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What Is Email Marketing? (What You Need to Know Now.)

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Read Time: 17 min

Email marketing is the key to your clients' hearts and wallets. Sounds pretty grandiose, but it's true. 

Flat Email Marketing Illustration.

How true? According to the Direct Marketing Association, email market has a return on investment (ROI) of 4,300% on average. Or, to put it in more tangible terms, that would be $43 of turnover for ever dollar spent. Not a shabby investment at all!

And the best part? It requires no trickery, manipulation, or highly technical software to achieve results. With a few good thoughts to share and some basic online tools, you can start using email marketing today to create a strong relationship with your ideal audience and grow your business with happy customers.

If you want a quick marketing campaign starting point, take a look through our Email Marketing Templates on ThemeForest. Otherwise, let's start this article by answering the question: what is email marketing?

Email Marketing Definition

To get more technical with our definition, email marketing is a form of direct marketing. This means that the business owner doesn't use a third-party platform to reach potential customers (such as TV, radio, or social media channels), but rather contacts them directly. 

A word of caution, however: don't let the term "direct" fool you. "Direct marketing" doesn't mean that every email you send to potential clients will try to sell them something "directly" (or aggressively). It rather means that the tool of contact (which in this case is email) reaches each potential client directly (in this case by arriving in their personal inbox) to deliver its message. And there are two main types of messages you should send to your list via email: 

  1. Emails that enhance the relationship with your current and previous customers and encourage repeat business. These emails should add value to the customer without asking them for anything in return. (For a more in-depth explanation of this idea see the know-like-trust section below)
  2. Emails that ask for a purchase from new or previous customers for a new product or offer at the moment you present it to them.

Both of these types of emails, however, rest on the same underlying principle: Trust. The reason email marketing is so popular, effective, and crucial for your business is because it helps build trust with your audience thus increasing sales through customer loyalty. 

How Trust Building Works

Let's take the following scenario as a potential real-world equivalent of how email marketing and the trust factor work.

Scenario 1 - The Friend

One day a fashion-designer friend of yours brings up a sensitive topic: the way you dress is doing nothing for you. In fact, it’s worse than nothing. The way you dress has a negative impact on your life. 

You know this first hand because you just lost a contract with a new client after the first in-person meeting. Even though everything seemed to go great via email, the once-over the client gave you when you walked through the door made your heart sink… Ugh! They already don’t like me...

Your friend says: 

I know you’ve got your individual style, and I appreciated how unaffected you are by fashion. But to be honest, I think the way you dress plays a big role in your missed opportunities.
You just don’t inspire confidence as a professional when you walk through the door. I’m not saying you need to change your style. But I’d love it if you let me show you how you can dress up your style to make those killer first impressions that will get you the work you really deserve and are capable of.

Wouldn’t you agree to at least let your friend show you how you can improve your professional appearance while still being yourself? I know I would!

Scenario 2 - The Stranger

Now imagine a similar scenario with a slight twist. After a failed first meeting with a new client, you walk down the street feeling dejected. Frustrated at how often this happens, you say out loud to yourself: 

I can’t believe I missed another deal!

A total stranger stops you in your tracks: 

Well, no wonder you missed the deal!” he says. “I’m sorry, but you simply don’t look professional. I know what I’m talking about; I’m a fashion designer. Let me show you how to create a better style. Oh, and by the way, I have a 20% discount on my whole collection today. It must be your lucky day! Here, buy.

Would you accept? Um, no. I wouldn't.

Said stranger, in fact, would be lucky not to get punched in the mouth.

The difference: the relationship and degree of trust you have with each of the two example fashion designers from our story. And that difference, in the world of online business is made through email marketing.

Why You Need Email Marketing

Done right, email marketing allows you to become the friend and trusted advisor of your clients, as in the first scenario above. On the contrary, when used simply to blast out offers and reach random strangers (who may or may not be interested in what you're selling), it can inadvertently turn you into the irritating and obnoxious stranger of scenario number two.

The Know-Like-Trust Factor

In the world of marketing, the process of building a strong relationship with your clients and earning their trust is called the “know, like, trust” factor.

1. Know

For people to buy anything from you—be it products or services—they first have to know you. And by knowing I don’t just mean know that you exist (though that’s certainly useful) but really know you on a deeper level. They must know what you do, why you do it, and how you do it (and why that's different from how everyone else does it).

2. Like

But knowing is just the first step. For strangers to become clients they must also like you. And let’s be honest here: not everyone is going to like you—and that's okay. (And you shouldn’t try to please everyone). Your ideal audience, however, the people you’d love to work with, must like you to buy from you. And to like you, they must see and experience more of you and your company than your offers and deals.

