Ultimate guide to email marketing

Email marketing: the ultimate guide to skyrocket your open rates

What’s the difference between a great email marketing strategy and spam? It’s no gimmick or shortcut; it’s the reader’s opinion. After taking just one look at your email (or even just the subject line), the reader decides whether your brand has something to offer, or whether you’re just another “Unsubscribe.”

Email marketing has a lot of perks when done so efficiently; it’s effective, cheap and personal. But to earn these, you first need an effective email marketing strategy. In this guide, we explain how to get subscribers, design emails, and take full advantage of this lucrative marketing opportunity.

Why focus on email marketing?

Email marketing is cheap and cheerful. If you play your e-cards right, you could be making $42 from every dollar you spend. It has a high return on investment, which means you’re not the only one in the B2C relationship who is happy to be there.

Social media vs. email marketing

When many of us think of digital marketing, we think of connecting with target audiences through social media. It’s a direct, authentic channel to reach users, so establishing a popular channel is often the first step for many brands trying to make it in their industry and gain a wide following.

In comparison, email marketing sometimes gets overlooked. Many small businesses devote oceans of time and energy to their Instagram feeds and engagement analysis yet skim on their email channels. Yet, studies predict that by 2025, there will be over 4.6 billion global email users.

Recent research indicates that 60% of consumers prefer to receive promo campaigns via email, versus 20% of consumers preferring this via social media. We’re not saying choose one or the other, we’re saying be unstoppable and do both, excellently.

Example of inclusive email marketing strategy

Email marketing design by EyeQ Creative via 99designs by Vista.

The VIP space of the email inbox

When you think about it, inboxes are intimate. Users may choose to follow brands on social media channels that they like or are semi-interested in. But if they want to invite you into one of their most private digital spaces—their email inbox—they must really be into you.

Perhaps this is why email has such high click-through rates. In order to sign up to be a subscriber, users have to physically hand over their email contacts. This means that they trust the brand to send them content they’ll be interested in. As the brand, you have to follow through on this expectation to make the relationship last longer than a summer fling.

So how do you do this? Well, luckily the next section of this article is all about building an email marketing strategy.

Finding your audience

First things first, you’ll need subscribers and signups.

1. Choose your players

Imperative to any email marketing strategy is having a target audience to send your content to. Work your niche and hone in on who loves it; this means researching your target audience and finding what type of imagery they like to see, what their beliefs and values are, where they hang out and what they like to do.

As contrived as it is to type out, brand yourself as authentic. Find users on their preferred social media channels, promote at events they go to and collaborate with influencers/brands they already adore.

2. Pick your weapons

Lead magnets

A lead magnet is a free gift you’ll offer in exchange for an email signup. This could be a free trial, video access, ebook or other downloadable content. Some brands offer subscribers exclusive access to content before it goes public, for instance, pre-sale tickets for an upcoming gig.

Industry news

For those businesses who can’t yet offer anything of physical value, keep subscribers informed with the latest, relevant industry news and updates. This builds a rapport with your audience to let them know you’re informed, you share their values and you’re trustworthy.

3. Sharing is caring

Promote, promote, promote. Make it simple for consumers to subscribe; share links to your “subscribe” CTA across your digital channels. Implement accessible designs so that as many people as possible have a positive, seamless experience when subscribing to your brand.

Perfect your emails

According to Senior Email Marketing Manager, Jade Kolber, there are four key ingredients to a great email, “When setting up a new campaign, ask yourself: is it personalized, dynamic, authentic and inclusive? If the answer is yes, then you’ve nailed the ingredients of a successful email.”

“And remember: email marketing is not a set-and-forget marketing channel. What generates great results one week may not the next, so make sure you’re committed to testing, analyzing, and revising as required.” Jade recommends constant revising and refreshing of techniques used in your marketing emails. So, what’s the best way to do this?

A/B testing

A/B testing, otherwise called split testing, means sending out alternate versions of your email design to different groups of users. This allows you to increase click-throughs by finding out what your audiences best respond to, whether that be certain layouts, styles of language, CTA wording or subject lines.

Customer Segmentation

A/B testing won’t work unless you have your customers split into groups. So, drawing on user data, you can efficiently segment your customers based on commonalities across a range of features.

Using software like MailChimp (or Google Analytics for a free version), you’ll usually segment users according to the following criteria:


  • Age, location, gender, income, education level etc.


