Email Marketing

Effective Email Strategies for Startups Marketing on a Budget

Develop personas, and write customized emails that offer genuine value.
Effective Email Strategies for Startups Marketing on a Budget
Image credit: littlehenrabi | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Startup mentor, CEO & tech blogger.
8 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We’ve all felt similar skepticism when it comes to email marketing campaigns. We’ve unsubscribed. We’ve marked emails as spam. We’ve had serious regrets for putting our names on a mailing list in the first place.

That’s not because there’s something inherently wrong with marketing emails. Instead, it’s because most companies aren’t doing them right.

This is bad news for those companies, whose perceived spamminess is deterring leads and causing even existing customers to seek out better brands. For companies like small startups -- which need to start from scratch to build a strong customer base -- it’s particularly important that marketing emails don’t accidentally push target customers away.

Related: 6 Keys to Email Marketing Success

The good news, though, is that email campaigns have the potential to be highly customized, making those that are done correctly one of the most effective ways to acquire and retain customers. While users might not care about a message that blatantly promotes your great new product, they will care if the message feels personal and brings them value. Give them that value, and show them they have a reason to keep your emails rolling into their inbox. Here are some strategies for doing just that.

Creating buyer personas.

Buyer personas are semi-fictional representations of your customers, based on actual customer data and market research. The idea is to put a fictional name and face on each of your customer micro-segments so that you can visualize what the typical representative from that segment might be like. This, in turn, helps you think about a target customers’ intent as they look for the products or services that suit them best, as well as their point of view as they open your emails.

Buyer personas, in other words, let you put yourself in the target customer’s shoes. If you were the user, would this email be appealing, or would you unsubscribe? What, as a member of a particular segment, would drive you to consider that email valuable? How would that be different if you were a member of a different segment -- say, a 30-year-old woman rather than a 70-year-old man?

Buyer personas are a great way to turn your micro-segments into something a little more tangible. They help you build your site content for the right target audience, and they also help you custom-craft your marketing emails with your target audience in mind. If you’re stuck trying to figure out how to create your persona, enterprise software company Xtensio and inbound marketing agency Hubspot both offer free persona creator tools to ensure that you include all the important characteristics.

Micro-segmentation.

Before you start sending out marketing emails, it’s important to take the time to conduct extensive research and analysis of your target audience. Segmentation is the practice of dividing your target customers into different customer types based on their shared characteristics.

Micro-segmentation is just the more precise version of that. It involves breaking down these segments into smaller, more specific ones. For example, a broader customer segment might be 30-year-old women who live in California. A micro-segment might be 30-year-old women who live in Sacramento and work in marketing. And an even better micro-segment is 30-year-old women who live in Sacramento, work in marketing and like to buy kids’ shoes online during the weekends. This data can be analyzed by software programs like Optimove, which uses this information to sort customers into micro-segments.

Once you have your customers properly analyzed and segmented, you can begin crafting targeted email marketing campaigns directly customized for each customer type.

Related: You're Thinking About Sales All Wrong

Keeping your content brief.

Once you obtain detailed insights about your target audiences, you might be tempted to showcase your company’s offerings as much as possible. You’ll naturally want to create marketing emails with a huge list of offers, information and advice.

But while the intent behind this is commendable, it’s not a good practice to do anything other than keep the content of your emails brief and to the point. It’s critical to find a balance between offering tons of value, and not offering so much that you send an overwhelmingly long email. No one wants to spend time reading an email and searching for the value; the value should instead be offered to the customer in an upfront and straightforward way.

All other explanations, including additional helpful offers, can wait. Brief content is readable content -- and valuable content means nothing if you can’t get your customers to read it.

Offering extra value.

A few weeks ago, in an effort to help a friend win a free plane ticket, I reluctantly signed up for the email list of a website called Scott’s Cheap Flights. I was naturally expecting spammy emails, but I was pleasantly surprised when I opened my inbox to see a helpful thank you email instead. In addition to thanking me for signing up, the company offered me a free 30-page ebook chock full of advice and hacks for finding cheap plane tickets. Now that was a good email marketing campaign: getting people to sign up using a free ticket giveaway, and then offering people the additional reward of a free ebook with their sign-up.

So what, exactly, can we learn from this? As you compose your emails, set your sights less on making a sale and more on providing value for your customer. If your emails come across as too promotional, or if they merely espouse the benefits of your product or service, chances are your customers will be turned away.

There’s a reason your customers signed up to your mailing list in the first place, and that’s because they thought it could bring them some sort of value. It’s your role, as a startup, to show the customers that they’re right.

You can provide customers with this value a few different ways. One option is to offer them sign-up benefits. For example, you can offer them deals, like 15 percent off their first purchase or a discounted rate for the first month.

If you really want to grab their attention and grow your email list at the same time, you can offer them entry into a free giveaway as a reward for signing up, similar to the free flight giveaway my friend and I signed up for. Keep in mind that your giveaway strategy shouldn’t include a general gift like an iPhone or iPad; you should offer a gift, like a free bundle, that’s directly related to your product and that would directly appeal to your target customers.

Another option is to provide customers with free advice. Attach a free ebook to some of your emails if you know your target audience would find it helpful. You can also offer a free consultation from your company, or share useful blog posts that would help your target audience answer their questions about the industry. Regardless of which options you choose, you want to make your target customers feel that they’ve gained something after reading each email.

Related: 10 Email Productivity Tools That Will Make You Fall in Love Again With Your Inbox

The challenge, and the promise, of user-friendly email marketing.

Creating a user-friendly marketing email is never easy. More often than not, users find them annoying after the first few. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on email marketing altogether. It’s still the most direct way to reach customers -- and it’s tremendously effective if you do it right.

While lots of time and effort must go into crafting the perfect marketing email, the process itself is easily doable for companies of all sizes, from the tiniest startup to the biggest industry player. By dividing your customers into the most precise segments possible, you can then use that information to construct buyer personas, or the audiences for your different emails. Write brief, customized emails with that audience in mind, and offer genuine value to your customers in each one.

When you keep your customers reading, you’ll not only acquire new customers, but you’ll also develop that initial loyal customer base so important for startup success.

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