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How to create great emails that people actually want to open

We get the low-down on best practice emails from the marketing geniuses at Hubspot

Sending, checking, and drafting email has become as much a part of our day-to-day lives as getting up and going to work. And for many businesses, it’s also become the cornerstone of their CRM strategy. Email is going to continue to play an important role in both our professional and personal lives for a long time to come.

Take for example, what Loren McDonald, Marketing Evangelist has to say about email:

In the next five years, however, email will be seen as not just a high ROI channel by itself but rather a platform that integrates with and makes other channels more successful.

Talking to your customers through email has consistently been described as having a high return on investment for businesses. For every dollar you spend on email it has consistently produced anywhere from a $40-44 return.

But that ROI is not promised just by pressing send.

Your email strategy will need to benefit both you and your business. It can be a delicate balance.

This is where high-performing emails come in. Sending the right email means focusing on:

  • the content that you send,
  • the segment of people you send it to,
  • and the time you send it.

High-performing emails are focused on taking the essential parts of an email and making sure they are optimized to drive your contacts toward your specific goal.

And when all of your emails are focused on this you will be driving that high ROI for your business. Your emails will be driving engagement and be the vehicle for growth for both your contacts and your business. 


How to create a high performing email


Creating high-performing emails comes down to two main themes:

  1. Selecting the right goal for your email.
  2. Optimising each part of your email to drive the conversions toward that goal.

Inside each of these themes are best practices and key components to execute on. Let’s break down each of them and see how you can create high-performing emails that can act as your business’ vehicle for growth.


Selecting the right goal for your email


This is an important one because it sets up the rest of your email creation for success.

Try and think about the last time you entered a meeting, and there was no goal or agenda. Things probably seemed unclear and you might have walked away thinking it wasn’t a productive use of your time.

Now imagine sending an email without a goal. You’d be creating the same experience.

If someone doesn't know why you are sending them an email, it won't add value to those contacts or drive the results you want.

That’s why you always want to start with a strong goal before pressing send. It might sound obvious, but we can all get into the habit of thinking, “Well, this is just what we do every month.”

When setting the goal for your email, you want to consider how to send the right email to the right person at the right time. In other words, you will need to decide what content you’re sending to what segment of contacts and at what point of time.

We can break this down further with the five whys:

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. When
  4. Where
  5. Why


You might use this framework to drill down into other aspects of your marketing, sales, and service goals. And you’ll also have a larger goal for your email strategy as a whole. You should be able to explain what you’re trying to accomplish with all the types of emails you are sending. But the five whys will help you narrow down the goal of a single email you are sending out.

So let’s take a look.

First up is the who. Who are you sending your email to? Relevancy is always key when looking at the who. Great content for the wrong set of contacts won’t add value, just like the right contacts receiving poor content won’t either. You need to decide who the right person for this content and your email send is. 

Deciding on the right set of contacts means looking at what information will be valuable to what contacts. For example, you can look at your different contacts based on where they are in the buyer's journey to help you target the right content to the right contacts.

If you have email lists with low rates of engagement activity, stop sending to them.

Every time you send to a list with low open and engagement rates, it hurts your domain reputation and your chances of connecting with other potential customers.

Make sure the contacts you are connecting with are receiving value from your emails but also want to hear from you in general. You should be able to identify and organise this within your CRM pretty easily. If you’re not using a CRM already, try HubSpot’s free CRM -- it allows you to see how each contact is interacting with your brand across all your marketing channels, whether that’s social media, email, or the content hosted on your website. You can then build email lists based on specific behaviours to further segment your email marketing strategy.

Once you decide on who you are targeting, you can move into the what.

What do you want your contacts to do with this email? Are you asking them to sign up for a webinar, download content, or subscribe to your blog? The what needs to be clear and quantifiable so you know if your email send was successful.

Think about defining what using the framework SMART. A smart goal is defined as:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

With a smart goal for your email you will be able to say: my contacts met the goal of my email or they didn’t.

