes ConvertKit unique is that 100% of its features are focused on helping “Online Creators”.

(Like bloggers, artists and musicians)

So if you fall in that category, you can’t go wrong with ConvertKit.

Like most ESPs, pricing is based on subscriber numbers. Plans start at $29 for a list less than 1,000 subscribers. They also offer a 14-day free trial.

GetResponse

GetResponse

GetResponse includes the features you’d expect from an ESP (like autoresponders and marketing automation).

Plans also come with email marketing tools that actually help you build your list (like landing page software and popups).

Plans start at $15/month with limited functionality. And there’s a full 30-day trial.

Aweber

Aweber

Aweber is the king of simplicity. Which is why I use it.

Sure, they have some marketing automation stuff. But it’s pretty basic compared to most other ESPs. And their reporting leaves a lot to be desired.

But if you want simple and reliable software for sending newsletters and autoresponder emails, you can’t beat Aweber.

Paid plans start at $19/month. And you can test out any plan with a 30-day free trial as long as your list has fewer than 25k subscribers.

Comparing Email Marketing Software

Here’s a comparison of the features, pricing and levels of support for popular email marketing software options.

Email Marketing Software Compar