A classic becomes a classic for a reason — there’s something about it, whatever it is, that conveys a feeling of timeless quality or worth.
If Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks make for one of the most, if not the most, classic pairings in romantic comedies, then email is easily the classic online marketing channel. No matter what comes its way, it remains untouched, even after it’s been considered a dead channel many times over.
What is it about email marketing that makes marketers keep gravitating toward it?
In the latest episode of Ungated Marketing, Rui Nunes, Founder of sendXmail, an email marketing, and automation agency, and Zopply, a full digital service agency, offers his all-encompassing view on email marketing over the years and the dos and don’ts of building a successful email marketing strategy.
Email Marketing 101
If you think that there’s no science behind email marketing—it’s just sending out a newsletter every now and then—think again.
There’s a lot more to be said to it, so before we dive deeper into specific topics, let’s get the basics out of the way.
What is Email Marketing?
In Rui’s own words, “it’s so much more than writing a newsletter.” (I told you.)
He adds that “it’s so much more than just trying to pitch for more sales or something like that. It's a direct connection between the brand and their audience.” For him, email marketing presents a unique opportunity for a one-to-one approach with an audience, which he deems a real privilege to have.
Unfortunately, as he explains, “most brands use it like a massive broadcast communication channel,” so he’s been advocating for a different approach to it.
How to Get Opt-ins?
One of the things that set Rui’s approach to email marketing apart from the masses is that he’s very much against gated content. Although it’s one of the biggest email opt-in tactics used by most brands, he doesn’t believe gating an e-book or any sort of PDF file is the way to go and get newsletter subscribers.
Instead, he thinks “it’s much more valuable to have someone who is going to opt-in to a brand just because they have awesome content and they want to keep receiving it.”
There are two reasons behind this. The first one is that, this way, people will be much more engaged with the content they’re receiving. And the second is due to the email algorithm. Rui explains that “organic reach email also has an algorithm, and you’re going to have better deliverability. Because it’s different to have deliverability, which is to land on the inbox than, for instance, the delivery rates that you have on [your] email marketing platform.”
Speaking of engaging with email content, keeping users engaged is key to your email marketing’s success.
Pivoting on the just mentioned email algorithm, having a good understanding of your users’ engagement with your newsletter content is important to then have a clearer grasp of your delivery rates. Rui exemplifies: “[You see] 99% delivery rates [on your email marketing platform], that’s cool. However, maybe a percentage of your subscribers are not getting [the email] on their inbox. They are getting it on the promotion folder, or even worse, on the spam folder.” So, that percentage can be misleading. Deliverability, as Rui explains, is “to land on the inbox and be opened by people and [for the content] to be consumed by these people.”
That means that, if you want to achieve true deliverability, you need to focus on tactics that will keep users engaged in the long run — sending out a newsletter on a regular basis that provides something users will find valuable for a, hopefully, long period of time.
At sendXmail, for example, Rui says they use the same three approaches on every newsletter email that gets sent out. “We share one real case study, one insight, and one idea to activate immediately. So it’s very simple for our subscribers. They are going to see, ‘Okay, each week I’m going to have one case study to learn from, I’m going to have an insight to understand what I need to change or catch up on, and one idea [I] can activate today and see if it’s going to work.”
By sticking to this action plan, Rui was able to establish that, not only are users engaging much more with these kinds of emails, but he’s also been getting many more valuable leads for his business — “almost 80% of the subscribers I have on the list are reaching out for business proposals.”
Format and Subject Lines
Now, when it comes to the way content is presented inside your newsletter, you’ll usually find plain text emails or HTML-based ones. Which one should you choose?
Even though Rui says that if you only send out plain text emails, after a while they’ll get boring, he also admits that they make sense in certain situations. “For instance, when you are trying to be personal in a way. If it’s a message by the founder, or it's a message by one of the account managers.”
HTML emails, on the other hand, are important to align the email’s content with your company branding and colors, and easily “identify that it’s a communication by the company.”
In the end, Rui advocates for both, and especially for using both as a means of catching your users’ attention. “[If] it’s not always the same, when I see an email all in text, it’s going to catch my attention because I was receiving everything on HTML, rich media, and so on.”
As for subject lines, there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to writing the one that will get more clicks. A while back, Rui ran some challenges on LinkedIn where he would show two different email subject lines and ask his audience which one would win in an A/B test, and most of the time, he guessed wrong. That is to say that “in email marketing, we never know everything.”
While there are best practices one can follow, Rui believes in keeping an open mind to changes in trends and behaviors and continuing running A/B tests to see what works best among your subscribers.
Spam and Other Challenges in Email Marketing
Even with the basics covered, marketers still come across some roadblocks in email marketing. The first one is, naturally, spam, which is often associated with email marketing. But what or who defines what is or is not spam?