  • Lifestyle, hobbies, personality traits etc.

Consumer behavior:

  • Comparison shopping, waiting for items to go on sale, number of clickthroughs, devices/platforms using, social media channels etc.


According to our mates at Campaign Monitor, personalized subject lines increase email openings by 26%. This means using techniques like split testing and customer segmentation to make each and every subscriber feel special, but this level of personalization doesn’t end when users click ‘open’. Use their preferred name in subject lines and tailor the content of the email towards the categories you outlined above.

Example of inclusive email marketing strategy

Email marketing design by Valeria Galati via 99designs by Vista.

Some brands ask users particular questions when inviting them to subscribe to their emails. Finding out each user’s birthday is a good example, as this means you can tailor the products, campaigns and promo offers you email them around this time.

When done successfully, this technique shows the ‘human’ side of your brand to the user. It builds customer trust and loyalty, and results in more conversions.

Trigger emails

Trigger emails are an extension of personalization that aims to increase and maintain engagement with users. They’re essentially automated emails that are sent out or triggered according to certain behaviors by the customer.

For instance, some e-commerce brands send trigger emails to customers about an item that the customer may have added to their cart but not followed through with a purchase. In this case, the email would be designed to remind the customer about the product and entice them to buy it.

If a once-loyal customer becomes inactive, brands sometimes send trigger emails to win back their attention. Subject lines read something like, “Hey [customer name] we miss you”, and offer up new promotional offers or show products the customer may like, based on data from their previous behaviour with the brand.

Other types of trigger emails remind customers to renew subscriptions if they’re nearing the end of them, welcome emails and promotional codes if they successfully referred a friend to shop with the brand.

Responsive email design

43.5% of emails are accessed over mobile devices. This means that responsive design is paramount to your strategy even more so than desktop design—not that it’s a contest. Design with versatility in mind: visual hierarchy, navigation image/font size, and actual content are all subject to modification when designing for mobile devices as well as desktops.

Example of inclusive email marketing strategy

Email marketing design by thecreatv via 99designs by Vista.

So how do you implement responsive design?

Using a media query

A media query is a CSS technique that marketing professionals or coders use to embed into their emails. This media query detects the device it is being used on via the dimensions it is using on that device and adjusts the design of the email accordingly.

It’s called a query because it involves a set of conditions, “if X, then Y.” This means you can also alter designs according to whether users will be in vertical or horizontal mode.

Mobile-first email design

A key technique to creating successful marketing emails is to create every design firstly using the perspective and dimensions of a mobile phone.

You then alter the design according to whether it’ll be viewed on a desktop web browser or another device. This is so that you don’t end up with long loading times that could lose users when they try to access your email designs via mobile.

Key email components

Subject line

Your subject line is how you get your foot in the door; it doesn’t matter how nice the inside of your email looks if your readers trash it because the subject line doesn’t excite them.

Choose your case, wisely

The big question when it comes to subject lines is what case are you going to use? Title case (“Title Case Means Capitalizing All Words Except Articles and Prepositions”) appears formal and works for many luxury brands, governmental bodies and events companies.

Sentence case (“Sentence case means capitalizing only the first word and proper nouns”) feels more relaxed, approachable and standard, which is why it’s used by the majority of brands in marketing emails.

Example of inclusive email marketing strategy

Email marketing design by @rysmrn via 99designs by Vista.

Using no capital letters at all in the subject line is, in my experience, not widely popular. It looks unprofessional and untrustworthy to most audiences, which isn’t ever going to be a winning tactic in email marketing.

Unless your brand identity and relationship with customers supports it—for instance, you’re an edgy indie brand targeting Gen Z—we’d suggest sticking clear of this one.

Likewise, be cautious if you’re only using capital letters in the subject line. It’s often adopted to build excitement to its copy, yet I’d argue the copy should be exciting enough that you don’t have to resort to this. Perhaps it’s an aesthetic choice to use only capitals, but be sure to adjust the tone of your message so it doesn’t feel so loud.

Be clever with wordplay

Writing is an art, particularly when you’re trying to pack the best information into the smallest space. You need to feel authentic, genuine and personable to connect to your intended audience. Wow them with teasing what’s inside the email but leave out enough that they must open it for the whole story.

Keep context at the forefront of your mind when penning subject lines. I recently received an email from a local footwear brand reading, “OUT OF OFFICE.” I clicked on it wondering whether they were joining the likes of Bumble to give their entire team time off. Turns out I was mistaken and the promo campaign was for a new line of footwear—for users working out of office.

