Inbox intel: 6 ways to turbocharge email marketing

Get tips for making the most of content marketing’s most personal channel.

BY Chris Matt
Imagination Contributor

One second.

Literally, the blink of an eye.

In that instant, the hard work your marketing team put into the development of an email newsletter can disappear. A quick finger-swipe, and into the mobile archives it goes. Maybe the subject line was too broad for this personal, hyper-targeted channel. Perhaps the design and content didn’t cut through the clutter. Whatever the reason, it’s an opportunity lost.

Because email marketing works. The channel delivers a median ROI of 122 percent—more than four times higher than the other marketing formats considered, including social media, direct mail and paid search, according to a June 2016 survey of U.S. marketers conducted by the Data & Marketing Association and Demand Metric.

Which is why B2B pros bank on it—just one more reason why the “too many emails, too little time” inbox environment is only getting more crowded.

In 2017, 93 percent of B2B marketers planned to use email to distribute content, and 91 percent said email is critical to their marketing operation, according to the Content Marketing Institute’s annual report on B2B content marketing trends.

In the next year, almost 6 in 10 B2B marketers plan to increase their email marketing budgets, according to Emma’s 2017 Email Marketing Industry Report.

The same report showed that 47 percent of all marketers feel email generates the most ROI.

So, how can you make your email marketing program stand out? Simply “doing” email marketing is one thing. Doing it well is another story. Here are six ways to fulfill your organization’s business and marketing objectives while standing out in a jam-packed yet highly worthwhile space showing no signs of thinning out.


You can’t have an email party without a guest list. You already have an email database—members, customers, opt-ins, purchased lists—but how can you capture new ones?

Implement email-capture opportunities on your content hub. Don’t drive people to content pages on your hub through social media, search or pay-per-click advertising unless those pages have a subscribe widget—potentially in multiple formats and multiple places on the page. Consider gating premium content as another list-building tactic. Through these widgets, you’re asking the audience to say yes to your brand’s communications. That permission-based approach can generate strong email engagement.

“I think email is extremely important,” says Christine Nessen, senior director, contract marketing at Office Depot, who focuses on the organization’s B2B marketing efforts, including its small business audience. “Unlike other channels, like native advertising or search advertising, email requires the customer to opt in and raise their hand and say, ‘I want to receive these.’”

Develop & Document

The shift to more content-driven newsletters is an evolution within marketing departments. That shift brings tough decisions around how a content newsletter jives with a more traditional, direct-marketing approach. What lists overlap? How often should you send and on what day of the week?

Your documented email strategy should answer these questions.

For the Harvard Business Review (HBR), there’s no shortage of email marketing. HBR promotes and sells subscriptions, as well as access to webinars and research. It also has 10 content-driven newsletters that differ by topic and strategy. Some of the 10 are topic-based—Technology & Innovation or Strategy & Execution, for instance—while others are time-based—The Daily Alert and the Weekly Hotlist. The common thread among all 10 is the focus on content.

Recently, the HBR marketing team switched its email-engagement strategy for new online registrants from a product-focused experience to one that starts with content. The drip sequence still highlights the benefits of registration, but it’s no longer focused primarily on promotion of subscriptions or e-commerce.

“It’s been amazing for us to see the impact on engagement; it’s been huge,” says Emily Neville-O’Neill, HBR’s senior product manager. “We have seen some initial declines in our sales of subscriptions and products, but based on the data we have, we think that by increasing engagement, we’ll recoup those over time.”

A similar story surfaces at Office Depot, where content marketing now dominates in email programs previously focused on a hard sell. Office Depot taps into seasonal opportunities and thematically ties content into broader marketing and sales initiatives. A healthy workspaces theme doesn’t just promote the latest in ergonomic chairs, but tells stories around productivity enhancements. The email focuses on needs and pain points first, with product promotion as a secondary call to action.

“What we’re finding [from research] is the customer wants an experience,” Nessen says, noting that higher email engagement and increased deliverability have been a result of this shift. “Not just in their store and with their rep, but also in the channels they interact with, namely email.”

Plan & Execute

A content-fueled email strategy is only as successful as the creativity and execution of the content itself. Deploying emails on a set cadence—daily, weekly, monthly—within the strategy means those creating the content and those sending it out need to work in lockstep. It’s not just making sure the content gets done in time for deployment. It’s making sure the focus on delivering email regularly doesn’t erode content quality.