Rui sees it as a difficult concept to explain, especially in the tech startup world where “the term ‘growth hacking’ is so frequently used to [get away] with some shady techniques, for instance, to spam somebody.” The thing is that these techniques, no matter how morally acceptable or not they are, often produce results. As Rui puts it, “the problem with email marketing everywhere is that even when you do it wrong, it pays off.” The technology is relatively cheap, and it generates enough profit that companies aren’t really concerned about the fact that sending mass emails to their audiences shouldn’t be the best way to go about email marketing.
Does that mean that, in the end, it really isn’t a problem that needs solving?
There are already laws in place, like GDPR, that mitigate spam to a certain extent. “The brands that are concerned about their reputation, they are avoiding [sending spam emails] because of these kinds of laws;” however, the ones that don’t care as much about their reputation as they care about growing their business here and now keep doing it. This means that, for Rui, spam isn’t really a problem. In addition to GDPR, mailbox providers give users a lot of filtering options or filter incoming emails directly through an algorithm so that a user’s inbox can remain free of spam. The technology is not bulletproof, and spammers have means of finding their way around these filters, but it’s enough to make spam an obsolete problem.
A lot of businesses still send out emails from no-reply addresses, which, as the name suggests, don’t allow users to reply to them. A practice that Rui doesn’t see much value in.
On the one hand, the same filtering capabilities that keep spam away from our inboxes are very much capable of automatically sending no-reply emails to the updates or promotions folder. On the other hand, in Rui’s own words, “it’s a waste of time for everyone, and it creates more friction for the users.”
In this day and age, and with the technology available, he doesn’t think it makes much sense to keep using no-reply email addresses. Companies resort to them to send blast emails, then expect users to react to them in a different channel where, more often than not, they end up being redirected to a different email address. So why not let users reply at will and filter those messages according to specific predefined criteria?
The truth is that “it’s very easy to filter all of the incoming emails from people that are using that channel to reach the brand,” leaving little to no point in still having a corporate no-reply email.
Personalization in email marketing is a tricky thing to master.
If you’re just using “some phony name, like Amy from whatever brand” to convey that you’re sending a personalized email, it’s not going to work because it doesn’t feel personal at all. “When we try to use these kinds of gimmicks, to place a name the before the brand, and then it's the same old messy email, it’s not going to work, it’s going to feel shady, and it’s not something that [users] are going to relate to the brand.”
However, as Rui explains, you can use personalization in a sensible way that will live up to its goal. “The whole point of having that kind of human approach is to have someone who’s going to be the face of the brand to that audience,” so it’s very different to send out an email from an unknown person than, for example, “Richard Branson from Virgin.” He adds that “the whole point of having that kind of a human approach is when you have someone that it's going to be the face of the brand to that audience, so you [feel like] part of the tribe. You feel a connection with the brand.”
Additionally, personalization isn’t just about the sender’s name; “it’s also about the content of the email, it needs to be addressed like a person.” Including the name of the person you’re sending the email to is a must, but also, if you have different audience segments, tailoring the content included in the email to that audience, to better suit their tastes or needs.
Measuring Email Marketing’s Success
Even though open rates are still the main KPI in most email marketing teams, they are not how Rui measures the success of his email campaigns. The main reason for it is that, after Apple’s IOS 15 update, they can’t really be considered an accurate measure.
Rui clarifies: “[The update’s] mail privacy feature completely disrupted open rates for every marketer so far. What [it does] is the reverse of the open rate, which is to open every email that you are sending. So every time you send an email to someone using an iOS [device], you are going to see an open and people haven’t opened your email.” For this reason, at sendXmail, “on a marketing automation flow, [they] never use an email open to trigger something,” as it’s simply not a reliable source of information.
A much more interesting metric to keep track of, for him, is, for example, the click-to-open rate, which measures the clicks when someone has already opened an email against the number of opens on that email. “It’s a very good metric to [understand] which kind of emails that you sent are getting more engagement.”
However, all in all, Rui advises taking the KPIs on your email marketing platform with a pinch of salt, and putting on a Sherlock Holmes hat when looking at them. To truly be able to measure your email marketing’s success, you need to “understand the ecosystem, what drives more engagement and why; why this happened to these kinds of emails and not the other ones,” and so on.
The Future of Email Marketing
In the last decades, email has been declared dead so many times, maybe even more so than SEO. So, where does the future of a dead channel lie?
Rui can still naturally feel its pulse, but he does admit that the future of email marketing may look a bit different than we know it today. “I don’t see it as dead, but almost like blended with some other way of communication,” for example, a compounded channel containing “all of your messages, like WhatsApp or instant messaging or chatbots, and you have a way of receiving these messages and replying [to them] in the same channel.”
Eventually, what he sees happening in the future is some sort of device where “you will be reached by every channel that anyone prefers to use,” email included.
Just as the main characters always find happiness at the end of a romantic comedy, so does email remain very much alive despite claims of it being a dead channel.
If you want to hear more from Rui Nunes on email marketing, best practices around it, and even more futuristic topics such as subject line algorithm generators, listen to the full episode below or tune in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.