In one year, Tanya Dalton grew her business to seven figures in sales by focusing mostly on email as her marketing channel.
Courtesy of Tanya Dalton

  • Email marketing is for business owners who want to control how they connect with customers.
  • Two entrepreneurs who rely heavily on email to drive purchases shared what works for them.
  • They suggested business owners personalize content and focus on providing value over making a sale.
  • This article is part of “Marketing for Small Business,” a series exploring the basics of marketing strategy for SBOs to earn new customers and grow their business. 

Email marketing can be a boon for business owners, providing one of the most direct ways to communicate with potential customers.

“We decided to invest in email first when starting our business because we’d get to own the list forever,” Katie Test Davis, who founded the communications agency Forthright Advising in 2019, told Insider. “With other social media platforms, the algorithm changes impact how often people see your message. I felt email gave us more control. That decision aged well.”

Katie Test Davis.
Courtesy of Katie Test Davis

In addition to connecting with customers, email marketing can convert readers into customers. When Tanya Dalton, a productivity consultant, was launching her direct-to-consumer planner company, InkWell Press, in 2014, she was able to grow to seven figures in sales in 14 months by focusing mostly on email as her marketing channel.

But customers who get a flood of emails from random businesses end up sending most straight to the trash. How can you prevent your email from being one of them?

Dalton and Test Davis shared with Insider the strategies they use to create smart email-marketing campaigns that generate results.

Provide value first, make asks later

Dalton said one of the biggest mistakes people make is sending only promotional emails to their subscribers or emails that directly ask customers to purchase or sign up for a product or service.

A better approach, she added, is thinking about email marketing as a relationship-building tool: Spend more time providing value to your subscribers by sharing quick tips and actionable strategies, and you’ll likely generate more sales in the long run.

“People buy from people that they know,” Dalton said.” If you’re just using your email for ads, you’re missing out on that opportunity to connect in a deeper way with your customers.”

She said she aims to provide “good content” to her subscribers with emails that dive deeper into the productivity topics she covers in her podcast, share bonus downloadable content, and give some behind-the-scenes looks into what’s happening in her world.

“It’s about building trust with your customers,” Dalton said. “That way, when you’re ready to make a sales pitch, your subscribers feel like ‘Gosh, you’ve given me so much already,’ and are open to hearing what else you have to offer.”

Test Davis said she made it her goal to provide her email list content that was immediately useful and addressed customers’ biggest problems, such as ways to handle hard questions from reporters or a worksheet to help businesses decide whether to speak out about breaking news.

“We get feedback from our subscribers all the time along the lines of, ‘Wow, this came at the perfect time,'” she said.

That feeling leads to results. Forthright’s average open rate is 44.65%, data reviewed by Insider indicated. The industry average for public-relations organizations in 2019 was 21%, according to the email-marketing platform Mailchimp.

Test Davis recommended using your expertise as a business owner, listening to what customers are asking you about, and digging into the data to provide content that excites subscribers. “We partner with an SEO firm that shares what people are searching for both on our site and in our industry,” she said. “When those search terms align with what we’re hearing in the field, we’ve got something golden.”

Make your emails personal and personalized

The more human and less corporate you can make your emails feel, the better. “We found that sending our emails from a person instead of from an organization really improves our open rates,” Test Davis said.

Dalton said that bringing her voice into her emails had made a difference, inspiring her to switch from having someone write her emails to doing it herself. “I try to add a lot of fun and personality to my emails, and people really resonate with it,” she said.

Making sure each email a subscriber receives feels personalized can also make a difference. While small-business owners may not have the time and technology to do sophisticated email personalization, segmenting your lists and sending only relevant emails to each list is a start.

“Our subscribers can tag themselves based on their role at their company — that way I can make sure I don’t overwhelm anybody with things that don’t apply to them,” Dalton said. For instance, a small business owner and a manager at a large company might appreciate different productivity advice.

Test Davis uses the same strategy at Forthright. “I think part of the special sauce is that we try to be thoughtful about who can use what information and when,” she said.

Lean into what works for your audience

Email-marketing advice from other businesses or business owners can only go so far. In the end, you have to try things and figure out what fits your specific audience.

For instance, Test Davis said she’s found that clear and to-the-point subject lines — such as “Four tips for communicating with your board” — lead to the best open rates; her busy and overwhelmed clients prefer knowing exactly what they’re going to get when they open the email.

“I would go blatant and literal over clever any day,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dalton said she finds more success when she leaves her subject lines a bit more vague. For instance, a recent email about productivity strategies you think are helping but are actually hurting was titled “I was eating a Snickers bar for breakfast and didn’t know it.”

“Intriguing subject lines make my customers want to click to open and find out what’s inside,” she said.

It’s all about tracking and following the data. “Looking at email metrics holistically matters because you may find a surprising audience behavior that can improve your emails going forward,” Test Davis said.

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