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A Complete How-To Guide to Email Marketing for Freelancers

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As a freelancer there are three main purposes for which you are going to use email marketing:

  1. Finding Your First Clients
  2. Staying in Touch with existing Clients
  3. Getting new work from existing Clients

In this article we are going to discuss the what, why, where, when of using email marketing, look at different products you can use including a review of MailChimp and then talk about the different types of mails you can send and look at some samples.

What the heck is a mailout?

A mailout is when you send an email to a large group of people. The email might be a newsletter, announcement, promotion or seasonal greeting, and the recipients in your case are generally going to be your clients, contacts, friends and family. If you are unfamiliar with this sort of marketing, you may wish to consult our Jargon-Buster at the end of the article to decode some words.

Why should you use mailouts?

As mentioned above there are three purposes for mailouts as a freelancer.

  1. Finding your first clients. When you are just starting out getting those first few jobs can be tricky particularly when no-one knows your new service exists. Sending a mailout to every contact, friend and family member you have an email address for is a good way to put the word out. Even if they don't have a job for you themselves, many of your recipients will know of someone who might need your services. I started my freelance career with a mailout which you'll see later on in the samples section.
  2. Staying in touch with Clients. There's no business like repeat business and staying in touch with old clients and contacts is a good way of getting it. Maybe you completed a project a long time ago and the client isn't sure if you are still working, maybe your contact has changed companies and hasn't thought of your services in their new context, or maybe hearing from you will just remind the client that they have some work.Whatever the reason, staying in touch with your clients is a good way to get more work. It can take the form of a newsletter letting them know what you've been up to, a seasonal greeting to wish them well or just a nice 'how are you?' email campaign with some nice graphic
  3. Getting new work from existing Clients. Using email to get new work in means running some sort of promotion. This could range from telling them about a new service ("Did you know I now offer cartooning services?") to sending them a special offer ("Order one set of wedding photographs and get a second at half price").

Unless they have had a bad experience with you, most clients are at least interested in seeing new services and deals you can offer their business.

Notice that I am not advocating using email marketing as a means to get new work from just anybody. While it can be done, this potentially takes you into the land of spam and I would advise against it. If you do wish to use email to find new clients, do it in a personal contact way, not a mass mail.

Of course using a mailout is not the only way to achieve any of these three goals. Here are a few reasons why a mailout is a suitable choice for all three:

  • Mailouts are fast. From design to execution of your email campaign you can contact your entire client list within hours and minutes.
  • Mailouts are cheap. Unlike other forms of marketing such as brochures and flyers, email costs very little, generally from 0 to a few cents per email.
  • Mailouts are effective. When used appropriately email marketing is a good way to stay in touch. Everyone uses email and most people will at least glance at an email from someone they know.
  • They make you look organised. Like most forms of marketing, mailouts can make you look professional and organised. When I receive an e-newsletter from a freelancer I have worked before I am always impressed that they are on top of their business.

Why you should NOT use a Mailout

The answer is pretty simple:

You don't want to annoy people (a.k.a. don't be a spammer!)

In all your email marketing you should always remember this, everything you send must be run through the 'is this going to annoy more people than it benefits?' test. If it is, don't do it.

Some of the things that annoy people are:

  • High frequency emails. While a person might not mind occasionally hearing from a freelancer they have used previously, they certainly don't want to see a new email from you every morning.

  • Unsolicited emails. If a person has never heard of you, sending a generic mass email is usually seen as spam, not a good way to make an impression.
  • Too much irrelevancy. People want to see information that is pertinent to them. Most are willing to put up with a certain amount of irrelevancy but the more relevant the better.

Opting Out

In every email campaign you send, make sure you provide details for your recipients to use to opt out of future emails. This at least helps curb the annoyance to a minimum.

When should you send an email?

Different types of emails of course require different timing. Try to plan ahead of time and if possible have a structure.

If you are planning on sending periodic newsletters, decide on a date structure (e.g. quarterly) and *stick* to it. Nobody likes seeing the first of your new monthly newsletters, only to have the followup arrive 7 months later!

If you are trying to drum up work, don't wait until your business is at a critical moment where you need instant cash, plan ahead! If you know that Christmas is coming up and you could run a promotion, make sure everything is in place so that your clients have time to take advantage of your offer before they head off on vacation.

If you take your email marketing seriously and work it into your calendar or schedule you will find the results are a lot more successful.

Who can you email?

It is hard to give a straight answer on exactly who you can email. In particular most countries have or are passing laws on privacy and unsolicited mail. Before sending any mail that you haven't got permission to send consult your local legal situation and consider any consequences that may occur.

