Email Marketing Best Practices: How to Improve (Almost) Every Email

Email marketing is far and away one of the most effective ways ecommerce store owners can drive sales. It’s one of the few marketing channels where you own your audience—they’ve already opted in to hear from you and it didn’t cost you to reach them. So it makes sense that email is a high priority for many new and growing online stores.

But it’s all too easy to forfeit email as an effective and profitable channel by sending uncompelling emails to the wrong people.

Great email marketing is timely, relevant, and personalized, so a good place to begin is understanding the core types of emails you can send to customers. By and large, there are three main categories of emails you can send:

  1. Transactional emails, which include receipts and other post-purchase updates
  2. Promotional emails, which include sales emails, new product announcements, and newsletters
  3. Lifecycle emails, which are based on a customer’s behavior (e.g. sending an abandoned cart email to customers who didn’t complete their purchase).

For anyone new to creating an email marketing strategy from the ground up, creating and optimizing all of these potential emails can feel overwhelming. And it’s true that within each category, there are many variations to the emails you can send—even a cursory glance at the campaigns run by established businesses reveals just what variety is possible.

But it’s important to remember that the emails you send mostly have the same working “parts”—a subject line and preheader, body content, visuals, a call to action, etc. By understanding a few tried-and-true best practices, you can start getting better results from (almost) every email you send.

Before-the-open elements that matter

Focusing solely on the body of a marketing email is a common mistake. The content of your email is important, but before any of your subscribers see it, you have to convince them to open your email in the first place.

Getting subscribers to open your email comes down to three big things:

  1. What you write in the subject line and preheader text
  2. When your email hits their inbox
  3. How you segment your subscriber list to send relevant emails to the right people

Subject lines that get opened

The subject line of your email has an important job to do. It’s perhaps the single most significant factor in deciding whether a subscriber opens your email. If the subject line doesn’t compel people to action, even the best email in the world will become buried in your subscribers’ inboxes.

That’s why subject lines deserve more careful consideration than many businesses give them. Luckily, that importance means email marketers have done a lot of research on what makes for an effective subject line. Here are our tips:

  • Be clear before being clever: Your subject line should tell subscribers what they’ll find in the email and not rely too heavily on vague, opaque copy (although a little intrigue is OK). There shouldn’t be any room for misunderstanding.
  • Keep it short: Mobile email services begin cutting off subject lines after 55-70 characters, so ensure your message isn’t getting lost by staying roughly under that maximum character count.
  • Clickable, not clickbait: You want a lot of people to open, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of overselling your email’s content. But open rates are only as useful as they lead subscribers toward your call-to-action, not mislead them into unsubscribing.
  • Ask questions: Studies have shown that subject lines phrased as a question tend to engage subscribers.
  • A/B test: When in doubt, test. By running A/B tests on your subject lines, you can better understand what actually works for youraudience.
Email subject line

The best time to send email

In some cases, when you send an email is just as important as what you send. Finding the right time to send email campaigns starts with knowing your customers and testing to see what works.

For online stores, the best starting point for marketing emails is to find out when your peak purchase times are. When during the day does your store sell the most? That information gives you a window into your customer’s habits and schedules, so it can inform your email marketing strategy.

You can track peak purchase times with Google Analytics, as long as you’re set up for ecommerce. If you aren’t, check out our article on using Google Analytics for ecommerce.

Transactional emails (like an order confirmation) are best sent immediately after the purchase is made. Lifecycle emails—which are sent based on specific behaviors a customer exhibits—require a little more testing to get right. The best time to send an abandoned cart email, for example, can vary based on the reason for abandonment and your strategy for recovering those orders.

Email segmentation

Email segmentation may sound complicated, but it boils down to breaking up your email subscribers into smaller, more targeted groups. Plus, most email marketing services make it easy to segment your list.

Segmentation enables you to send more personalized emails to the right people at the right time—so each email has a better chance of converting that subsection of your customers. You can segment your email list based on several factors, including:

  • Customer type
  • Interest in certain topics or products
  • Location
  • Level of engagement

For example, you might create an email segment for brand new subscribers who haven’t made a purchase yet. Your goal for that segment is to build trust and get newbie subscribers to buy for the first time, so you might include first-time discounts in these emails.

You can have another segment for the opposite end of the spectrum—long-term, loyal customers who buy frequently and spend a lot of money with your store. You don’t need discounts to get those customers to buy, so you can focus on showcasing your appreciation for them and promoting products they may be interested in.

