What is Email Marketing? A Guide to Digital Marketing’s Not-So Secret Superhero

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With modern-day digital marketing strategies aplenty, there are tons of ways to use the internet to put your business front and center. One method, in particular, remains just as important today as it was when it was created, way back in 1971: email marketing.

Skip to 2021, and this golden oldie is still a formidable vehicle for driving sales, building engagement, and nurturing customer relationships. In our opinion, it’s a marketing must, and – even better – you won’t have to pay a ton of money to reap its rewards.

Have we got your attention? Good! Email marketing isn’t set to go anywhere, so it’s smart to get a handle on it now. However, using this channel as part of your marketing strategy is a bit different from sending the occasional email to your colleagues.

In this guide, we’ll help break down what email marketing is and how it works. We’ll also show you exactly why you should be using it, and how to get started with your very own email marketing strategy!

What is Email Marketing?

Email marketing is a form of digital marketing that involves sending emails to a list of users that have consented to receiving correspondence from your business.

Often, these emails are promotional, but they can also be informational. From boosting conversions and driving traffic, to cultivating a large and loyal base of followers, the purpose can vary widely.

On the surface, email marketing might not sound like the most exciting of marketing channels, but things have come a long way from boring, text-dominant sends. Nowadays, email marketers are embracing high-impact designs, as well as making the most of personalization and segmentation.

How Does Email Marketing Work?

So, now that we’ve covered what email marketing is, it’s time for us to dig into the technicalities of how this digital marketing staple actually works.

Email marketers use an Email Service Provider (ESP) to create and send emails to their subscriber lists. These ESPs are also known as email marketing platforms.

Mailchimp is a popular ESP that lets you create high-quality email sends

Now, you might be wondering why you can’t just use your personal email inbox when sending to your subscribers. It’s a good question that’s worth digging into a bit.

In the simplest terms, personal inboxes just aren’t built to support the level of sending that you’re likely to be doing when rolling out an email marketing strategy.

Firstly, you’ll struggle to create emails that have the slick and polished aesthetic you’d expect from a professional business. Unless you’re a coding maestro, creating anything beyond a wall of text will prove challenging. ESPs usually feature a drag-and-drop format that makes it simple to design something that both looks good, and accurately reflects your brand.

Secondly, if you send your emails from a regular inbox, they’re more likely to be labeled as spam. If you’re lucky, they might end up in the receiver’s junk folder, but it’s more likely they won’t even get that far. ESPs are usually approved by Internet Service Providers (Google, Yahoo, Hotmail and the like), so they’ll come with a ready-made positive reputation.

Lastly, ESPs usually have their own analytics features, which allow you to check the open rate, click-through rate, and general performance of your emails. They also let you segment your user lists based off of this data, so you can send more personalized emails.

Further Reading

Looking for an email service provider? Don’t sweat it! We’ve done the hard work for you and compiled our 6 Best Email Marketing Services, so you can find the one that’s right for you.

Types of Emails

Modern email marketing doesn’t adopt a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach. On the contrary, there are a number of different types of emails that you can send as part of your email marketing strategy, each of which fulfils a different purpose.

Below, we’ve provided some examples of different emails you can send, as well as what they’re best for.

Promotional Emails

The most common use of email marketing is to send promotional emails. These usually contain a special offer or a call-to-action (CTA), and their purpose is to increase sales.

Grammarly promotional
Grammarly places its promotional offer at the center of its email design, and gives readers a clear CTA to click on

Promotional emails are often brightly colored, and draw attention to the discount or deal on offer. The layout of the email will lead the reader down to that all-important CTA, so they have a clear idea of what action to take next.

These emails can be sent on their own, or as part of a campaign. Usually, marketers will schedule in at least a few reminder emails after the main send, so that the promotion remains fresh in their subscribers’ minds.

Informational Emails

Email marketing isn’t just about drawing attention to the newest discounts – it’s also about promoting your brand. This is where informational emails come in.

Newsletters and announcement emails fall under this umbrella, as their sole purpose is to raise brand awareness and keep engagement levels up.

Zendesk Informational
Zendesk uses its ‘Library’ newsletter to share its latest posts, and increase visitors to its website

Often, informational emails will contain links to your latest website posts, so they’re a great way to increase traffic to your site, and therefore give your business more exposure. In fact, according to the Content Marketing Institute, 31% of B2B marketers cite email newsletters as the most effective way to nurture leads.

Transactional Emails

Both promotional and informational emails are considered to be ‘commercial’ sends, however, there’s another type of email that tends to sit outside of this bracket. These are called transactional emails, and they serve a different purpose to their commercial counterparts.

Slack Transactional
A welcome email is a great example of a transactional send – Slack use these to confirm registration and provide some starting tips
AirBnB Transactional
Receipts or confirmation of purchase also count as transactional emails

Whereas a commercial email is sent to try to make a sale or build engagement, transactional emails are sent in response to a user action – such as making a purchase or signing up for something. These emails don’t typically contain any commercial features, such as a CTA or special offer.

