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What is email marketing?

Hi, I’m Polina! Formerly, I worked as a senior digital marketing manager and now I am the marketing mentor at Pathrise. I help job-seekers prepare for their future in digital marketing through technical workshops and 1-on-1s. Check out my article to learn everything you need to know about email marketing.

Email marketing typically refers to sending emails to promote a product or service. Newsletters, coupons, free downloads, and anything companies can fit into an email fall under the umbrella of email marketing. Email marketers use these types of emails to attract, retain, and convert prospective customers. Your inbox is probably full of email marketing messages. Some you’ll open right away. Others will make you roll your eyes and feed your spam folder.

With so many different types of email marketing strategies and even more ways they can annoy potential customers, it can be difficult to identify how email marketing can help your company or career. How can you draw in customers without pushing them away with excessive messages? What role does email marketing play in a marketing campaign? To help you better understand email marketing, we’ve broken down the benefits of email marketing as well as the most common email marketing strategies that can actually acquire and retain customers.

What is email marketing and how does it help a company grow?

When a glossy envelope appears in our mailbox IRL, we call it “junk mail.” What does a digital marketer do differently? The truth is that email marketing is successful for the same reason snail mail marketing is not: relationships. Email marketers cultivate a relationship with the people on their mailing list so they actually open their (e)mail.

The relationship often begins with an offer: sign up for the mailing list to get access to free downloadable materials or some other freebie. Over time, interesting new emails trickle into their inbox. Compelling newsletters, coupons, even promotions–these emails offer the lead value. The lead starts to trust the company as they deliver more valuable emails. Eventually, a particularly appealing email promotion “converts” the lead into a paying customer as they finally buy the company’s product or service. Of course, not everyone who signs for an email list will become a loyal customer. But some will. As email list sign-ups increase, so will conversions and profits.

While companies can certainly annoy potential customers with emails, used correctly they can keep customers informed and tailor marketing messages to specific audience segments. For example, recent sign-ups for a mailing list often get free downloadable materials and promotions to help them warm up to the company. These colder leads would unsubscribe if a lengthy email newsletter about corporate vision appeared in their inbox. However, the most loyal customers might absolutely devour in-depth newsletters on the company performance and budget goals. Different leads get different emails, tailored to their customer profile.

Email marketing isn’t only about growth–it’s about maintenance. Insurance, even. An email list allows companies to stay in contact with customers and retain them. If customers stay on a mailing list, the company can continue to reach out to inform them of new promotions or developments. In case some catastrophe befalls a company and all inventory vanishes, their team can rest easy knowing they can easily inform their customers of the development. So long as companies have an email list, they have an audience.

Why have so many companies switched to email marketing?

Email is affordable. The relative simplicity and low cost of email marketing make it extremely desirable for a company’s marketing mix. Not only can emails be easily automated, but they can also be easily optimized. Companies can assess which emails work best for which demographic, automatically send a customized email, then determine customer taste based on heatmaps and engagement rates. The simplicity of email marketing makes it a critical component of a solid sales funnel. Emails can inform, entice, and convert all without any live sales pitch or intricate landing page.

While overzealous marketers and Nigerian princes may have given email marketing a bad rap, it’s still extremely powerful. Email marketing is shown to be several times more effective than social media messaging–a 2019 e-commerce study found that emails have a conversion rate of 2.3%, while social media is lucky to reach 1%. Industries from publishing to clothing rely on mailing lists for a huge bulk of their sales. Newsletters and dramatic subject lines may seem old-fashioned, but email marketing is still one of the most effective ways to acquire and convert customers.

Tips for writing a successful email marketing message

Familiar name & effective subject line

The first and most important step is to grab the reader’s attention. Make sure you use a familiar “from” name so that leads can immediately recognize the email. Next, use a pithy personalized subject line with the receiver’s name because it has been shown to increase open rates. Some email marketers try to hack the system by including “RE:” or “FWD” in a subject line. While this does dramatically increase open rates, it should be used sparingly and only in cases where the email is legitimately a follow-up, like when sending downloadable materials or responding to an opt-in form request.


The subject line does not work on its own. You also get to tell more of your story before the reader opens the email with a preheader. This is the short summary text that appears below the subject. It’s a kind of preview of what’s inside the email. The preheader should tell a story that relates to the receiver. Combining the subject line and preheader has also been shown to be effective. For example, if the subject read “John Doe: here is your tailored list of marketing courses!” then the preheader might read “No college degree? No problem. These 5 bootcamps…” In this case, the subject line and the preheader come together to tell a story of what’s inside the email with a focus on how it can be especially helpful for people without college degrees, which the email marketers suspect may include John Doe.

Body content

Successful subject lines and preheaders work to get the reader to open the email. Once they have done so, you need to get them to actually read the content. Keep the body text of the email simple and to the point. Language can be more flowery if telling a compelling story in the form of a newsletter or announcement, but it’s generally best to not overwhelm readers in the email’s body. It might be better to include a button link to a longer post if you need more space to tell a story. The body of the email is more utilitarian, conveying just the information needed to get the receiver to make the desired decision at the end.

