This post was updated on July 6, 2022.
Everyone is sending something, whether they’re promoting their latest products, sending out a weekly newsletter, or engaging in cold email practices. After all, the barrier to entry is pretty low (e.g., less than $30 a month), and you can send targeted marketing messages at scale.
But here’s the thing:
Many brands are doing it wrong.
Or, at least, they could be doing a whole better—their email marketing efforts basically boil down to pressing send on a random email once or twice a week. They aren’t guided by an overarching strategy grounded in deep audience research and a thorough understanding of the customer journey.
In this article, we’ll outline 9 steps to creating a high-performing email marketing strategy that serves customers at all stages of the buying process and helps you develop relationships, earn more customers, and ultimately drive revenue growth.
Nine steps to creating a comprehensive email marketing strategy
Let’s start simple:
What exactly is an email marketing strategy?
An email marketing strategy is a roadmap or blueprint that informs your email marketing tactics. It defines aspects such as:
- Who your target audience is
- What their common pain points and challenges are
- How they go from recognizing that challenge to choosing a solution (the customer journey)
- Your email marketing goals
- How and when you’ll reach customers via email
A solid email marketing strategy separates high performers from those who send marketing emails occasionally and wonders why they fail to see significant results.
Those top performers will then use email marketing analytics (more on that later) to inform adjustments to their strategy in continuous improvement.
Sounds good, right? But where do you start?
Table of contents
- Perform in-depth audience research
- Map out the customer journey
- Get super clear on goals and outcomes
- Build and segment email lists
- Develop an email marketing calendar
- Design, write, and build email content in advance
- Set up automated email sequences
- Leverage reliable email analytics
- Test, adjust, repeat
1. Perform in-depth audience research
The term “understanding your audience” has, to be fair, become a bit of a trope in the marketing world.
But here’s the thing: cliches become cliches for a reason—notably because they’re true. In-depth audience research, interviews, and analysis must be the backbone of your email marketing strategy.
If you don’t know anything about your customers, you won’t know:
- What challenges they’re facing, and how they’re attempting to solve them currently
- What kinds of messaging will resonate with them
- How to use email marketing to convert prospects
The buyer persona is the most common method for collecting and displaying this data so that it can be used to inform marketing initiatives.
Buyer personas are fictitious examples of your ideal customer, covering aspects like their goals, motivations, demographics, objections, and purchase criteria.
Here’s what they look like:
The place where most companies fall short with the customer persona is failing to talk to their customers. They make assumptions based on their own knowledge, which may have some validity, but will ultimately tarnish their perceptions.
So, here’s how to get your buyer personas right.
Analyze your current data
Data from your CRM is going to be crucial here. Look for trends in:
- Challenges (e.g., what pain points did they share with your sales reps?)
- Demographics (e.g., where are they located?)
- Roles (what are the most common job titles your customers hold?)
- Products (what products or features are being used most commonly?)
Interview your customers
Supplement your existing data and dig deeper by actually speaking with your current customers.
Use surveys to collect quantitative data (for instance, you might not have insights into demographic data like age) and customer interviews to capture qualitative insights.
In your customer interviews, ask questions like:
- Tell me about how your team uses our product each day.
- How were you managing these tasks before working with us?
- When you were considering signing up for our product, what objections or concerns did you have?
Create multiple personas
It’s unlikely that you’ll have a single marketing persona because your product will probably appeal to a few different kinds of people.
That’s good as it will inform email segmentation (which we’ll discuss later).
Segment personas based on buying motivations, challenges, and product usage, and try not to build more than 4 personas (3 is usually the sweet spot).
2. Map out the customer journey
Now we know who our customers are (and what motivates them), we need to gain a deep understanding of how buyers move from needs identification (“Oh, I have a problem here.”) through to solution (“Yes, I’d like to buy the thing.”)
We call this process customer journey mapping.
A customer journey map is a simplistic representation of the broad stages a typical customer goes through, from awareness to purchase and eventually advocacy.
Again, use a combination of hard data (marketing attribution, information in our CRM, etc.) and customer research (interviews) to build this out.
Remember, the idea is to create a broad representation. We know that not every customer will take this exact route to purchase. But we’re on the right path if we can cover 80% of real customer journeys.
From an email marketing perspective, this exercise aims to inform the creation of email content and messaging.
Knowing whether a customer is at the product awareness stage (the first step in the above customer journey) or approaching the product purchase stages is crucial, as the content you distribute via email will be vastly different.
In the first instance, your communications will be largely education; in the latter, your emails will be more focused on conversion, perhaps supplementing a personalized offer with a relevant customer story.
3. Get super clear on goals and outcomes
The best email marketers have absolute clarity on their goals and desired outcomes.
You’re likely to have several, as outcomes will differ at each stage.
For example, for awareness stage customers, your overarching goal is to educate them on the impact of the challenges they’re facing, provide advice and solutions, and move them forward to consideration.
This email from Metadata, for instance, is all about prospect education.
For existing customers, the goal may be to retain customers (i.e., prevent churn) or cross-sell additional products, like in this marketing email from Semrush.
Your goals will then inform the email marketing metrics you use to inform success and understand progress toward your key objectives.
Common examples of metrics specific to email campaigns include:
- Unsubscribe rates
- Click-through rates
- Conversion rates
- List growth rates
- Open rates
- Click-to-open rates
- Bounce rates
- Email deliverability
These metrics measure the direct performance of your email marketing campaigns. The best digital marketers go a step further and monitor the impact of their efforts on key revenue metrics like LTV (customer lifetime value) and NRR (net revenue retention).
