A Primer for Effective Email Marketing

The following is a guest post by Scott Cohen, Marketing Copywriter at Western Governors University. Scott writes and manages copy for the university’s public website, email marketing campaigns, and direct mail campaigns. Scott also writes on his personal blog and contributes his opinions and critiques on email marketing on The Email Zoo Blog. You can connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

“Email is the fastest, most flexible, cost-efficient, personalized, and targeted communication medium in the world today.”

-  Peppers and Rogers Group

Email marketing, when done right, delivers the highest return on your investment (ROI) of any marketing medium available. It’s inexpensive, easy to send, and provides the quickest way for someone to see what you have to offer—provided it’s done right. Here are some simple ideas for getting the most out of this lucrative, personalized medium.

Establish Your Email Strategy

Not to be confused with tactics, I strongly suggest deciding how you want to use email to reach your marketing goals. Are you going to use email to speak to prospective students? Their parents? How about your alumni? All of these audiences can be reached with email, but think carefully of how you want to use the medium to get your message across.

At WGU (where I work), we use email almost exclusively as an enrollment aide. Emphasis is given to personalization of messages, and strong calls-to-action are used to guide recipients to the online application form.

This is a critical step before diving into sending/crafting emails.

Respect Your Subscriber

It’s critical to remember that email is an opt-in marketing method—meaning people must give you permission to email them. It’s not just best practices; it’s also the law.

Respecting your customer also speaks to proper segmentation of your message (which I’ll go into greater detail below), and sending the right frequency of messages. Now if you were to ask the industry professionals, “How many emails in a week/month/year is the right frequency?” You’d likely get a response that runs in the neighborhood of:

“[Sigh]… it depends. Test, test, test.” (I’ll speak more to testing later as well.)

That said, knowing what the saturation point is will be left to you. So track complaints and feedback from the end users carefully and adjust as needed to ensure you keep your reputation intact.

Segment Your Audience Properly

A colleague of mineDJ Waldow, wrote that the “Perfect Email is like the Perfect Meal:”

“The perfect email is like the perfect meal. You know it when you see it. You know it when you taste it. In order to send the perfect email you must: Send timely, targeted, relevant emails to subscribers who have asked for them.

For the university marketer, segmenting means you can base the content of your message(s) on:

  • Degree or program of interest
  • Sports interest
  • Extracurricular activity
  • Parents or students (particularly useful for traditional bricks-and-mortar universities)
  • Geo/Demographics (Age, Gender, Location, etc.)

Really, whatever criteria you use to distinguish between your students and prospects internally can be used as segmentation strategies for email. Just be sure whatever segmentation you use speaks to your overall email strategy.

Keep in Mind How Subscribers Encounter Email

When I attended the Email Evolution Conference in February, the Email Design Workshop was incredibly useful, particularly in clarifying how subscribers encounter email. Subscribers view your email in the following order (provided they open and read your message):

1. Sender Name and Address

Be sure to use a sender name that is recognizable. (Ex: admissions@university is better than admit103457@university). Use this sender name consistently (unless you have developed multiple “voices” and the rapport to use them properly—but be sure to test a ton if you go this route). Avoiding individuals’ names is a good idea as well. But perhaps most importantly, be sure your brand is clear in your sender name.

2. Subject Line and Snippet Text

Subject line length is everything. If it’s short, you’ll get opens. If it’s long, statistics say your click-through rate is better. (Deciding on what your key metrics are will dictate which route you take most likely.)

Snippet text is the 40-75 characters from the top of the email message that get placed next to the subject line in Outlook, Gmail, and Mobile Devices. Good snippet text can significantly improve your email metrics.

3. Images Off.

Over half of all email inboxes block images in email by default. If you’re sending a message that is just one giant image, you could be in trouble. How you bypass this suppression:

  • Mix HTML text with the images. Be sure to have your HTML text carry the crux of the message—namely the call to action (CTA).
  • Provide Alt-Text on the images.
  • Use “Preheader” text that carries your CTA as well as possibly a link to where your completely visible message can be seen on a webpage.

4. Preview Pane. 7 in 10 use it. Bear in mind the smaller window and place critical information “above the fold.”

5. Full message.

Deliverability—Getting into the Inbox

You can have the best email message in the world. But if it doesn’t reach the inbox, it won’t matter. Deliverability is dependent on a number of factors, including:

  • How many messages were accepted/rejected by top ISPs and corporate domains
  • Email authentication (DKIM, DomainKeys, etc.— I won’t dare try to explain these)
  • Content (though not so much anymore)
  • HTML Code (Code MUST be perfect, or spam filters will find it)
  • Speed of the send (if you’re sending too many messages in too little time, you’re dinged)
  • Unsubscribe rate, mail blocks, and abuse complaints

Your best bet for ensuring solid deliverability and having the wherewithal to improve your metrics in this capacity would be to use an Email Service Provider or go directly to:

  • ReturnPath
  • Pivotal Veracity

As a university, though, the .edu does boost your deliverability reputation almost immediately. But it’s really easy to destroy your reputation, and a ton of work to bring yourself back, so be careful!

Test test test!

