Karina May
Karina May,
Email Marketing Specialist, Showpo, Coco Republic, Pet Circle

How to get email marketing right

Email marketing is essential for online businesses. Here, email consultant Karina May breaks down what’s normal, how to benchmark your email marketing against best-practice and how a few tweaks in your email approach can drive sales and increase revenue.


With Karina May and written By Rebekah Campbell

Like most business owners, I send out an email newsletter every week.  It’s a guessing game: often I don’t know if I’m doing this right.  How long should an email be; how many calls to action are best?  I can see people unsubscribe more than I’d like, and our ‘open rate’ is around 22%. But what’s normal?

Email marketing can be the top driver of sales for eCommerce businesses.  According to Karina May: ‘By the time a business has an email list of 20,000, they should be able to predict sales from each email.’

Karina has developed and implemented email strategies for some of Australia’s biggest eCommerce and marketplace businesses including Showpo, Pet Circle, Coco Republic and Service Seeking. 

Karina and April Murphy, Email / CRM Specialist at Showpo, have created a morning workshop where marketers and business owners learn effective email strategies that win customers. They’ll deliver the workshop in Sydney next month, and tickets are limited to enable questions and feedback from every participant. Karina is available for in-house consulting and training.  Contact us for further info.

I spoke to Karina to get some advice on our email marketing at Zambesi and to learn what we should be aiming for - she cleared up a lot of my questions.   If there’s anything else that you’d like to know then please write questions in the comments section.  Or come to the workshop and discuss with Karina and April in person.

In this article:

  • What is a normal email subscriber list size?
  • Ideas for how to grow your subscriber list.
  • What are normal open rates and unsubscribe rates?When to know if you’re in trouble.
  • Most common email marketing mistakes.
  • How to improve your open rates and deliverability.
  • The best way to manage unsubscribes.
  • When and how often should you email?
  • What are the most effective emails for generating sales?
  • Email automation funnels every business should have.

In addition, Karina has reviewed each of the major email marketing platforms including recommendations for which list size each platform is best for and all the associated pricing.

Download the email marketing platform review directory below. 

What’s a normal email subscriber list size?

The Zambesi email is around 8,000.  I asked Karina if this is good or bad and what should we be aiming for. ‘Obviously, early stage businesses don’t have the same subscriber lists as big competitors.  She’s worked with lists with more than a million contacts and lists with as little as 10,000.  You’ve got to start somewhere, and she suggests that a new business should work hard to reach 20,000 subscribers.  ‘Once you’ve got a list of 20,000, then you can really start to build effective automated campaigns that generate sales predictably.’


Ideas for how to grow your subscriber list.

‘The most common way to collect emails is on-site capture with a discount.  When someone comes to your site, show them a pop-up that’ll give them a discount for X number of days.  A lot of people don’t like pop-ups, but they work.  I’ve tested pop-ups on and off and they’re effective, so long as the messaging is optimised.

Competitions work, but expect to get serial competition people entering and a spike of unsubscribes afterwards.  Competitions often attract people who are already your customers, especially if you’re promoting the competition on your own social media channels.   Get new people by running a look alike campaign on Facebook using your existing email list.  I also recommend using a product like Gleam which give people more entries for sharing your competition with friends.  I’ve seen competitions get three times more entries using Gleam. 

Check out Zambesi’s Gleam competition to win $10,000 of awesome Zambesi workshops for your and your team! 


Partnerships can make a big difference.  Work with a like-minded company that has the same audience and a bigger email list and create a co-branded offer.  Make sure you build a landing-page so people have to first enter their email address before accessing the offer.   It’s important to communicate with people that you’re adding them to your email list (via an opt-in) so they’ll open your email.  There’s no point collecting addresses that never open your email.  Or worse still, tarnish your brand by emailing without permission.

Think about what list building initiative makes the most sense for your business.  Webinars can be a good way of capturing lots of email contacts or even live events.  You could create eBooks or articles, like this one, and gate part of it so people need to enter their address for access.  The most important thing is to make sure people expect to get an email from you.  Otherwise they won’t open it, which impacts your deliverability (see common email marketing mistakes below).’


What are normal open rates and unsubscribe rates? When to know if you’re in trouble.

