Alongside social media, SEM, content creation, and SEO—email marketing is one of the cornerstones of digital marketing. However, many marketers find email marketing to be one of the more complicated marketing practices. Sending email to several thousand recipients can feel like your finger is on the nuclear button, which is further escalated if you don’t know what you are doing. As so, in this “Explain like I am Five” (ELI5) Guide, I will explain everything you need to know to get started with building an email marketing campaign.

What is Email Marketing?

Email marketing is the act of sending mass distributed emails to customers and/or clients who have opt-in to receive content directly from the company. This practice is useful because it is:

  • Direct: It is one of the most engaging forms of marketing
  • Automated: it can replace the efforts of salespeople
  • Affordable: email is one of the cheapest way to send customized messages to thousands of contacts
  • Data-driven: email is a behemoth for collecting customer data; many companies are building new business simply through email automation

As we take a deep dive into the practice, we will look at how email marketing can be broken into three concurrent parts: content management, data management, and performance analysis.


Content Management

This section is focused on the content within the email. If you are a content marketer, this will be the area where you feel most at home. While this includes your typical graphic design, copywriting, and template creation—this bucket also includes the logic behind your campaign.

Email Content/Design

With popular email platforms like Mailchimp, Hubspot, and Constant Contact—there are few limitations to what your email’s design can look like. Many of these platforms come with templates that allow you to drag and drop graphics, photos, text, links, etc. Across platforms, reoccurring features within an email include:

  • Subject Line: the title of your email
  • Preview: the pre-header that shows in your email inbox
  • From Address: who is sending the email (i.e. Mark Fleming, [email protected])
  • Email body: the bread and butter of the email; where all the content lives

To improve workflow, the aforementioned platforms allow marketers to create email templates that can be reused or customize the type of layout. This means that you can create an HTML email that looks like it’s a professionally designed print flyer or you can keep the email as simple plain text. Both of these designs can be the better choice, depending on the scenario.

While there is a lot to cover on the fundamentals of design, I won’t go to in-depth in this guide (keep an eye out for future blog posts though).

Types of Email Campaigns

Email marketing campaigns are broken into two distinct buckets: manual and automated.

Manual Campaigns

These are similar to sending regular emails. You need to draft and design content, enter that content into the email platform, select recipients, and send the email. While this process takes longer, you will have greater control over your content. In particular, manual campaigns are used when content cannot be easily replicated. Emails such as nonrecurring event invitations and company announcements are common examples.

Automated Campaigns and Drip Sequences

Automated campaigns, on the other hand, are some of the most powerful functions performed by marketing departments. These are emails that are automatically sent to certain customers or prospects. They are typically the result of a trigger (which I discuss in more detail below). Automated campaigns are typically used when content is similar for all recipients, except for a few customized merged fields (i.e. first name, order amount, location, etc.).

When a company builds an automated email campaign that uses logic or multiple emails, this is called a drip sequence. Based on the actions a consumer takes, a company can send highly targeted emails that can help provide greater value to customers and streamline the sales cycle.

The Basics of Triggers

With automated email campaigns, they are not possible without triggers. Triggers are some sort of parameter that is used to segment a population. They help power automated emails and nurture sequences because, they allow contacts to meet said parameters in real time. An example of this would be “everyone who has opened an email in the last month.” An email could be automated to every contact who fulfills this parameter.

When sending automated emails, these parameters can be combined to create unique and highly engaged segments of an audience. Additionally, they can be used to power common types of automated emails such as purchases, new contact welcome emails, and event registrations.

In the example below, I demonstrate an example of a drip sequence.


The top blue circle represents an email that is sent to a company’s full audience. If a customer answers yes on a button within the email, this will trigger a second email (represented in green). Based on whether the customer answers yes or no and engages or does not engage with the email, data will be appropriately collected on the customer. This will determine who receives the next email campaign (highlighted as the second blue email).

Data Management

Data Collection in Email Marketing

A customer relationship management system (CRM) is a tool that allows companies to manage all relationships with customers. They are powerful tools that operate at the heart of many businesses and enable sales teams to be successful. Additionally, these tools are built in with your email provider (i.e. Hubspot) or connected through an integration (i.e. Marketo and Salesforce). This allows email marketing efforts to not only help marketing teams, but rather the whole company.

With email marketing, the goal is ultimately to drive sales, but the data collected through email can inform product decisions. Whenever a customer engages with an email, most email software products will automatically collect action data such as opens, clicks, subscribes, unsubscribes, registrations, etc. These all will feed back into the company’s CRM to help business leaders better understand their customers.

