Email Marketing Strategy Basics: Everything You Need To Know

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You may have heard claims that email is a dead and forgotten channel. Perhaps you’ve found yourself thinking, “Do email marketing campaigns work anymore? Should I even bother?”

They sure do, and you certainly should.

Studies consistently show that when you learn how to create an email marketing strategy that actually works, you can see incredible ROI.

An eMarketer study showed that email had an ROI of 122%… more than 4 times the ROI of other tactics like social media, direct mail, and paid search.

Kurt Elster, Shopify Plus Partner and host of The Unofficial Shopify Podcast, believes email marketing isn’t just helpful – it’s necessary.

Kurt Elster, Senior Ecommerce Consultant

Kurt Elster, Senior Ecommerce Consultant

Not having an email marketing strategy is the single biggest mistake I see small business owners making, putting them at a massive disadvantage in today’s world.

Email marketing keeps your brand top of mind with the average consumer who checks their email daily, often several times throughout the day. Because of the volume of email we receive, the key to successful email marketing is relevance.

Today’s email tools employ brilliant marketing automation. By sending emails automatically triggered based on what customers do or don’t buy, or when they do or don’t return, you’ll ensure that each customer gets the right message at the right time resulting in more sales, more often.


So we can gather that, frankly, the ones who say email marketing is dead are just doing it wrong.

In this ebook, I’ll try my best to make sure you’re one of the entrepreneurs who does it right.

From jargon definitions to basic email best practices to step-by-step how-to’s, we’ll cover everything you need to know about building an email marketing strategy that grows your brand and boosts your sales.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • A definition of email marketing
  • The 3 key phases of an email marketing campaign
  • Laws and regulations you should keep in mind

Let’s dive in!

What Is Email Marketing? A Definition

When you’re looking to answer this question, you’ll come across a few email marketing definitions. That’s because email marketing is a broad term that covers many different ideas and activities.

Essentially, email marketing is a subset of internet marketing(also called digital marketing) that involves a business using email to:

  • Promote its products and/or services
  • Advertise and/or sell specific items
  • Build and nurture relationships with potential or existing customers

You can think of it as direct mail for the 21st century. Instead of wasting all that paper and waiting for traditional snail mail to get to their physical mailbox, you’re sending mail directly to their email inbox.

Benefits of an Email Marketing Strategy

When you focus on building an email marketing strategy that really caters to your industry and audience, you can reap some serious benefits.


  • Low costs. In comparison to other promotional tactics like paid ads, running an email campaign is one of the best low budget marketing options.
  • Huge reach and targeted leads. The nature and ease of email marketing mean you can reach hundreds, thousands, or even millions of high-quality leads just by clicking the “Send” button.
  • High engagement. Especially when you send to people who have voluntarily opted-in to your list, you’re sending direct messages to people who are interested in your brand. This email marketing contact strategy is gold for getting quality engagement.
  • High sales, conversions, and ROI. Because your recipients are already interested, and you’re (hopefully) sending them targeted messages and offers, they’re more likely to make a purchase.
  • Easy to implement. There are plenty of tools and platforms that can help you with developing, building, and launching an email marketing campaign without any coding expertise.
  • Easy to integrate. It’s just a few extra clicks to integrate your email marketing strategy with other efforts, like social media and content marketing.
  • Easy to measure. If you use tracking and measuring functionality, you can know exactly how each email is performing. Many email marketing campaign tools and platforms have this feature built-in.
  • Easy to track ROI. Once you know your KPIs and how much you’ve invested into each element of your email marketing strategy, it’s easy to connect different tactics and the revenue they generated.

How Do Email Marketing Campaigns Work?

Email Marketing Strategy

Generally, there are 5 key elements of email marketing strategies that work:

  1. Defining the purpose and details of each campaign and email before you build them
  2. Testing your finalized emails to make sure they’re displaying as intended
  3. Sending emails out to your mailing list
  4. Measuring the performance using the right email marketing KPIs 
  5. Reporting and analyzing your results to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement

Phases of an Email Marketing Campaign

I like to break down the email marketing campaign lifecycle into 3 main phases or segments: emails for prospects, first-time buyers, and repeat customers.

If a first-time buyer or repeat customer doesn’t make a purchase for a while, they’re considered lapsed (also called idle or latent).

Here’s a visual of the types of emails that can be sent based on activity:


the phases of an email marketing campaign

(Click to view larger)

These broad segments, and their corresponding emails, apply best to an email marketing strategy for ecommerce. But when you take out the shopping element, it can apply to other types of businesses too.

Let’s go over each of them briefly. 