The Benefits of Email Marketing

Given that email is fast approaching its 51st birthday, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it might be redundant in the current fast-paced world of digital marketing. However, it’s more relevant than ever – and boasts a long list of benefits.

Drives Traffic and Boosts Conversions

99% of email users check their inbox every day – and if that kind of eager anticipation doesn’t signal a receptive audience, we don’t know what does! If you can get even a fraction of those on your list to open and click your emails, you’re well on your way to driving traffic to your website, and boosting your conversions.

Using a good mix of promotional and informational emails will help encourage your subscribers to use your emails as a springboard to your website. And the more visitors you get, the more likely you are to make a sale!

Insights From the Experts

“Small businesses found it difficult to boost their sales last year and this year. However, email marketing is one of the most effective strategies to increase sales, especially if traffic to your store is down significantly.

If they receive a timely offer, some clients will make a purchase decision. Adding urgency to your offers and providing big discounts or free shipping are great strategies to turn a subscriber into a buyer.

Additionally, email marketing can be an effective strategy to upsell existing clients. Customers who haven’t purchased in a while can be re-engaged. You can encourage your audience to buy from your company by creating personalized and targeted offers for customers on your email list.”

Sep Niakan is the managing broker of Condo Blackbook

It’s Affordable

Out of all the marketing channels you can pick from, email marketing delivers the best return on investment (ROI), averaging a return of $42 for every $1 spent. That’s equivalent to a whopping 4200%!

Even better, getting started with an email marketing platform doesn’t have to cost the Earth. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t have to cost anything. Mailchimp and Sendinblue both offer free plans, so you can test their services before committing to a paid package.

It’s Scalable

The good news is that email marketing isn’t all or nothing. Most email marketing providers offer a tiered pricing structure, so you can choose the band that is most relevant to your business. As your brand – and your email list – grows, you can upgrade as necessary.

A good email marketing provider should also offer a basic level of automation (at the least), so as your reach increases, you can use workflows to manage your emails. This means you won’t have to physically hit the send button for each one, making it much more efficient.

Offers Personalization and Segmentation

Nowadays, personalization isn’t something that consumers like to see: it’s something that they expect to see. And we’re not just talking about including their first name in your copy – although that’s a good start!

Using email marketing allows you to take personalization to the next level. Analytics provide a window into your users’ behaviors, so you can see what they like and what they don’t, giving you the knowledge to segment them and send them more of what they want.

The results speak for themselves: marketers who use segmented campaigns have seen up to a 760% increase in revenue. This is down to the fact that a personalized email experience is more persuasive than a cookie-cutter template that has little or no relevance to certain groups of your subscribers.

Insights From the Experts

Brian Dean“Most marketers would gladly pay to ensure that their money was only going to people who were interested in their brand. However, email marketers can take it a step further by sending emails just to subscribers who fulfill particular criteria.

If a franchise only has an offer available in particular parts of the country, it is simple to arrange for emails to be sent just to people who live in those areas. If there is a sale on sporting products, only those who have expressed an interest in sports will receive an email.

Brands that want to learn more about their subscribers must use email list segmentation to their advantage. Being a digital marketing professional, I strongly believe marketers who employ this strategy have higher engagement rates as a result.

The old ‘spray and pray’ strategy of sending the same email to every subscriber or customer is no longer effective, and the organizations that get the best results from email marketing segment their data and campaigns to guarantee that they’re sending the most appropriate message to each individual.”

Brian Dean is the founder of Exploding Topics. Exploding Topics uncovers trends before they take off. Thousands of companies (including Shopify, Google, Apple, and Netflix) use Exploding Topics’ data to inform decisions on products, investments, and more.

Gives You Full Control

Social media is the darling of the 21st century, but its fickle nature makes it a particularly tricky channel to master. Because its feeds are managed by algorithms, there’s no guarantee that your post will be seen by your target audience.

Email is much more straightforward. Assuming that your email sends have a good reputation, most of them will make it into your recipients’ inboxes. Plus, their higher levels of personalization mean you’re more likely to receive a positive response from your audience.

It’s no surprise that 4 out of 5 marketers said they’d rather give up social media than email marketing – the latter gives you more control over your campaigns!

Insights From the Experts

Caroline Hoy“Email marketing makes so much sense for businesses because, aside from SEO, it offers unparalleled control. You are the owner of your company’s email list because it is something you have built out organically. Social media marketing and paid ads, on the other hand, depend on algorithms to give you exposure, which is not under your control. The reach, control and personalization of email marketing are what continue to make this channel so important and widely used.”

Caroline Hoy is the head of PR and Marketing at Concord, an SaaS developer providing contract management software to over 500,000 companies worldwide.

