Email marketing best practices: how to boost click-through rates by 800%

Email Marketing Best Practices

It was obvious our email marketing strategy wasn’t working.

In fact, it was abysmal.

Every week we publish new content and send it in an email to our blog subscribers, but nothing seems to get through.

Our open rates are above average for our sector, but our click-through rates (CTR) were appalling. At one point, not one in 748 openers clicked through. A CTR of 0.0%…

Something had to change. So, I set out to do some good old-fashioned research and make a list of email marketing best practices to follow in the future.

Here’s what I found. The information that follows (including teardowns of 10 successful marketing emails and how to use psychology to get more clicks), helped us increase our average CTR by over 800%.

So first, some good news for those who promote content over email.

  • Open and click rates are far higher on emails promoting content than emails promoting offers
  • Email also has the highest conversion rate (66%) when it comes to making purchases as a result of marketing messages.

Email Marketing Conversion Rates

If you publish around one piece of content each week, you’re in the perfect place to send emails with fresh content at the exact right frequency.

According to writing in this case study, one email per week instead of every two weeks maintains open rates while boosting recipients.

What this means is that you have a weekly chance to convert your list like crazy. Take advantage of it.

Increase Email Open Rate

Promoting your content over email also helps your subscribers re-engage with your product and remember why they signed up in the first place, even if you’re not actually talking about your benefits or features directly.

The elements of irresistible email marketing:

At Process Street we’ve tried a few different approaches to email content marketing. I’ve been closely analyzing the content promotion emails in my inbox that caught my eye over the past month and I thought I’d share my research with you breaking down what worked, and why. The techniques marketers used are pretty similar to traditional copywriting, but with some interesting differences. Here they are:

Compelling subject line — The more people in the top of the funnel, the better

While there’s no statistics on how many people read your subject lines (reading is not a measurable action without clicking), we do know that the average open rate for an email is 22.87%.
A case study on CrazyEgg mentions how Experian boosted open rates by 29% by modifying their subject lines to be more personal and relatable (more on that later).

Email Marketing Subject lines

Clear, limited call to action(s) — Click the link or click off

According to HubSpot, a call to action (CTA) should be:

  • Visually striking with copy that compels you to click
  • Brief: A couple of words is best, no more than five is ideal
  • Action-oriented: Begin with a verb like “Download” or “Register”
  • Located in an easy-to-find spot that follows organically from the flow of the email
  • In a contrasting color from the color scheme of the email, while still fitting in with the overall design
  • Large enough to see from a distance, but not so large as to detract attention from the main content in the email
  • Easy to understand and clear: Be sure to state exactly what the visitor will get if they click on the CTA

Your email should have no more than 1-2 CTAs to avoid confusing the reader. The hint’s in the name: you’re calling them to act, so you’d better be very clear about it.

Popular Email Marketing CTAs

Strategic use of bolding — Scannable, emphasized points

It’d be nice if people read each word of our carefully crafted emails, but the truth is that most readers on the internet just skim through. Accept that fact, and make it easier for people to do what they want to do.

Text elements to bold:

  • CTAs
  • Value propositions
  • Benefits
  • Power words
  • Key points

Friendly copy — Send it like an email to your mate

Does your email capture form have a ‘first name’ field? The marketing team at ArtBeads found subject lines personalized with the reader’s first name increased conversion (purchase) rate by 208%.

It’s possible to get the friendly feeling across even without using someone’s first name. You don’t always say “Hey, [name]” to your friends, do you? We’ll look at how Brian Dean manages to do this in a moment, for now here’s an example from Criminally Prolific‘s Dmitry Dragilev:

Friendly marketing email

Brevity — Cut it in half

There are several reasons why you’re going to want to keep your emails brief. For one, no one will read it all anyway, so sticking to the stuff that matters is a necessity. What’s more, you’re promoting content. If you ruin the mystery and give the game away in the email, people will be less likely to click through.

Email Marketing copy length

Check out these business writing tips to read how some of the best authors keep their writing clear, concise and short.