Adding and Removing Contacts

In my recent article on lead magnets, I discussed the ways that a company generates email leads through submission forms. If you haven’t had the chance to read this article, check it out. Submitting some sort of form—whether a website form, webinar registration, or discount sign up—should create contacts within a company’s CRM. Once this form of engagement occurs, your company has the okay to send this contact an email. It’s that easy. As long as your company is not purchasing mailing lists from harvesters, your company is flexible to send emails to prospective customers.

On the other hand, customers are typically removed from mailing lists when they unsubscribe or change their preferences. An unsubscribe is an opt-out, where they notify your company that they do not want to receive any further messages at all costs. The client’s ship has sailed. For preference changes, the individual still wants to receive emails, just certain types of emails (i.e. they want to receive discounts but not the company newsletter).

To conclude this section, let’s discuss the most important part of adding and removing contacts. This is CAN-SPAM compliance. Simply put, this is a law that standardizes email sending procedures. There are a handful of parts that you can survey in the official Wikipedia page, but the main takeaways are:

Unsubscribe compliance

  • A visible and operable unsubscribe mechanism is present in all emails
  • Consumer opt-out requests are honored within 10 business days
  • Opt-out lists also known as suppression lists are used only for compliance purposes

Content compliance

  • Accurate “From” lines
  • Relevant subject lines (relative to offer in body content and not deceptive)
  • A legitimate physical address specified in email
  • A label is present if the content is adult

Sending behavior compliance

  • A message cannot be sent without an unsubscribe option
  • A message cannot be sent to a harvested email address
  • A message cannot contain a false header
  • A message should contain at least one sentence
  • Unsubscribe option should be below the message

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Categories, Segments and Tags

In each platform, how you can segment your total population varies. Some systems have you create mailing lists. Others call these activities. Depending on the system, this language will vary, but the core concepts are the same, and they all can be used to power your automation in unique ways. For the sake of this post, I will use Mailchimp’s framework.

  • Categories: Divisions within your population that typically include product, location, active/non-active customer, etc. These are broad categories that create distinct, semi-permanent lines between your audience
  • Segments: These are filters or your typical “mailing list.” These are typically used to segment mailing lists for newsletters, alerts, events, and other regular emails
  • Tags: These are typically yes/no fields that are sometimes referred to as activities. In Mailchimp, these are commonly referred to as flexible temporary fields. These could include event registration, search parameters, and other customer attributes.

There are a thousand ways your company can target and segment an audience, but understanding the ways your platform can segment and your business goals is the ultimate priority.

Performance Analysis

After an email campaign is sent, you will never know how truly successful it is until you measure engagement through performance analysis. This is simply understanding the metrics that tell whether your campaign was successful or not.

Basic Metrics

If I were to suggest five metrics to understand in email marketing, these would be the five most basic that everyone should understand. They are the foundations of email marketing:

  • Open Rate - The % of your audience that opens your email
    • Higher rates mean your campaign is getting received by your audience, which indicates the list is healthy
  • Clickthrough Rate (CTR) - The % of your audience that clicks your email
    • Higher rates mean more recipients are acting on the email by clicking; you should always measure what recipients are clicking
  • Unsubscribe Rate - The % of your audience that unsubscribes from your campaign
    • Higher rates mean more recipients do not want to receive your communications; if this is increasing, you may be sending too many or not applicable emails to your audience
  • Bounce Rate - The % of your audience that fails to receive your email
    • Higher rates mean your list contains inaccurate email information. Contacts who frequently bounce should be removed or verified for accuracy
  • Sales Conversion Rate - The % of your audience that is converting on a sale
    • Higher rates mean your emails are converting to more sales

Hard Hits vs. Soft Hits

While maximizing sales conversion rates needs to be a priority for companies, too heavy of a focus on this can jeopardize brand and user experience. As so, a strong email campaign needs to find the right balance of prioritizing hard hits (i.e. sales-focused metrics) with soft hits (i.e. engagement metrics such as CTR). By keeping both of these high, you will be able to ensure favorable content is appearing for your whole audience and that they are receiving valuable content as well as making purchases.

A/B Testing

In email marketing, the ultimate way to measure performance testing is through A/B testing. A/B testing is simply conducting a science experiment with a control group and experimental group. Just like you learned in science class. For email marketing, this means that the control group is sent to a random selection of recipients while the experimental group is sent to the other random selection. This can be used to test the color of buttons, subject line, plain text vs. HTML, or even wording within a paragraph.

With these tests, you are simply trying to determine which group generates higher conversion rates, CTRs, etc. Some of the best email campaigns in the world have refined their campaigns to near perfection by conducting these tests hundreds of times.


Phew - that’s a lot to think about. Any of these single areas can easily become a rabbit hole for your company. As you build your email marketing platform, remember to consider the big picture of your email marketing strategy. How does this fit into your sales goals, branding, and larger integrated marketing plan? Nailing down the basics and having a defined goal will be key to greating a great jump start.

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