3. Trust

A person who likes you is much more likely to buy from you than a person who simply knows you. But a person who trusts you? Now, that’s a customer! And a returning customer at that. 

Think about a professional you trust with a service or product, whether it’s your car mechanic, your hairdresser, your computer person, or your favorite barista at the little coffee shop around the corner from your office. Would you ever choose to acquire these services from someone else just because the other person happened to walk up to you offering a discount? 

No way! Because when it comes down to it, you don't really want to risk a burnt latté in the morning when you know that the perfect cup of coffee awaits just a few feet away. 

For more information on the importance of email and how it compares to other communication methods, such as various social media channels, check out this article:

More Than Just Email Advertising

Before we go any further, let’s get the following straight: email marketing is not just email advertising. It may seem strange to use a negative definition of what email marketing is, but the distinction is crucial.

By email advertising, I mean any and all emails that do nothing more than advertise (or announce) your products or services and that ask your audience to buy from you. Although these emails play an important role in email marketing, when sent out on their own they aren't effective.

Engaging Your Customers

Emails that simply advertise your products or services, or notify your clients of current offers, are essentially self-serving. Direct promotions should only make up a fraction of the emails you send out. They’re telling your clients something that you want and need: to sell your products. 

But that’s no way of creating the know-like-trust factor that will help you build a good long-term relationship with your audience and move them from inactive email readers to active, buying customers.

For this relationship to grow and flourish (as with every relationship) there needs to be an exchange of values. You offer your clients something they value first, and they later repay that value by buying from you. 

In other words, email marketing is one of the best and most important tools you have at your disposal as a modern-day business owner for building rapport with your audience, developing a trusting relationship with them, and staying top-of-mind as the go-to expert for any issues or questions they have relating to your industry.  

Offering Value Through Email Marketing

If email marketing is not simply email advertising and if it can help you build trust with your audience, the next logical question you're probably wondering right now is:

"Well, how do I do that?"

And the answer is: "Well, in many ways."

Besides direct sales emails that you will sprinkle here and there when talking to your audience (because at the end of the day every business needs to sell to stay afloat), there are three other factors you need to consider when creating email messages in order to build a good relationship: knowledge, inspiration, and entertainment.

1. Share Your Knowledge

The knowledge factor is quite self-evident. In the emails you sent your audience, share your knowledge and expertise on issues relating to your industry. 

Explain how something works, give people a step-by-step guide for doing something, give your opinion on the best products or software for achieving X and why, do case studies explaining how results were achieved, or in some other way offer useful and practical information that the audience can take action on. 

When people understand that you're truly knowledgeable on a topic, they'll be much more likely to come when they need an expert in your field.

2. Inspire Your Audience 

Inspiring your audience leads to likability and trust. For example, if you're a web designer, you can offer your audience inspiration for new website ideas. Or if you're a video editor, you can offer them inspiration on ways to create promotional videos. 

When you inspire people to create something new they will not only like you for helping them move towards a goal they have, they will also keep you in mind when they find an obstacle or decide to hire the help of a professional. 

Why would I go to a total stranger to edit my new promotional video when I got inspired to do it in the first place from something you shared with me? I wouldn't; I'd come to you. 

3. Entertain Them

Offering entertainment doesn’t mean that you have to be a stand-up comedian who also happens to have a photography company or a design studio. Entertainment simply means that you have to offer your material (whether informational or inspirational) in a way that your audience enjoys. 

You can be funny, you can be high-energy, you can be serious yet intriguing, authoritative (without being authoritarian), quirky, silly, fanciful, loud, or a million other things. What you can’t be is bland and boring. Because no one likes that, no matter what other value you may bring to the table.

For an in-depth discussion of various types of email you can use in your business and the advantages and disadvantages of each, take a look at the following post:

When Do You Send These Emails Out?

The truth is that although you shouldn’t email your audience entirely at random, you don't need to have a perfectly choreographed email sequence worked out a year in advance either.

To maintain and promote your relationship and trust with your clients you should start with an email frequency of once every week or once every couple of weeks. More than that can feel overwhelming and annoying, and less than that can feel random and alienating.

Email Marketing Campaigns

During particular periods of the year, such as when you’re launching a new product or service, opening up appointment slots for the next quarter, offering an ecourse, or organizing a live event, you’ll need to create more pointed email marketing campaigns that lead to sales. 