7 email content marketing teardowns

With this in mind, I saved every eye-catching marketing email that I’d got in the last month in Evernote, and went through looking for the winning formula.

#1 The 6 marketing metrics your boss actually cares about – Niti Shah

Hubspot Email Marketing Best Practices

This HubSpot email from Niti Shah follows a classic copy formula: problem -> solution -> CTA. Let’s look at each of these more closely.

Problem: As marketers, you are overworked and underappreciated. In fact, 73% of execs think you are useless. Niti plays on the fact that most marketers are constantly having to innovate and try new approaches to impress their bosses, plus that statistic is enough to scare anyone into clicking to save their job.

Solution: A cheat sheet. The word ‘cheat’ indicates you can get an unfair advantage, something you’ll need if 73% of execs want to put you out of work. The content promises to narrow focus, meaning it will be effective at explaining to your unenlightened boss what matters and why.

Calls to action: We all love free downloads. There’s something about a download that is calming, because it’s saved to your computer. Niti uses 2 CTAs here, but both link to the same place. She uses the imperative ‘Download’ so there’s no confusion over what we should do next.

Supporting material: The HubSpot logo, and a smiling, friendly face. Both of these things reassure us that clicking is the right thing to do. Why? Because of trust. HubSpot is a trusted content source, and smiling people make us trust them.

#2 Marketing Goals: Here’s How to Calculate Them – Matt Buckley

New Breed Email Marketing Best Practices

New Breed‘s Marketing Manager Matthew Buckley follows a similar structure to HubSpot’s tried and tested formula. The only real difference is that he’s not backing his claims up with stats, and opts for a flashier look.

Problem: B2B marketing teams are expected to work miracles. How can they do that (and measure how miraculous the results are) if they don’t know what to focus on?

Solution: Nine easy steps towards figuring out how to calculate marketing goals. Matt doesn’t actually tell us why we’d want to do that, though. Unlike Niti’s HubSpot email, the benefits don’t jump out at you or tap into an emotional need.

Calls to action: A nicely sized green button matching the book cover makes it obvious what to do next. The wording here is interesting, because it’s not asking you to act, it’s asking them to act by giving you the template. I’d be interested to know how effective this is; while it’s clear what will happen if you click the button, people don’t usually like asking for favors or ordering each other around.

Supporting material: The physical book image here is great, and similar to the tactic used by Kindle authors to sell more books. Marketers know that the distance of the digital age is unappealing, so at least giving the illusion of physical objects is powerful.

#3 VIDEO: How to steal search traffic from your competitors – Tim Soulo

Ahrefs Email Marketing Best Practices

Ahref‘s marketing mastermind Tim Soulo is one of my personal favorite marketers. The copy here is so beautifully short and effective, to match the promises of the embedded video content.

Problem: You’re not getting enough traffic to your website. Do you want more traffic? Of course you do! ‘More traffic’ is one of the most commonly cited needs of business owners, and the main reason we’re so crazy about SEO.

Solution: In just 14 minutes you’ll be equipped to steal SEO traffic from your competition. Tim emphasizes how the video is short, simple and effective in this minimal marketing email.

Call to action: The CTAs here are interesting, because the main one (by size and relevancy) is the embedded YouTube video. His secondary CTA is unclear, and could mean that he wants you to reply to the email or comment via YouTube. Some writers (Brian Dean, for example) are very clear when they want you to reply, and end their emails with lines like “reply to this email and tell me one problem you’re facing”.

Supporting material: He knows my first name. This has proven to be huge, and everyone likes to be spoken to on a personal level. Ogilvy knew how important this is:

“Do not address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.”

Thanks to email marketing, now we can.

#4 Here are 3 cool SEO tools I found last week – Brian Dean

Backlinko Email Marketing Best Practices

Brian Dean is probably the best email marketer out there, and the methods he uses are quite unconventional. For the purposes of the above screenshot, I cut the actual content out (marked with […]).

Problem: You think SEO tools are going to be an easy fix, and something that makes up for laziness or bad content. SEO tools are not magical — they’re just that: Tools.

