What is email marketing & how does it work?

23 min

Despite its age, email marketing remains one of the most effective online marketing channels out there.

It’s affordable, easy to get into, and provides an unbeatable return on investment for big and small companies.

In this article, we cover everything you need to know to get started with email marketing – from how to set up your first campaign to the types of email marketing campaigns you need. But let’s start with the basics.

What is email marketing?

Email marketing is a form of direct marketing where you use emails to build relationships and sell products or services to your audience.

An effective email program will help keep your audience informed and engaged with your brand and its offerings. Also, it’ll help you turn window shoppers into customers and one-time buyers into loyal brand advocates.

Although email marketing has been around for over 50 years, it continues to generate an impressive return on investment – 3,800% as of 2021 – for thousands of marketers worldwide. This makes it one of the most effective digital marketing channels. It’s also suitable for businesses of all sizes – for small companies and mid-sized or large enterprises.

Example of email marketing templates.

What are the 6 key benefits of email marketing?

Before investing in email marketing, it’s worth learning about its advantages. These are six of the main benefits that make email marketing the perfect choice for your digital marketing activities.

1. Low cost

Let’s start with the most critical aspect – how much does email marketing cost?

To run professional email campaigns, all you need is an email list, a basic email marketing strategy, and an email newsletter software provider that’ll help you run your campaigns.

Most professional email service providers, like GetResponse, offer several plans based on the size of your email list (number of subscribers.)

For example, the GetResponse Free plan is completely free for up to 500 contacts. This package provides key features like email marketing, forms and popup builder, landing page creator, and many more. The paid plans start from as little as $15 per month.

But as with most marketing tools, you’ll see that some are more affordable, and others are more high-end. In most cases, this is related to the type of audience they’re targeting and the number of features included in the platform. 

Our recommendation is to evaluate your current and future needs. Then, pick a solution that aligns with those needs, giving you the most value at a reasonable price.

2. Full control

You have (almost) complete control over your email marketing communication.

You can choose what your marketing emails will say and look like. And since email is a direct marketing channel, you know exactly who’ll receive your communication.

The only thing you can’t fully control is your email deliverability. But if you follow email marketing best practices and engage your audience effectively, you won’t need to stress over your emails missing the inbox or hitting the spam folder. Speaking of inbox placement, it’s worth mentioning that the global average inbox placement is around 83%, according to the Return Path Deliverability Benchmark report.

Global inbox placement according to the Deliverability Benchmark Report 2020 from Return Path.
Deliverability Benchmark Report 2020. Source: Return Path

Unlike other digital channels where the organic reach is heavily dependent on ever-changing algorithms, email marketing gives you more control and a better chance of reaching your target audience.

Read more:
How to manage your email list the right way
How to improve your email deliverability
9 advanced email marketing techniques to try in 2024

3. Precision

One of the key benefits of email marketing is precision.

Unlike other marketing channels, when you send an email marketing campaign, you’re targeting people you already know and have their details in your contact list.

Starting from the basics, you can target specific segments like new subscribers, existing customers, or your most loyal customers.

When you decide to dig deeper into the analytical dashboards available, you can target specific email accounts that clicked on your call to action or visited your website but didn’t convert.When you want to turn it up a notch, you can run A/B tests to analyze which individual elements in your email campaign (e.g., subject line, call to action, offer, etc.) drive sales and which ones detract users from your key goal.

Email A/B test report showing how each of the message variants performed – GetResponse.
Email A/B test report showing how each of the message variants performed – GetResponse.

4. Easy to measure results

One of the best things about email marketing is you can integrate your email marketing software tool with online analytics tools like Google Analytics. This gives you a comprehensive overview of your email marketing efforts. 

Just add UTM parameters to your emails, and you’ll know exactly which email, subject line, or call to action button brought you the best results.

You can control the performance of individual emails in your email marketing tool’s statistics panel and then track user behavior on your website. You can set goals for individual email campaigns, track conversions, and measure the ROI.

Email analytics – analyzing email campaign performance.
GetResponse Analytics reports let you analyze your email campaigns’ performance with ease.

Essentially, email marketing tools make it so easy to know how much revenue you’re generating from each campaign. This makes it easier for you as a marketer to demonstrate the ROI of your efforts.

5. Email is scalable

Email marketing tools let you automate various parts of your communication.

You can send welcome emails, post-purchase surveys, cart abandonment win-back campaigns, and many other types of campaigns using simple drag-and-drop editors and prebuilt scenarios.