Build Relationships

Once a customer clicks away from your website, it won’t be long before your business leaves their mind forever. You need to work that little bit harder to carve out a foothold, so that they’ll come back to you when they need you.

Email marketing is a great way to stay present in customers’ thoughts – a regular email in the inbox will stop them from forgetting about you. Bit by bit, you’ll be able to build a relationship with them so that they become your first choice.

Before you know it, you’ll have a whole community of customers, who look forward to reading your emails!

Plenty of Room to Get it Right

You’re never going to get everything right on the first try, which is why A/B testing is so useful. This is when two different versions of an email are sent to your email list, with half of your subscribers receiving the ‘A’ email, and the other half receiving the ‘B’ version. You can then see which email variation performs better.

This is a great way to get your emails into a cycle of constant improvement, based on data from interactions with real-life subscribers. Rather than just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, A/B testing allows you to check that your emails are the best they can be, and it allows you to try out some of those wackier ideas without so much risk attached!

Paul Sherman, the Chief Marketing Officer at Olive, recommends using testing not only to nail your strategy, but to get to know your customer base better, too:

“Owing to the nature of email marketing, feedback is near immediate, and can be readily put into practice for further testing and tweaking. Perhaps you’re making small changes to your email’s subject line and want to see the change it makes to your open rate. Or, you might choose to experiment with two slightly different calls to action (CTAs) to see which one results in a higher conversion rate.

The great thing about email marketing is that it’s multifaceted – not only are you communicating directly with your target audience, but you’re learning more about that audience by doing so. You can retain what works well, and discard what doesn’t.”

Are There Any Downsides to Email Marketing?


In an ideal world, every email you send would end up in your subscribers’ inboxes. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, and deliverability can turn out to be your worst enemy.

Deliverability is what marketers use to measure how likely their emails are to reach the inbox, and it can be affected by a whole host of factors. Mostly, it boils down to whether or not an Internet Service Provider (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) thinks your emails are spam.

If this decision goes against you, all of your carefully designed sends will end up in the junk folder, and no one will read your perfectly curated subject lines.

Multi-Device Optimization

This isn’t a downside per se, but it is something you need to think about. Over half of internet traffic comes from mobile devices, which means your emails need to be optimized for phones and tablets.

Sometimes, this means you might need to rethink your layout, or the size of the images that you include. You’re likely to lose subscribers much faster if your design is only suitable for desktop, but is horribly distorted when opened on a mobile device.


Although automation can take some stress out of coming up with an email marketing strategy, you’re still going to have to devote quite a lot of time to creating the emails in the first place. Automation only takes care of the sending part – the email creation is all up to you.

If you’re a one-person startup, or your team is quite small, finding the resource to dedicate to this task can be quite tricky. The good news, however, is that you only have to do it once, so after the initial setup, you just have to focus on keeping it all up-to-date.

Insights From the Experts

Mike Jones“The best thing about email marketing, for us, is the personalization we can create, both based on personal data we have for each recipient but also based on the behaviors they take – on our website, with our staff, and elsewhere. This allows our email marketing to bring them the right message at just the right time (not to mention the efficiencies gained through automating these processes).

That said, there are certainly challenges to email marketing. Inboxes have never been more full of messages, and so our messages can certainly get lost in the mix if we’re not strategic with our timing, subject lines, and frequency. And, of course, we need to always provide value for our subscribers. This means constant creativity to produce content that really helps people as they consider partnering with us on their own brand strategy.

At the end of the day, email marketing is crucial to our success. We’ve been able to grow our business significantly in the past 4 years (when we got really serious about email marketing). And we’ve been seeing a definite positive response from those who engage with our content. I regularly get kudos from subscribers to our email newsletter for its depth and value of content.”

Mike Jones is the CEO of brand consultancy, Resound.

How to Start Email Marketing

Now that you know what email marketing is, how it works, and what benefits it can bring to your business, it’s time to explore the good stuff: how exactly do you start email marketing? It’s actually much simpler than you might think, but still requires a bit of planning.

  1. Choose an Email Service Provider

Before you can start email marketing, you need to pick an ESP to manage your emails and your subscribers. To help you make your choice, and narrow down your options, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s your budget? ESPs have a range of different plans on offer. However, they usually have a standard plan with the cheapest monthly cost.
  • How many subscribers are you planning to have on your list? Typically, ESPs organize their plans by contact list size – so if you know you’re going to have a larger list, you’ll need to opt for a more advanced plan.
  • Do you know how many emails you’re going to send? Different plans often offer different sending volumes, so make sure you pick one that has enough capacity for your purposes.
  • Do you need automation? If you’re keen to automate your email sends, check that your chosen ESP supports email workflows – not all of them do!
  • How much tech know-how do you have? If you’re a relative newbie, look for an ESP with a drag-and-drop builder. These make it easier to design good-looking emails without needing to use code.

