Email marketing is likely your most effective tool for improving customer relationships, building brand awareness, and generating sales. It is also the most abused one.

Practitioners of knee-jerk planning rely on emails to bolster a sagging month or fill in the holes left when other marketing techniques miss their mark. Even though it works (which is why it is abused), there is a price to be paid.

Customers become disenchanted when they receive numerous emails promoting one sale after another or one product over and over. Everyone's threshold is different. Some may opt out after a week, others a month, and still others a year or more. (Note: there tends to be a jump in opt outs at the start of the New Year. People want to start fresh, so they do some housekeeping. If you saw a jump in opt outs in January, then you desperately need to review your email strategy.)

The best way to avoid a mass exodus from your subscriber list is to have an email strategy that works with the rest of your marketing.

Because developing a comprehensive plan can take weeks of planning and is beyond the scope of an article, let's start with simple items that have immediate results. In addition to giving a boost to sales, they will help sell the idea of an overall strategy to the naysayers in your organization.

Four steps from sending the email to completing the sale

1. Getting Past the Spaminators

Your email has to make it to the inbox before your recipient can act on it. There are three spaminators blocking the way.

The first is your Internet service provider (ISP). In an effort to protect his clients from alien spammers, the dreaded ISP blocks anything that appears to be spam. He is a "take no prisoners" type of guy. If your email looks like spam, smells like spam, or acts like spam, it is rejected. No questions asked. If you send too many emails that might be spam, then you are terminated. Your emails are permanently blocked.

To avoid this spaminator, avoid all spam triggers. They include specific words and characters in the subject line, low text-to-graphic ratios, and repetition of target words within the body of the email.

Once you have navigated past ISP, then you are faced with the second spaminator, Junk Box Filter (JBF).

Your recipients can control JBF. Unfortunately, all too often, he is in default status and left to his own devices. He errs on the side of caution, sending innocent emails to the dreaded junk file. He can be avoided if your email address is white-listed (flagged as "not junk") by your recipient. If you want that to happen, you have to ask the recipient to add you to her safe list—and you have to provide quality content. Otherwise, the third spaminator will eliminate you.

That third spaminator has complete power and must be handled very carefully. He or she is the recipient of your emails, AKA customer or prospect. Let's call these people MNIs (much-needed individuals). After all, without them, your business doesn't have a chance. They are your toughest spaminators. Your survival depends on your ability to entertain, engage, and enlighten them. If you fail in any of these items, a few clicks by them on the keyboard and you relegated to the dustbin of history.

2. Getting Your Emails Opened

It doesn't matter how eloquent your copy is, how appealing your graphics are, or how wonderful your offer is, if your MNIs don't open the email, you won't have sales.

Statistics show that most emails fail to motivate their recipients to read the message. A recent report from Constant Contact shows an overall open rate for retail companies as 17.9%! Not all email readers provide open information, so the actual number may be higher. Even so, just 17.9%?

Based on the retail emails I receive, I doubt that the number is much higher. The overwhelming majority of the emails are promoting sales. I like a good deal as much as the next person, but continuously promoting sales is lazy marketing. It is time to create emails that your MNIs want to read.

Start by segmenting your email file based on your customers' buying patterns. You may choose to segment by product category, seasonality, original source, a custom selection, or any combination of those. Choose your top pattern and create an email personalized for the people in the group. Test it against your next general email and measure the results. If you have targeted your customers well, there will be an increase in opens, clicks—and most importantly, sales.

While content and relevance are extremely important, other items reduce open rates. Your return address is the first flag. It signals "Open Me Now," "I Can Wait," or "Delete." Use a real email address that customers can click "reply" and send a message to. If you think you are too busy to answer all the emails, don't worry. Before long, you will have plenty of time on your hands. Seriously, what can possibly be more important than communicating with your customers?

The second motivator is the subject line. If you don't capture interest by the third word, you have lost the immediate open. When your open is delayed, your email is often forgotten and later deleted. Invest your time in writing and testing subject lines. The payoff will be increased opens, which lead to increased clicks, which lead to increased sales, which lead to a happier you.