You should expect a 40% open rate on a welcome email or a first email.  Any less that this and you’ll need to look at how you’re collecting email addresses and if these people are actually interested in your business. For a normal weekly EDM, you should aim for an open rate of 25% or above.  20% - 25% is OK.  If you’re below 20% then you’ve got a problem.  The mailbox providers monitor what percentage of people engage with your email and if you dip then they might start sending your emails to the SPAM folders.  Also watch your unsubscribe rates. You don’t want to get more than 0.8-1% unsubscribing from an email.’


What are some of the most common email marketing mistakes?

‘Lots of businesses don’t think about the future.  They’ll start on Mailchimp because it’s cheap and easy. But once you’re over 10,000 contacts it gets quite expensive and some of the functionality is limited.  It can’t do much automation or on-site tracking which is important as it helps to see what your contacts are doing beyond email click. When you choose a platform, it’s important to think 12 months down the track because it takes a lot of time to set up templates and assets and then have to switch everything.  A typical migration takes a minimum of four weeks and is quite involved.  I also see businesses unnecessarily switching back and forth between different software (shiny object syndrome) which can be a drain on resources. But if you’re spending more time manipulating a system to suit your needs than executing, then you know that it’s time to switch things up. 

I still see so many emails that aren’t mobile responsive.  Most people will look at your email on their mobile.  If your email isn’t responsive then half of the page might be taken up by the header.  You need to ensure your emails look good on mobile and the new content and a call to action (even text overlay on a *linked* banner image) is on that first screen. Depending on where your contacts are clicking, you might end up with a very minimal header and put the site links in the footer of the email.

The biggest mistake I see is poor management of their list.  Businesses will keep emailing and emailing the same list, people will unsubscribe or tune out.  The open rate will drop, and the mailbox providers will start to block them or flag their emails as SPAM.  Gmail is particularly strict and if you don’t have strong engagement then your emails will all stop getting delivered.  Even people who want your emails won’t be able to get them.


How to improve your open rates and deliverability.

An easy win is to start cleaning up your list.  Look for people who haven’t opened your emails in 30-60 days (depending on your frequency of sends), segment them out of your main newsletter / EDM list and run a reactivation campaign.  How you choose to reactivate will depend on your type of business.  You could send them a really good offer.  You could send them a personal note asking for feedback. Or you could ask if they’d like to be sent fewer emails and segment them into a list that you don’t contact as often. If they still don’t respond, then at 30-60 days after that try sending a last chance email.  Tell them they’re about to be removed from your list.  And if still nothing, take them off.  

You should set up your reactivation /win back campaign to automatically trigger once a subscriber hits a set threshold of disengagement.  You could also look for early warning signs (e.g. no opens or clicks in a few weeks) before they’re completely disengaged and set up a ‘defecting’ campaign which catches those contacts and tries to prevent them from ever qualifying for win back.

Make sure you refresh the campaign every 3 – 6 months with new offers.  Contacts might continue to requalify and stale content will reduce the effectiveness of the campaign.  Be careful how you word your last chance emails.  Don’t say ‘we can see you’re not interested’.  People don’t like being told what they are and aren’t interested in and they might be active on your website and just not engaging with emails. 

I know this sounds counterproductive when business owners put so much time, effort and money into building their email lists.  It’s especially hard when a client is trying to sell their business and it looks good to have a million email subscribers.  But if they’re not opening or clicking anything and are unlikely to in the future, then they’re harming your deliverability.  Removing inactive people will increase your engagement rate and improve the likelihood of your emails staying out of SPAM. 

Personalisation is best way to improve engagement and therefore, deliverability. You can start with something basic like using the subscriber’s first name in the subject line or headline (hint: ensure you set a default value for contacts where you don’t have a first name). You can also personalise the body content, either by asking contacts what content they’d like to receive, or better still, tracking the content your subscribers are engaging with in emails and on your website. By doing this, you can learn what they like and show them content they’re likely to be interested in.  You could even rearrange the content order of your emails in line with their interests. For example, a fashion website might send a weekly email with new product releases. If a contact has previously browsed men’s suits X times in the past, then you could show them men’s suits at the top of the email.  Most of the advanced email marketing tools enable this via conditional and dynamic content.’


The best way to manage unsubscribes

‘When someone wants to unsubscribe, you should let them do this via a single link.  If you don’t add an unsubscribe link to your footer, then most ESPs will auto-add one.  Preference centres were big for a while.  Instead of one link, departing subscribers had to choose to unsubscribe from sales newsletters, product newsletters and so on.  These were often designed to confuse people, so they’d find it difficult to remove their email address.  In my opinion, if someone wants to unsubscribe then you should let them. They’re likely to hurt your deliverability by not engaging and might even complain to your email marketing provider which will cause further issues.