Inside of your email tool you will be able to measure the success of your email. HubSpot calls this the ‘post-send’ details page and displays all the information of what occurred during the email send.

Next you need to ask when. This relates back to the who. Because when doesn't just mean the time of day but when in the buyer's journey are you sending this content to your contacts? When will this content be the most relevant to them?

Take a look at the buyer’s journey here.

buyers journey image

At the different stages, different types of content and education will be necessary to further your conversations with your contacts. Understanding when you need to serve up specific types of content is an important piece of setting goals.       

Take for example, when a contact is in the ‘consideration’ stage. The types of content they will be looking for will be drastically different than what they would need in the other two stages. In this stage they have defined their problem and are actively researching different solutions.

You will also need to ask yourself where. Where are your contacts going to be reading this email? Movable Ink, a cloud-based software company, found that 48% of emails are opened on a smartphone and 41% of emails are opened on an iPhone.

Which means it’s extremely important for you to keep in mind the type of device your contacts will be viewing your email on.

Even as phones get bigger each day it seems, they’re still smaller than a computer screen, which means you need to keep size in mind when designing your emails.

Lastly, ask yourself why. This is your most important question and relates back to the overall theme that we are discussing here of setting the right goals.

You are asking yourself and team: why have you and your team decided to press send? Here a few questions to help you answer why:

  • What is the desired outcome?
  • Is that outcome more for your benefit than for the reader’s?
  • What value does the reader receive in this email, and finally, how does this email fit it with all the other conversations you are having with your contacts?


Optimising each part of your email to drive the conversions toward that goal.


Optimising each part of your email to focus on conversion is the key to creating high-performing emails.

With all the elements aligned and working together your contacts are going to be receiving the most value from your emails and in turn you will see the most ROI for your email sends.

So what does it mean to optimise each part of your email to drive the conversions toward that goal? It means looking at two key actions someone takes on your email: the open and the click.

To optimise for a conversion, let’s first define what a conversion is:

We can define conversion as the completion of a desired action. Each email you send will have a goal which is the desired action you are hoping your contacts are completing.

Now you will want to make sure each part of your email is guiding your contacts towards that desired action.

To optimise for a conversion, you need to have someone first open your email and then to complete the desired action.

Before anyone can click, they have to open your email. If a reader doesn’t open your email, it’s safe to say they’ll never click on your call-to-action.

Let’s take a look at each of these actions, both the open and the click, and break down how you can use them to create a high-performing email.


First, someone needs to open your email. There are several things that will impact whether or not someone decides to open your email, specifically:

  • The subject line
  • The sender name and email
  • The preview text
email example

Each of these should be designed to influence your overall goal and encourage your readers to progress toward the desired action.


The subject line


Your subject line is the door to your email. For someone to come in, they first need to enter through the subject line. This makes it an important piece of your overall conversion rates. It also provides you insight into what type of messaging appeals to your personas.

Let’s look at a few best practices for crafting a great subject line.

With subject lines, shorter is better. 41-50 characters is the average character length that will appear on a mobile device. And given our world today, where most of us are reading emails on our mobile devices, aiming for this range will be important since a majority of your readers will be taking a look at your email on their mobile device.

As in most aspects of inbound marketing, you will want to avoid any language that isn’t human or helpful. Words like “free” or “percent off” will not only trigger spam filters but also don’t make your email sound like it’s coming from a real person.

Some other things to keep in mind are keeping it straightforward, short, and sweet. Personalise it when it’s appropriate to have the recipient’s first name, company name, or even location appear. And lastly, try to mix it up — get creative and run tests on what your contacts respond to by A/B testing your subject lines.


The sender name and email


Great emails build trust. They show you are human and helpful and are going to provide value. This can be communicated in the name and email you have appear in the ‘from’ section. Keep it as familiar as possible.

