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Small Business Guide to Email Marketing

Small Business Guide to Email Marketing

We had an opportunity to interview Ben Settle to ask him some questions about his strategies in helping small businesses with their email marketing efforts.

Ben Settle is an email marketing professional who has been working in direct response copywriting for more than 10 years. He has received testimonials from some of the best in the business; including: Brian Clark, Gary Bencivenga, Scott Haines, Ken McCarthy, and the list goes on. 

He has contributed to thousands of email marketing campaigns to help companies increase web traffic and drive more sales.

In this interview, you'll learn:

  • Why Email Marketing Works
  • The 3 Most Important Factors to Think About When Composing Emails
  • How to Write Effective Subject Lines to Increase Open Rates
  • How to Avoid Spam Filters
  • How to Write Effective Copy 
  • The Long-Copy vs. Short-Copy Debate
  • How to Choose (or Eliminate) Images to Improve Email Campaigns
  • What to Test and How to Measure Your Results
  • Practical Strategies for a Small Business Just Getting Started in Email Marketing

Check out the full interview with Ben  . . .

Why Email Marketing Works

In the age of social media (where every company is jumping into Twitter and Facebook), why do you think email marketing is still a great way for a small business to market?

Ben: That's a great question.

The first answer is because either nobody is doing it right (and so the few who are doing it right almost have no competition) or because more people are thinking social media is the way to go, and doing little or no email at all.

It's kind of like when email first hit the scene.

People stopped doing direct mail and so those still doing it cleaned up -- since they had so little competition in the mailbox.

It's the same with email in a lot of cases.

People think they can just throw up a Facebook fan page or whatever and sales will come in without using boring "retro" email. Of course, the joke is on them -- Facebook is not a sales platform and neither is any other social media site. Those sites have their uses, but they're terrible for direct selling.

Besides that, here are some more reasons:


1. Email Is Visible

People check their emails constantly throughout the day. There are a few super disciplined souls who don't. But many people still endlessly check their emails. That gives emailers a tremendous amount of leverage if you do it right.

2. Email Is Intimate

Email is the Internet text version of talk radio when you do it right. I call it "talk radio on glass" (or on the screen).

Think of your favorite radio personality.

People tune in every single day to hear that person as he/she reveals things about themselves and just get really personal with their audience. Listeners will go out of their way to listen to that show and they'll love every minute of it. That's kind of how it is with email. It's very intimate. Do it right and people get to know you like they know their favorite radio talk show host or their favorite character on TV. They're basically tuning into your “show” every day.

You're going to put a little show on for them and you're going to ask for a sale.

It's really no more complicated than that.

3. Email Increases Sales

For businesses, this is the most important reason.

The better you get at email, the more money you make (assuming you have a list and are always building it, of course). This is why I recommend daily emails -- it's just like your own daily talk radio show -- except with email. Depending on what you sell and your list, you could see sales as much as double rather quickly in some cases.

4. Email Is Fun

In fact, one of the secrets I teach is not to write about anything that's not fun to write about. How can you not have fun if all you're doing is writing about fun things? People will have a ball reading your emails if you do that.

They'll look forward to it.

They'll be not only willing to buy, but anxious to buy in some cases.

You're not imposing on them -- they want to hear from you. When you're in that position, it becomes very easy to make a good living sending out an email every day that takes just 10-15 minutes of your time.

5. Email Is Adaptable

You can write an email and then take that email and quickly turn it into a podcast, video, article, blog post, Facebook note or even a book (by taking all your best emails and compiling them together). That's a lot of leverage and gives each email tremendous "shelf life."

Those are just a few reasons why email is so powerful.

There are a lot more than that.

But in my opinion, if a business is not using email, they're basically stealing from themselves without even realizing it.

What To Think About When Writing Conversion-Driven Emails

Before you sit down and write an email, what goes through your mind? Are you thinking about open rates? Ways to improve clicks? The message?

Ben: I rarely concern myself with open rates or clicks, unless it's a specific sale or launch, or if I'm doing an affiliate campaign or something like that.

Here are the three things I mainly focus on, instead:

1. Making the email a fun and interesting experience for the reader

2. Making the sale

(I'm not against tracking clicks and open rates, but they don't put money in the bank, sales do)

3. Strengthening the relationship with my list

I have found if you focus on writing emails that do those three things, the rest takes care of itself.

It's important to realize email is a long-term strategy. You don't just send one email out and you're done. You send one out, then another, and another -- preferably daily -- and each time you're planting a seed in your prospect. I've had people on my list for months -- even years -- before buying. It could be I said something six weeks ago that made them want to buy but they could not afford it or weren't ready for it until today.