Solution: 3 tools Brian Dean — a man who outranked Google itself for the keyword ‘backlinks’ — recommends, plus a guide coming soon revealing the exact tools he uses.

CTA: None! But he doesn’t need one. His copy is so engaging and well-written, he can get away with telling people to just hold on ’til next time.

Supporting material: Brian gives insight into his personal experiences, how he’s changed over the years and the attitude that makes him successful. He does it in a friendly and relatable way by addressing the reader directly and by making it look like an email you’d get from a friend. No flashy buttons, hardly any bolding, plain text ONLY.

#5 How to draft the best blog outline in 10 easy minutes – Garrett Moon

CoSchedule Email Marketing Best Practices

Garrett Moon’s extremely brief email packs a lot of persuasion into a little copy, but moves so fast it might be confusing. It has 5 CTAs, 4 of them unique. This means that less than half of the links in the email will take the reader where Garrett wants them to go.

Problem: You don’t write as quickly as you (or your boss) might want, and you suffer from writer’s block.

Solution: Julie has put together a blog post and a template to help you “save time, stay on point and dramatically improve your writing process”. It’s also hinted that CoSchedule could help… Nicely slipped in at the end, there.

Call to action: The email’s main CTA is obvious because it’s on a single line, bolded and prefixed with the all-caps imperative “READ”. The 2nd CTA, ‘Click here to continue reading’ is worded interestingly because it’s telling you that you’ve already started reading and plays on the need for closure. A sneaky link to CoSchedule is tacked on the end, too.

Supporting material: It’s personal. It reads like Garrett’s your friend who, knowing you so well, thought you might be interested in this particular piece of content. The plain text nature of the email enhances the effect.

#6 Everything you need to launch and run a successful blog – Will Blunt

Blogger Sidekick Email Marketing Best Practices

This email has almost all of the features I discussed earlier. It’s focused, persuasive (sets up a problem then knocks it down with a solution) and short. Will Blunt doesn’t waste our time. He offers something which he implies will become a staple of your research material when launching a business blog.

Problem: No one tells you how to launch and run a business blog. There’s not any solid resource out there. So how are you meant to know the best way?

Solution: A huge guide with all the answers and everything you need. Not only that, Will knows his content isn’t something to just consume and throw away — it’s something with lasting value that you’re going to want to bookmark and actually read again (for once).

Call to action: The call to action here is slightly out of place, especially since the post has been referred to as ‘100+ valuable tips to fast track your way to a successful business blog’. Now it’s 30 factors instead? It’s confusing, but at least there’s only one CTA to worry about.

Supporting material: Again, the email is personalized with my name. The Blogger Sidekick logo is obvious and recognizable and the email was written by the founder and director of marketing, giving it authority.

#7 Discover This Caveman-Old Niche Worth $677-Million [Fresh Content] – Stuart Walker

Niche Hacks Email Marketing Best Practices

Stuart Walker of Niche Hacks is the master of mystery in this email, baiting us all the way through to a psychologically-proven CTA without actually telling us anything apart from why we should care. How can anything that old still be a niche? You’ll have to click through to find out.

Problem: You’re not taking advantage of an untapped market, thus effectively losing money.

Solution: Stuart knows everything there is to know about the niche in question, and can let you in on the secrets to dominate a $677m market (he tells you that a few times).

Call to action: ‘FINISH READING HERE’ is an awesome CTA. It works on the same principle as ‘Continue reading’ but is much more obvious and effective because we don’t like to leave things unfinished (or think that we’re the sorts of lazy people who don’t get things done).

Supporting material: Stuart makes a ton of outlandish promises here, almost as a challenge to be proven wrong. As another challenge, he hints at the nature of the niche with emphasized words like chop, and other wooden analogies that get you guessing what he means. Finally, (and more on this later) complementary colors like orange and blue play a bigger role in conversion than you might think.

How can you make these strategies even more powerful?

There’s only a certain distance great copywriting can take you. There are more psychological factors at work, and the copy’s the only thing that works, you still won’t get the best possible results.

Right now I’m going to dive right in and share valuable, proven research that will get subscribers waiting for your email to appear in their inboxes and click through to your content.