Avoid spam

If you’re going to be sending out marketing emails, you absolutely do not want them to end up in user’s spam folders. Filtering systems are thankfully pretty advanced these days, but there are a few practices you need to adopt to make sure you steer clear:

  • Always test your subject lines. If they include a discount value (say 50%), they’ll have a higher risk of ending up in spam folders.
  • Make sure your email looks official; a “.com” always helps with this.
  • Don’t buy email lists; it’s intrusive.
  • Ensure that your subject lines are written well, with specific info so they don’t sound generic.
Device sensitivity

Different devices and email providers all have different limits on how many characters they can fit in email previews. That means your subject line might get cut off for Apple and Gmail users, but not for Samsung or Outlook users.

example of email marketing strategy for subject lines

Depending on the device and platform, the most important part of your subject line might be cut off.

Likewise, the amount of preheader text varies by platform and device, too. In your email inbox, the preheader text is that little preview of what’s inside an email before you click it.

This can be used strategically to entice viewers to read it, but only if you know what they’ll see (and what they won’t).

You can usually check which devices your subscribers are using from your data analytics, which are sometimes provided by your channel, or you can set up yourself with an app like Google Analytics. As for the platform, for personal emails, it’s whatever follows the “@” symbol in the email address.


The call-to-action is what separates a marketing email from a personal email. Here’s where you’re asking your reader to actually do something, the culmination of all your efforts to impress them.

Your first decision is where the call-to-action leads. What action, exactly, do you want the reader to take? You can build an email marketing strategy around any number of business goals: increasing sales/conversions, driving more website traffic, getting more followers on social media, improving your brand reputation, strengthening bonds with loyal customers or even just creating an account.

Your calls-to-action should reflect your business goals, in both what they say and where they lead when clicked. While it’s fine to have multiple CTAs in the same email, it’s best to limit them. It’s easier to test what works for your different customers this way and maintain focus on whichever offer/service you want to push. It’s also a nice idea to create consistency and have them complement each other across a similar theme.

Example of inclusive email marketing strategy

Email marketing design by foxxx via 99designs by Vista.

Email body copy

Keep it short and juicy with your email body copy. Think about how your users are accessing emails; it’s not a medium usually enjoyed in a candlelit bath or a beach hammock.

Users want to skim read accessible content, so use language consciously and meaningfully. You should need a maximum of 3 short paragraphs to say what you need to say: emails are not the time or place for you to flex your artistic use of adverbs.

Visuals & layout

Take advantage of design principles like visual hierarchy to guide your reader’s attention. Your entire composition should revolve around your CTAs (explained below), so start with them and then build the rest of your email.

Think about accessibility when interspersing imagery with copy throughout your designs. Does it feel busy or hard to read? If you’re using animation or video clips in your email marketing designs, do they play automatically, or will users actively press ‘play’ to start them?

Example of inclusive email marketing strategy

Email marketing design by Bella. via 99designs by Vista.

The more email designs rely on visuals, the more designers look to web design trends for inspiration. Lately, more emails are using long-scrolling techniques from single-page sites to make their emails easier to navigate.

This includes visual dividers to section off different areas of your email. For example, if you want to talk about a new product in one section and mention an upcoming event in another, you can separate the two areas using techniques like changing the background color or expanding the empty space between them. Dividers like this make large display emails easier to navigate, so readers can find the parts they want more quickly.


Like any digital design, it’s really important to prioritize high-quality imagery that conveys your aesthetic to the reader.

Many marketing emails are featuring animations at the moment, so jump on this email marketing trend and experiment. Perhaps you’re using photos, or you might be featuring an artist’s work; whichever it is, they must connect emotively with users. Promote inclusivity and show users all the different types of people you call your audience. Be sure to keep loading times short and not include any image or video that’s large in size.

Piquing—and keeping—your audience’s interest

Why is email marketing so effective? Aside from lower costs than advertising, it’s also an incredibly personal connection with your clientele. Emails are how friends and coworkers communicate—people you’re familiar with—so talking with people in that same space suggests you’re on friendly terms.

Take advantage of this closeness by designing your emails smartly: standout visuals, enticing offers, alluring subject lines and themes that match your branding personality. Send the kind of email you’d be excited to receive yourself and entice those readers to keep their subscription renewed.

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Author: Matt Ellis