Here are a few links you may find useful for these purposes:

In practice and solely in my experience these are the three classes of how people send mail, be sure to choose carefully who and how you send your mail:

  • Case 1: Only email people who have explicitly said they want to receive promotional emails. This is the way most websites such as FreelanceSwitch work, where there is a form to subscribe to an email newsletter (or feed in our case) and you have to fill out that form specially, or sometimes check a box on a larger form you were filling out anyway. For most freelancers this simply doesn't work as your clients are unlikely to visit your website to sign up for your newsletter.
  • Only email paying clients, friends and family. Unless your friends and family don't like you, its fair to say that you probably won't have any problems sending them the odd email. As for paying clients, provided you give an opt-out method, it is reasonably likely that no-one will be too upset. However, make sure you consider any legal implications.
  • If they have sent you an email...they are fair game. The most liberal option is that anybody who has contacted you (even if they didn't become a paying client) is eligible for an email. Whether this backfires really depends on who is on your contact list. Again make sure you consider any legal implications. Personally the only time I think this is appropriate is when you are just starting out and are emailing friends, family and contacts.

What's the worst that could happen?

You might be wondering what harm could really come from emailing lots of people at a time. After all anyone who gets annoyed you can just delete and ignore, and this way you have a greater pool from which to get new clients.

But keep in mind the possible legal ramifications of spam. Additionally bear in mind that if you send too much unsolicited mail you can get your email and domain blacklisted by ISPs.

You might like to read this article about what you can and can't do in your emails in the US for example. Not following the law can leave you liable for amounts up to $250 per/violation (where each email you have sent is a violation!).

Practically speaking I do advise common decency. Everyone knows how annoying spam and email can be, so do unto others as you would be done by yourself. Even if there isn't any legal or even business ramifications, it's good to be nice!

I think most people can judge when sending mail is going to be deemed inappropriate, but it is worth repeating, that while email marketing can be a valuable business tool, it should NOT be abused.

We review MailChimp - a really simple solution for mailouts

There are a variety of ways to send your mailouts ranging from simply using your default email software (e.g. Outlook) to buying software to do it. The simplest, easiest and most powerful solution however is to use a web service.

Recently a number of such services have appeared and generally they all tend to be pretty good. The one we've chosen to look through is MailChimp from the Rocket Science Group. We've chosen MailChimp not just because of its adorable design, but because it is VERY easy to use and has a template designer that allows ANYONE to create a really professional look for your mailouts without the need to code HTML or even know much about design.

What Does it Cost?

Free to setup and comes with 25 free email credits to try. After that 3 cents per email (unless you are sending thousands in which case the price drops). What this means is if you are emailing 200 clients a month you'll be spending $6 a month. In other words getting one job a year from your emails would pay for all of them!

Technical Knowledge Needed?

A very simple interface that you can learn in one sitting. As with any new application there is a bit of looking around but MailChimp provides a walk through and some helpful information. Overall you just follow their wizards and you shouldn't have any troubles.

Advantages:

  • Simple Interface providing a LOT of options
  • Built in template designer, you don't need to know any HTML and you can drop in images and make your email look very professional without any design skill
  • Detailed Reporting on how your campaign went
  • They provide an HTML signup box that you can drop in to your website for people to join your mailing list
  • Good Mailing List Management (handles unsubscribes and imports etc)
  • Sends multipart emails (text and HTML so no-one misses out)
  • .... WAAY More Features than you can shake a monkey fist at

Disadvantages:

  • Although you can track 'opens' and 'link-follows' apparently you have to pay $99 extra for it
  • You can't set up an account without a "Work" email address, i.e. a personalised domain. Addresses like @aol, @earthlink, @hotmail are not accepted. This is done for a very good reason (anti-spam) but it could be an extra hitch for some freelancers without a domain yet...

Some Alternatives to MailChimp

There are lots of alternatives to MailChimp, some of the more noteworthy ones include:

Campaign Monitor

Campaign Monitor is actually the product I use here at work and it is a really solid bit of software. It doesn't have the email designer that MailChimp has but if you can handle yourself around HTML then I recommend CM heartily. The pricing works on a flat rate of $5 + 1 cent per recipient so for smaller mailouts it also works out a bit more expensive than MailChimp, but for larger ones its evens out.

Breeze

Breeze is actually uses the same software as Campaign Monitor and Mailbuild and is actually a bit pricier, however it includes generic design templates and for a fee you can have a special template put together for you by their designers. It works out a bit pricey comparatively but if you have the cash you could wind up with a very appealing email.

MailBuild

MailBuild is a bit different to the rest of the products here in that you purchase it for your clients to use, hence this is mostly aimed at designers who want to hand over day-day control of their client's newsletters and mailouts.

SendStudio

SendStudio actually costs $329 up front, but once you have it there are no more per/email fees. Again its a lot more advanced than MailChimp but has quite a different feature set and setup to the other products listed here.

We Recommend

Overall we recommend using MailChimp, it works out a lot cheaper for small batches of emails which suits what a freelancer would be doing. It is really easy to create some nice, customized designs and the interface is simple but with enough features to keep anyone happy. Besides that monkey sure is cute!

