Who, what and when - the 3 key factors in creating better email campaigns

Last year, I was at an event which had a guest speaker promoting the benefits of telesales.  But it was his opening statement that really caught my attention:

Email marketing doesn’t work!
— he professed.

He went on to say that he had tried email marketing for his own business and his client’s businesses, but the results had been disappointing.

Now it could be that he (and his clients) had unrealistic expectations for their campaigns.  It doesn’t seem too long ago companies believed that just having a website or a social media presence was a guarantee of more customers.

In my experience, there is no ‘holy grail’ marketing tool that is the key to generating new customers.  There is nearly always a mix of marketing and promotional activity that needs to be developed, implemented, monitored and managed properly over a sustained period of time to generate real results.  There maybe no short cuts but with the right direction and approach, some paths to success are easier than others.

Websites and social media profiles are, at best, destinations for customers to find and interact with your business.  But you also need to tell them where these destinations are, point them there or make your destination highly visible so that they can find you when they need or want what you have to offer.

Email marketing (when it works) is one of those activities that can help drive members of your target audience to one of your destinations.  But only if you use it properly.  Just in the same way that a car can only get you to your destination if you know how to drive it, email marketing will only deliver visitors to your website if you apply it correctly.

Let’s be clear.  Email marketing won’t necessarily work for every business, nor will the results be the same every time.  This is because every business and market is different.  Some markets are more competitive than others, and some customer types are less likely to engage with email marketing, no matter how good it is.

However, over the last 5 years I’ve developed a number of key principles for email marketing that has yielded great results for my clients.  And the best results have always been achieved in the longer term, not with a one-off campaign.  Having said that, we have on occasion run a single campaign and generated direct enquiries and appointments for a client.  But this is not the norm.  More often than not, it takes a series of carefully crafted and well-timed campaigns to generate the best results.

But what do we mean by ‘best results’?  Well, thanks to increasing use (and abuse) of email marketing, delivery rates, open rates and click rates have reduced over the years.  A couple of years ago, the industry average open rates hovered around the 20% mark but these days it seems to be nearer 16% and falling.  All it means is that it has become more competitive and challenging to create and deliver email campaigns that don’t fall at the first hurdle – namely intended recipients open them rather than delete them as soon as they land in their inbox.

Some would argue that as the rates decrease, the answer is to up the volume to the sound of “it’s a numbers game, the more in the top of the funnel, the more out of the bottom.”  But is this the case?

I guess it depends on the quality of what you feed into the funnel in the first place.  Rubbish in, rubbish out.  And actually, just stuffing more contacts in the machine can just fuel the problem of higher bounce rates.  If you over fuel a car or fill it with the wrong fuel, you’re not going to get very far.

(By now, you can probably tell I’m a bit of petrol head with my motoring analogies)

Anyway, back to email marketing.  And as tempting as it might be to just up the volume of contacts, I’ve found that the best results can be had by being more specific and targeted on a smaller list or segment.  As such, you’re able to be more personal and relevant with your email messaging and content, which helps with engagement.  Most of us prefer it when we receive something that is based on what we like or need rather than just some generic blanket offer.

With all this in mind, let’s look at these 3 principles of email marketing.

1.      Who

If your customers are businesses, then this makes life somewhat easier.  Why? Well most businesses will make their email addresses publicly available (e.g. on their promotional materials, stationery, websites and social media profiles).  Therefore, they are easy to harvest for list building.  Also, unlike consumers and individuals, businesses are not required to opt in to email lists, so long as you provide them with the option to opt out at any point.  This is why we prefer to use online email marketing services like Mailchimp because it is just a single click for a recipient to unsubscribe from future mailings.  After all, the last thing you want to do is damage your brand by sending unwanted messages.

If you’re sending messages to consumers and individuals, then they must have agreed (opted in) to receive messages from your business.  If they have provided you with their email address, then chances are they are expecting you to contact them using that medium.  Again, the use of systems like Mailchimp and the best practice of providing an easy way for them to unsubscribe should they wish to means that you reduce the risk of damaging your brand and reputation.

