I originally made this case back in January 2018, and it’s hard to believe that’s almost four years ago now. So much has happened since: the evolution of website platforms like Squarespace, Shopify, and Square/Weebly into full-blown digital operations hubs, the start of serious antitrust proceedings against Google and Facebook, and of course, a global pandemic.
But if anything, the case for historically search-oriented agencies to add or expand their email marketing offerings has only strengthened. Email remains an under-appreciated and under-addressed channel among digital agencies of all stripes, even as “social media management” seems to have become an almost table-stakes-level offering.
Some of that prioritization of social media is understandable — social remains very much in-demand among small businesses. And yet, visibility and engagement for organic social media remains flat on Facebook and Twitter, and has started to decline on Instagram.
Meanwhile, email open and engagement rates have actually surged across many industries in the COVID era, and not just in the earliest days of the pandemic.
As the saying goes, there’s no time like the present to start an email offering. I hope I’ll convince you that email should be a natural and profitable complement to SEO, SEM, and SMM. And if you’re a local business reading this post, I hope many of these points convince you to take a look at email marketing yourselves!
Making the case for email
With a return on investment (ROI) of 36:1, marketers consistently rate email as the top-performing channel. That’s down from 42:1 in 2019, but is directionally in the same ballpark. And the profitability of email remains particularly truefor B2B marketers. Email newsletters rate as the #1 channel to nurture leads. Despite the supposed unpopularity of email among millennials, it remains far and away the most-preferred channel by which to receive communication from a business — even for Millennials and Gen Z.
Just plain cheap
The fact that email’s so cheap helps the denominator of that 36:1 stat a bunch. MailerLite and SendinBlue offer free plans, Mailchimp offers a more limited free plan, and many other providers offer small plans under $10 per month depending on your number of subscribers. Comprehensive tools like Campaigner have starter plans beginning around $30, along with free one-month trials.
It’s also cheap in terms of time cost. Unlike social media, where daily or even hourly presence performs best, email allows you to duck in and duck out as you have time.
And as I said in the intro, average email open rates far exceed social media reach on most platforms. And even if they don’t open, one-third of people report purchasing based on an email they received from a brand(!).
As a result of Apple’s iOS15 privacy features, open rates are likely heading to the great analytics dashboard in the sky, but the word-of-mouth power of email will remain long after its trackability has eroded. Search provides better purchase intent, but the top-of-mind awareness and referral potential from email is unmatched.
Makes other channels more effective
Gathering customer email addresses is essential for other critical forms of local business marketing already — you need an email address to ask for a review, build lookalike audiences, and make customer intelligencesolutions or predictive analytics most effective.
The impending (though delayed) death of the third-party cookie means first-party opt-in emails will increase dramatically in value.
Actually offering something of value, whether that’s a discount code, loyalty program, whitepaper, or newsletter subscription, increases the odds of earning that email address for all of those purposes.
Last best option?
Frankly, the number of organic digital channels available to small businesses is shrinking.With each passing year, social media becomes more pay-to-play, and Google’s expansion of its Local Service Ad program is now nationwide in the United States and continues to add new verticals seemingly every quarter. Now is the time to start building an email program as these monetization pressures intensify.
Why agencies should offer email
Your customers know it works.
Local businesses might be more aware of email’s potency than some of the agencies that are serving them. Email consistently rates among the top three marketing channels in industry surveys — CampaignMonitor, TheManifest, and CallRail among others. (The CallRail study is a trove of market research for agencies, by the way.)
At the very least, email requires barely any client education. Unlike the black box of SEO or the complexity of paid search, by and large, small businesses inherently understand email marketing. They know they should be sending emails to their customers, but many of them just aren’t doing it yet, or are doing it poorly.
It’s a concrete deliverable.
Unlike so much of the behind-the-scenes work that leads to success in SEO, clients can actually see an email campaign delivered to their inbox, as well as the results of that campaign: every major Email Service Provider tracks opens (again, less valuable post-iOS15) and clicks by default.
It leverages existing offerings.
I already mentioned some of the ways that email marketing complements other channels above. But it can tie in even more closely to an agency’s existing content offering: many of you are already developing full content calendars, or at the very least social content.
<pitch>(For those clients whom you’re helping with social media, their newsletter can be built using Tidings with no additional effort on your part.)</pitch>
Building email into your client content strategy can help their content reach a deeper audience, and possibly even a different audience.
Though you could argue that the Gmail and Apple Mail interface configurations are algorithms of a kind, generally speaking, email marketing is not subject to wild algorithmic changes or inexplicable ranking fluctuations.
And unlike Google’s unrealistic link building axiom that great content will naturally attract inbound links, great content actually does naturally attract more subscribers and more customers as they receive forwarded emails.
In fact, email newsletters are how many link creators actually discover interesting content to link to.
