Email marketing – the difference between success and failure

What’s going to drive sales? The perennial question that’s asked of every marketer in the land. In fact, understanding what marketing channel is going to deliver sales for your organisation really has been around for ages.

It was John Wanamaker (1838-1922) the very successful United States merchant, religious leader and political figure, considered by some to be a “pioneer in marketing” who coined the phrase: 

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted;

the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Things have moved on since John’s time, and in many ways, they are more complicated than ever. You might ask why that is given all the technology we now have at our disposal. There are many points to consider.

Hang on, isn’t this blog about email marketing? Yes, it is, and I’ll come back to that in a minute, but I’d like you to ponder a few things first. So please bear with me!

Marketing used to be simpler because there were far fewer marketing channels and there was far less choice. Marketing was also not available to smaller businesses in the way it is now.

The local business could only reach the local community via Yellow Pages, local press and perhaps the cinema too. National businesses were also restricted to national media and often this was too expensive and wasteful.

And as John Wanamaker observed, it’s almost impossible to know what bit of his advertising budget was delivering the sales he was achieving.

Now, all this has changed, and it is easier to ‘attribute’ a sale to a specific action or marketing channel.

Google would have you believe it’s really simple. You search for a trampoline, for example, find what you want, and buy online. Google will claim 100% ‘attribution’ (that means the sale is 100% attributed to Google for the sale. But that is not often so. You may have seen the trampoline at a friend’s house first, or seen it advertised in a magazine or on Facebook, or even seen it in B&Q and thought it might be cheaper online.

So the seed was sown elsewhere – and Google just became the tool to deliver the goods. Attribution is very complex and full of half-truths too.

What’s the point I’m trying to make?

The point I’m setting out to make is that the journey to a sale, or perhaps in your case the journey to a quality conversation, is long, complicated and often different for many. Achieving the ‘sale’ or conversation that leads to a sale is hardly ever simple.

So where does email marketing fit in, and crucially, in these ‘GDPR days’, how can email deliver the sales or opportunities to make a sale that you seek?

Let’s look at the bullet points (from the email you might have seen) and what the significant points are that will determine your success or failure with email marketing.

  • Email is a disruptive marketing channel – respect the recipients time.
  • Text only emails outperform image based HTML designs.
  • Content is key to success – you have to be interesting and shareable.
  • The email on its own is not enough.
  • GDPR should be viewed in a positive light. Throw less mud at the wall!
  • Clever telephone follow-up creates more opportunities.
  • Good email data is essential.

Email marketing is a disruptive marketing channel

Do you ever ask a company to email you with a sales email? Of course, you don’t. So it’s really important to respect that in sending a sales email, you’re asking for some of the recipient’s time in opening and reading the email. So make sure the email is well targeted and crucially that the email is likely to be of interest.

So what makes an email interesting? Well, for a start, don’t try and sell. Try to give knowledge and wisdom away. Demonstrate your expertise and remember, it’s never about you, it must be about the recipient’s needs.

Keep the email really short and to the point and offer links to other assets that may be of interest.

And finally, keep subject lines as short as you can and not so vague as to provide no indication of what you’re about. That might sound counter-intuitive, but if you deceive the recipient, you may get an open, and the recipient may look at your email, but it is likely to be the last time they do! They may unsubscribe!

Text-only emails outperform picture-rich HTML emails

Now, there’s some clarity needed here.

Chances are your business provides a high value service or product to a B2B marketplace and not a B2C product like a holiday or a cappuccino! Now think about the emails you get in your inbox and have a ponder. Any email that has lots of pictures, or a logo or branded header panel, what’s your initial thought? I’d hazard a guess that you’re thinking “someone is about to try and sell me something”.

However, if the email looks like the kind of email you’d receive from a colleague or friend, and if the content seems to be giving you something and not selling anything, you’re more likely to engage.

There’s a couple of caveats: the content MUST be interesting and compelling, and it MUST be well written.

We know this to be true because we have tested it a number of times and text only outperforms HTML, image-based emails by 320%.

Content is key to success – you have to be interesting and shareable

I touched on this above, and I’ve a challenge for you. Look at the last email your company sent out. And see if it passes the ‘so what’ test. Ask yourself if the recipient might possibly share the email or the content it is linked to with a friend or colleague? If the answer is no, and it’s not passed the ‘so what’ test, look at a rewrite and find something that might touch on the pain point of the recipient.

It might also help if you ask this question. “What can I put in front of a potential client to elicit the response – That’s interesting, I’d like to know more.”

The email on its own is not enough

When you send an email out to your prospect database you’re asking them to trust you and be sufficiently interested to take the next steps:  to call you, look at your website, email you back etc. If they look at your website, they need to be impressed and reassured if they look at a blog you’ve linked them to, that blog needs to be interesting, well written and potentially shareable. And if they call your business, that experience needs to be great too. The recipient may also look at your LinkedIn profile, so how do you look online?

Any of these points are a crucial part of the sales process and need to be considered too.

One of the advantages of the reports generated by a good email marketing service is that you can see who has looked at the emails you’ve sent, and which links they have clicked on. It means you can phone them and ask if you can be of further help. It’s very different from cold calling as the recipient has actively clicked on links you’ve provided and there is a good chance of a quality conversation.

GDPR should be viewed in a positive light. Throw less mud at the wall!

GDPR has made us all think about the data we all hold in our databases, and in many ways, it’s a good thing. It’s also made the marketing data industry sit up and take notice too. The result is that targeting and quality have improved and there really is less ‘chucking mud at the wall’.

So what about email opt-ins? As I write this, the GDPR regulations are pretty clear. GDPR sets out a number of legal bases for managing and processing data. One of these is ‘legitimate interest’, and It means that any email marketing data you buy must adhere to this criteria, and you need to respect that the email recipients you’re emailing are relevant to the product or service you’re emailing about.

It does mean that in the B2B sector you can legitimately email individuals working for companies. There is a useful definition of what constitutes a company here.

Clever telephone follow-up creates more opportunities

I touched on this in the “The email on its own, is not enough” section, and there is more!

Think about this for a moment. Imagine you’re sitting in your high street shop behind the counter, and some customers come into the shop and start looking around. They may pick up some of the products and look at them. What would you do? Ignore them, or perhaps go up to them and ask if you could help – just like in a real shop?

Now think about your click-throughs from the email: people have come along to your website and looked at your company. Perhaps they looked at a blog too. So why not give them a call and see if you can be of further help?

We know this method works, and you can start some very worthwhile conversations and win sales with this method.

Good email data is essential

There is no substitute for quality in the email marketing world! And with GDPR you need to know you’re playing by the rules too. So be careful whom you buy from and recognise that there is no such thing as a cheap ‘GDPR compliant, fully opted-in database’!

It’s important too that you understand that your messaging needs to tie in with the data you’re working with and respect the industry, size of business, job titles etc. that you’re messaging.


There’s a lot to think about here! And what we do know is that email marketing is a great way to get your message in front of the kinds of businesses you want to work with. But it’s not a silver bullet, and it needs skill and persistence to get good results. And like any marketing channel, skill and tenacity will win the day and deliver the sales you’re looking for.