Again, you're like a talk radio host. You get up there and do your thing every day. Some days will be better than others. Some days you will hit a nerve, and others you'll miss the mark (this is why I mostly just track sales -- I've had emails with great open rates and click-throughs, but few sales, and vice versa). You just have to keep at it. And the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more fun it gets (especially when you see your sales go up -- that's FUN).

How to Write Effective Subject Lines to Increase Open Rates

Many email marketers talk about the importance of keeping email subject lines short (especially under 50 characters to avoid getting cut off). In your “Email Players” ebook, you talk about how longer subject lines work, too. Can you talk a little bit about the short verses long subject line debate?

Ben: My take on it is to do whatever you have to do to get the email opened. If that means a longer subject line, then so be it. Most of my subject lines are five words or less, but that doesn't mean I haven't used 10 or 12 word subject lines. What's more important than length is being pithy. Take out any word that doesn't need to be there.

Every email is different. You have to approach each one as its own entity -- so you can see what's worked before, but don't be a slave to any rules. In fact, I enjoy changing things up and breaking rules just for the fun of it. And many times, it pays more than playing it safe.

 What are some of the rookie mistakes people make when writing email subject lines?

1. Being boring

2. Not being controversial (the more POLARIZING you are, the better you'll do in email)

3. Afraid to offend anyone (not saying to offend people on purpose, but if you're not offending the people you don't want as customers, you're probably not turning on the people you do want as customers)

4. Misleading people in the subject line just to get the email opened (this always comes back to haunt you)

5. Not being an original voice (always just quoting others, never really giving an opinion, etc)

There are many more mistakes than this. But those are the big ones I see over and over and over again.

You often write eye-ball-grabbing subject lines to encourage people to open your email. What advice do you have for small business owners who don’t have training in copywriting – but want to improve their open rates?

One of the best -- if not THE best -- ways to improve your open rates is to become a terrible and obnoxious TEASE. You want to tease, Tease, TEASE in your subject lines. Curiosity is so powerful and yet few really understand it or use it.

Mostly what businesses do is lead with benefits or straight statements about an offer, etc. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, and it can work. But often times your open rates will be highest when you tap into curiosity and tease them into clicking. But, again, don't be misleading. You have to respect your list and their intelligence. Otherwise you'll only make people not want to open and read your next email (it pays to be a bit paranoid about these things). They learned this years ago in newspaper ads. Someone would use a headline like: "Sex!" and then go into some lame insurance ad, "Now that I got your attention let me tell you about... yada yada yada." It's dirty pool and people resent that in emails.

Email success is almost all about the relationship, and very little of it is about tricks and tactics.

How do you avoid spam filters when writing your subject lines?

Most autoresponder companies (the reputable ones at least) will have relationships with ISP's and give you access to software called "Spam Assassin." There are also other services you can pay for that will help you analyze how the spam filters will see your email, but there are never any guarantees.

Other than that, avoid using profanity. Same with exclamation points (one or two is OK, but don't overdo it). But probably the best way to thwart the spam filters is to be what Dan Kennedy calls "a welcome guest." In other words, you make your emails so fun and interesting and "must reading" that people seek your emails out each day. That way if they don't hear from you, they will let you know about it.

Email is very much a personality-driven medium. And the more personality you put in to it, the more these kinds of problems (low open rates, spam filters, low sales, etc) evaporate on their own.

How to Write Effective Copy

A lot of email marketers talk about the importance of personalization (e.g. adding the recipients’ name or company name into the body copy or subject line) in email campaigns? Do you find these elements boost your conversion rates and/or open rates?

Ben: I used to be a big fan of personalization. But these days, on my own lists (newer ones, not lists I've had active where they are used to the personalization), I pretty much only collect their email and don't worry about their name.

One reason why is you'll often get more opt-ins if you don't ask for their first name. And I'd prefer more opt ins than being able to personalize.

But what's more important than personalization is segmentation. I learned this by studying the big direct mail companies that make over $100 million per year. They're sticklers for segmenting names by interests. If you get on certain health lists, you'll see this all the time. If you buy a product on prostate problems, you'll start getting a bunch of offers just on prostate problems (and related problems). Or if you buy a product about hormones, you'll start getting flooded with hormone offers. That's because that company has segmented you into a list on those topics. And they know exactly what you're interested in buying.

You can do the exact same thing with email, too, and it's very powerful.

Sometimes long copy is better than short copy in an email – but it really depends on the business. What does your “gut” tell you when you write an email for a new business?

Personally, I like my emails to be under 300 words. That doesn't mean long emails can't work -- they can and do. And each one is different. There isn't one magical length. The key is to get them to the next step you want them to take.