You can expand it over time.
Unlike SEO for local businesses, which generally includes relatively easy wins up front and gets progressively harder to deliver the same value over time, email marketing offers numerous opportunities to expand the scope of your engagement with a client.
Beyond fulfilling the emails themselves, there are plenty of other email-related services to offer, including managing and optimizing list sign-up, welcome emails and drip campaigns, A/B testing subject lines and content, and ongoing customer intelligence.
Tactical ingredients for success with email
Use a reputable Email Service Provider.
Running an email marketing program through Gmail or Outlook is an easy way to get your primary address blacklisted. You also won’t have access to open rate or click rate, nor an easy way to automate signups onto specific lists or segments.
Setting expectations for your subscribers and then following through on those expectations is a particularly important practice for email newsletters, but also holds true for explicitly commercial emails and automated emails.
You should be generally consistent with the day on which you send weekly specials, appointment reminders, or service follow-ups. Consistency helps form a habit among your subscribers.
Consistency also applies to branding. It’s fine to A/B test subject lines and content types over time, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot from a brand perspective by designing every email you send from scratch. Leave that kind of advanced development to big brands with full in-house email teams.
The other reason to be consistent is that designing for email is really, really difficult — a lesson I learned the hard way last year prior to launching Tidings. Complex email clients like Microsoft Outlook use their own markup languages to render emails, and older email clients can’t interpret a lot of modern HTML or CSS declarations.
Choose a mobile-first template.
Make sure your layout renders well on phones, since that’s where most of your middle-age and younger subscribers will be opening your email. Two- or three-column layouts that force pinching and zooming on mobile devices are a no-no, and at this point, most subscribers are used to scrolling a bit to see content.
As long as your template reflects your brand accurately, the content of that layout is far more important than its design. Look no further than the simple email layouts chosen by some of the most successful companies in their respective industries, including Amazon, Kayak, and Fast Company.
Pick a layout that’s proven to work on phones and stick with it.
Include an email signup button or form prominently on your website.
It’s become a best practice to include social icons in the header and/or footer of your website. But there’s an obvious icon missing from so many sites!
An email icon should be the first one in the lineup, since it’s the channel where your audience is most likely to see your content.
Also consider using Privy or Mailmunch to embed a signup banner or popover on your website with minimal code.
The specific place of newsletters
Plenty of people way smarter than me are on the newsletter bandwagon (and joined it much earlier than I did). Moz has been sending a popular “Top 10” newsletter for years, Kick Point sends an excellent weekly synopsis, and StreetFight puts out a great daily roundup, just to name a few. As a subscriber, those companies are always top-of-mind for me as thought leaders with their fingers on the pulse of digital marketing.
But newsletters work far beyond the digital marketing industry, too.
Twitter, Facebook, and even Google have raced to build out or acquire their own newsletter platforms — partly driven by the success of Patreon and Substack among content creators.
Sam Dolnick, the man in charge of the New York Times’ digital initiatives, puts a lot of stock in newsletters as a cornerstone channel, calling them “a lo-fi way to form a deep relationship with readers.”
I love that description. I think of a newsletter as a more personalized social channel. In the ideal world it’s halfway between a 1:1 email and a broadcast on Facebook or Twitter.
Granted, a newsletter may not be right for every local business, and it’s far from the only kind of email marketing you should be doing. But it’s also one of the easiest ways to get started with email marketing, and as Sam Dolnick said, an easy-to-understand way to start building relationships with customers.
For more newsletter best practices, this ancient (1992!) article actually covers print newsletters but almost all of its advice applies equally well to digital versions!
A great option or a strategic imperative?
The graphic below is nearly five years old at this point, and despite my wildly incorrect prediction that voice search would become the dominant paradigm this year, Ads and Oneboxes have continued to eat more and more SERP real estate. And at least in terms of mobile search, the ⅓ traditional web result ratio I predicted seems to have held up pretty well.
Google and Facebook are both automating more and more ad features, and agencies simply can’t charge the margin to place paid ads that they can charge for organic work, particularly as Google and Facebook do a better and better job of optimizing low-budget campaigns. More ads, more Knowledge Panels, and more voice searches mean fewer organic winners at Google than ever before (though because overall search volume won’t decline, the winners will win bigger than ever).
Basic SEO blocking-and-tackling such as site architecture, title tags, and citation building will always be important services, but their impact for local businesses has declined overthe past decade, due to algorithmic sophistication, increased competition, and decreased organic real estate.
To grow or even maintain your client base, it’ll be critical for you as an agency to offer additional services that are just as effective and scalable as these techniques were 10-15 years ago.
As a concrete, high-margin, high-ROI deliverable, email should be a centerpiece of those additional services. And if it just doesn’t feel like something you’re ready to take on right now, Tidings is happy to handle your referrals :D!