This saves you time in the long run and helps you engage your audience better, delivering them a more timely and targeted service.

Building a simple email automation workflow in GetResponse.
Building a simple marketing automation workflow in GetResponse.

6. Excellent return on investment

Email marketing keeps bringing the highest return on investment of all online channels.

According to a 2021 study by DMA, email marketing’s return on investment is 38:1 on average. This means that if you invest $1 in your email marketing activities, you’ll get, on average, $38 in return.

Of course, this is not a fixed number. The return on investment in your company will depend on various factors, including:

  • How big and engaged your email list is
  • How relevant and engaging the content you create is
  • How you create your email marketing campaigns along with all the assets (copy, designs)

And don’t forget, there are many ways to make money with your email list. It’s not just about selling your own products or services.

Let’s now show you how to set up your first successful email marketing campaign.

How to Plan and Send Your First Email Campaign.

Plan your first email campaign

Send emails with confidence. Grab this free guide and run email campaigns that generate results.

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Setting up your first email campaign

Here is a short step-by-step guide on how to get your first email campaign up and running. If you’ve never done this before, just follow these steps and make sure to note down your observations and track your results.

Email marketing is a long-term game. You’ll want to ensure that with every campaign you roll out, you’ll learn something new about your audience and what makes them ‘click.’

Prefer to see what this process looks like in GetResponse? Check out this video tutorial:

1. Choose an email marketing platform

Choosing an email marketing platform is the first step in building a successful email campaign. And, as it turns out, this is one of the most important decisions you’re going to make. 

Remember, email marketing is a long-term game. So, a wrong decision here could result in serious headaches and expensive mistakes down the road.

You may want to check out our full review of the best email newsletter software tools in 2024. But, basically, to find the single email marketing tool that’ll work best for your case, you’ll need to start by answering key questions like:

  • Who’s your target audience?
  • What’s the primary reason why you want to run email campaigns?
  • What’s the size of your email list, and what will it look like in, say, 6 to 12 months?
  • What types of communications are you planning to run?
  • What channels and tools are you planning to use?
  • What are the core capabilities your tool should offer?

It may sound like a lot of questions, but there’s a good reason for each of them.

GetResponse Email Creator.
How we use the GetResponse Email Creator to send our biweekly content newsletter

Some email marketing platforms have great ecommerce integrations, while others are a better fit for a B2B audience.

Some email marketing services are affordable when you’re just getting started but turn out to be expensive when you grow.

Some offer excellent automation capabilities, but their drag-and-drop email builder is super hard to work with.

And if you’ve already got a tech stack you want to work with, you’ll need to check whether the email marketing platform integrates with them seamlessly.

The good news is that most platforms offer a free account or a free trial period so that you can test them out. That’s why I’d highly recommend that you go around and do some first-hand testing to ensure that you find the best fit for your business.

Note: No matter which email marketing platform you choose it’s important that you send your email campaigns using your own custom domain and have implemented the right authentication protocols. This will not only protect your brand from potential phishing problems but also ensure that your emails get delivered well.

2. Build your email list

Of course, you cannot run an email campaign if you don’t have an email list in the first place. Also, email list building is one of the main ongoing tasks of an email marketer.

You want to attract a large and engaged audience to be able to communicate with them inside their email inboxes directly.

There are multiple ways in which you can build an email list. Let’s now explore the main tactics & tools you can use to acquire a high-quality list.

If you’d like to dig deeper, consider reading our complete guide on how to build an email list from scratch.

Lead magnets

You need a good reason to convince your target audience to sign up for your email list. Most people will want to receive something in return for their effort and the opportunity to contact them directly inside their inbox. That’s where lead magnets come in.

A lead magnet is an incentive you give in return for your visitor’s email address. Examples of lead magnets include an ebook, a checklist, or a free tool – but they come in all shapes and forms.

Our recent study showed marketers have seen the highest conversion rates with video (e.g., webinars) and written type (e.g., guides) lead magnets.

GetResponse Best Lead Magnets Study data on the lead magnets with the highest conversion rates.
GetResponse Best Lead Magnets Study

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t use other kinds of incentives. You’ll want to use various lead magnets depending on the type of industry you’re in, the type of audience you’re trying to attract, or the goal of your email marketing campaign.

To learn more about the most popular types or how you should choose the opt-in incentive for your business, read our guide to lead magnets.