A Word on Design

Not every freelancer is a designer. Since many of you are not designers I thought I'd give some tips on how to make your mailouts look their best with minimal effort. So here's my four tips for the non-designer:

1. Find a high impact photo to use in the mailer.

You can get fantastic photos for just a couple of dollars at sites like istockphoto.com and combined with just a little bit of text and lots of empty space, they can come off looking really high end without much effort.

2. Simple is Best

If you don't feel confident with your design skills then it is ALWAYS better to have less rather than more. The more things you have on a page the more 'design' needs to go into it, so keeping it simple means you don't need to do as much.

3. Use lots of space

Having lots of space in your design means not cramping text close together, not making things touch (e.g. text should never touch a photo, there should always be a margin), and just generally spacing things out. Adding space to your email is the simplest way to make it look better.

4. Don't try to do too much

Keeping a simple layout and some simple content will help keep you out of trouble. The Mailchimp standard layouts are perfect for this, they are mostly just an image followed by some text. When in doubt, simple is best (I can't say that often enough)

HTML vs Text

Sending mailouts usually means sending HTML-formatted ones - ie. with images and lots of formatting. However HTML isn't the be-all end-all of mailouts. You can send out a nicely formatted text mail with a little effort and the judicious use of a few text characters like asterisks (*) and lines (- _ =).

Here's an example of a great text mailer that you can see in the when I first started freelancing... It won us lots of jobs!

There are a variety of emails you can send to your clients, here are some of the most common types:

The Announcer

The Announcer is used to let your clients know something. For example: You have moved offices, you have just opened, you are closing over the holidays and so on.

The Newsletter

The Newsletter is used to inform your clients of what is happening with your freelance business. You might include samples of work, details of services you provide that they might now know about, announcements and reminders of old announcements. The Newsletter is usually sent repeatedly to a set period of time such as fortnightly, monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly.

The Promoter

The Promoter is an email you send to let your clients know about a deal or special you currently have going. It is usually loud, graphic and succinct with a clear call to action.

The Occasioner

The Occasioner is an email sent for a special occasion, most often the end of year holidays - Christmas, New Years etc. The Occasioner is generally a non-sale email designed to simply tell your clients that you care. However it can also be combined with the promoter where the occasion becomes simply the reason for your promotion (e.g. Christmas Special!)

The Inviter

For the really brave freelancer the Inviter is a great way to tell all your clients to come to an event you are planning, say an evening drinks or barbecue. I must admit personally the idea of multiple clients socialising gives me the shivers :-)

Email Gallery

Where to see great email designs. If you are looking for inspiration for your email designs, look no further than CampaignMonitor's email gallery. It stocked with tons of designs and they are categorized up by how many columns they have as well as the type of email they are (inviters, newsletters and announcers)

Campaign Results

Is it Working? A good question to ask after you have sent a mailout would be "Is it Working?" But how can you tell if it is? There are several metrics you might like to consider to judge the success of your mailout including:

  • Bounces / Opens / Unsubscribes: Most of the software mentioned above will automatically track how many of each of these statistics a mailout generates. If you are getting a lot of bounces and unsubscribes, you might consider trying something diffferent. If you are getting a 90% open rate then you could say your campaign was successful. See the Jargon-buster for a full explanation of these terms.
  • Link Follows: If you have included links in your email, e.g. to your website or to a promotional page, then a good metric to use is a count of how many people actually clicked on your link. Again most of the software described above tracks link clicks in their reporting pages.
  • New Jobs, Clients and Feedback: While not as easy to add up, simply gauging how many new clients and jobs you receive after a mailout, or even the feedback your clients give you about it is a good way of judging the success of your campaign.

Jargon-Buster

A Glossary of Email Marketing Terms

HTML Email An email formatted with the same code used to mark up webpages. Can be used to add graphics, colour, even just things like bold and italics
Text Email Completely plain text emails, the only thing other than text are links. If you need to add style to a text email you will usually wind up doing it with special characters like asterisks (*) and dashes (-).
Bounces Emails that were rejected, usually because the email address was not valid or is no longer in use.
Unsubscribes The number of people who choose to opt-out of your future emails.
Opens When you send an email and a person clicks the message in their inbox to read it, that counts as an 'open'. Some mail programs show a preview before the user opens the mail, tracking software will count this as an 'open'. If a campaign receives lots of opens this suggests your recipients are interested in what you have to say. If it receives few, presumably your recipients are deleting the emails rather than reading them.
Multipart Emails Emails that have both a text and HTML component. HTML is used to make your email look slick but is not always available, so a Multipart email swaps in text in that situation.
Opt-out Thanks to the profusion of spam, it is a law in some countries and a convention everywhere to allow people to unsubscribe or 'opt-out' of periodical emailing. This is usually done through an unsubscribe link somewhere on the email.
Campaign Usually just another way of saying a mailout. Sometimes campaigns can be more strategic and even consist of multiple mailouts, however for most people a campaign will be a single email mailout.
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