Email Marketing Best Practices: 11 Tips for Real Results in 2021

Our independent research projects and impartial reviews are funded in part by affiliate commissions, at no extra cost to our readers. Learn more

The first email might have been sent way back in 1971, but unlike bell-bottoms and vinyl jumpsuits, this marketing method has stood the test of time.

It might be old-school, but email marketing is still leagues ahead of more modern channels. When used correctly, a savvy send strategy can generate up to a 4400% return on investment. Plus, with around 83% of consumers preferring to use email to interact with brands, it’s a surefire way to nurture relationships with potential customers.

But a huge return on investment is by no means guaranteed. In fact, there are plenty of common pitfalls – and if you get it wrong, you could kill any potential benefits before you can say ‘subscribe to my mailing list’.

Luckily, we’ve got everything you need to get off to the perfect start. Our guide will take you through our top 11 email best practices, arming you with everything you need to tap into the many benefits of email marketing.

best practices information

11 Best Email Marketing Practices

  1. Give your users a warm welcome
  2. Optimize your send time
  3. Harness the power of personalization
  4. Keep your email list clean
  5. Give users an out
  6. Make sure emails render correctly
  7. Hook users with your subject line
  8. Keep your design consistent with your brand
  9. Keep your copy snappy
  10. Test, test, and test again
  11. Automate and audit

Further Reading

If you want to get started with email marketing, but aren’t sure which provider is best for you, check out our comparison of the best email marketing services.

Looking for something more specific? We’ve also broken the platforms down into the best email marketing services for ecommerce and the best email marketing services for small businesses so you can find the right one for your brand.

How to Measure Send Strategy Success

There’s no doubting that email marketing gets results, but it’s essential to know how to measure them.

There are a whole host of useful metrics out there that can help with this. They act as a window into your email performance, and help to identify areas for improvement, too.

Below, you’ll find the key metrics each budding email marketer should know about – and when they’re most useful!

Open rate shows you exactly what it says on the tin: how many of your users are opening your emails. It’s a good indicator of how well your subject lines are performing.

A good email open rate is anything over 25%, although if you’re hitting over 20%, you’re on the right track.

Your click-through rate measures how many times your subscribers click on links and buttons within your emails. It’s useful in judging the effectiveness of your email copy and content design.

Don’t worry if your click-through rate is lower than your open rate. Convincing users to click on a call to action (CTA) is a bigger ask than getting them to open the email! The average is 2.5%, but this can vary depending on the industry you work in.

Once your user clicks on your CTA, it’s up to your landing page to bag that final conversion. But it’s useful to know how many of these conversions come from the emails you send.

Conversion rate is calculated by dividing the number of people who completed the desired action by the number of delivered emails. Similar to click-through rate, this is likely to be a lower percentage than open rate.

Your average conversion rate can vary from 1% to 5%. It depends on the industry you’re in, as well as the type of emails you send. For example, newsletters will have a lower conversion rate than an abandoned cart reminder.

A bounce happens when your email is rejected by your user’s internet service provider (ISP). This means your send never reaches their inbox in the first place.

This can be frustrating, but your bounce rate helps track how often this is happening. The higher your bounce rate, the likelier there’s a problem with your email content.

Unlike with open rate and click-through rate, a good bounce rate is one that’s as low as possible. Because of this, it’s hard to put a definite number on it, but the lower the better.

Every email inbox has a button labeled ‘Report Spam’. When users click this, it’s known as a complaint – and it’s not good news for your sender reputation.

Users who complain are automatically removed from your list, but worse still, ISPs will start to view your sends as spam. If your complaint rate gets too high, certain providers might even block you completely.

Your complaint rate should be below 0.1%, but again, the lower the better.

Unsubscribes happen when users choose to leave your email list. Unsubscribes aren’t always a bad thing, though – indeed, users should unsubscribe from your mailing list rather than remain as unengaged users, which can drag down your open and click-through rates. Unsubscribes keep your sender list healthy.

However, a sudden rush of unsubscribes can also indicate there’s a problem with your emails. We recommend monitoring them when you make a big change to your send strategy or your design. If a ton of people leave, you know your new approach might not be what your users want.

Top Tip:

If you want an even deeper understanding of how your emails are performing, try segmenting your data. You can split your users in several ways, such as gender, age, location, or even what kind of device they access their emails on.

From this, you’ll get a clear snapshot of where your most engaged users are, and you can tailor your sending strategy to target them more effectively.