These are people who have discovered your website but haven’t made a purchase yet (or haven’t otherwise become a customer of your business, if you’re not an ecommerce brand).

The ultimate goal is to turn prospects into first-time buyers, which can include emails like:

  • Browse abandonment: When they were browsing your website but they stopped and left without making a purchase
  • New subscriber: “Welcome emails” for people who just joined your mailing list
  • Cart abandonment: When they have items in their shopping cart but didn’t follow through to buy them

Turning point to next phase: When a customer makes a purchase, they become first-time buyers. You may wish to start an email welcome series to build a relationship.

First-Time Buyers

After they’ve made their first purchase, they’re officially a first-time buyer. Hooray!

Ideally, these customers will keep buying from you regularly and become repeat or loyal customers. However, in some cases, they’ll become lapsed customers.

The goal here is to turn first-time buyers into repeat customers, which can include emails like:

  • Cross-sell and upsell: Recommending different products to them based on their purchase
  • Feedback review request: Asking for input on their experience, so you can improve it for them and future customers – first-hand feedback is incredibly valuable, so get it whenever you can
  • Replenishment: Reminding them to repurchase items that need to be replenished regularly, like shampoo or vitamins

Turning point to next phase: When a customer makes their second purchase, they become a repeat customer.

Repeat Customers

Keep those sales rolling in! Once you’ve gone over the hump of a customer making a second purchase, it’s a great sign that they might stick around to be an “active repeat” customer, aka loyal customer.

Just like the first-time buyer stage, you’ll want to beware of the risk of them becoming a lapsed customer.

The goal here is to keep them around for life, which can be accomplished through the same types of emails that you’re sending first-time buyers, in addition to:

  • VIP: Special perks, offers, and appreciation for customers who have a high lifetime value

When a certain amount of time passes after the last purchase from a first-time buyer or repeat customer (say, 6 months), they move to the lapsed customer phase.

Lapsed Customers

It’s up to you to determine the time window for when a customer becomes lapsed. Businesses typically choose windows ranging from 3 months to a year.

You might also want to create different emails for different “levels” of lapse. This might show as one email for any customer who hasn’t made a purchase in 3 months, another email for when it becomes 6 months, and another email for when it becomes a year or longer.

Emails to lapsed customers might include:

  • Replenishment: Reminding them to repurchase past items
  • Win-back: Enticing them to come back to your site, like through a special offer or reminder

The Power of a Returning Customer

Email marketing campaign segmentation like this is 100% mandatory for a good strategy. Not only does it help you personalize your communications, but it also helps you to identify the customers that are most valuable to your brand.

And while you’ll need to have your A-game for winning over new customers, you should treat your existing customers like royalty.

Research shows time and time again that businesses can make much more money by satisfying existing customers as opposed to spending all their resources and time on finding new ones.

Conversion rates can be as high as 60–70% for existing customers, as opposed to 1–3% for new ones.

A powerful email marketing strategy during this phase can make a massive difference in your company’s bottom line.

Now that you have a basic email marketing strategy checklist, let’s discuss some of the (dun dun dun) legal issues that you need to follow.

Email marketing strategy

Laws and Regulations to Look Out for

If you start getting reckless with your email marketing strategy and tactics, you won’t just annoy (and potentially lose) important customers and contacts – you might also get yourself into legal trouble.

This is especially true after the European Union (EU) enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018.

Even as a US-based business, you’ll still need to pay attention to the GDPR. This is particularly important if you’re an ecommerce company that ships internationally.

And of course, you’ll definitely need to pay attention to the US email marketing campaign laws.

Let’s go over some of the key requirements of the US’s CAN-SPAM Act, as well as the EU’s GDPR.


The CAN-SPAM Act was signed into law in 2003 by George W. Bush. It applies to any business that’s “promoting or advertising a commercial product or service through electronic communication.”

Pssst. That’s your company’s email marketing strategy and tactics.

If you violate any part of the act, your business can be fined up to $41,484…

For Every. Single. Email.

It’s a horrifying thought. But don’t worry, the rules are very straightforward and simple to follow.

Here are the 7 requirements:

1. Tell your readers who the email is coming from.

You must include your name or business name in your routing information and in your “From,” “To,” and “Reply to” labels. Your website domain name and email address must also be accurate.

For example, in their email marketing newsletter campaign, Coinbase writes “The Coinbase Team” as the sender, and sends the email from

No confusion there.

including website domain in email address

While this is okay legally, I recommend ditching the “no-reply@” email address. It suggests that the sender wants to have a one-way conversation instead of engaging with their subscribers and customers. For bonus points, send your emails from the account of someone on your team, preferably customer support. That way, recipients can voice questions or comments, and you can show off your stellar customer service to strengthen the relationship. Win-win.