I've had short emails do well and really long ones (over 1,000 words) do well. It all depends on the situation. There is no right or wrong answer to email length. You do what you have do to get them to the next step. That could mean 250 words or 2,500 words.

The only "rule" is never be boring. If you're interesting and in their "world" (talking about their problems and pains and desires), you cannot bore them. In fact, they usually can't get enough information when you stay in their world like that.

How to Choose (or Eliminate) Images to Improve Your Email Campaign

You’ve been involved in writing email copy for all kinds of clients – and I know you’ve been involved in the creative aspect as well. I know that images and creative varies depending on the business, but do you have any advice on the use of images in an email?

Ben: It's a good question, but I'm going to go on a bit of a tangent here and side step it.

I rarely ever bother with images or anything fancy anymore. Instead, I make everything look "plain Jane."

In other words, plain text or HTML that looks like plain text.

By all means, people should test it for themselves. But make sure you're testing sales and not just clicks and open rates.

For example: I did some work for a while in the golf niche. And they tested plain text versus an HTML template that had images in it, and branding and all that. The branding and images got a higher click-through rate. But nobody ever tested sales. Big, big, big mistake.

Even spammers get good open rates and click-throughs, but their sales are horrible (compared to doing email correctly and ethically). Some people click links just because that's what they do reflexively when they see them. But one of the jobs of your email is to give your sales page context.

Getting the click is actually easy. Getting the click and mentally preparing the prospect to want to buy before they click is what separates the men from the boys in email marketing.

There are other reasons to make it plain text (or at least look like plain text if you are using HTML). And the most important one is so it looks like it came from a friend and not a company.

People are far more likely to read an email that looks like it came from a friend than something that looks like commercial email. For example: When someone emails their mother, do they use images and graphics and branding and a template? Or do they just sort of dash it off? Chances are they dash it off.

It goes back to Gary Halbert's famous "A Pile/B Pile" direct-mail teaching. It was his experience that making an envelope look like it came from a friend (hand written, first class stamp, no teaser copy or flashy envelope, etc.) got way more sales than something that was obviously commercial. It's the same with email. Give it a "just dashed this off..." look.

I'm not saying never to use images or a template. What I am suggesting you do is test it. It could be your market does want that, but it could be they don't. You won't know until you test either way. If images are increasing sales, then start looking at testing different kinds of images. Just make sure you're testing sales and not just clicks and open rates.

What to Test and How to Measure Your Results

What type of testing do you think is important before launching an email campaign?

Ben: The most important thing you can test in email -- even before testing subject lines -- is the name in the "From" field your prospect sees.

This goes back to being a unique "talk radio" kind of personality. It's a big mistake (in most cases) to put your company name in there. Or to have the email address be from "" or whatever.

Instead, put a person's name in there. And have it come from a person's email address. Nobody wants to hear from a company. But they do want to hear from a person -- especially someone they can identify with and bond with and learn to trust over time who has the solutions to their problems. Someone they can get to know each day (via reading your emails). Someone they feel comfortable buying from.

It's a great test to make before doing any kind of email campaign. But again, test sales -- not just opens and clickthrough-rates. (Although I would bet your opens will be MUCH higher if your emails come from a real person and not a company name.)

Practical Email Marketing Advice for Those Just Starting Out

Do you have some practical advice for a small business just starting out with email marketing?

Ben: There are three things you should do in all your emails -- and if you just do these 3 things (even if you mess the other parts up), you should be OK:

1. Make your emails fun and/or interesting

The only wrong thing to do in email is be boring. Some topics are inherently more serious than others, so fun may not be exactly what you want to do. In those cases make sure you're at least interesting.

2. Stay in their "world"

Jim Camp (the world's greatest negotiator) has this powerful saying, "You're always safe in the other person's world." In other words, as long as you are talking about them and their life, problems, pains, etc. . . you cannot bore them or lose their interest. Remember the popular adage: "Don't tell me about your weed killer. Tell me about my crab grass!" In other words, stay in their world, and you're safe. Leave their world and you'll be deleted.

3. Always ask for the sale or for them to take some kind of action

This last one is important not only for making the sale, but because every time someone clicks on a link in your email and has a good user experience as a result, their "trust dial" goes up a notch. They bond with you just a little bit more. And that way, they are more likely to click the link in your next email, too.

There's more to email marketing than this. But if you do those three things, you'll be way ahead of the bleating herd that has no idea what they're doing when sending emails to their lists.

Ben, where can small businesses learn more about the work you are doing?

I send out free daily email marketing tips at When you subscribe to my daily email tips you get a free digital issue of my offline (print) newsletter called "Email Players" -- which is a $97/month publication. There is no credit card required to get my tips or newsletter issue. It's 100 percent free and contains 24 simple and proven ways to as much as double your sales using just email.