When it comes to email marketing metrics, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Collecting data is easier now than ever before, giving you plenty of opportunities for analysis.

But not every metric is going to be relevant to your business. Try taking a step back and asking yourself what you want your emails to achieve. This will help you to decide the best way of measuring your success.

And if you want to see those metrics skyrocket, our 11 email marketing best practices are sure to help. We’ll give you a full breakdown of these so you know exactly how to get the best out of your email sends.

Email Marketing: 11 Best Practices

Getting email marketing right isn’t something that happens without a little elbow grease.

Turning your emails into valuable conversions will be a gradual process. We know getting started can be the hardest part, but our 11 email marketing tips will help you whip your send strategy into shape.

1. Give Your Users a Warm Welcome

Signing up to an email list is like visiting a restaurant for the first time – you don’t know what you’re going to get until you sit down and place your order. Email works on the same principle, and your welcome email is the first dish your users will sample.

A friendly welcoming email is the first step in building a trusting relationship with your customers. It helps to:

  • Reintroduce your business – this is the first impression your subscribers will have of you, and it’s the perfect chance to reintroduce yourself. Remind your users what it is you do and what you can offer them. It’ll put them at ease, and stop them from reporting your following emails as spam.
  • Set their expectations – your welcome email is also a chance for you to tell your users what they can expect from you. Use it as an opportunity to signpost when they might receive their next email, and maybe even give them a hint of what it might contain.
  • Engage them – welcome emails typically have a 50% open rate, so this is the ideal opportunity to drum up some excitement and get your users engaged. Make sure you’ve got a convincing CTA in there too, so they know exactly where to go after your introduction wins them over.
Hubspot Welcome Email Example
This welcome email from Hubspot reintroduces the brand and the benefits of the tools it offers. It also contains lots of CTAs, all leading down to a big ‘Upgrade My Account’ button, giving users plenty of chances to click through to the next stage of their journey.
Top Tip: 

Some users might not interact with your welcome emails. This could be because they didn’t mean to sign up or aren’t particularly fussed about your brand beyond their initial interaction. This might seem harmless enough, but having inactive users in your list can hurt your deliverability. Consider using a double-opt-in system that requires users to confirm their interest before you send them their welcome email. This way, everyone you send to has confirmed they want to receive communications from you.

2. Optimize your Sending Time

Your welcome email might be your first send, but it (hopefully) won’t be your last.

If you haven’t given much thought to the exact timing of your following emails, or even how frequently you’re going to send them, don’t worry. Plenty of people make the same mistake, but these two things are crucial to how well your emails perform.

So, when is the best time to get your emails seen? 

Studies show that 11 am on Tuesday mornings is when users are most engaged. Mondays and Wednesdays come in a close second place, but one thing’s for certain – the further through the week you go, the lower your open rates will be. And when the weekend rolls around, your chances of a successful conversion dwindle even further.

The key takeaway? Send your emails earlier in the week if you want to perk up your marketing metrics and score more opens.

Top Tip:

If you’re not using Send Time Optimization (STO), try scheduling your emails a few minutes before or after the hour, rather than 11 am on the dot.  This way, you won’t be fighting with quite so many competitors, and your catchy subject lines have a better chance of convincing users to open. Plus, it’ll make your sends seem natural and human which will only reflect well on your brand.

Consistency is key. Once you’ve chosen your ideal sending time, stick with it. Not only will your users come to expect your emails, but it also boosts your reputation so inbox providers don’t automatically label everything you send as spam.

Some email marketing platforms, like Mailchimp, take the stress out of this by offering a send-time optimization (STO) feature. This means they’ll work out the best time for your emails to land in your subscribers’ inboxes so you don’t have to.

3. Harness the Power of Personalization

Now that your emails are going to start making a regular appearance in your users’ inboxes, it’s time to really get to know your subscribers.

Imagine that you receive two letters through the mail.

The first one is addressed to ‘The Occupier’, whilst the second has your name printed clearly at the top. We know which one we’d be more likely to open first!

The same can be said for emails. Subject lines that are personalized generally have an open rate that is 50% higher than those that aren’t, while personalized CTAs also convert 202% better than their generic alternatives. These stats alone prove that it’s definitely worth getting personal with your users.

But email marketing is ever-evolving, and nowadays, including your user’s name in your email copy is an industry standard. If you want to reap the rewards of personalization, you’ll need to dig a little deeper.

