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How to Create an Email Marketing Plan

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This post is part of a series called Email Marketing Jumpstart.
Business Owners: Why Email Matters More than Ever
Grow Your Email List with a Giveaway Buzz Piece

Email is a great choice for marketers. Research shows that for every $1 a company invests in email marketing, they'll see a $21 return. Email is also the communications tool of choice in our hyper-connected age. Over 3.5 billion people around the world have an email account (compared to 1.3 billion Facebook users). So if you've got a message or product to share, email is the best way to do it.

If you have an email list already, you could just start sending out marketing emails and see what happens. But that assumes you've got a list. And it's unlikely to prove successful.

To improve your chances of success, it's a good idea to develop an email marketing plan. With a plan in place, you'll know who you're emailing, why you're emailing them, and what you should include in your emails to achieve your marketing goals. You'll also have a strategy in place for growing your list.

To implement your email marketing plan, you'll need to use email marketing software. Why? First, because using software allows you to comply with anti-spam laws. Second, because it makes managing the process of sending out emails to a big list far easier. There are plenty of choices, and some services even include free starter plans.

Ready to create your email marketing plan? Then let's get to it.

Step 1: Know Your Purpose for Email Marketing

Before you start to grow your email list and send out emails, you need to know why you're starting to use emails for marketing. Your why will determine who you target with your emails, and the types of email you send.

The easiest way to understand this is through examples. Here are some whys of email marketing for various businesses and organizations:

  • A media company's goal is to generate page views for their content.
  • A discount retailer makes money by selling in volume. The goal for their email list is driving sales.
  • A small local business wants to develop a trusting relationship with potential customers. They want to stay top of mind for potential customers, so they're the first choice when a customer needs their services.
  • A boutique aims to make customers feel special, like they're part of something unique.
  • A blogger or writer could use email to build a loyal tribe of readers.
  • A non-profit's goal in using email is to raise funds for its good work.

Get clear on why you want to start email marketing. Only by knowing your why can you develop an effective strategy.

Step 2: Decide to Whom You're Writing

The next step is to decide who your emails are for. "Everyone" isn't a good answer here. The more tightly you focus your emails on a specific reader, the better you'll be at engaging all your readers.

Again, let's look at some examples to help you.

  • The media company knows their ideal readers are 18-35 years old, male, with a college education. That's who they write their content for. So that's who they'll write to in their emails, and who they'll develop an email strategy for.
  • The discount retailer's audience is busy moms who want to make their household budget stretch as far as possible.
  • The small local business (let's say it's a landscape gardening firm) targets homeowners on the affluent side of the city.
  • The luxury retailer sells top-end wristwatches. So their audience is style-conscious men, with middle to high incomes.
  • The blogger writes about living frugally. So he'll target his emails at people living on a tight budget.
  • The non-profit researches cures for cancer. So its emails will be for people who've survived cancer and their families and friends.

The more you understand the people you're writing to, the better the emails you'll write. Email is about building a relationship with your readers, and that's only possible when you're on the same page.

To get an in-depth understanding of your readers, it's a good idea to create an ideal reader avatar. 

Another way of getting to know your readers is by asking them what they want. Once you've built up your list, send out an email asking your readers how you can best help them. That will give you a wealth of ideas for what to include in your emails.

Step 3: Grow Your List

Now that you know who you want on your list, you're ready to start growing your list.

What's the best way to grow an email list? Offer an incentive for people to sign up.

This can be as simple as telling people what they'll get when they sign up for your list. For example, the cancer research non-profit might have a sign-up page on its website that says, "Sign up to our list to receive inspiring stories of people living with and beyond cancer." The more specific you can be about what people will get when they sign up to your list, the more sign-ups you'll get.

Alternatively, you can offer a specific incentive for signing up. Here are some examples:

  • The media company could offer 30-days free access to exclusive content.
  • The blogger could offer a free eBook or online course to new subscribers.
  • The discount retailer could offer an "extra 10% off" discount coupon.

Whatever incentive you offer should be targeted at your ideal readers. It should be helpful and relevant to them, and make them go "wow!" People value the privacy of their email inbox. They'll only give your their email addresses if your offer is irresistible.

Step 4: Develop a Content Strategy

You're building up a list of subscribers. The next step is writing to these subscribers. So what will you write your emails about?