3. Click Here, Click Now. Please. Pretty Please!

Effective emails are a call to action. They motivate the recipients to visit the site, store, or catalog. Since that is the objective, many emails start out screaming "Shop Now!"—which is akin to the guy in the gorilla suit standing on the street corner pointing at a store.

Your MNI's first thought is "Why?"

If you want your MNIs to do something, give them a reason. Explain to them the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Do it well, and they will be compelled to click to see your site.

Start with a short personal note. Your first sentence has a purpose—to get them to read the second sentence. The second sentence moves them on to the third. By the fourth sentence, your reader should be hooked into reading the complete email. If not, you missed the mark this time (it happens). Next time will be better.

After the email is read, there is nothing left to do except click, close, or delete. Use a call-to-action statement to encourage the click. A soft landing to more information generates a higher clickthrough than the harder "Order Now." Test to see which one works best for you. Some businesses find that having both in the same email works well. It gives the recipient a choice between "Yes" or "Yes."

4. Getting From Hmmmm, Maybe... to Gotta Have NOW!

We are almost there. You have passed the Spaminators, jumped the open hurdle, and motivated a click-now response. All you have to do now is close the sale. Your email created an interest that evolved into an action. The next step is to continue the movement to a completed shopping cart.

When your customers click on an email link, there is an expectation waiting to be fulfilled. Be sure that the landing page matches the copy. For example, if it is a "click here for more information" about a specific product link, land on that page. Don't take your customers to your homepage and expect them to navigate to the page they want. They are looking for an express route.

This doesn't mean that you can't upsell them. Create landing pages filled with information about the promoted items, including accessories and add-ons. Once they make their first selection, offer complimentary items. The upselling can continue until the final check out as long as it is a soft sell. American Girl does this well with a blurb that reminds shoppers that they can purchase $XX.XX more and pay the same shipping.

Be creative with your promotions and you will increase your average order. You have a lot of latitude as long as you remember to send your customers to the right landing page.

There is a bonus, too: If your emails are engaging, your customers will look forward to them and even pass them along to their friends. A small investment in time can result in astronomical growth in loyalty, branding, and sales.

Test, Test, Test

The best email strategy isn't created, it evolves. Test something with every mailing. You will continuously improve your email program.

All of the information included in the article has been tested repeatedly for results. One thing that is consistently true: The strategy that works best for one company will perform differently for another. Even if they are in the same industry and selling the same products to many of the same people, the variance appears.

The only way you will know the best strategy for your organization is to test. Let's get started!

Your Quick-Start Guide

Test 1

With your next email, split your file in half for an A/B test. Send your "A" names the original email. Make the following changes for your "B" names.

If you normally send your emails with a generic from address like, replace it with Use the name most customers know (owner, founder, president, etc.)

If there isn't a known name, introduce one. Include a brief note in the introduction about who is writing and why the customer is appreciated. I am not suggesting that you use the personal inbox for this person (although most of my clients do). Creating a separate email for responses is fine. (Note: Don't forget to remove the "Do not reply to this email because no one will read it" blurb.)

Start your email with a brief (3-5 sentences) personal note from the sender that begins with a salutation that includes the customer's name and ends with a signature. Change the keycodes associated with this email. Keep everything else the same.

Compare your open, click through, and response rates for the two emails.

Test 2

When you are ready to mail again, choose 5,000 customers who have ordered from one of your top product categories. Create a unique email that focuses on the product line. Make it primarily informational. (Think "How to use this item more effectively" instead of "Buy More Now" content.) Include some promotional items to motivate the clickthrough. Use the personal return email and note suggestions from test 1. Mail the rest of your customers the regular promotional email. Compare your open, clickthrough, and response rates for the two emails.

Test 3

Use the information gathered in the previous two tests to design your own test. You are on your way to an effective email strategy.

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image of Debra Ellis
Debra Ellis is a speaker, consultant, and author of the integrated marketing guide Social Media 4 Direct Marketers. She is the founder of Wilson & Ellis Consulting ( and can be reached via