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How To Do Email Marketing for Small Businesses in 6 Steps

Hailley Griffis
Hailley Griffis Head of Communications & Content @ Buffer
How To Do Email Marketing for Small Businesses in 6 Steps

9 min read
You will learn

Email performs better than social media. We said it. Sixty percent of people prefer receiving promotional emails, while only 20% want to see ads on social media. In addition, emails are more effective at selling—6.05% of email recipients end up buying compared to social media’s 1.9%.

The problem with email marketing is that it can be challenging for small business owners because it involves so many moving parts. Growing a list, creating multiple email sequences, and figuring out the right language to use in your emails all take time, effort, and money.

Fortunately, this guide will show you how to use email marketing tools to save time and money while also making your marketing more efficient. We will also show you how to use both social media and emails to hit your audience with a one-two punch that’ll help you build relationships and get you more sales.

Step 1: Choose an email marketing tool built for small businesses

One of the reasons that email marketing takes up a lot of time is that people try to do it manually—and as a small business owner, you definitely don't have that kind of time.

You're also limited by your email service provider's (e.g., Gmail, Yahoo!, Outlook) features. You can probably schedule your emails, but you'll have to figure out how to use the BCC line to send emails in bulk. You also can't personalize your emails and thoroughly track metrics.

So the first thing you need to do to start your email marketing journey is find the right email marketing software for your business needs. Here’s a list of important features other small businesses are looking out for:

  • Personalization capabilities. The importance of email personalization has skyrocketed in the past few decades. Yes Lifecycle Marketing found that simply adding recipients’ names to subject lines made emails perform better—50% more opens and 58% more clicks. Your email tool should allow you to add names, birthdays, and interests to your emails.
  • A drag-and-drop editor. A drag-and-drop editor is especially important if you don't know how to code (ignore this one if you have someone on your team who does know how to code). As the name suggests, email tools with drag-and-drop builders have a sidebar containing different elements that you can use to design your emails.
  • Custom branding capabilities. Some tools will give you free rein over how you want to design your emails, while others have email templates with few changeable elements. If you want to add a lot of branding to your emails, you'll have to look for a tool that gives you more freedom over your design.
  • An A/B testing feature. A/B testing is also known as split testing, and it allows you to send your list different versions of your email to figure out which performs better. For example, you can send your email list an email with two different subject lines. Your tool will send subject line one to 25% of your list and subject line two to another 25%. Your tool will then track performance over a period of time and determine which email performed better. After which, it will send the better-performing email to the remaining 50% of your list.
  • A form builder will help you add a signup form to your website homepage, social media account, blog page, and each blog article so that people who are interested in your content can sign up for your list.
  • Responsive design features automatically make your emails look great no matter what device your readers are viewing them on—mobile, desktop, or tablet.

Some of the best email marketing platforms for small business owners are Mailchimp, Constant Contact, and MailerLite. All three tools have quick lessons to get you started, all the features mentioned above, and affordable prices.

Step 2: Build a signup form to collect emails

Another challenge with email marketing is that there are clear laws around who you can and can't send emails to. According to different data laws around the world, like the CAN-SPAM Act in the US and the GDPR in the EU, you can only send business or promotional emails to people who have consented to receive communications from you.

Your email tool should have a form builder that allows you to create and design a signup form and embed it onto your website as an on-page form or a popup. If your tool doesn't have a form builder, we recommend checking out Typeform and

When you build your signup form, make sure that it:

  • Has a clear headline and call-to-action (CTA)
  • Doesn't ask for too much—you only need an email address
  • Confirms with everyone who signs up that they consent to receive emails from you through either an on-screen notification or an automated email
This is Buffer’s signup form for our blog—our headline resonates with our target audience and our CTA (i.e., “Subscribe”) tells readers what will happen when they enter their email address.

The opt-in from your audience is so important that some companies even decide to go for a double opt-in structure, where people who sign up for your list need to confirm their email addresses.

Here is an example from Pinterest:

This is Pinterest’s double opt-in confirmation email.

It’s not fancy, but that extra layer of authorization protects your domain from being marked as spam.

Step 3: Get new subscribers and build your mailing list with social media

Now that you're done building your signup form, it's time to get signups. Email marketing doesn’t exist without an email list, so you need to make your signup form is as visible as possible through different marketing channels.

Add your signup form to your website and all your social media accounts. For example, you can add your signup form to your “link in bio” on Instagram using Shop Grid by Buffer and use your email tool to add a signup form popup to your website.

Your content on both platforms is the big inflatable wiggly dude pulling people in off the street, so you need to create relevant eye-catching posts. If you're an eco-friendly clothing brand, for example, and want to attract readers to your mailing list, create an article on how eco-friendly clothing is made. Make sure that the blog page has a signup form popup and then promote that blog page on social media using colorful photos that invoke curiosity.

People follow you on social media because they're already interested in your content. Solidify that customer relationship by gaining direct access to your followers' inboxes.