Call to action

This desired decision comes in the form of a call to action. Email marketers usually put their call to action below the body, with a visually striking button that asks receivers to do something. Basically, the call to action is your close. But how can you close with just a few words of button text copy? The first step is to eliminate resistance words. Buttons that ask receivers to “submit” or “apply” could lower the conversion rate. Instead, use words that stress the advantage to the receiver. Make it a win-win. For example, “learn how” or “get your free gift” will likely have a higher conversion rate as you’re not asking the receiver to do anything they don’t want to do. Strangers don’t want to fill out lengthy application forms or fill their hard drives with downloads. But who doesn’t want a free gift?

What types of roles utilize email marketing?

While many different roles work with email marketing, aspiring email marketers should keep an eye out for the following titles:

  • Email marketing specialist
  • Email marketing manager
  • Content writer
  • Email marketing director

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The type of email depends on the type of company, client, service, and strategy. Marketing emails can range from pithy sales pitches to lengthy personal essays. However, while emails take on all kinds of different forms, email marketing messages generally fall into 5 categories:

  • Welcome emails
  • Newsletters
  • Lead nurturing
  • Promotions
  • Re-engagements

Email categories

To give you a better sense of their purpose and performance, we have broken down each common type of email. Find out which type is right for your email marketing strategy.

Welcome emails and free downloads

This is your first impression. Welcome emails will likely have much higher open rates than future marketing emails. They kickstart your metrics and make the receiver aware of your presence in their inbox. However, they can also annoy leads if too long or difficult to read. Keep your foot in the door by keeping welcome emails short and to the point. Many email marketers link their welcome email to free downloads from an opt-in form or promotions on their site. Getting free gifts and discounts in the first email leaves a good taste in the lead’s mouth.


Newsletters educate leads and raise brand awareness. These types of scheduled emails share company news, events, blog posts, brand stories, product announcements, pivots, and much more. However, newsletters generally repackage previously published content. For example, lengthy blog posts can be condensed into a captivating newsletter so customers don’t have to track down the post.

Basically, newsletters keep a dialogue open. They retain customers by continually sending a diverse range of content and thereby reminding them your company still exists. By using marketing CRMs like Hubspot, newsletters can also collect valuable metrics about customers on each open click. Newsletters can be learning tools for both parties.

Lead nurturing

Lead nurturing is sending a series of connected emails full of helpful content. This series of automated emails guides leads through the marketing funnel, informing them and sharing free content until eventually, the lead becomes a buyer. Essentially, lead nurturing emails are a self-contained automated marketing funnel.

Rather than blasting individual emails and unrelated updates, marketers share lead nurturing messages based on an existing lead’s open rate and buyer persona. Different email series go to different leads depending on why they entered the sales funnel. Since open rates decline over time, many email marketers like to send a string of lead nurturing emails as soon as a lead joins the email list. Front-loading lead nurturing emails increases the odds of conversion. Even if they don’t convert, the lead remains on the mailing list for future updates and offers.


Promotional emails, also called dedicated emails, inform the lead of a single offer. They’re essentially a call-to-action in email form. Like landing pages, promotions are short, to the point, and direct buyers towards one action like clicking a button. Segmentation and personalization are especially important. Promotions should go to interested leads, especially those who have been through lead nurturing and actually want what’s being offered. For example, email marketers won’t have much luck promoting an in-person event to leads halfway across the world. Worse, poorly targeted promotions trigger an avalanche of unsubscribing. Be smart and sparing with promotions.

Email marketers may pay to include a promotion on another company’s mailing list. This “sponsorship” arrangement can be highly targeted. The partner company will only send their email to the specific target demographic of your choice, which you may not have been able to acquire organically. Unlike simple pay-per-click (PPC) ads on social media, sponsorship messages have the advantage of trust. The lead trusts the partner company, otherwise, they wouldn’t be reading their newsletter. Seeing your promotion included in a trusted newsletter will increase conversions, so long as the promotion is well-targeted.


Reengagement emails bring leads back from the dead. If a lead becomes inactive and no longer opens the company’s emails, email marketers send a re-engagement email to try to win them back. Typical tactics include: asking for feedback, offering gifts specific to their initial signup, or sending a highly personalized email about their low engagement.

If the re-engagement emails don’t bring the lead back to life? Then the email marketer can clean up their list by simply removing the non-responsive lead or putting them on a much lower volume email schedule. The re-engagement email could even be the one to get the lead to unsubscribe. While re-engagement may seem like risky business, leads have a fairly short life cycle. Many simply never convert or have no interest in continued emails. Often, it’s better to take a shot at actually converting leads rather than continuing to send emails they don’t want to read.

With the above information, you should be able to answer the question, “What is email marketing?” as well as get a better sense of the techniques content marketers use. For help launching a marketing career, Pathrise is a career accelerator that works with students and professionals 1-on-1 to help them land their dream job. If you are interested in optimizing your marketing job search by working 1-on-1 with a mentor, become a Pathrise fellow.

Apply today.

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Alex MacPherson

Hi I'm Alex! Since graduating from UC Berkeley in 2019, I have worked on the growth team for Pathrise helping job seekers hone their skills to land their dream role through curated content on interview prep, resume building and more.

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