Perhaps the greatest advantage of email marketing is the ability to test. You can test based on segmentation, creative content, sending times; pretty much anything you can think of, you can test rather easily through email.

And since the answer you’ll get from every email marketing professional you meet is “It depends,” there’s no better way to find out for yourself how your email marketing is doing except through testing.

Resources You Can Use

Here are the resources I use for email marketing. They’ll probably be helpful for you as well:


  • Blue Sky Factory Blog
  • Bronto Blog
  • Email Experience Blog
  • Red Pill Email
  • Smith-Harmon Email Blog
  • Email Wars
  • Retail Email Blog


Photo: Paint delivery by Tim Zim

 A Primer for Effective Email Marketing

29 Responses to “A Primer for Effective Email Marketing”

  1. Says:

    Hey, Kyle. This is a great piece you’ve written. And it looks as though you’re a very prolific writer.

    I’d love to share this or other content with our readers at 60 Second Marketer. We have readership across the globe and our guest content providers include dozens of names you’d be very familiar with.

    Can you let me know if you’d be interested in re-purposing this or other articles on the 60 Second Marketer site? We would, of course, provide all the requisite links back to you.

    Jamie Turner

    • Says:

      Hey Jamie,
      I hate to come off the wrong way here, but did you actually read the post? It is a guest post written by Scott Cohen which is clearly stated right at the top of the article. If you would have spent 60 seconds on the post I think you would have seen this.

  2. Says:

    Hi, Founder— Yes, I read the post. In fact, I took a deep dive into the .eduGuru site because the content looks very good. But my brain just didn’t click in when I saw Scott’s name at the top and your contact links at the bottom.

    In any case, no harm, no foul.

    I’ll reach out to Scott separately, so thanks for clarifying that.

    How long have you guys been doing .eduGuru? I have some contacts at Emory University in Atlanta who might be interested in what you’re doing.

    Jamie Turner

    • Says:

      No problem. Started “guru” as a new years resolution inand been plugging along ever since. As you can see the site outgrew my narrow vision and my single contributions. Hopefully it’s become a great resource for Web people in Higher Education specifically and anyone who works on the web in development or marketing in general.

  3. Says:

    I know what you mean about a site outgrowing your initial vision. That’s what’s happened with the 60 Second Marketer, too. Not that I mind.

    You’ve got a lot of great content here that would be useful to people in and outside of the education space. I’ll be sure to talk up your site — I think it’s a great resource.

    Also, I have a meeting with my friend at Emory University next week. I’ll bring it to her attention, too, and perhaps there’s some way for you all to benefit from knowing each other.

    Keep up the good work.

    See you,

  4. Says:

    your article is really help for me as a new blooger….

    thank you for writing…


  5. Says:

    Great article, it’s always nice to be reminded of the proper strategies to implement when developing an email campaign.

  6. Says:

    Scott’s point about respecting your subscriber is important. Many companies just send sales pitches to their subscriber. You are building a relationship and need to add value.

  7. Says:

    Thanks for the useful thoughts, Kyle. Undoubtedly, e-mail marketing is one of the most effective online marketing methods. However, we must first needed the verification of the email owners first, as we don’t our mail to be classified as “SPAM mail”.

  8. Says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments. The most important things to remember are Respect your Subscribers and TEST.

  9. Says:

    Great post on effective email marketing. I 100% agree that establishing your email strategy must be one of the first steps completed.

  10. Says:

    Sometimes I’m weary on signing my email up because marketers can sometimes offer you promotion after promotion. There’s not really enough good content. They’re just interested in selling their stuff. I already have a list but I think I can’t manage them anymore.

  11. Says:

    Blonde is dumb comedy, red hair is smart, sexy comedy.

  12. Says:

    Email marketing is my preferred way of selling products coming from the affiliate programs that i have signed up with. it just takes time to get a good mailing list

  13. Says:

    I have checked out a few of your posts and found some great information, just wanted to say thanks there is so much garbage out there, it’s nice to know some people still put time into managing there sites.

  14. Says:

    Email campaigns have helped out company in many ways. You definitely need to respect the client. No one likes garbage emails. Add value and provide good content and a good deal or product.

  15. Says:

    Thanks for the explanation, I never do email marketing before this should be good start.

  16. Says:

    I’ve been doing most of this stuff for some time with my clients, but you make how to implement a god strategy very clear.

  17. Says:

    The old maxim is that “the money is in the list”.
    It really isn’t, the money is in the relationship you have with your list. Cultivating a real, honest, trustworthy relationship with your list is the key.
    It’s not always big number lists that you require, it is the ability to target your audience with an offer that solves a problem or fulfills a need. If your list trusts and respects you aswell your conversions will increase.

  18. Says:

    what about female DJ who’s trying to make it in the music/DJ industry how would you go about this i am 17 female into hard house i have a pair cdj 400 and djm 400 mixer running vir dj via a lap top

  19. Says:

    Informative article. I really enjoyed it.

  20. Says:

    One wordpress plugin that I find useful is Commenter Emails. Every time someone post a comment to your blog, it collects the email and put it in a list. Saves time.


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