But not even these campaigns will be full of direct sales messages alone, though your calls to actions will be sales oriented. A good email marketing campaign first introduces a problem your audience is having, presents the solution to it in the form of a product or service you're offering, explains the benefits and value of your offer, provides social proof of successful results, and then sells the product to your audience. During such campaigns you may also decide to increase the frequency of your emails to get people to take action within a specific period of time. 

You will want to include some direct sales emails as well. They'll make up only a fraction of your overall campaign, but drive the greatest number of sales through. Learn how to craft an autoresponder sequence and refine your sales emails:

For more information on how to create an email market plan, check out the following article: 

Frequent Trust-Building Emails

During other periods when you don't have a particular offer to promote, you’ll want to keep things more casual and focused on offering free value with a nice mix of information, opinion, entertainment, inspiration, and motivation, depending on your communication style. 

This more relaxed series will nurture your relationship with your audience through the value you offer them and build trust in your competence as an expert so that when you come back around with an offer again, your subscribers will be ready to buy what you're selling. 

The Email List: Where Is It?

Time to face the pink elephant in the room: we’ve been talking about your audience of potential customers throughout this article. But who are these people? Who are you emailing your valuable and entertaining emails to?

In order for email marketing to work you need, of course, an email list of people who've raised their virtual hand and said: "yes, I'd like to receive information from you." (Because, remember you never want to be the obnoxious fashionista who stops random strangers on the street.

So the first thing to do if you don’t already have an email list yet to set up an account with an email marketing software platform so you can start creating the emails we've been discussing. MailChimp is a popular choice and they allow you to get started using them for free:

Who Are You Emailing?

Once you get set up with the technical aspects of your email list, it's time to start populating it. You don't want to add just anyone on this list simply for the sake of numbers. Instead, you want to attract the right people that will be interested in your products or services. 

That's why the next thing you need to think about is a piece of free content you can give out to attract your ideal audience to your list. This piece of free content is often called a giveaway or a lead generating magnet (LGM) and it has to be highly relevant to the products or services you're offering so as to bring qualified leads to your list. 

What's the most common pain point people have that you're targeting? What's something valuable you can offer people in return for their email address?

There are many types of lead generating magnets and giveaways you can offer to grow your list depending on your company and industry. Some ideas include:

  • a cheat-sheet with the products and software you use for doing X
  • a checklist for achieving Y (a grocery list for a diet plan; a step-by-step list for launching a new website)
  • a long-from guide or video training on a process that interests your audience (how to edit your own videos; how to storyboard an animation idea)
  • an inspirational manifesto stating the change you're trying to make in the world
  • a free chapter from your book

For more ideas on value pieces and a step-by-step guide for creating the right giveaway to grow your list, have a look at the following article:

Emailing Your Current List

If you already have a list (however small it may be), you’ll want to start outlining some ideas of fun and engaging content you can share with your audience and pluck them into an editorial calendar to create consistency. And while you're at it, also start thinking about specific email marketing campaigns you can create to warm up prospects towards an upcoming offer you’re preparing. It is also good to note that keeping your email list clean is important, to ensure your emails are delivered. You can do this by verifying the email addresses using different email verification tools. 

If you’re not sure what to email to your list, why not ask them? Send out an email asking people what their greatest struggles are when it comes to your area of expertise and what they’d like to learn from you. A survey email like this will, of course, works much better with an active and engaged email list. So if you haven’t emailed your list for a while, you might want to start with a different email to warm them up first.

If you're not sure where to even begin with finding out what your audience really wants, worry not. The following article has got you covered: 

Send them something of value that lets them know that clicking your emails can be highly beneficial to them. That’s the best way to train people to pay attention to your emails and to click your future offers.

Email Marketing Is Your Friend

Email marketing shouldn't scare you as something overly complicated and advanced that only the "big companies" can do. All you really need to get going is an email address, a subscription to an email marketing software platform, and a few good thoughts and ideas to communicate to your audience.

What's even more important than being your friend, however, is the fact that email marketing can help turn you into a trusted advisor for your audience. Consistent communication that offers valuable and entertaining information creates the best path to your audience's heart and trust. And when people know, like, and trust you as an expert in your field, they'll happily buy from you when it's time to make them an offer.

If you're interesting in learning more about email marketing and digging deeper into the mechanics of this valuable tool, check out the complete guide on jumpstarting your email marketing

And after you're up and running with your email marketing, you can work on refining your approach. Here are a couple tutorials on how to boost your email open and clickthrough rates: 

Grab an Email Marketing Template!

We have a number of Email Marketing Templates on ThemeForest. They are made to work with MailChimp, Campaign Monitor, and other popular email service providers. They're a big time saver and give you a ready-to-go professional starting point for your email newsletter design.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2016. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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