But should you buy or build your target list?  Well, if you’re in a rush and / or need a large volume of email addresses then using a reputable list broker is probably best for you.  But a word of caution.  They may claim that the list is regularly churned and up-to-date, but experience has shown that delivery rates from purchased data are usually much lower than lists that have been freshly built.  As we’ve already established, if you’re looking a larger audience then perhaps email marketing isn’t the right approach – maybe consider instead an advertising campaign if you want mass market coverage?

Building lists specific for your requirements can be more expensive and time consuming, but the higher delivery rates translate into higher open and click rates.  Plus, with a specific segment or niche group, you can make your email content, message and offers much more relevant to them.

2.      What

The content that you put in your email campaigns will have a massive influence on whether or not your recipient will:

  • open it
  • read it
  • act on it
  • remain subscribed

Even the subject line is important.  Avoid special characters like ‘%’ and words like ‘FREE’ or monetary values.  Keep it simple, perhaps even a little leading or intriguing.  Make it relevant.  For example, if you’re a Painter and Decorator targeting local hotels to promote a special deal on off season decorating work, then a subject line like ‘Re: Room rates’ is not only relevant, but it more likely to be opened by the target recipient.

If it’s a newsletter, then why not just say: ‘Latest news from <Your Company Name>?

And unless your target audience knows you (i.e. an existing customer or you are a well recognised brand), make sure you send the email from a person, not a business.  Recipients are more likely to open and email from a person.

In the main body of the email, your structure and layout depend on what you’re using the campaign for.  If it is to share news and updates with your subscribers, then a branded banner followed by a short introduction and a list of 3 – 4 stories / articles usually works just fine.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking to offer your target recipients something, then don’t fall into the trap of leading from the top with the offer, especially in big, bold letters and graphics.  This tends to turn most people off right away.

Instead, here’s my alternative email content structure:


Avoid using 'Dear Sir or Madam' – it’s too impersonal.  Use ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’ so that it works whether or not you have a first name to follow.


Use the first line to tell the recipient why you’re emailing.  Demonstrate that you understand their current problems, situation or challenges.  This might require a little bit research to qualify what the main challenges that members of your target audience are facing.  For example, these days hoteliers are under increased pressure to make sure every part of their service and property are up to scratch to avoid scathing reviews on TripAdvisor.  Therefore, a painter and decorator could empathise with this and highlight that even the quality of the décor will be an important factor when guests come to review their stay.


Use the second line to explain how you can help them meet the challenge, solve the problem or improve their situation.


Include a short testimonial from a relevant customer to demonstrate that you can be trusted to deliver what you’ve said you can do.  You could also add a ‘Read more’ link that allows the recipient to view the full case client study on your website.


Tell the recipient how they can get in touch with you if they’re interested in finding out more, or point them to your website or other online destination.  Alternatively, you may just want to inform them that you’ll be following up the email in the next few days with a phone call or visit.

Finally, always sign off to be courteous and provide your contact details below.  Include your phone number, plus links to your website and social media profiles.  It’s also useful to make sure these are updated with relevant content to support your credibility among the audience you’re targeting at any one time with email marketing.

Example email campaign layout

3.      When

Timing and scheduling the delivery of your email can make all the difference in terms of high or low open rates and overall campaign performance.  Avoid sending it first thing on a Monday morning or late Friday afternoon.  From experience, mid mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or mid afternoon on Wednesdays seem to work well.

Be mindful of school holidays when recipients might be away.  Otherwise, you email could be lost in the backlog that they come back to and easily deleted.

Also, be careful with the frequency with which you send your emails.  Increased frequency will lead to increased unsubscribes, leaving you with fewer followers.


So there you have it, my tips for improving your email marketing. Remember – it’s not an exact science or a guarantee of success.  Make sure to monitor the performance of your campaign using the reporting tools in your email marketing service.  Use the industry averages and performance of previous campaigns as a benchmark.  These will help you identify where you need to make improvements.  For example, if the delivery rate is less than 90% it would suggest that your contact data might need a bit of clean up.

So what are you waiting for?  Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

If you’d like some help with your email campaigns, feel free to get in touch.

Neil CorriganComment