How to drive sales and “emotional loyalty”: 28 ecommerce email marketing tips from the experts
As an ecommerce merchant, you might think there’s only one kind of customer loyalty.
But you’d be wrong.
Colton Hathaway, VP of technology at full-service digital experience agency Northern Commerce, says fostering “emotional loyalty” among your customer base is one of the most important goals of email marketing.
Hathaway uses the term specifically to apply to not just repeat customers, but true brand ambassadors: “I can be loyal to a brand logically, because of price sensitivity or a good product. But emotional loyalty is the piece where I’m actually going to go tell my friends about it.”
It’s difficult to measure, but fostering emotional loyalty is essentially about building “a community of customers who are out there telling your story,” Hathaway explains.
At a time when consumer attention is low and paid ads are becoming more expensive and less effective, email marketing is a prime way to foster exactly that kind of customer loyalty—an opportunity for ecommerce businesses of all sizes to turn one-time transactions with customers into lifelong relationships.
Here, we break down 28 expert-backed ecommerce email marketing tips for driving both ecommerce sales and emotional loyalty.
6 big-picture ecommerce email marketing strategy tips
1. Know your customer
In email marketing, ecommerce merchants “should be using their communications to get to the nature of what the customer really wants,” says Bogar Alonso, former head of outbound marketing and thought leadership at Wix.
“You need to understand what your customers and potential customers want at any given moment, because it’s always changing,” Cen emphasizes. “Knowing what your customer wants to buy, what your customer is feeling at a certain moment in time, can help your email marketing stand out from the thousands of emails in your customer’s inbox.”
How do you do that? The easiest way is to ask.
2. Cross-pollinate across marketing channels
With so many options in their inbox, consumers aren’t going to open every email you send them, let alone click through—unless they’re on the lookout for it already, says Ari Murray, VP of growth at Sharma Brands and founder of ecommerce email newsletter Go-to-Millions.
“Teach your customers something big is coming and have them set their calendars around it,” Murray suggests. “Try to find a way to communicate on email, but also on every channel you possibly can.”
The goal, Murray says, is to make email your “home base” for communication, where “you’re not emailing something that’s super unexpected, because it’s always kind of on their radar. Then, people know to look out for your email.”
3. Don’t treat email as a promo-only channel
Alonso believes the biggest challenge of doing email marketing right is inbox fatigue: “Customers are tired.”
“Because email has become so effective for merchants over the years, they’ve overused it and over-relied on it,” Alonso points out. “A lot comes from merchants’ misunderstanding of what email’s ultimate purpose is—they see it strictly as a sales channel, and they’re not using it to form connections.”
Mark Hardy, founder of Noctua Systems, cites sending emails that aren’t promotional emails as a top email marketing best practice for driving engagement, long-term loyalty, and, ironically, sales. “Offer some kind of value to the customer,” he advises. “Reward customers who bring value to the brand. Reward customers who engage.”
“There’s just so much of everything, and everyone has so many brands that are really aggressive in their inboxes already,” Murray agrees. “At those times when you really need to stand out, how do you make sure that this is the moment and this is the time and that you’ll actually be heard on the other side?”
“What you have to do is figure out how to communicate with people about not just what products you have to sell,” agrees Ezra Firestone, CEO of Boom by Cindy Joseph and founder of Smart Marketer and Zipify Apps, who says there are a lot of ways to create this kind of “life experience” content that’s designed to engage and retain rather than just promote.
Here are a few ideas:
- Curate user-generated content, like poems, videos, and photos.
- Curate memes related to your categories, “put them on your blog, and send out a daily or weekly funniest memes round-up,” Firestone suggests.
- Write educational blog articles centered on topics your customers are interested in—relationships, menopause, skin care, etc.
“You don’t even have to make the content yourself, but you need stuff that is engaging and interesting that gives somebody a reason to relate with you outside of your products,” Firestone emphasizes. “That way, when you do have something to sell them, they’re already paying attention.”
4. Align your email strategy with “thematically relevant pillars”
Another way to “think about your email strategy outside of straight sales,” Firestone says, “is in thematically relevant pillars.”
For example, a brand might establish pillars around the following topics, then revisit them on a regular cadence in their email marketing:
- User-generated content
- Make-up demos
- Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube live
Firestone puts this strategy simply: “You want to talk to people about things they’re interested in. When you have a content catalog and an email strategy, you want it to be thematically relevant so that people understand and expect what you’re going to send them.”
This approach has another benefit, too: It allows your email subscribers to unsubscribe only from the themes they’re not interested in, instead of unsubscribing, period.
“Some people unsubscribe from the memes, or they unsubscribe from the make-up demos, but they stay subscribed to sustainability and ambassador,” Firestone points out. “It’s about strategic, thematically relevant, consistent pillars of content that you think are useful and interesting to your audience.”
5. Invest heavily in email
Firestone believes the biggest challenge facing email marketing programs right now is a straightforward one: resources.
“It’s not so much understanding overarching strategy,” he says. “It’s, ‘We don’t have the time, energy, or team capacity to implement what we know we should be doing.’”
But email is a channel worth investing in: 76.86% of all businesses place email marketing in the top 3 ROI-generating marketing channels, according to Klaviyo’s marketing mix report. “Your most loyal Instagram follower is nothing compared to a subscriber,” Murray points out.
“If you’re smart,” says Firestone, “what you’re doing is spending 5-10% of your overall aggregate advertising budget on email.”
6. Don’t forget about retention
In 2023, the majority of ecommerce retailers will invest more heavily in acquisition marketing efforts (55.75%) than retention marketing efforts (29.87%), according to our marketing mix report. Only 14.38% will invest equally.