Optin forms

An opt-in form, web form, or signup form is an HTML form installed on a website to enable visitors to sign up. This is the key mechanism that you’ll use to capture leads.

There are different kinds of opt-in forms you can use. The difference between them is usually about how or when they appear in front of your visitor’s eyes.

The most popular types of web forms include:

  • Embedded/Inline web forms
  • Popups and lightboxes
  • Exit intent forms
  • Scroll forms
  • Fixed bars
  • Welcome mats
  • Click forms

On your website, you’ll want to use a variety of different types of forms. The minimum you should aim for is an embedded form on every page of your website & pop-up forms on the pages that get the highest traffic.

When designing your web forms and choosing your lead magnets, think about what information you need to run an effective email marketing campaign.

Email popup example from Exploding Kittens.
Popup form example from Exploding Kittens.

It’s tempting to ask your audience for more information (e.g., their company name, website URL, or their budget), but the more you ask for, the fewer people will fill out your forms. Each additional input field will lower your subscription form conversion rates.To learn more about building your list with signup forms, read our post on effective lead capture forms and website popup examples. You may also want to watch the following video, where Andy Crestodina goes over the entire process of how to optimize your signup forms – including where you should place them, how to pick your CTAs, and what works for webform copy.

Landing pages

While landing pages can have various goals, there’s one specific type built solely for capturing emails: squeeze pages. 

Squeeze pages are designed to collect visitors’ email addresses. They contain just enough information to convince them to complete the form and keep them focused on that single goal.

That’s why most squeeze pages contain only the following elements (sometimes even fewer):

  • A headline that makes a promise and captures attention
  • A subheading that builds upon the promise
  • Key benefits of the offer and the lead magnet
  • The signup form
  • Additional elements increasing the conversion rate, like social proof or trust symbols
Landing page example Masala Body.
Squeeze page example from Masala Body.

As you can see, they’re much simpler than your normal website homepage. And that’s precisely why they’re so effective. The average conversion rate for landing pages is almost 6%, but it’s not unusual to see better results.

In one of our case studies, Alex Terrier, a jazz musician and a music teacher offering online music courses, describes how he’s gotten a 19% email signup rate thanks to free, high-quality content.

While landing pages can be placed inside your website’s navigation, marketers primarily use them to capture leads from external traffic sources, like paid social media campaigns, sponsored mailings, solo ads, and various content marketing activities.

If you’d like to learn more about using landing pages in your list-building campaigns – how to design them effectively & what could potentially hinder your conversion rates – you may want to check our beginners guide to squeeze pages and how to create landing pages that convert.

Paid ads

While you can use paid ads to drive traffic onto your squeeze pages, there’s also another way to collect emails without making visitors leave the page they’re currently viewing.

On Facebook, these are called Lead Ads. In Google, they’re called Google Lead Form Extensions. And on LinkedIn, you’ll find them as Lead Gen Ads.

Every platform has its own name, but the principle behind them is the same – they offer a simple way to collect emails from the platform’s users. And why is it simple? It’s because the platforms prepopulate the lead capture form with the email address the user’s signed with.

Facebook Lead Ad example.
Facebook Lead Ad example

While this significantly increases the conversion rates, it also has a downside. Most of us are signed into Facebook using our personal email addresses and not our business ones. So, if you’re interested in capturing a B2B audience, this makes the process more complicated.

That said, lead ads can generate impressive results. One of GetResponse’s customers, InfoShare Academy, used them to successfully capture 1200 new contacts in just one month and kept the cost per lead around $0.35. 

They achieved this by creating a highly relevant content piece (an IT Glossary Guide) and targeting people wanting to learn how to become a developer.

Okay, you’ve selected your email marketing service provider and built your initial email list, what next?

3. Segment your email list

We’ve mentioned how email marketing allows you to run targeted email campaigns as opposed to sending the so-called email blasts. It does so through the use of segmentation.

The purpose of email list segmentation is to identify cohorts or groups of customers that share common characteristics and tailor the communication to meet their expectations & needs better. 

You can achieve higher engagement and conversion rates by making your email communication more relevant. And not just by a fraction. 

According to the Email Marketing Benchmarks report data, personalized emails see, on average, an uplift of 28% in click-through rates.

How you’ll want to segment your audience will vary depending on the type of business you’re running or your email marketing campaign’s goal. 

For example, a nonprofit organization may want to look at the average donation size of their customers while an ecommerce brand may be interested in a segment that purchased in the last 90 days.