Unfortunately, we can’t tell you which one to pick – that all depends on your needs – but we can make some suggestions!

Our top three email providers are GetResponse, ActiveCampaign, and Mailchimp. All three are super easy to use, but we recommend ActiveCampaign for dedicated marketing professionals. If you’re just starting out, both GetResponse and Mailchimp are great choices, but Mailchimp is particularly good if you run an ecommerce business, thanks to its integration with platforms like BigCommerce.

  1. Build Your Email List

Once you’ve chosen your ESP, the next step is to build your subscriber list. The best way to do this is by making sure your website contains at least one email capture box. This can either be in the form of a pop-up, or can be built into the design of your page, just so long as your users can enter their email address and sign up.

H&M Sign Up Page
H&M has a whole page dedicated to its email sign up process

When you create your signup box, make sure that you provide some way for users to give consent to receive your emails. It might sound silly (surely putting their email address in is consent enough?) but it’s important that you capture their explicit consent for you to hold their personal data, so that you can be sure you’re not accidentally breaching data protection guidelines. This is especially important if you’re planning to send emails to Europe, because of GDPR legislation.

If you want an example of what this looks like, take a look at the H&M capture form above. You’ll see a little tick box just before the final sign-up button.

Good to know…

It can be hard work building an email list, but it’s worth it in the long run – after all, you’ll end up with a dedicated list of subscribers who are genuinely interested in what you’re sending. As a result, your engagement metrics are likely to be much higher.

However, you might see certain services that offer to sell you a subscriber list. Although this is a quick way of sourcing a complete set of email addresses, we recommend that you don’t do this under any circumstances. Although it’s not illegal, it’s a highly questionable practice that can affect your email deliverability and overall reputation.

Plus, because none of those people have specifically opted in to receive emails from you, they aren’t going to care about what you’re sending. Your engagement metrics will plummet, and your email marketing strategy won’t have the effect you were hoping for.

  1. Create Your Content

The last step in the process is to start creating your email content! Each ESP is slightly different, but they should all come with an editor that allows you to build your emails, whether through HTML or drag-and-drop.

Mailchimp Editor
Mailchimp uses a drag-and-drop editor, allowing you to drag elements into your template from the menu in the right-hand sidebar

We recommend creating a welcome email to begin with. This is the first email your subscribers will see when they sign up to your list, so it’s worth spending some time on. Make sure you remind them who you are, and let them know what they can expect from your emails.

If you’re not sure what you want your emails to look like, turn to your own inbox for inspiration! It should be full of brands and companies that you admire, and there are bound to be a few ideas that you can test on your own sends!

Top Tip! 

Users like a consistent experience when interacting with a company, so make sure that you choose a design, font, and color scheme that matches your website branding. Not only will this look nicer, but it’ll also help to build a positive connection between your subscribers and your business.

Further Reading

Email Marketing Best Practices – check out our 11 email marketing best practices for top tips on how to make your strategy the best it can be!

What is Email Marketing: Summary

And that’s it! Email marketing is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but its age doesn’t mean you should ignore it in favor of more modern methods. In fact, we think this veteran has more than earned its place in the digital marketing hall of fame, and after reading this article, we bet you agree!

We can’t wait for you to dive into the world of email marketing, and build your own successful sending strategy. Make sure to come back and tell us all about your experiences in the comments section below – we want to hear how you get on!


Keep testing! A/B testing is a massive part of email marketing, and is central to making sure your sends are current and engaging. It’s the perfect way to try new things, without having to worry about losing your entire subscriber base.

Make sure you also keep an eye on your own inbox. The industry is constantly changing, and the first sign of a new trend can often be found in the emails you receive from your favorite brands. If you see something you like, why not test it on your own emails?

There’s no straightforward answer to this – they both have their pros and cons! Social media is easier to share, so there’s a chance that your posts could go viral, but email marketing is arguably more dependable, and has a higher ROI.

Ultimately, though, you don’t need to choose between them. The best marketing strategy is often omni-channel, which means that you can use both social media marketing and email marketing if you want to!

This depends on your business and your resources. Emails don’t create themselves, so it’s smart to start small. This will help you track the impact of your sends, and give you plenty of time to create new ones.

We recommend sending between two and three emails a month to begin with. Once you’re comfortable with that, you can increase your sends to once, or even twice, weekly.

You can buy a list of email addresses, but that doesn’t mean you should do it. It can have a negative impact on your deliverability and your engagement metrics. If you only send to a bunch of recycled email addresses that haven’t actually consented to receiving your content, you won’t see the kind of ROI or customer interaction that you want.

Building your own list might take longer, but the results, in the long run, will make it worth your while. Plus, subscribers that you collect yourself will be less inclined to complain about your emails – or mark them as spam – which will help improve your deliverability.