Introduction to email marketing

Using email to reach customers is a very targeted method, but make sure you have their consent and your message is relevant, says Greg Brooks.

Email marketing is one of the mainstays of any online marketer’s armoury. The cost-effectiveness of the medium and its ability to reach a wide audience are often promoted as two of its main benefits. But it’s also easy to run bad email campaigns that can damage your brand. So knowing how to run successful email marketing campaigns is vital to the success of your online marketing strategy.

How to get started

The best place to start your email marketing campaign is to determine what your objectives are. Are you trying to generate new business, inform existing customers, or move customers along the purchase cycle? Your answers will determine everything about your campaign.

When you know what your objective is, you must determine how to get the data that you need to contact your customers. If you’re targeting your existing customer base, it would be wise to start with your own customer data, which you should be building up anyway.

Mark Cripps, head of digital at agency Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel, has been telling his clients that 2006 is the year of the data farm and that they should be making the most of the contact they have with their existing customers.

Every time someone touches your brand, you must get their email addresses – with permission, of course,” he says. These will be the most valuable to you, he argues, as these customers have already given you permission to contact them.

It’s all about permission,” he adds. “Email is such an intrusive medium that if you don’t have permission, people won’t open messages and you’ll alienate them. You can use third-party lists to supplement your data and piggyback on trusted emails through sponsorship or advertising.

Buying lists

If you wish to launch a large-scale email campaign or tap into a new potential customer segment, then you can buy a third-party list of email addresses to send your campaign to.

Jim Downes, who works at BT Retail in the customer information management division, uses digital and direct media planning/buying agency Zed Media to source third-party lists to supplement the telco’s existing marketing programmes. He says that the best way to ensure your third-party data is from a trusted source is to make sure the supplier is endorsed by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA).

We endorse permission-based marketing,” he says. “You want to get the most consent you possibly can prior to launching your campaign. Stay away from anything that comes from a grey source and go for Direct Marketing Association-registered suppliers only.

Richard Gibson, chair of the email benchmarking hub at the DMA, says that using the Association’s trusted suppliers ensures you won’t risk damaging your brand when buying in a third-party list.

The damage to your brand by using a bad email list will be enormous,” he says. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Due diligence is key. List suppliers that aren’t registered with the DMA should be avoided.”

Creating your emails

When you’ve decided on your strategy and sourced your data, you need to concern yourself with the format of the emails themselves. This process can be handled in-house if you’re a smaller brand and are launching a small campaign, but more often you’ll need to use either a creative agency, an email service provider (to send the emails), a planning agency, or a mix of all three of these.

Stefanie Schmidt, group account director at DNA, which works with large organisations such as the British Heart Foundation, says that it’s important to give the recipient of the email as much control over it as possible, in order to make the communication more effective.

You can put recipients in control by allowing them to pick the topics and frequency of communication,” she says. “People who more consciously opt in will give you a better database of prospects or existing customers.

She says that email is a medium that allows for quick testing and tweaking, so you can get your messages right. Even if you have relatively little experience in this area, you shouldn’t be afraid of trying things out.

It’s about testing and learning and getting results that inform further strategy,” says Schmidt. “It’s not that scary. There are lots of similarities to direct marketing, which is a good starting point. Consider it as a ‘drive to’ medium that also has other elements.”

Rupert Harrison, list broker at Zed Media, agrees that you have to test as you go along, because you won’t know what works until you try it. He says it can be handled in-house as long as you can match the branding of your other channels to your email communications. But there are also plenty of agencies on hand to help. He also points to free online tools like, where you can test out the ‘spaminess‘ of your email to ensure it’s not blocked by junk-mail filters.

The benefits of bringing in an agency include the ability to make your email marketing work together with your other marketing channels, using emails to uplift other marketing messages and to create spikes of interest around certain products or at particular times during the year. If you do decide to use an agency, or even a range of agencies, it’s important to include them at the earliest planning stages and to ensure they meet your existing agencies so that you get maximum benefit from your email marketing.

However you decide to proceed, there’s still a lot of work that you can do in-house upfront. Everyone uses email these days, but marketers are often wary about paying for campaigns and trying new things. Try putting yourself in the consumer’s shoes and think about how you interact with emails you get from companies.

Measuring your success

The final component of your email campaign, but one that you should have in place before you start, is the ability to measure its success against whatever objectives you’ve set. BT’s Downes says it’s critical to have a reporting mechanism set up before you launch your campaign.

You want your email channel to show more return on investment than direct marketing channels,” he says. “But it’s valueless unless you can prove that ROI, and that proof can get lost in the ether sometimes.”

Harrison says that by correctly monitoring your email campaign you can tweak it to increase its effectiveness and so ensure you’re getting a good return on investment. “Lots of clients track only click-through rates and not who converts to a sale,” he says. “Have a look at the customer journey to see where the drop-off is. Then you can address the problem.”

However, the DMA’s Gibson says you can get too bogged down in metrics and lose sight of your core aims. “Measure your success against the objectives that you set out,” he says.


The efficiency and effectiveness of your email marketing campaign will be based on solid planning and knowing before you begin what objectives you want to achieve.

Gibson calls it ‘direct marketing 101’ but says that, although email is often considered a more cost-effective and cheaper form of direct marketing, it’s still very difficult to get your message read. “Your customer has an inbox that they guard very carefully and you have to be very clever to stand out,” he says.

Downes agrees that there’s more scope with email marketing to do bigger volumes, but says you still have to contact people who are receptive in the first place. “Keep your communication clear and simple. Email sits in front of people for a shorter time than other ads, so it has to be as brief and punchy as possible.”

If you approach your email marketing with a clear objective and target the right people with the right message at the right time, then it will undoubtedly be a success. But avoid thinking that it’s a simple form of direct marketing just because it’s cost-effective. It’s only as cost- effective as you make it.

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