The best email marketers make the most of their database by sending emails based on a user’s previous actions. Maybe a user clicked on a link, but didn’t convert – this is the perfect opportunity to send them a retargeting email, designed to convince them to take that next step. This is just what ASOS has done below.

ASOS Email Example
ASOS makes the most of its retargeting opportunity, including not just one product but six, giving greater brand coverage and providing more opportunities for users to convert.

You don’t even need to wait for your users to interact with your brand to tailor your sends. If you collect various data points like age, location, and gender through your email subscription process, you’ll be able to segment users based on these characteristics. From here, it’s simple to adjust your sends so that they have a higher chance of appealing to a specific demographic.

62.26% of users experience feelings of happiness and excitement when they receive a personalized email – and happier customers are more likely to convert. A successful send strategy starts with building trust between your business and your database, and personalization is a surefire way to score top marks here.

4. Keep Your Email List Clean

Deliverability certainly isn’t the most glamorous part of email marketing, but it’s one of the most important elements. What good is spending hours creating emails if no one gets to see them?

Maintaining your email list hygiene is crucial if you want to get your emails into inboxes and avoid those pesky bounces.

So what is list hygiene?

This is the practice of cleaning old or inactive subscribers from your email list. Don’t worry, you won’t need to roll your sleeves up and crack out the disinfectant – it’s not that kind of cleaning.

Keeping an eye on your subscribers’ behavior is a good way to monitor your list’s overall health. We’re talking about opens, clicks, and conversions. These are the metrics that ISPs dig into when deciding whether your email should be allowed a spot in the inbox or not.

When it comes down to it, keeping your list clean is quite simple. Prioritize users who open your emails and click on your links regularly, but unsubscribe those who don’t demonstrate regular engagement. Your list size might get smaller, but this isn’t a bad thing. When it comes to deliverability, quality comes before quantity.

Expert Advice-Ben Griffiths

Advice From the Expert

‘Following best practices with your content will only get you so far when it comes to getting in the inbox the major ISPs are looking for an engaged subscriber base who are opening and reading your emails. So make sure you’re maintaining a healthy list by removing users when they stop engaging, and setting the expectations of new users when they sign up for your emails. Buying a list of subscribers may seem like an easy route, but this will likely cripple your domain’s reputation!

Ben Griffiths

CRM Manager at Survey Compare

Good to know…

If you send emails to subscribers in Europe, it’s worth making sure you’re clued up on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is a piece of legislation that requires you to collect clear and specific consent from your European users. If you don’t have this, you can’t send them emails. This isn’t required for American subscribers, but it’s good practice all the same.

5. Give Users an Out

There comes a point in every email journey where users disengage with what you’re sending. This is natural, and you shouldn’t take it personally! But you should make sure there’s an easy way for these users to unsubscribe.

If there’s no clear way for users to opt out of your emails, not only will they hang around and bring your OR and CTR down, but they might do something worse – hit that big old ‘Report Spam’ button at the top of almost every email inbox.

This is the last thing you want them to do. Luckily, featuring a clear unsubscribe link minimizes this risk. Most emails include this at the bottom of their emails in the footer, although you might find some at the top by the logo too.

The New Yorker Email Example
The New Yorker’s footer is a great example of how to weave an unsubscribe into your email. It clearly explains why the user is receiving the email, before giving them various options to manage their email preferences.

Remember, your users shouldn’t have to search too hard to find your unsubscribe link. Unsubscribes aren’t your enemy, and in the long run, they’ll improve your email performance and deliverability.

6. Make Sure Your Emails Render Correctly

Is there anything more annoying than receiving an email with HTML errors or broken image links all over the place?

These aren’t huge mistakes, but they can seriously affect your customer’s experience, and make your emails appear unprofessional. Plus, they give both your users and the ISPs a reason to question the credibility of your business.

Checking how your emails render on mobile devices is also important. Around half of internet traffic is mobile, so it pays to make sure your emails look good no matter where your users are accessing them. The ISPs will appreciate this too, and you’ll have a higher chance of avoiding that dreaded spam tag.

Most email marketing software platforms allow you to test your emails before you send them, so you can double-check they render properly and don’t contain any errors. If your chosen software doesn’t offer this, Litmus is a great alternative – it even offers a free seven-day trial, so you can try it out before you invest.

7. Hook Users With Your Subject Line

You’ve heard the saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, right? Well, with your emails, this kind of thinking goes straight out the window. In the world of ferocious inbox competition, the one thing your users are going to judge is your subject line.