Stages of email list segmentation.
Stages of email segmentation

That said, most marketers segment their email lists based on:

  • Demographic information (e.g., gender, age, income)
  • Firmographic information (e.g., company size, monthly budget)
  • Psychographic information (e.g. people who share similar beliefs)
  • Contact behavior with communication (e.g. page visits, link clicks, email opens)
  • Contact buying behavior and purchase history (e.g. products purchased, products added to cart)
  • Contact stage in the buying cycle

To find out more about how to use contact information to improve your email campaigns, read our getting started with email segmentation and 9 super-easy ways to personalize your emails.

4. Set a measurable goal

The next step is to decide what you want to achieve with your email campaign.

For the purpose of this article, let’s say you want to create a welcome email that’ll greet your new subscribers and offer them a discount code for their first order in your online store.

According to our Email Marketing Benchmarks, the welcome emails have the highest engagement, open rate, and click-through rate:

Not to set the bar too high, let’s say your goal will, therefore, be to roll out a welcome email campaign that will generate an open rate of over 60% and CTR above 15%. Here are seven awesome examples of welcome emails to inspire your own.

5. Pick your target audience

You’ll now want to decide whom you’re going to send your email campaign. This goes back to the audience segments you created earlier.

In this case, it’s simple – the target audience will be every new person who joins your email list.

But it could just as well be anyone else, e.g., folks who’ve visited your store in the last 30 days but haven’t placed an order or people who’ve recently bought from you but didn’t leave a review.

Keep in mind who your target audience is before you run off creating copy and designing your email templates.

6. Create your email template

Now it’s time to put your creative hat on and craft that email.

Don’t worry, though. You don’t need to be a designer or a copywriter to create email campaigns that generate results. The most important element is to always think of your target audience and what objective you’ve set for your campaign.

Some of the email templates available in GetResponse
Some of the email templates available in GetResponse

If you’re using an email service provider like GetResponse, you can use the drag-and-drop email creator or customize one of the free templates that come out of the box. Using premade templates will save you a ton of time and ensure your emails look great across all devices and email clients.

If you want to cut down time designing and crafting your emails even further, you can use the AI email generator to create the whole email for you. All you need to do is tell it what your email campaign is about and whom you’re targeting with your message.

Here’s a quick tutorial explaining what this process looks like:

In our case, we want to greet new email subscribers and convince them to click through to the site and use the discount code we’ve given them. What this means is that your email needs to be welcoming but also draw the recipient’s attention to the main action you want them to take.

To do that, you’ll want to follow email design principles such as making your CTA prominent, sizeable, and surrounded by a reasonable amount of negative space. You’ll also want to pay attention to your copy and make sure it communicates the key benefits of your offer.

To explore these topics further, consider reading these two resources:

7. Schedule your email campaign

Once you’ve created the emails you want to send, it’s time to schedule them so that they’ll reach the right audience at the right time.

If you were to send a one-off email blast, you could send it immediately or schedule it for later. Additionally, you could adjust the send time to match your subscriber’s time zone.

In our case, we want to set up a simple welcome email, which we can do using a marketing automation template called “Simple Welcome Message”.

Simple welcome email workflow in GetResponse
Simple welcome email workflow in GetResponse

The workflow consists of only two blocks, where we must specify the email template we want to send and which list it should be applied to.

8. Measure and improve

As we mentioned before, you can’t run a good email program if you’re not measuring your campaign’s results.

If you’re sending a one-off marketing offer, give yourself at least 24 hours before you start analyzing your open rates, click-through rates, and conversions. This will give your recipients enough time to respond to your message and place their order.

When analyzing your results, keep in mind all the main factors that could have affected your results – the subject line, your offer, your target audience, the email template you used, the time at which you sent out the campaign, and any external factors that could also be important.

Take the timing of your email campaign as an example. Our recent study on the best time and day to send an email identified which hours and days correlate with higher opens and clicks.

Best Time to Send Email Global Results.

Equipped with that, you can start coming up with new ideas & planning your future campaigns that’ll generate even higher results.

Check out this guide to learn more about other email marketing metrics you’ll need to monitor to determine your campaign’s success.

We’ve used welcome email as an example, but it’s only one of the different types of campaigns you could run. Let’s quickly go through a few other examples.

Four types of emails you should send

When it comes to what can go into your emails, the sky really is the limit.

