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What is email marketing and how does it work?

17 min
Updated:

Email marketing is a type of direct marketing that involves using emails to build relationships with your audience and promote your products or services.

A successful email marketing strategy keeps your audience informed and engaged with your brand, helping convert potential customers into buyers and occasional buyers into loyal advocates.

Despite being around for over 50 years, email marketing remains highly effective, offering an impressive return on investment of 3,800% as of 2021, according to DMA. This makes it one of the most efficient digital marketing channels, suitable for businesses of all sizes, from small companies to large enterprises.

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.

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

To run effective email campaigns, you need an email list, a basic email marketing strategy, and email newsletter software to manage your campaigns.

Most professional email service providers offer various plans based on the size of your email list (number of subscribers).

For instance, the GetResponse free plan is completely free for up to 500 contacts and includes essential features like email marketing, form and popup builders. Paid plans start at just $15 per month.

As with most marketing tools, some email marketing platforms are more affordable, while others are higher-end. This usually depends on the number of features and integrations offered.

2. Full control

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

As email is a direct marketing channel, you can decide the content and design of your marketing emails and know exactly who will receive them.

While you can’t fully control email deliverability, following best practices and engaging your audience effectively minimizes the risk of your emails missing the inbox or landing in the spam folder.

Compared to other digital channels with fluctuating algorithms, email marketing offers more control and a higher chance of reaching your target audience.

The global average inbox placement rate is around 84.8% according to the Deliverability Benchmark Report 2023 from Return Path.
The global average inbox placement rate is around 84.8% according to the Deliverability Benchmark Report 2023 from Validity.

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

Email marketing targets people you already know and have in your contact list.

You can start by targeting segments like new subscribers, existing customers, or loyal customers.

Using a reliable email service provider, you can focus on specific subscribers who clicked your call to action or visited your website but didn’t convert.

For deeper insights, run A/B tests to determine which elements (e.g., subject line, call to action, offer) drive sales and which ones don’t.

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

No matter which email marketing tool you choose, you will be able to track your email marketing efforts.

Inside the dashboard, you’ll have access to all key metrics, such as open rates, click-through rates, unsubscribe rates, or spam complaints.

And if you want more insights, you can easily add UTM parameters to your links and analyze the impact of your campaigns in tools like Google Analytics.

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

5. Email is scalable

Thanks to automation, you can run successful email marketing campaigns even if you’re a solopreneur or part of a small team.

Using prebuilt scenarios and intuitive drag-and-drop editors, you can send automated emails, like welcome messages, win-back campaigns, or cart abandonment emails.

This saves you time and lets you scale your email marketing efforts without expanding your team.

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

6. Excellent return on investment

Email marketing consistently delivers the highest return on investment among online channels.

A 2021 DMA study found that email marketing’s average ROI is 38:1, meaning a $1 investment returns $38 on average.

Of course, 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

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How to set up your first email campaign

1. Define your goals and metrics

Goals

It might sound obvious, but having a clear goal is crucial. Think about what you want to achieve with your campaign.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Increase sales: Maybe you have a new product launch or a special promotion. Your goal here would be to get people to make a purchase.
  • Generate leads: If you’re in a service-based industry, you might want people to sign up for a consultation or download a free resource.
  • Promote content: Perhaps you have a blog, a new ebook, or a video series you want more eyes on.

Once you’ve figured out your main goal, it’s important to get specific. For example, if your goal is to increase sales, think about how many sales you’re aiming for. If it’s generating leads, consider how many new leads would make this campaign a success.

Metrics

After defining your goal, the next step is figuring out how you’ll know if you’ve achieved it. This means setting some metrics. The most common ones are:

  • Open rates: This tells you how many people opened your email. It’s a good indicator of how effective your subject line is or how memorable your sender name is.
  • Click-through rates: This shows how many people clicked on the links in your email. It helps you understand whether your content and calls to action (CTA) are engaging.
  • Conversion rates: This measures how many people took the action you wanted, like making a purchase or filling out a form.

By setting these goals and metrics, you’ll have a clear idea of what success looks like for your campaign. Plus, it makes it easier to analyze and learn from your results, so you can make your next campaign even better.

2. Build your email list

Now that you know what you want to achieve, it’s time to focus on your audience. Building a strong email list is key to a successful campaign.

Collect emails

Here are the most popular ways of building an email list:

  • Website sign-up forms: One of the easiest ways to collect emails is by adding sign-up forms to your website. Make sure they’re easy to find, like at the top of your homepage, in your blog posts, or as a pop-up.
  • Social media: Use your social media platforms to encourage people to subscribe to your email list. Create posts that highlight the benefits of joining your list or use social media ads to reach a wider audience.
  • Landing pages: Create dedicated landing pages specifically designed to capture email sign-ups. These pages can provide more details about what subscribers will receive and the benefits of joining your list. You can promote them through your website, social media, paid ads, and other marketing channels.
  • Webinars: If you host events or webinars, these are great opportunities to collect email addresses. Simply ask attendees to sign up for your newsletter during registration.

If you’d like to explore the topic further, consider reading our complete guide on how to build an email list from scratch.

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

Offer value

To attract and retain subscribers, you must also offer value. It’s not enough to ask them to join your list via a signup form. You need to motivate them with a lead magnet.