It’s the main thing that controls your open rate, determining whether your subscribers open your email or scroll right by it.

Writing a good subject line can be tricky, especially because they’re so short. The average subject line should be no longer than nine to 10 words, or around 41 characters.

But don’t panic – there are a few rules you can follow to get the most out of your limited space.

Ace-Your-Subject-Line Checklist
  • Get to the point – cut out unnecessary words where you can, and always go for the simplest way of saying something. Fight against the urge to overcomplicate. The only thing you’ll do is lose your user’s attention!
  • Use powerful language – the words you choose are important. Keep them short and direct for the biggest impact. Using words like ‘now’ and ‘today’ inspire urgency, whilst promoting a ‘free’ tool acts as a great hook. Questions are also powerful ways of encouraging users to open.
  • Don’t shout – if you don’t want to find yourself in the spam folder, don’t overuse exclamation points, and stick to lowercase. Instead of making your email stand out in the inbox, users will go out of their way to avoid opening it.
  • Make use of the preheader – your preheader is a good way to extend your subject line and give more detail on your email without spilling over the character limit.
  • Personalize – including first names and user locations is easier than ever, and that’s not all. The data you collect can give you an insight into the specific needs of your customers so you can tailor your sends to them. If you make them feel special, they’ll be intrigued enough to open your emails.
  • Don’t mislead users – overpromising or outright dishonesty is not the way to build lasting relationships with potential customers. Sure, it might make them open your email, but when they realize you can’t deliver, they’ll disengage – and might even report you as spam at the same time.
Bobbi Brown Subject Line
Bobbi Brown uses numbers for a short but high-impact, attention-grabbing subject line. They also cleverly use the limited preheader as a way to encourage users to read on to get the special offer – another technique to encourage opens.
Top Tip:

Your subject line isn’t the only thing that your subscribers will see when your email lands in their inbox – 42% of people said that the first thing they look at is the sender name.

If you haven’t already, ditch the ‘noreply@’ sender name. It tells your users that you don’t want to hear from them, and creates distance between them and your business. You won’t come across as a customer-focused brand, and if you can’t be bothered to open their emails, why should they open yours?

Giving your sender a persona makes them more human, so your subscribers are more likely to open. If you consistently send your emails from Yourname@thebestbusinessintheworld.com, your subscribers will come to associate her with your brand – and the ISPs will recognize this address as a regular inbox resident, too.

8. Keep your Design Consistent With Your Brand

Designing your emails is, arguably, the best part of setting up email marketing. It’s the perfect opportunity to stretch your creativity and capture your users’ attention with your artistic abilities.

But before you get carried away, remember that your emails aren’t separate from the rest of your business – they’re an extension of it.

Most of your email database will have signed up through your website, which is where your brand shines through in all of your color and layout choices. Your emails should mirror this, so that your customers feel confident that they’re dealing with the same people throughout the whole of their user journey. Plus, brand consistency boosts your credibility and professionalism – two things that are key to successful email marketing.

Apple Email Example
Apple is well known for its mastery of white space and clean lines. It’s a key part of its brand and it’s reflected in its emails, creating one seamless user experience.
Top Tip:

Avoid the urge to clutter. It might seem scary, but white space can do wonderful things for your brand image. It’ll minimize distraction, making your message and your CTAs pop.

9. Keep Your Copy Snappy

Did you know that, on average, recipients spend less than 14 seconds reading an email? That’s not a lot of time to convince them to take the plunge and become one of your paying customers. So it’s important that you use your time wisely and nail your copy.

Many of the same principles that make a good subject line will also come in handy when finetuning your email copy.

Snappy-Copy Checklist
  1. Be concise… but that doesn’t mean boring

Having fun with your message, and even sharing personal stories with your email list, is a great way to remind readers that you aren’t a robot.

  1. Break it up

Use logical paragraphs and keep them short. This means your recipient doesn’t have to work too hard to understand what you’re trying to say.

  1. Address your users’ pain points

Your product or service should offer them something new, or provide a solution to an old problem. Acknowledge this, and show why clicking on your email is a good idea.

  1. Get into your reader’s mind

You might be surprised to know that psychology can be very effective in email copy. Fear of missing out (FOMO), social proof, and color association are just some of the ways you can influence your reader.

  1. Get visual 

Why say something when you can show it? Images break up your copy and add a burst of color, helping readers to maintain focus. But make sure you have an even balance of text and pictures – your email shouldn’t be a comic strip.