You can use email marketing throughout the entire customer lifecycle, with different kinds of objectives for each stage. Here, we’ll focus on the types of emails you can send based on how they’re sent and not what’s inside them.

If, however, you’d like to explore further the different content types you can include in your messages, consider reading these posts on the most interesting newsletter ideas & employee newsletter examples.

Newsletters and marketing offers

Most marketers use email marketing to communicate their offers and send regular updates regarding their company.

These types of emails are usually sent as a one-off campaign targeted to the whole of their audience (that’s when you call them an email blast) or a particular customer segment.

Newsletters are very popular and simple to run, but because you send them out manually, they tend to get lower engagement rates than triggered emails.On average, an email newsletter sees an open rate of 26.7% and a click-through rate of 2.13%.

an american giant email.
A fragment of an email from American Giant promoting their product as the best choice for fall

💡 Read more to learn how to create an email newsletter that engages your audience.

Triggered emails

Triggered emails or automated emails see much higher engagement rates. Their average open rate is around 44%, and click-through rate is above 10%. Why so much higher than newsletters?

What makes triggered emails so effective is that they’re sent in response to your contact’s actions. It could be after they signed up to your mailing list or after they left your website without completing the order. You decide when such emails get sent out.

But it’s not only the timing that makes automated emails powerful. It’s also about the fact that they’re super relevant. Most automated emails contain information specifically intended for the recipient who’s just performed some sort of action.

Example on a welcome email that's automatically sent to new email subscribers
Example on a welcome email that’s automatically sent to new email subscribers

To learn more about automated emails and see over 30 template examples, check out our guide to email automation.

Drip emails

Email drip campaigns or autoresponder emails are similar to triggered emails. You send them automatically, but unlike triggered emails, they follow a predetermined sequence and schedule.

Usually, marketers use drip campaigns to set up email courses, lead nurturing sequences, or onboarding sequences. 

Setting up an email sequence this way lets you keep your brand at the top of your audience’s mind and makes your content easier to digest.

Email drip campaigns are easy to create and tend to get pretty high engagement rates. Their average open rate is almost 30%, and CTR is almost 6%.

Email drip campaign promoting a special offer.
Email drip campaign promoting a special offer.

Here’s a handy email drip campaign guide if you’d like to find out more about setting up email sequences.

Transactional emails

Transactional emails are automated messages sent to individual recipients, usually in response to a transaction or user activity.

Transactional emails include order confirmation, shipping confirmation, password reset, and other types of automated emails.

Due to their nature, they’re very engaging and observe exceptionally high open and click-through rates.

The key difference between transactional and triggered emails is that transactional emails typically don’t include an unsubscribe link for recipients to opt out with.

Example of a transactional email (confirmation) from Huel.
Example of a transactional email (confirmation) from Huel.

Email marketing FAQs

What is email marketing for beginners?

Email marketing is the use of emails to build relationships and sell products to prospective customers. Email marketing is also used to promote customer retention and loyalty through sharing valuable content.

What are the 4 types of email marketing?

The 4 types of email marketing are triggered email, drip email, transactional email, and newsletter email marketing campaigns. These can be used to achieve different business goals. 

Can you make money from email marketing?

Yes, you can make money from email marketing. A DMA study shows that businesses can make an average of $38 for every $1 they spend on email marketing.

To learn more, read our guide on how to monetize your email list.

How much do I need to start email marketing?

You can start email marketing with $0. GetResponse lets you run free email marketing campaigns for email lists of up to 500 contacts.

Time to send your own email marketing campaigns

Now that you’ve learned the foundations of email marketing, it’s time for you to act.

If you feel you’re ready to start running effective email programs – to build and segment high-quality lists, design high-converting email templates, and continuously test and optimize your campaigns – I’ve got good news for you.

You can do all of this with one single tool. And it’s completely free for lists of up to 500 contacts – no credit card required.

If any of that sounds interesting to you, just sign up for a free trial & start making some real results.

Irek Klimczak
Irek Klimczak
Entrusted as Content Project Manager at GetResponse, Irek expertly and smoothly runs content marketing projects at all stages of the customer journey in Polish, Russian and English-speaking markets. He possesses more than 6 years of experience in online marketing with a broad teaching background. Irek regularly runs workshops covering digital marketing strategy and tactics, and has delivered presentations at many international events (e.g. Singapore, the US, UK, Poland). You can reach out to Irek and connect on LinkedIn.