“Quality of content is of the utmost importance for our members to trust NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business), that we know what we’re talking about and that we’re out there working hard for them on these issues,” says Kate Chandler, NFIB’s digital content director. “If the quality isn’t there, they’re going to completely dismiss us as a thought leader and trusted resource.” Elaine Armbruster, director of email marketing and marketing automation at The Ohio State University, pushes internal partners and content creators to think about telling stories rather than filling a spot on an editorial calendar.

“Really encouraging people to think about content as marketing rather than just as a story I put in my newsletter,” Armbruster says. “What makes a great Ohio State story?” Armbruster also feels that great content can overcome email fatigue. Relevance always wins.

“From my perspective, it’s more about content fatigue than email fatigue,” she says. “I really believe you could send someone three emails a day, and if they were all completely relevant, it’s fine. I really think it comes down to relevancy rather than frequency.”


The life cycle of a customer or member should also drive your email strategy. A bank will send one sort of email to mass-market clients and a different high-net-worth message as their financial journey progresses. Similarly, roles and responsibilities change over time for association members, so don’t assume today’s content will be right tomorrow.

A focus on segmentation can ensure the right message is delivered at the right time to the right individual. At Ohio State, segmentation follows the natural audience progression from student to alumni to donor over time. Each of those audiences—plus the general public interested in the university’s research and thought leadership—are distinct targets for the email marketing group. And Ohio State is not alone. According to Emma’s 2017 Email Marketing Industry Report:

  • 64 percent of university marketers say email marketing generates the most ROI
  • 73 percent plan to increase email marketing budgets in the next year

Inbox inset

Segmentation is important to avoid overlap, redundancy and marketing inefficiency. But it’s not easy. Armbruster says one contact could receive email from multiple groups in a close enough cadence to cause user frustration. This is a somewhat inevitable scenario she and others are tackling through smart segmentation.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re thinking about it from the user’s perspective,” Armbruster says. “What other emails are going out? How can we coordinate? Testing definitely plays a part in that, but a lot of it is us working with different colleges and units to coordinate that messaging.”

Beyond distinct audiences, segmentation allows for reigniting a disengaged set of contacts. If a segment of the database hasn’t opened an email or clicked through in six months, it’s time to check whether the email address is correct and whether that person still wants to hear from you. If you don’t take this step, this disengaged segment will bring down overall engagement metrics and hurt your email success story internally.

Although these re-engagement tactics inform decisions to remove people from the database, multiple departments vying for the same user may have other ideas.

“A lot of times what people hear is, ‘You’re reducing my database size, and I’m not going to reach as many people,’” Armbruster says. “We definitely tread lightly, and we’re being pretty conservative with where we start removing people from our big lists.”


If there’s one buzzword surrounding email marketing today—and all of content marketing, really—it’s personalization. For most brands, personalization is still an aspiration rather than a reality. That’s because it’s hard. It’s hard to make the case for budget that fulfills a personalization strategy and hard to create quality content when personalization calls for a higher volume of it.

Done right, though, personal is powerful.

“If we see people are coming to the site and are consuming a lot of content around tax reform or they’re really interested in health care, we want to make sure they’re getting served up email and site content on those topics,” NFIB’s Chandler says.

NFIB research showed that its members were thirsty for local stories with local impact. It responded with a state-specific newsletter strategy for 210,000 small-business owners in 26 states. The personalized program has outperformed the national content and is helping NFIB achieve its top goal of member retention.

Average open rates for the state-based content are about 26 percent, or roughly a 63 percent increase. Another plus: Members who engage with email are more likely to renew their membership.

Ohio State also realizes the potential for personalization as it looks across the spectrum of audiences, from current students to established donors.

“Even if you are in the alumni audience, it doesn’t mean everybody in that audience likes one thing,” Armbruster says. “How do we target you based on your behaviors on the website or on your past donation history or something you clicked on from an email?”

Test, Measure & Learn

With a sound strategy in place, a focus on quality content and an eye on personalization, you can begin testing and optimizing to measure overall program impact. Experimenting with subject lines, the sender name and email design can yield significant results. For example, it can be surprising how capitalizing just the first word in a subject line versus every word actually changes user behavior and engagement.

“I’m all about testing because I know that what happens for one audience may not work for another,” Armbruster says.

Talking about email as a closed-loop system—where insights and measurement drive content strategy—makes for easier discussions as you socialize internally.

“Retail is easy. It’s: ‘Send an email and how many sales did you get?’” Armbruster says. “In this setting, it’s: ‘Send an email and hope people engage with it. Did they read it? Did they click it? What kind of thoughts did they have?’

“It’s hard to know if you’re making an impact sometimes. You have to shift the way you’re thinking about what email means to people and what your purpose is.”

published: November 15, 2017