  1. Make the most of CTAs

Your CTAs need to be effective in their design and their placement. Keeping them short and action-driven will make readers more likely to click them. Positioning them regularly throughout your email will also give your reader multiple chances to convert. Take a look at our top tips if you want to write high-impact CTAs.

Papa John's Email Example
Papa John’s has done a lot right here. Numbers in the headline, coupled with the vibrant red of the font, are a great way to highlight special offers, drawing recipients into the rest of the email where the image-to-text ratio flows and makes for easy reading.

10. Test, Test, and Test again

This is the golden rule of email marketing.

It’s unlikely that you’ll get everything right the first time, especially when you’re still learning and getting to know your audience. That’s what makes A/B testing such an important tool.

A/B testing is every email marketer’s best friend. It involves sending two versions, or variants, of an email to your database. Half of them – the ‘A’ group – will receive the normal email. The other half – the ‘B’ variants – will be sent an alternative template. Sending them alongside each other gives you the chance to compare their metrics and see which performs better, keeping your content fresh and up-to-date.

It’s a proven way to find out what content your email list enjoys and engages with best.

And that’s not the only advantage of testing regularly. If some of your most important metrics have taken an unexplained dip, running a series of tests can help you to refresh and revitalize content without having to risk your overall performance. If it isn’t already, testing should be part of your usual email marketing processes.

All of our favorite email marketing platforms allow some degree of testing, but Mailchimp gives you the most freedom over what you can test, including your subject lines, content, and send time optimization. We’d recommend taking a look at our in-depth review if you plan to get creative with your A/B testings.

Top Tip:

Your own inbox is the perfect place for inspiration! Email marketers are constantly trying new things to engage their potential customers. If you see something you like, adapt it to your own emails and test it. You never know – it might be the very thing you need to push your send strategy to the next level and boost those conversions!

11. Automate and Audit

As your business grows, so will your email marketing. But just like an award-winning chef can’t cook every dish that leaves their kitchen, you’ll need some help to manage all of those email sends.

This is where sending automation is worth the investment. All email marketing platforms offer some automated features, allowing you to create an email journey for your subscribers. This means they can funnel through without you needing to manually hit the send button, saving you tons of time and allowing you to focus on other areas of your business.

Mailchimp Workflow Example
Mailchimp allows quick scalability through automated workflows. You can send different emails based on subscribers’ past actions. If you need to change something, its journey map editor is intuitive and excellent for quick adjustments.

Although automation is perfect for a growing business and doesn’t require constant attention, it will need some maintenance now and again. We’d advise you to plan regular audits to check that your emails are still performing well, and that there aren’t any problems with your sequences.

Summary: 11 Email Marketing Best Practices

Like all marketing channels, email can take some time to get right. But once you do, it’s a time-saving way to grow and connect with your subscribers whilst driving real value for your business.

Our 11 email marketing best practices will help you get off to a strong start. Here’s a quick recap of them all so you can begin implementing them into your send strategy right away:

  1. Give your users a warm welcome – use your welcome email to make the most of their early engagement and secure those conversions.
  2. Optimize your send time – sending at the right time is the lever you need to pull to make your open rate and click-through rate soar.
  3. Harness the power of personalization – making users feel special is the best way to build brand loyalty and increase your conversions.
  4. Keep your email list clean – this will help you avoid the junk folder and boost your performance metrics so your emails actually get into the inbox.
  5. Give users an out – make sure your unsubscribe link is clear so unengaged users don’t hang around and drag your engagement metrics down.
  6. Make sure emails render correctly – this will reduce the risk of users marking your emails as spam and sending them to the bin or junk folder.
  7. Hook users with your subject line – subject lines are the one barrier between your users and potential conversions, so make sure to use a variety of tactics to stand out from the competition and generate more opens.
  8. Keep your design consistent with your brand – your emails are still part of your brand, so their design should mirror this, reinforcing your authenticity.
  9. Keep your copy snappy – keep it short, snappy, and action-driven. If it’s the length of War and Peace, they’ll never get round to clicking those all-important CTAs.
  10. Test, test, and test again – testing lets you experiment with your sends minus the risk, so you can find the content your audience likes best.
  11. Automate and audit – as your business grows, this will become more important, allowing you to focus on other areas of your brand whilst your emails run themselves.

Investing in email marketing is an exciting step in your business journey, and now you have everything you need to get started. We’re excited to see how your database grows, so take a deep breath and get sending!