2. Avoid deceptive subject lines.

Make sure your subject lines are an accurate preview of what the email actually contains. You can’t have a subject line that says “50% Off Sale Today Only” and then the body of the email is just talking about your new product line, with no mention of a sale.

Sticking with the Coinbase example, their subject line is clearly related to the intent of the message: to help newbies learn the ropes of cryptocurrency.

email subject line best practise

3. Acknowledge that your message is an ad.

The law gives a lot of leeway here. But generally speaking, if your message is an advertisement, you must disclose that it’s an ad in a clear way that’s easy to identify. The point is that readers can easily see that it’s an ad and not a personal email from their sister.

You can keep it simple the way Coinbase does here:

is your email an ad?

4. Give readers an easy way to opt-out.

The best way is an “unsubscribe” button or link at the bottom of the email, but you can also get away with listing an email address they can use to contact you to opt-out. I think this is a bit shady though, and I recommend the easy opt-out button.

email opt-out option

5. Tell your readers where your business is located.

You must include your company’s valid physical postal address. It can be your personal address, a post office box that’s registered with the US Postal Service, or a private mailbox registered with a commercial mail receiving agency (that follows Postal Service regulations).

email include business address

6. Honor every single opt-out request immediately.

You must opt them out within 10 business days, and you must be able to process opt-out requests for 30 days after each email is sent. If they choose to opt out of your email marketing campaign lifecycle, you can’t require them to pay a fee or give you any extra information. You also can’t sell or transfer their email address to anyone, except to a business you hired to help you comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.

7. You’re still responsible even if you hire someone else.

If you hired a person or company to take over your email marketing strategy, monitor what they’re doing. You’re still legally responsible for all of their actions even if you’re not writing and sending the emails yourself!

If you’d like to learn more, check out this CAN-SPAM Act compliance guide from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as well as some candid answers to CAN-SPAM questions.


You might recall a one or two-month period around April 2018 where your inbox was flooded with privacy policy changes from practically every international business you’ve ever given your email address to.

Yup. That was because of the GDPR.

The main purpose of the GDPR is to protect the data privacy of EU citizens. In a nutshell, it takes “ownership” of a customer’s private data and shifts it back into the hands of the customer – and it’s not just about basic email marketing strategy. It’s about any use of personal data.

Businesses that violate this policy can face fines up to a whopping €20 million, or 4% of their annual revenue – whichever is higher.

Of course, the GDPR was designed for EU businesses serving EU citizens.

But the thing is: if your business serves just one European citizen who’s in Europe when you collect their data, you’re subject to GDPR requirements.

This is why I recommend staying informed and playing it on the safe side. Not only would it cover you legally, but it would also help to make your data safer for you and your customers.

Legal side of email marketingSource

Since it’s a fairly complex set of regulations, we’ll just go over a few of the key elements as they relate to mass email marketing strategy.

Essentially, EU businesses must:

  • Get explicit consent before sending someone a marketing email

This is one of my biggest GDPR-related recommendations for US businesses: don’t enroll anyone in an unsolicited email marketing campaign. 

  • Uphold an individual’s rights, which include:
    • “Right to Erasure” or the “Right to be Forgotten” by a company – the right to have all of their information deleted forever
    • “Right to Be Informed,” or to know who’s collecting their information and what they’ll use it for
  • Report data breaches to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK within 72 hours
  • Make sure the average person can read and understand data policies, and that they’re not hidden in the legal fine print that no one reads anyway
  • Hire a Data Protection Officer to help them comply
  • Ensure that any entity that processes customer data complies with certain requirements (not just the entities that control data, like the laws before the GDPR)
  • Carry out a “Data Protection Impact Assessment” to look at high-risk activities

Note: This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are considerations and exceptions to what we’ve listed above. For comprehensive details on the GDPR, visit the European Commission’s website. You can also check out non-official resources like Think GDPR and the EU GDPR Portal.


Without question, email is still an incredibly powerful tool to use to reach your customers.

You can reach targeted people, at exactly the right time, with personalised messages that are delivered right to their inbox.

Now that you’ve got an understanding of the basics of email marketing, get ready to start creating powerful email campaigns that will capture more customers.

Table of Contents

Ch 1: Email Marketing Strategy Basics: Everything You Need To Know
Ch 2: Email Marketing KPIs: Which Metrics Matter?
Ch 3: Anatomy of a Killer Email: 18 Email Marketing Examples To Copy
Ch 4: 16 Email Marketing Tools To Craft and Send Perfect Emails
Ch 5: 20 of the Best Newsletter Examples to Learn From