Step 4: Choose what kind of emails (and series of emails) you want to send

You can send your email list different types of emails. For example, you can send them one-off emails with discount coupons or special offers or a series of emails that tell the story of your brand.

But you need to plan before you start creating emails so that you don't try to do too many things at once. Start with figuring out which emails are the most essential, and then add more as you move along.

Here are two emails and one email sequence that most brands use:

(Note: All of the emails below can be automated with an email marketing service or tool.)

1. The welcome email

The welcome email, as the name suggests, is the first email your potential customer receives from you after they sign up for your mailing list. If you have an email tool set up, as soon as someone signs up on your signup form, they should receive a welcome email.

Some brands decide to welcome their audience to their list with a short video; others decide to give their new signups coupons and discounts. Whatever you decide, your welcome email should be relatable and make your readers want to know more about your brand (and eventually make a purchase).

2. Transactional emails

Transactional emails aim to improve your sales. Some examples of transactional emails in the direct-to-consumer, small business, and ecommerce world are:

  • The abandoned cart email. The abandoned cart email reminds recipients that they have items in their cart that they may want to check out.
  • The upsell email. After a customer buys from your store, you can send them a series of emails that encourage them to buy more. For example, if someone buys a toothbrush, send them an email that has related items like toothpaste or dental floss.
  • The referral email. The referral email asks your customers to tell their friends about your brand in exchange for an incentive.
  • The review request email. The review request email asks your customers to rate your products or your store.

3. The re-engagement sequence

When your customers haven't bought from you in a while, you can hit them with a series of emails the tell them to come back. This series of emails is usually sent over a period of time.

It starts with a simple email that reintroduces your brand to your dormant customer base. If your customers still don't return, it follows up with an irresistible offer—a coupon code, a free gift, or another incentive that aligns with their beliefs (e.g., “If you buy from us, we'll plant a tree for you”).

You can also create email newsletters, event invitation series, and other types of emails—but we recommend starting with the three above before you create more elaborate campaigns.

Step 5: Make your emails look pretty—or not

There are two kinds of emails: plain text like the ones you send your friends that are literally just text and maybe an email signature and branded HTML like most newsletters you'll see.

Both types of emails have their pros and cons. Most recipients associate branded HTML emails with marketing automation and ads, so they don't usually reply to super-pretty, polished content. But they do look for new items and discounts in your HTML emails, so these emails draw in sales.

On the other hand, plain text emails work because they're more genuine and approachable. People think, “Oh, this is from a real person,” and end up responding. Plain text emails are better conversation-starters and relationship-builders.

Here are some quick design tips:

  • For HTML emails, be consistent with your design. Use the same colors, logos, and font sizes for all your emails. Consistency will help your audience associate certain colors and your logo with your brand.
  • Make your design “responsive,” meaning viewable on both desktop and mobile devices. Most email tools automatically make your design responsive, but you still need to double-check. Use your email tool’s email preview feature to see what your email will look like on different devices. That way, you'll know if something that looks okay on your laptop will look wonky on your phone and can edit your design accordingly.
  • Have a clear header and call-to-action (CTA). Your header tells your readers what your email is about. Your CTA is usually a button that tells your recipients what you want them to do (e.g., “Buy now!”).
  • Send test emails. After you're done creating your email—whether HTML or plain text—send a test email to make sure everything looks right on the receiver's end.

Your email tool should allow you to save both plain text and HTML templates so that you don't need to build all of your emails from scratch.

Step 6: Track your results

Your email tool tracks the performance of all of your emails. Email analytics is important because the data tells you whether or not your emails are doing well and how engaged your list is.

If your results aren't great, don't panic. Breathe and go back to the drawing board. Tracking your data gives you insights into how you can improve performance. For example, if your open rates are low, try new subject lines or sender names. On the other hand, if your CTR is low, try moving your link higher in the email to increase visibility.

Let data guide your email marketing journey so that you get the most out of your investment. Here are some important metrics to track for small business email marketing:

  • Open rate: The number of people who opened your email compared to your total email list
  • Click-through rate (CTR): The number of people who clicked on the links in your email compared to the total number of people who opened it
  • Bounce rate: The percentage of emails that could not be sent to the intended receiver
  • Unsubscribe rate: The percentage of people who unsubscribe to your emails compared to the size of your mailing list
  • Conversion rate: The number of people who completed the desired action compared to the number of people who clicked your link

Social media + email = perfect match

If you make the most out of your large reach on social media and your high conversion rates with email, you get the perfect marketing combination. On social media, your followers are interested in your content but probably don't click through (especially on Instagram, with their link restrictions) or convert into loyal customers.

If you use social media to grow your list and use email marketing to convert your interested subscribers into new customers, you get a dream team of marketing platforms.

If you're an entrepreneur or small business owner who is just starting your online marketing journey, check out Start Page by Buffer for small businesses.

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