Have the email come from your company (not a no-reply email address) and if your contacts have an account manager or a dedicated point of contact person at your company, the email should probably come from them.

This will help you keep your emails as a conversation, which at its core is more human.


The preview text


Preview text is the snippet of copy that’s pulled in from the body of your email. It’s typically displayed underneath the “from name” and subject line in a subscriber's inbox.

You will use your preview text to continue the theme presented in your subject line, tease out the content of your email, add a personalised message, and of course show the value of the content inside of your email.

With these in place, you’re setting your email up for a successful open and then you can focus on the value you are providing inside of your email.

Inside of your email, you are giving your readers valuable content guided toward helping them take a specific action. Whether that is downloading a piece of educational content, subscribing to a blog, or signing up for an upcoming live training with you and your business, you need to provide value.

To do this effectively, you will need to write effective email copy. The truth is that you can design the best email in the world with the most high-resolution pictures, but without great copy, your readers are not going to find the most value from your email.

There are many ways to write great email copy, but the main themes are: write with clarity, purpose, and your primary goal in mind.

Your copy is showing your readers why you sent this email. Show them why you do what you do and the value they get from it. You are creating a conversation. And while the other parts of your email can support that, the copy you write will be the core of creating that engaging conversation.

Each business has its own style and brand, and you need to take that into consideration with your email copy, but there are a few best practices that you should follow to keep your email copy conversational and helpful.

1. The first is to write for scalability. The best thing you can do for your reader, and for your metrics, is to do the work for them. Use short paragraphs, bolding, headlines, and bullet points to display information in a way that makes it easy to blink once and get the purpose and value of the email.

2. The second is using the right tone. You will probably have a few different personas who you send emails to, and you might need to adjust the tone of your email copy depending on the persona or their context.

There’s so little time and space when it comes to email, so every word counts. Seth Godin says this really well, "Why waste a sentence saying nothing?"

3. The third is personalisation when appropriate. Personalisation is discussed a lot with email, and it’s more than just personalisation tokens — it’s about making the content relevant and engaging for the reader. But you also want to use personalisation tokens to amplify your email copy.

Consider adding the contact’s first name, mention their interests, or an action the contact has taken with your company. All of this provides a personalised experience for your reader.

4. The fourth is to always proofread. Take the time to spell check. People lose trust over small things, so don’t let a few misspelled words be the reason you turn a contact away.


How to make a great CTA


The last piece of your email that you will need to optimise to drive the conversions toward that goal is your call-to-action (aka CTA).

This might be the most important aspect of your email because it's what gets your reader out of the inbox and onto the next step.

To make a great CTA, you need to ask yourself three main questions:

  1. What do I want the reader to do?
  2. Why should they do it? 
  3. How will they know to do it?

You have one goal for your email and your CTA should drive the reader toward that goal. Now this doesn't mean that you can’t turn multiple components of your email into a CTA.

You can link images to your offer, hyperlink appropriate copy, or edit the alt-text of your images. But ideally, all these links should guide your reader toward one desired action that will provide value to them and benefit you and your business.

With these elements both the open and the click optimised for engagement you will be showing value to your readers and optimising for success.

Putting these two themes to work: selecting the right goal for your email and second, optimising each part of your email to drive the conversions toward that goal, you will build a strong strategy for creating high-performing emails.

In the end, when you bring all of this together, you’ll be providing the most value to your contacts who in turn will help you grow your business.


Interested in learning more about Email Marketing?

Check out RMIT Online's short course here or any of our other Digital Marketing courses made with industry partners like Hubspot

About the author 

Courtney Sembler hails from San Francisco, CA and moved to Boston, MA to work for HubSpot in 2015. She currently works as the Manager for HubSpot Academy Education dedicated to leading the inspiring and passionate Inbound Professors. She was a previous Inbound Professor focused on email marketing, GDPR, and contact management. She is devoted to education, environmental programs, and is a true email geek.


This article was originally published on 22 June 2021