10 Tips For Your First Email Campaign

10 Tips For Your First Email Campaign

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In: Articles

By Ben Chestnut

Published on March 25, 2008

Picture the scene—you’ve just finished a cool new website for a client, and she’s so happy with the results that she wants you to help her with Phase Two of her business plan: email marketing. You just built an entire website—one little HTML email newsletter couldn’t be that hard, right?

Actually, there’s more to it than designing a pretty email (just like there’s more to website development than a cool navigation bar). Think about it—you don’t take on a website project without knowing a little bit about your client’s goals, right? Sadly, I’ve seen too many web designers dive into their first email marketing project before doing the proper planning. There are some basic things you need to square away before you send your first email newsletter.

Here are some tips we give to our new customers at MailChimp who are sending their first email campaigns. Share them with your clients before you begin your next email marketing projects, and you might prevent more than a few headaches!

1. Setup an email account that you can use for your newsletters, and make sure it works.

Setup an email account such as “newsletter@my-company.com” and use that as the “Reply-To” address for all your email marketing. You may even want to setup multiple email accounts, like “promotions@”, or “special-offers@”, but the point is that you don’t want to be sending email marketing using a personal email address (like john@my-company.com), because what happens when John quits, or gets fired? (And you certainly don’t want to use a fake return address without understanding the consequences!)

Another reason for setting up a totally separate account is that some spam filters will send an auto-reply to you, which you will need to respond to in order to prove that you’re human. If you don’t respond, the spam filter will just assume you’re a spambot, and reject all future email from you.

2. Give Your Sysadmin A Heads-up.

Many users will start by sending test newsletters to themselves, or to a group of co-workers. It’s innocent enough, but your company’s spam filter or email gateway will see it differently. To a machine, your test emails will look like spam from an outside server, pretending to be you, and attacking its users. So give your poor sysadmin a heads up that you’re going to start sending email marketing, and that they should go ahead and “white list” your ESP’s (Email Service Provider) delivery servers. (Any reputable ESP that you choose should be able to give you some instructions on how to whitelist their servers.)

3. Plan how you might segment your list in the future.

Lots of people make the mistake of jumping in too soon, without considering how they’ll want to segment their lists in the future. For example, you might think it sufficient to just ask for email address, first name, and last name—but later, when you want to target specific segments of the group by occupation (to send a survey to all the web designers on my list, and a different survey to the business owners, for example) you have a problem. We never asked for that information on the sign-up form! When you’re creating your database and sign-up forms, make sure you include all the important fields you’re likely to use for customer segmentation. If your ESP provides it, you may be able to pass this data behind the scenes through an API from an external customer database or e-commerce solution.

4. Plan Your Calendar, Plan Your Content.

If this is your first foray into email marketing, set the bar really, really low. Nobody can jump right in and send weekly emails. Writers block, procrastination, and fear usually prevent most people from sending very frequent emails. So on your sign-up forms, tell people it’s a “quarterly-ish” email, or call it a “sporadic” newsletter. It took me about a year before I got into the swing of things, and could make the claim that I send an email newsletter with any regularity.

Go ahead and think about the type of content to send. Some easy examples to get your started:

  • How-to tips. Share your expertise! That’s probably what your clients like about you most, and it’s the easiest content to write.
  • Company news. Your most loyal customers will subscribe, and help cheer you on. Use it to send feedback surveys every once in a while.
  • Special promotions. Send e-coupons, promo codes, and other offers. Holidays are a good time to send these campaigns, and they make scheduling easy.

5. Point People To Your Sign-up Form Now.

There’s nothing more disappointing than creating an awesome email newsletter but having nobody to send it to—so if you don’t already have a list of opt-in subscribers, create a sign-up form right now, and start pointing people to it (your ESP should give you a tool to build one). Here are some ideas for where to place that sign-up form link:

  • In your email signature—and ask co-workers to do the same.
  • Printed at the bottom of all your invoices.
  • Post the link to your website and blog.
  • Tell your customer service staff to ask customers if they’d like to receive your email newsletter, and collect emails over the phone.
  • Come up with an incentive. Give a prize to one lucky subscriber (a company t-shirt will do), just for signing up to the list. The winner can be announced in your first newsletter.

We’ve seen some marketers get over anxious to “get the word out” so they purchase email lists, “scrape” email addresses from websites, or collect emails from their local Chamber of Commerce. Big mistake. None of those recipients specifically requested email marketing from you, so all you’ll get is a lot of spam reports. Resist the temptation. Email marketing is about ongoing relationships, not one-time blasts—take the time to build a good list.