Make sure you keep a list of unsubscribed email addresses as they can still be useful.  You can use the list to retarget these people on Facebook and try to win them back - although this should be a lower priority as it’s typically a lot easier to activate a new contact then reactivate an old one.’


When and how often should you email?

A typical eCommerce business will contact their subscribers one to two times each week, sometimes more. You need to test frequency and when you’re starting to see people disengage then you’ll know you’re contacting them too often or sending them the wrong content.

It’s important to understand the cadence of your customer interactions and buying patterns.  A business that sells party dresses might email customers every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday as people plan for the weekend.  A business that sells training (like Zambesi) might email early Monday morning before most business leaders hold their weekly meetings and then a reminder to people who engaged with the Monday email on Tuesday.  Identify the moments your customers are thinking about the problem you are looking to solve and intercept these moments. 


What are the most effective emails for generating sales?

For eCommerce businesses, the most effective emails are usually new arrival notification or back in stock. People naturally fear missing out and want to be across whatever is new or limited.  You want to make sure that your emails are useful to your subscribers so it’s important to segment as early as you can so you’re only sending people relevant content.    If you don’t have a constant stream of new products, then you need to create compelling new content.  You have to find something to share that’s new and useful.


Tips for designing emails that convert and how to avoid SPAM flags

‘I would never recommend you ask subscribers to do more than two things in one email.  It’s always best to test as much as you can.  It only works to test one thing each email, so you know what’s driving the outcome.  I recommend A/B testing a button colour in one email, then test different layouts in a later email and so on.  Test using one ‘buy now’ button and multiple buttons throughout the email.  I’ve seen an example where one button was as effective as eight buttons.  It really comes down to your audience.  Keep a record of what worked and the confidence level each time and you’ll start to build guidelines of what works best in your emails. 

Image-based messages can look great, but depending on the mail client settings, images might not download, then your email will look terrible and risk not being delivered at all. Make sure you always include an alt-text (text version of what’s in the image).  Or better still, break up the images with real text.  Aim for a maximum of 60/40 image /text ratio as all-images can be a SPAM flag.  Having lots of capital letters in the body or the text and subject line words like ‘free’ and symbols like ‘$’ and ‘%’ signs are also SPAM flags and should be kept to a minimum and not front-loaded.’


Email automation funnels every business should have

‘At a minimum, you should have automated email funnels for ‘welcome’, ‘reactivation’ and ‘abandoned cart’. Ensure that when a subscriber lands in your welcome funnel that they’re temporarily removed from the regular email lists – otherwise you might unintentionally bombard them with lots of emails at once.  For a welcome series, I’d recommend emailing around three times in the first week. Use each email in the welcome funnel to introduce your business and promote a different action; for example, one could be to check out the latest products, another to check the blog, another to follow on socials etc.  It depends on the objectives of your business.’

I asked Karina for some specific advice on Zambesi’s email marketing and an appraisal of what we’ve done to date.  Her advice was insightful and has led to some big changes that you’ll start to notice over the coming weeks.  Given that most online businesses generate the majority of their sales by email, it seems crazy that we’ve put so much time into learning Facebook advertising and other acquisition tactics and just tried to wing it with email. 

Learn how our fastest growing companies use email to drive sales, benchmark your email marketing against best-practice and get face-to-face advice and feedback from Karina and April in their upcoming workshop.  This is a morning program and tickets start at $231.  Use the code ‘Email’ for a special discount on Karina's course before Friday 22 March or tickets sell out.

Karina is available for in-house consulting and training.  Contact us for further info.

If you like this article then check out our other growth and marketing programs. Use the code 'Marketing' to receive a discount on these programs before Friday 22nd March:
- Ruthless Performance Marketing with Tim Doyle, Head of Marketing and Strategy, Koala Mattress
Brilliant Digital Marketing with Mark Baartse, CMO Showpo
- Brand Like a MOFO with Andre Eikmeier, Cofounder Vinomofo 
Social Media Bootcamp with Tim Hill, Cofounder Social Status 
- How to Grow Like Canva with Andrianes Pinantoan, VP Product and Growth Airtasker


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