As with the sign-up incentive you created in the previous step, all your emails should be relevant and valuable to your readers. That's the only way you'll turn your subscribers into loyal readers who open your emails.

Let's run through our examples again to see the types of content different business might create.

  • The media company could share news update emails with links to their latest articles and videos.
  • The discount retailer could use their email to let customers know about special offers and one-off deals.
  • The landscape gardener could share gardening tips with his subscribers. That way, he becomes associated with being useful and helpful. His business comes to mind for his customers whenever they think about gardening or updating their gardens.
  • The luxury watch boutique could share stories of celebrities who have been spotted wearing watches sold in the boutique.
  • The frugality blogger could share a series of tips and stories related to personal finance.
  • The non-profit could share stories of people it's helped, alongside requests for donations.

The ideal reader avatar you developed earlier will give you ideas of the types of content your subscribers would like to see.

If you're stuck for ideas, conduct a competitor analysis. In other words, sign up to the email lists of your competition, and see the types of email they send out. What types of content do they include in their emails? What do they write about? You'll get ideas for what works and what doesn't.

A final step in developing your content strategy is deciding whether you'll send plain text or HTML emails. HTML emails are image-rich, and allow you to build brand recognition by including your company's logo and other visual brand cues in your email. However, it's worth bearing in mind that images will sometimes be blocked by your subscribers' email software. Plain text emails include no graphics. They look more like a personal email, so they're good for relationship building.

Step 5: Set a Sending Schedule

You've decided the types of email you're going to send. Now it's time to fix an email schedule. How often will you send out emails?

The answer depends on the time and resources you've got available to create emails, and the goals you set for your emails. Whatever schedule you set, it should involve sending out emails on a regular basis. This could be daily, weekly, or monthly:

  • Daily emails create an extremely strong bond with your readers. Writing to your subscribers every day can work well if you're a one-person micro-business or blogger, and you want to develop a loyal tribe of regular readers. The downside is that many subscribers will feel overwhelmed by your frequent content and will hit unsubscribe.
  • Weekly emails are regular enough that customers aren't surprised to hear from you, yet infrequent enough that they won't feel overwhelmed. If you have the resources to produce a weekly email, it's a good way to go.
  • Monthly emails are a solid choice if you plan to make your emails extremely valuable—for example, if every email includes a discount promotion code. They also make good newsletters. As you'll be writing them less frequently, they are a smaller time investment than daily or weekly emails. The main issue with monthly emails is that they're easily lost in your readers' busy inboxes. You're less likely to get noticed.

Step 6: Write Great Emails

You've set upon how often you'll send your emails. And you've decided what your emails will be about. So now you're ready to write them.

Don't be intimidated by this! Emails don't have to be a work of literature. In fact, emails work better when they're written in simple, everyday language.

The most important part of your email—and the part you should spend the most time writing—is your subject line. An attention-grabbing subject line will entice subscribers to open your email. A lame, uninspiring subject line will ensure your emails get ignored.

The key to writing good emails is writing as though you're addressing one person. Don't start your email with "hello all," and avoid addressing your subscribers as "you guys." That makes your readers feel like they're just one of many subscribers. You want your readers to feel like you're writing just to them.

The reader avatar you created earlier will help you have a person in mind as you're writing and will help you set the right tone for your email.

After you've written your email, proofread it.

Step 7: Send Your Email

You've written your email and checked it for correct spelling and grammar. Don't hold back any longer. You're ready to send!

Your email doesn't have to be brilliant. You should send your email as long as you know it's good enough. Given all the preparatory work you've done in deciding why you're sending emails and in creating a reader avatar, your email will be good. So send it.

Whatever you do, don't hold back on sending your email because it's not perfect. No email is perfect. Only by sending out emails and seeing how they perform can you get the feedback you need to improve your emails.

It's far better to start with something, see how it works, then tweak it, rather than wait around for the perfect idea.

Step 8: See What Works, and Do More of It

As I mentioned earlier, if you're sending out marketing emails, then you must use email marketing software. Doing so, you'll stay on the right side of the law.

More significantly, from a marketing perspective, using email marketing software allows you to track the emails you send. You'll see how many opens each email gets and how many of the links in your email are clicked. Use this data to improve your emails.

As you send out email after email, over time you'll get a sense of what works and what could be improved. When you find what works, do more of it.

Learn more about jump starting your email marketing in our multipart, foundational series on the subject.

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