Consider the above email from Semrush, sent to existing customers with the goal of cross-selling their Audience Intelligence feature.
An email marketer at Semrush can measure the impact of this email (i.e., its conversion) on both of the above revenue metrics.
4. Build and segment email lists
As your email marketing strategy plays out, you will increase the number of email subscribers on your list.
Very quickly, this list becomes non-homogenous: the customers on your list don’t necessarily fit the same profile. Your list may be made up of customers that fit your 3 buyer personas, but there may be any number of variations in between.
If you continue to send the same emails to every recipient on your list, you will see a decrease in key engagement metrics like open and click-through rates.
Because your email content is no longer relevant to each person on your list.
Consider a simple example: your company is a sales CRM, and 1 of your key customer industries is insurance. Insurance agencies make up about 40% of your customer base, so clearly, you want to nurture those relationships with highly-relevant content.
But when you send that email out to your entire list, it’s irrelevant to 60% of your audience.
This is where list segmentation comes in.
Segmentation is all about dividing your email lists based on specific characteristics, such as:
- Age range
- Product interest and usage
- Challenges and pain points
Note that you’re not physically cutting your list up, you’ll simply add the above attributes to each of your customer accounts, so you can filter out the email recipients you need when you need them.
Use these attributes to identify large groups of similar customers (such as insurance agents), and create customized, segment-focused email content that only gets distributed to them.
5. Develop an email marketing calendar
The best email marketing strategists plan out sends in advance. A month in advance should be your minimum, but 3-6 months is ideal.
Email marketing calendars should include:
- The types of email you will send (promotional emails, lead nurture campaigns, email newsletters, etc.)
- Customer segments
- Key dates
- Links to email content
- Assignees (who is responsible)
This simple example from a northeastern limo service demonstrates what an email marketing calendar looks like in practice.
Being unprepared and unplanned creates risk. Without an email marketing calendar, you’re likely to fall behind, rush and produce poor-quality content, or send email content that doesn’t align with your broader organizational goals for each quarter.
6. Design, write, and build email content in advance
Now we’re starting to get into the nitty-gritty of email strategy.
You’ve got a clear idea of your audience, and the typical journey potential customers on your subscriber list go through. You’ve developed an email calendar for the next month, which outlines when content needs to be created, delivered, and distributed to meet strategic business goals.
Now is the time to assemble your team.
For smaller organizations, this may be a team of one. At scale, email marketing teams may include copywriters, designers, and email marketers who assemble the content provided by designers and writers and use email marketing tools to distribute, analyze, and report back.
Assign task requirements to each team member to get as far ahead of schedule as possible. For instance, email content due to be sent in June could be delivered in mid-May, but ideally, you front-load creation so that content due in June is delivered in late April, for example.
This allows optimal time for stakeholder sign-off, edits and changes, and scheduling.
7. Set up automated email sequences
Automation is the key to running email marketing campaigns at scale.
Email automation allows you to set up a series of email messages that are sent automatically, based on the rules you plug in.
Say, for example, 1 of the campaigns in your email marketing strategy is a lead nurture sequence. The play looks something like this:
- Customer hands over their email address in exchange for an ebook.
- The ebook is delivered via email.
- Once per week for the next 5 weeks, an educational content-based email is sent.
- A final email is sent at the end of the fifth week, asking the customer to book a sales demonstration.
That’s 7 emails. Without automation, an email marketer would need to set a reminder in their calendar to send each new email every week.
With automation, you don’t even need to touch it. As soon as that prospective customer enters their email address, it’s routed straight into the lead nurture campaign and the emails start rolling out.
Basic email service providers (like Gmail and Yahoo) don’t generally have the capability for automation. You’ll need to look at more comprehensive email marketing platforms to access this feature.
8. Leverage reliable email analytics
The most effective email marketing campaigns are constantly adjusted based on email marketing analytics.
Your email marketing automation platform will provide helpful insights into email performance. You’ll be able to measure the effectiveness of various email campaigns, breaking down metrics like open rate and conversion rate across different customer segments.
Use this data to inform changes to your email marketing strategy.
Let’s say, for instance, 1 of your email templates converts more customers than the rest, despite promoting the same product feature.
Now, you can dig further to analyze what separates that email from the rest. Is it the email subject line? Are you using different calls to action? Is the email design any different?
You’ll also be able to identify inactive subscribers and remove their email addresses from future campaigns. Inactive subscribers lead to poor campaign performance and impact key metrics like open, bounce, and click rates.
9. Test, adjust, repeat
Email marketing is not a set-and-forget kind of affair.
We know you’ve just spent weeks laboring over your strategy, and now you have to change it?
Yes, because email marketing is not only a creative endeavor; it’s highly analytical. Your job as the email marketer is to maximize performance and engagement from your email marketing lists, and you’ll only achieve this through testing and analysis.
The A/B test is perhaps the email marketer’s favorite tool.
In an A/B test, you’re testing the difference in the performance of a single variable to maximize the impact of future email sends.
For instance, you want to find out the best time of day to send a specific non-promotional email.
The A/B test here is simple:
Design your email, and split your recipients into several groups, each receiving the same email but at a different point during the day.
You’ll be able to identify whether time impacts email performance (it may not), and if it doesn’t, schedule all future emails with the same type of content during that period.
To create a truly effective email marketing strategy, you need 3 things in place:
- A clear understanding of your audience and the steps they go through to purchase
- A map of how you’re going to reach prospective customers through email content
- A comprehensive email marketing platform
This last piece makes automation possible and provides actionable insights into campaign performance to inform strategic adjustments.
Get started today with a free 14-day trial of ActiveCampaign, and level up your email marketing strategy immediately.