The Secret to Increased Sales? It’s Your Inbox

Kelly Spors

What’s the best marketing tool for your business? There’s a good chance it’s your email address.

Recent studies have found that sending regular emails to your customers with special promotions, company news and events and other helpful information that your customers can benefit from—delivers more value to a small business than other types of marketing, such as print and radio ads or spending money to improve your web site’s visibility on Google.

An analysis by McKinsey, for example, found that email is far more effective at acquiring customers than other increasingly popular forms of online advertising.

“Without a doubt, email marketing has the strongest ROI over other marketing channels,” says Brian Honigman, a marketing consultant based in New York. “Having this opted-in customer base that’s interested in receiving your marketing means they’re far more likely to trust you and make a purchase from you.”

Moreover, email gives you more control over how your message is delivered to customers and allows you to personalize your communications and send targeted offers. For example, a car wash company might email its customers coupons for 20% off their next wash and auto care advice, while an accounting firm might send its clients tax-preparation tips.

Creating an effective email marketing campaign for your business isn’t that difficult. Here are some tips for how to create an effective campaign or to kick your current campaign up a notch:

1. Actively build your customer email list 

Under federal law, businesses can only send mass emails to customers that elect to receive them—and they must let customers opt out. So you need to actively encourage your customers to sign up for your email list. You might, for example, ask customers to sign up when they’re at your business and include an email list sign-up button on your website’s homepage. Also encourage your social media followers to sign up.

Don’t forget to communicate the value of signing up. Explain to customers the incentives they receive for being on the list—such as receiving regular discounts or special promotions—and give those who sign up an immediate gift, such as a one-time discount or coupon.

2. Use the right email software

There are many email software programs, including Constant Contact and MailChimp, geared to small businesses. Make sure to compare the programs’ pricing, tools and analytics before choosing one. Some programs allow small businesses to easily customize their email template and provide useful tools such as A/B testing and auto-responder capabilities—which can help you better personalize your email campaigns and automatically send follow-up emails to customers who take specific actions.

Most offer a free trial, so you can check out the software before committing to use it.

3. Know your customers’ wants and needs

Before sending out emails, develop an email marketing strategy and consider how you can effectively use email to engage your customers. This requires you to understand what your customers want and need out of the emails you send them. Depending on your customer base, they may want discounts, special promotions, recipes, invitations to special events, useful articles—or all of the above.

Sephora, the beauty and cosmetics chain, emails its Beauty Insider rewards program members everything from news about seasonal promotions to free gifts on members’ birthdays to invitations to free classes. It’s important to make every email offer something special—or that adds value—so your customers don’t lose interest and stop opening your emails or, worse, unsubscribe.

Once your email list is rather big, you might consider segmenting it and allowing customers to select the exact types of emails they want to receive, whether that’s discounts, event information or useful articles.

4. Time your emails carefully

It’s important to send the right frequency of emails—and at the right time of day. Early mornings between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., over the lunch hour and in the early evenings between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. are typically considered prime times to send emails because it’s when most people check them.

Every business, however, should experiment and determine the best time for its emails. For example, you might try sending one in the morning and another in the early afternoon and use your email program’s analytics to compare at what time of day customers most often open your emails and take other desired actions, such as clicking through to your web site.

Also consider the frequency of your emails. For a coffee shop, it may make sense to email customers once per week, but someone “probably doesn’t want to hear from a party supply store every week,” Honigman says. “It’s about finding the right balance between being frequent enough that you’re not forgotten, but not so much that you’re annoying.”

5. Use attention-grabbing (and short) subject lines

Writing engaging subject lines can ensure that your emails stand out among the sea of emails your customers get each day. The best subject lines are to the point, so customers know what they’re getting when they click to open. “With so many people reading email on phones, you want to make sure your subject line is short and has a clear call to action that draws attention,” Erica McGillivray of Moz told

Using words like “you” and “your” in subject lines can make them feel more personalized and improve open rates, Honigman says. But also consider using A/B testing to compare which subject lines perform better—this can help you improve future emails.

Tip: Don’t use symbols, such as percentage signs (%), in your subject lines, as those can trigger spam filters and land your emails in the junk folder.

6. Keep your messages short and sweet

Your customers don’t want to read a 2,000-word essay when they open your emails. Their attention span is likely short, so aim to keep the body of your emails under 400 words.

7. Make your emails mobile-friendly

More and more people are using smartphones and tablets to check their emails, so make sure your emails are formatted for easy viewing on mobile devices. For example, make sure your emails have a one-column layout, so they’re not too wide for screens.

“Oftentimes marketers use multi-column templates and fancy formatting to capture reader interest,” writes Anum Hussein at HubSpot. “But all this usually does is distract the reader and create an uninviting mobile experience.”

Even as businesses have more marketing opportunities than ever before, email continues to be among the best ways to engage your customers and generate repeat business. Don’t let your email marketing efforts fall to the wayside.

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