Lead magnet, content upgrade, or simply a freebie can come in various forms, like:

  • Exclusive content: Offer subscribers access to content they can’t get anywhere else, like a free ebook, a special report, or insider tips.
  • Discounts and promotions: People love a good deal. Offering a discount on their first purchase or special promotions for subscribers can be a great incentive.
  • Useful updates: Make sure your emails provide useful and relevant information. Whether it’s industry news, product updates, or helpful tips, give your subscribers a reason to open your emails.
Landing page example Masala Body.
Landing page example from Masala Body offering a lead magnet – free ebook with recipes.

Segment your audience

Once you’ve started collecting emails, it’s important to organize your list. Segmenting your audience means dividing your subscribers into smaller groups based on certain criteria. This allows you to send more targeted and relevant emails. Here are some ways to segment your list:

  • Demographics: Age, gender, location, and other demographic information can help you tailor your messages.
  • Behavior: Look at how subscribers interact with your emails and website. Have they made a purchase recently? Do they click on your links?
  • Preferences: Allow subscribers to choose what type of content they want to receive. For example, some might be interested in product updates, while others prefer educational content.

To learn more about this topic, read our guides to email segmentation, behavioral segmentation, and ecommerce segmentation.

Keep your list clean

It’s important to maintain a clean email list to ensure your emails reach the right people. Regularly remove inactive subscribers and update any incorrect email addresses. This helps improve your email deliverability and keeps your list healthy.

3. Choose an email marketing platform

With your goals defined and your email list-building strategy in place, it’s time to choose an email marketing platform. This tool will help you create, send, and manage your email campaigns efficiently.

There are many email marketing platforms available, each offering different features to meet various needs. The most popular ones include GetResponse, Mailchimp, and Constant Contact. You can read more about them and other note-worthy tools in our in-depth review of the best newsletter platforms.

To make the right decision for your business, you’ll want to consider:

  • Pricing – how much you’re willing to pay
  • Available features – what features you must have or are nice to have
  • Available integrations – what other marketing tools the ESP should connect with
  • User interface – how intuitive the user interface is
  • Customer support – how quick and responsive the customer support team is
GetResponse Email Creator.
How we use the GetResponse Email Creator to send our biweekly content newsletter

This may seem like many areas to cover, but going over them is important, as email marketing is a long-term game, and each platform excels at something different.

For example, our email marketing software, GetResponse, is particularly popular among solopreneurs, coaches, marketers, and mid-sized companies. At the same time, tools like Marketo are a better fit for larger enterprises.

The good news is that most email marketing services offer free plans or free trials, so you can create an account and test them out at no cost.

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.

4. Design your email

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 marketing 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.

Email subject line and preheader

Your subject line and preheader are the first things recipients see in their inbox after your sender name. To make them compelling, you keep them short, catchy, and relevant to the content of your email. You want them to spark curiosity and convince the subscribers to open your message.

Sender name, subject line, and preheader in email

If you’d like to learn more about this, I recommend reading our guide to writing effective subject lines. If you’re not a copywriter, you’ll want to know that tools like GetResponse often come with prebuilt AI tools that help you easily create eye-catching subject lines.

Email marketing templates

To create your email campaigns, you can use free email templates and drag-and-drop email creators, which are included in every good email marketing tool. These will not only save you a ton of time but also ensure that your promotional emails look good on every device.

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

If you want to cut down on time spent designing and crafting your emails even further, you can use tools like 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:

Engaging content

Every marketing email should have a clear objective and corresponding action-oriented CTA. Make sure your CTA stands out visually and is easy to understand.

The content itself needs to be engaging, too. To achieve that, you’ll want to use appealing images, good formatting, content formats like videos and GIFs, and personalized content to increase the email’s relevancy.

To explore this topic further, read these guides to email design and email copywriting.

5. Test your campaign

Once you’ve created the emails you want to send, it’s time to test them to ensure they’re error-free.

Here’s how to test your email effectively:

  • Internal review: Send the email to yourself and a few team members. Check for spelling and grammatical errors, broken links, and overall readability.
  • Content review: Ensure that all images load correctly and the text aligns properly. Also, verify that your call-to-action (CTA) buttons function as expected.
  • Design check: Pay attention to the design elements, including fonts, colors, and layout. Make sure the email looks appealing and professional.

When testing your emails, pay special attention to whether they load well on various devices (mobile devices in particular) and when dark mode is turned on. You can do this manually or using a tool like Inbox Preview, which you’ll find inside GetResponse.

Mobile email preview in GetResponse.
Mobile email preview in GetResponse.

Additionally, once you have a bigger email list, you can consider running A/B tests to test and optimize different elements of your emails. These take a bit more practice but can help you ensure your campaigns generate more revenue and build customer loyalty.

6. Send your campaign

Once you’ve tested the email you want to send, it’s time to schedule it to reach the right audience at the right time.

When scheduling your campaign, consider what time to send your emails. The ideal time might differ depending on your audience’s behavior or time zone.

If you’re unsure when to send your emails, you can use tools like Perfect Timing and Time Travel to optimize the send time of your campaigns.

7. Measure and improve

You can’t run a good email program if you don’t measure your campaign’s results.

If you’re sending a one-off marketing offer, give yourself at least 24 hours before you analyze 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 them—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.

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.

However, if 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 and 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 a.k.a. automated 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 four types of email marketing are triggered, drip, transactional, and newsletter campaigns. Each 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 tool. It’s completely free for lists of up to 500 contacts—no credit card required.

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

This article was written by Irek Klimczak and reviewed by Michal Leszczynski.


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.