Digital email marketing symbols
Email marketing is a useful communications vehicle for sharing your message and building relationships. — Getty Images

Email marketing is an inexpensive and proven way to both attract new customers and keep existing ones. To help you select the email marketing services that best fit your needs, this guide will:

  1. Champion the benefits of email marketing
  2. Provide questions to answer when developing your plan
  3. Outline the variety of features offered in email marketing tools and platforms
  4. Explain the differences between free and paid email marketing services

Why email marketing?

Marketing can be a daunting concept, especially to businesses that are new or are running with a tight budget or small staff. At its core, however, marketing is simply communicating with customers and prospects in a way that motivates a positive response. Email marketing is one very helpful communications vehicle for sharing your message and building relationships.

The goal of your email marketing should be twofold:

  1. Stay top of mind with current customers so that you gain their repeat business and referrals.
  2. Capture the interest of prospects with messaging that leads them along a path to becoming customers.

A third objective for your email campaigns can be to gather and update contact data. With online or app forms, you can add information about existing contacts and gather new ones. Online surveys allow you to poll your audience and gather data to help refine your email content. The more interactive your campaigns are, the more likely you will be to engage the audience and inspire responses.

Email marketing can accomplish these goals because it puts you right in front of your audience. It arrives in subscribers' inboxes, which they see on their computer, phone, or tablet at any time and from any place. You can then link them to your website and social presence. By aligning your messaging across these platforms, you create consistent and multi-touch campaigns that help prospects get to know your business and keep current customers connected to your brand.

What’s more, if you effectively communicate via email, you’re putting a tool right into the hands of customers that they can then forward to others to spread the word about your business. Word-of-mouth marketing is among the best marketing tactics there is.

Putting a good plan into action

You’ll want to select an email platform that enables you to conduct campaigns that align with your business’s marketing needs. To determine your needs, answer these questions:

  • Audience: Who do you need to communicate with?
  • List/list size: Where will you get your email list? Do you have an opt-in, in-house list, or do you need to purchase a list? How big will the list be?
  • Objectives: Determine why you are sending emails and ensure your messaging clearly connects to this objective.
  • Frequency of email sends: There are many opinions on how often and when to send emails. The bottom line, though, is to send emails frequently enough for recipients to remember you — but not so much that they unsubscribe.
  • Brand: What is your company’s brand design and voice? Be sure that your email represents your brand well and aligns with who you are on social media and your website.
  • Call to action: To create engagement, your email should ask recipients to take at least one action.
  • Tie in with social media, apps and website: A multi-touch communications plan helps you connect with your audience through the vehicle(s) they prefer.
  • Measure of success: Make sure you measure the things that matter. Do you care about open rates or click-throughs? Can you track the path from click-through to purchase? What is your benchmark for success?

[Read: How to Get the Most Out of Your Email Marketing Software]

If you effectively communicate via email, your customers will spread the word about your business on your behalf.

Avoid becoming a spammer

One of the biggest things to avoid with email marketing is spamming people. Doing so will hurt your reputation and may also lead to fines.

Spamming is about more than just sending too many emails. Businesses need to abide by the CAN SPAM Act of 2003 and any good email marketing platform you may use should have features built in to help you abide by these regulations. If you end up in violation, your company and the email vendor could both be held liable. You can review guidelines for compliance from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Features of email marketing tools

There is a tremendous variety of email marketing features for you to consider. Because it’s challenging to find one tool that offers all features, you’ll need to assess your priorities. Features to consider include:

  • User interface: How easy and intuitive is it to use? Do you want the ability to code your own emails or just use the editor tools provided?
  • Templates: Do you like the design options? Can you create and save your own? Can you save multiple versions?
  • Customization: Are you able to add design elements that make your email unique?
  • Size of list: Are you limited in the number of contacts you can have?
  • Email frequency: How many times you can send emails to your contacts each month?
  • Reports: What can you track, e.g., opens, click-throughs, contact scoring, campaign scoring?
  • Forms: Can you create a form for your website or social media platforms to gather email registrations?
  • App: Does the platform offer a mobile app so you and/or your audience can access your communication and forms?
  • Testing: Is there a way to test out different email features, i.e., A/B testing, for impact on response rates?
  • Segments, tagging or groups: Naming varies across vendors, but is there some feature that enables you to segregate your audience based on certain criteria, e.g., existing customers, past customers, prospects?
  • Preview/test sends: What are your options for previewing the email? Is this done within the app or by sending a test to a limited list of email addresses? Can you compare desktop view vs. mobile layout as well as how the email renders in a variety of email programs?
  • Social integration: Is it easy to post your latest email campaign from the platform to your social media?
  • List imports: How do you add contacts and/or contact lists? Can you upload an Excel file? Is it easy to import existing contacts from Gmail, Yahoo and Amazon?
  • Email scheduling: Looking to draft your email now but send it at a later time? Look for a platform that allows you to schedule your sends.
  • Workflows: If you have a vision for dynamic email campaigns (significantly more complex than a monthly newsletter), consider a system that offers marketing automation workflow features.
  • Curation tools: If your communications will feature articles and videos from a variety of sources, you may want a tool that allows you to mark web pages within your browser and pull those into your emails.
  • Integration with other marketing vehicles: Some tools offer ads, landing pages, mailings and other marketing materials to increase the impact of your email campaigns.
  • Customer service: What level of assistance do you need? Find out if it is easy to access a person if you have questions or if you will need to navigate FAQs and user forums.

Free vs. paid services

Some companies offer free tools, others offer a free version of their paid platform, and some have subscriptions or pay-as-you go services. While features vary, one consistent difference between free and paid services tends to be the limits on the list size and frequency of email sends. Additionally, free versions will generally include the email vendor’s name, website and/or logo on your email. Also, more complex email campaigns that use workflows and automation will likely require a paid service.

If your contact list may grow substantially, your email send frequency will increase over time, or you want to access more features once you’re comfortable with email marketing, then consider using a vendor that offers a free version but allows you to migrate to a paid version later.

Not yet sure which is the right platform for your business? Start with one that offers a free trial or free version so that you can spend some time exploring and testing the tools before making a commitment.

For more on email marketing, see How To Setup and Run an Email Campaign.

CO— does not review or recommend products or services. For more information on choosing the best email marketing services, visit our friends at

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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