6. Clean Your List, Avoid Headaches

If you already have a list of email subscribers that have opted-in over the last few years, but you just haven’t had time to contact them until now, be sure to clean your list first. Get rid of very old emails; any email address older than six months is likely to be dead. If you send to too many “dead” email accounts, you’ll look like a spammer to most ISPs, and you risk being blacklisted.

If you’re exporting contacts from Microsoft Outlook or similar, segment your “personal” and “business” contacts; and be sure to remove anything like “receipts@amazon.com” or any other email addresses that might have been added automatically.

If you’re creating your list from a company CRM, make sure you’re not accidentally including “prospect” or “target” lists from the sales department (i.e. people who didn’t opt-in for your emails, or who don’t even know you).

7. Get Your Privacy Policy In Order

This one usually only applies to really big companies or the healthcare industry. If you have a privacy policy, make sure your email marketing won’t conflict with it. Typical things to check for include open- and click-tracking, and how they are linked to personally identifiable information.

8. Think About The Entire Opt-In Experience

When people sign up for your email list, you have the opportunity to really make a good (or bad!) first impression on them. Consider the different touchpoints during the typical opt-in process, and how you can optimize them:

  • Signup form: Provide clear links to your privacy policy, and prove you’re trustworthy. Also provide links to past newsletters, if available.
  • Thank you page: After they submit the opt-in form, thank them, and tell them what they need to do next (usually check their email and click “confirm”). You could even provide an incentive at this point (a free whitepaper, for instance) if they confirm their subscription.
  • Confirmation link: When the subscriber gets your confirmation email, remind them in the email to add your email address to their address book in order to prevent their spam filters from blocking you by mistake in the future.
  • Confirmed: When they confirm, take them to an awesome “Thank You” screen. You might include a link to a free whitepaper, or perhaps a promotional code for their next purchase.
  • Confirmation email: After they confirm, one final “all done now” email is usually sent, summarizing just includes the information that they provided on your signup form, with a link to unsubscribe if they ever want to in the future. Why not change that content to make it the most awesome thankyou note ever? We’ve seen people put in useful content, free prizes, and promotional codes—just use your imagination!

9. Test Your Work.

Setup as many different email accounts as you can: Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail, AOL, and any local ISP. Keep those accounts in their default state—don’t modify the spam filter settings, add your domain to the address book, or do anything that might bias it in your favor. Send test emails to those accounts to see if your email renders correctly, and if they pass through their spam filters. Yes, this can be a HUGE pain, especially if you’re sending regularly, but you really do have to do it.

There are two ways to save time, though:

  • Use your ESP’s HTML email templates. Companies like MailChimp have already done the testing for you in all the major email programs. Create all your company templates once, then all you have to do is add the content.
  • Alternatively, you can use a ‘live preview’ service to test your email across dozens of email programs and see how it renders. MailChimp’s Inbox Inspector is $13 a test; other services include Lyris (for medium to large sized companies), another ESP that provides built-in campaign previews and spam checkers; ReturnPath and Pivotal Veracity are two of the larger options, and relative newcomer Litmus (formerly SiteVista) looks promising as well.

10. Be There When You Send.

In the early days of MailChimp, I put together a large email campaign alerting customers to some scheduled server maintenance to taking place over the coming weekend. It was the first time we had ever done anything like that, and it took me hours to craft an appropriately official and technical sounding email. Finally, I hit send… got up, and invited everyone in the office out for lunch. Needless to say, our customers had lots of questions about the looming server outage, and were immediately calling frantically for answers. They were furious that nobody was there to answer their calls and emails. Oops.

For your very first email campaign, it’s a good idea to actually be in the office when you send it. Expect a few emails and phone calls from customers who are excited for you. You will inevitably get an email from a spelling or grammar nazi, pointing out some mistake you made. You might even get a few angry customers who can’t remember opting in to your newsletter. If you’ve got a special promotion in the email, you’ll get questions about that. Point is, make sure you (or someone who can answer calls) is actually at the office when the email is sent. Don’t schedule your very first email campaign to go out at 3am!

On that note, you should also make sure that you tell your staff that an email campaign is about to go out, and make sure they’re able to take any questions that may arise. (Ideally, they’ll already know about your campaign, because you’ve already been sending them email tests for them to proofread.)


If you follow these ten essential tips and properly plan your email marketing projects, they will be a lot smoother, your client will be much happier, and best of all—you’ll make a higher profit margin on your project.

Don’t get over-excited about the design and coding issues (you know, the fun stuff), and end up backed into a corner by delivery problems, blacklists, and spam complaints. When it comes to email marketing, it really pays to measure twice, send once.

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Related Topics: Email, E-Marketing

Ben Chestnut is an Industrial Designer who co-founded The Rocket Science Group in April 2000, which eventually became MailChimp. He now spends his time drawing monkeys and experimenting with email marketing, then blogging about it all at Monkey Brains.