List Segmentation: Targeting People Who Actually Care

Email Marketing List Segments

Email is one of those rare systems where you can effectively cater to the needs of different people. Unlike a restaurant scrambling to cook new meals and design new menus for each customer’s preference, list segmentation does scale.

If your blog publishes content aimed at more than one kind of customer, you’re proven to get the results we’re all going after: increased sales leads, transactions and retention.

List Segmentation Email Marketing Data

So, how is it done? Before you can target different groups, you need to know which groups exist and who’s a part of them. You can segment your list in lots of creative ways, like using multiple opt-in forms, surveys or by teaching Mailchimp what user actions mean and having it add people automatically:

Mailchimp Email Marketing

Another trick for list personalization is to capture first names and last whenever you capture emails. Like you saw in the example emails above, a lot of marketers address you by name. They have good reason to do this. Check out these stats.

Email Marketing Personalization

Split Test Your Call-to-Action

The aim of an email promoting content is to get the recipient to click your CTA and read your post, with the hopes they’ll share it, be convinced by it, buy your product and tell all their wealthy, like-minded friends… That’s the dream, any way.

But first you need them to click through. The basic language for a CTA button is something like “Click here to read the full post”, but what are some ways we can spice this up and make it sound more appealing?


The whole point of a CTA is to get people to do what you want. Imperatives, or words that command the reader to do something, are the most commonly used first word of calls to action. Here are some to consider:

  • Click
  • Read
  • Access
  • Open
  • Get
  • View
  • Discover
  • Join
  • Save
  • Try
  • Find
  • Download
  • Buy
  • Order
  • Reply
  • Call
  • Act
  • Start
  • Stop

Customized text:

A post about how to reduce bounce rate with a CTA button reading:

“Stop readers bouncing now”

A post about A/B testing tweets:

“Get more retweets”

Involving the reader:

“Give me this free guide”

“Get your instant download”

Button Size

Your button should be big enough to get noticed, but not so big that it imposes, distracts or looks out of place.

Here’s a simple guideline from Retargeting:
CTA Button Size Best Practice

Button Color

Simple changes to the look and feel of your CTA button can have a huge impact. Check out the difference between the two buttons below:

CTA Button Color Best Practice

By changing the button color from green to red, HubSpot increased Performable’s clickthrough rate by 21%. However, as we’re about to see, it might not just have been about the color.

Angie Schottmuller has written an in-depth guide that talks about nothing but colors that convert. Here’s an image she used to sum it all up.

CTA Color Conversion Best Practices

The way you can apply this to your emails is by using a CTA that contrasts with your header image or any other kind of graphics. These kinds of techniques aren’t just for landing pages.

How did we apply these email marketing best practices?

After research, it was time to put it all into action. I was tired of seeing bad results, but that’s what motivated me the most.

Here’s what our shameful report said:

Bad email marketing

As you can see, our open rates weren’t terrible. The problem was that our emails were automated, tied to the publication of new blog posts. That means that the whole body of a blog post was shoved into an email and blasted out without any thought given to optimizing our CTR.

After a lot of research, and applying the email marketing best practices I’ve just been talking about, we were able to increase our average CTR by 842%. This is from an average of 0.26% to 2.45%.

Better Email Marketing

In an upcoming post I’m going to reveal the exact differences between the two kinds of emails we sent that got such polarized results. If you want to get that post in your inbox, make sure to sign up to the Process Street app and tick ‘Subscribe to the Process Street blog’.


For more lean content marketing tips from Mark Schaefer, Rebecca Lieb, Lee Odden, Jason Miller, Erika Heald on many other inspiring content marketing influencers, download our free ebook.
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About the Author

Vinay Patankar
Youngest Cisco engineer in Australia at age 16. Background in IT, Finance and Software Recruitment. 4th Internet Company. Founded affiliate marketing company with teams in 3 countries (USA, Philippines, India) that did $1 million in revenue in less than 3 years. Launched Start Up (collaborative video iPhone app) that failed and shut down in Jan 13. Strengths in sales, marketing, traffic, product & UX.
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