Email content best practices

Now that your emails arrive at just the right time, to the right people, and with a compelling subject line to boot, the body of your email needs to live up to the promise of the subject line. That comes down to more than just what your email says. It’s also about how you say it and the format your message takes.

Crafting body copy that gets read

The body copy of your email is where you fulfill promises made in your subject line. No matter how compelling the subject line, an email will ultimately fall flat if its contents can’t keep the subscriber engaged.

To start, the body of your email should always be compelling, concise, and on brand.

Your copy needs to convince subscribers to act on the prompt or call to action featured in your email—and in a relatively short time span, too. That’s why it’s important to use a deliberate hierarchy of information—putting the most important information (the bottom line reason for the email) up front, and going into more detail later on.

It’s also important to format your email copy to create concise, easy-to-read sections in your email:

  • Start with one, simplified offer
  • Write short paragraphs, leveraging white space for more inviting copy
  • Use bullet-points, headings, and clear content hierarchy to make text scannable
  • Don’t be afraid to use your formatting options strategically, like bolded phrases or highlighted text to draw attention to key phrases

Incorporating images that add value

Images can be a good way to get your message across. But they can also increase email load times and cause formatting issues on mobile devices. The key is to use images only when and where they truly add value to the email—when an image conveys your message better than text could.

When that’s the case, use small image files. Many email marketing service providers recommend images no larger than 1MB. Some email providers block images from senders that aren’t in a subscriber’s contacts, so you should always add alt text for any images. This ensures recipients know what an image is and they can click to view the image if they’re interested.

Mobile optimization and responsive design

Responsive email design for mobile devices is now table stakes. . As of early 2019, mobile email opens account for about 60% of all opens, and that percentage is only set to grow. Not to mention the concurrent rise of mobile commerce—by and large, shoppers are quite comfortable browsing and purchasing products on their phone.

Fortunately, nearly every email marketing platform makes it really easy to design responsive emails, often by either choosing a responsive template or selecting an option to automatically optimize for mobile.

Using effective calls-to action (CTAs)

Calls to action explicitly suggest the next step you want the reader to take after reading your email, along with the means to take it (usually a link or button). The CTA represents the driving goal of each campaign. It’s what your emails are driving subscribers to do, whether that’s purchasing a particular item, reviewing a recent purchase, or something else entirely. Here are our tips for email CTAs:

  • Prioritize one CTA per email: Every campaign should focus on one central action. Each additional call to action runs the risk of distracting or confusing the reader.
  • Use action-oriented words that create urgency: Like anything else, getting customers to act is all about creating a sense of urgency. That could mean emphasizing the “limited time” of a specific sale, the “limited number” of stock for an item, and phrases like “Buy now” or “Get started today.”
  • Use a noticeable button image: Your CTA needs to stand out among the rest of the email copy. Using a button image (instead of a text link) and bright, contrasting colors can keep it from getting lost. It’s also good practice to place the button in a area with plenty of white space, and preferably not at the very bottom of an email.
Email marketing call to action

Civic makes use of playful copy that still nudges a subscriber toward action.

Measuring email performance

Measuring your email performance is one of the most important best practices to implement, because it’s really the only way to improve your email marketing campaigns. Conveniently, tracking the performance of your emails isn’t complicated. It all comes down to monitoring the right metrics and understanding what they mean for your emails.

Here are the four core email marketing analytics you should track:

  • Open Rate: The percentage of subscribers that opened an email
  • Bounce Rate: The percentage of emails that don’t make it into a subscriber’s inbox—either because of a technical error, spam filter, or a subscriber’s email being inactive
  • Click-through Rate: The percentage of subscribers that click a link (any link) in your email
  • Opt-Out Rate: The percentage of subscribers that unsubscribed from your email list

At the end of the day, the only email marketing metrics that matter are yours. That said, it can be helpful to understand where your own performance falls when compared with other ecommerce businesses so you can set intelligent, reasonable goals to better it.

Klaviyo gathered data on the average email marketing metrics of their users, across several industries. For the sake of contextualizing your own performance, here’s what they found for ecommerce businesses:

Email marketing benchmark data

Data from Klaviyo shows that email benchmarks can vary widely from one industry to the next.

Tune-up every single marketing email

As a business owner, you might send all kinds of email marketing campaigns, each with their own unique goals and methods. But the tips and best practices above are near-universal—you can apply them to just about any email campaign to supercharge your performance. That means better emails, smarter campaigns, and more sales.

-Mark Macdonald