And that’s a problem, says Jen Brennan, director of digital marketing at Northern.
The biggest way Brennan sees brands under-leveraging or underinvesting in email as a channel: not focusing enough on retention and the post-purchase experience.
Viewing email marketing as more than an acquisition channel is “part of how you continue to have a relationship with that customer you’ve already spent valuable time and money acquiring,” Brennan points out.
Hathaway, similarly, is “hyper-focused” on using email to drive retention and loyalty. “Certainly the experts know how to do customer acquisition through email, but ecommerce brands really need to nail the post-purchase experience,” he says. “As a customer, that’s what’s going to keep me coming back.”
3 list growth tips for ecommerce email marketing
7. The tried-and-true methods
“To grow and maintain an email list, what you must do, first, is have a pop-up,” Cen says. “Yes, you really need it. 100%. 1,000%. Make sure you have that pop-up that asks customers to enter their email and their phone number. That’s one way you can really grow your email list.”
Whether it’s a pop-up form, an embedded form, or a fly-out form, “the way that most brands are gaining new subscribers is through on-site sign-up forms and by asking people if they want to sign up during the check-out process,” Firestone agrees.
But “everyone’s doing that,” Firestone adds. “There are ways to get people on your email list outside of the traditional methods of just whoever ends up on your site from paid media.”
8. The creative methods
Let’s say you’re a fashion brand that drops a new product line every 3 months. To encourage email sign-ups, you might create a landing page that promises sneak peeks into the new collection for those who enter their email address.
Cen uses this strategy for a fashion client that wraps up their SKUs on a monthly basis. “They post the landing page link on their social media, and sometimes within a few hours we get 700 sign-ups,” she says. “That’s an extra 700 emails that we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten if we didn’t have that landing page.”
Similarly, Firestone is a fan of directing traffic to a landing page that exchanges gated content for contact information. “Not enough people are doing gated content,” he emphasizes. “It works really, really well because you would be amplifying this content anyway, and now you can just gate it with an email opt-in and get yourself a new customer.”
Here’s an example: “We found that an article on our blog that did really well was 5 make-up tips for women who wear glasses. So we thought, let’s run ads that gate that with an opt-in page, and then drop them on that article that we know they like.”
Importantly, the gated content “is a pre-sale article that gets readers excited about our products and puts them on an email sequence then to buy from our online store,” Firestone adds.
Finally, both Cen and Firestone also like to coordinate with social teams to host giveaways every 6 months or so that require people to subscribe for a chance to win. Firestone also recommends using coupon codes “that you gate through an email opt-in that puts them on your email list.”
9. Ask what your subscribers want
Some like email communication. Some prefer SMS. And some want both. There are customers who want to hear from you once a month, while others want more regular communication.
The only way to know for sure is to ask. “I love when brands let people identify their preferred communication channel” in a sign-up form, says Mitch McKay, manager of marketing technology partnerships at BigCommerce. “That way, you can respect those preferences. It really allows that relationship to grow.”
4 personalization tips for ecommerce email marketing
10. Stop emailing your entire list
Bad email marketing, Murray says, “looks spammy.” And what “looks spammy” is emailing your entire list, all the time, every time.
“If you overdo it, if you over-index on needing your email list to be your revenue generator but you give them nothing back, that’s when you break your list,” Murray cautions. “That’s when you start landing in the wrong folder because you’re just getting unsubscribe rates out the window.”
With the “batch and blast” mentality, Brennan says, “you’re not sending those emails to qualified customers, and therefore they’re less likely to convert.”
“They’ll also probably have less of that emotional loyalty [Hathaway] was talking about,” Brennan adds.
“Remove the phrase ‘batch and blast’ from your memory,” agrees Ben Zettler, founder, Ben Zettler Digital. “Do not send any email to your entire list. Ever.”
11. Segment your lists
So what should you do instead of batch and blast? Segmenting your email lists is an absolute must, email marketing experts agree. “You have to segment and rotate your audience. You have to understand the data and people you have in your email database,” Brennan says.
“You have so much customer information at your fingertips, and so many merchants are skipping out on an opportunity to do something meaningful with that,” Brennan adds. “They take a very broad paintbrush to segmentation, and there are better ways to do it.”
Brennan thinks email segmentation has a bad rap. “People hear ‘segmentation’ and they hear, ‘I’m going to send this to fewer people.’ And yes, that may be true, but you’re sending to the right people who are going to give you greater overall results.”
That’s because segmentation helps you create emails that appeal to your customers personally, and relevant, personalized emails show your customers you care about their interests.
If you consistently send relevant emails, your customers are more likely to trust your brand—and that’s “where you pivot into more of the retention and customer lifetime value conversation,” Brennan points out.
12. Clean your lists regularly
It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to grow your list is to clean it. “I love to chop a list,” Murray says. “You’ll see me chop 2K people off a list with pride. I don’t care how big my list is—I care who’s on my list and whether people are actually reading.”
It’s an approach that values quality over quantity. Cen’s team, for example, sets up an “unengaged flow” with triggers and filters that indicate a certain set of subscribers are not engaging with a particular brand anymore.
“Attach that tag to them and run them through a flow,” Cen advises. “If they don’t interact in any way, you’ll have a list of people who don’t engage, and then you can remove them from your list.”
It’s sometimes called a sunset flow, but Murray calls it a “Dear John” email: “‘Goodbye, you’re not opening our emails anymore.’ I’m a huge fan of just giving people a way out and then moving forward with the people who really want to be there.”
When “you’re only sending to customers who are engaged with your brand,” Cen explains, you’re more likely to “improve deliverability, maintain healthy engagement rates, and maintain revenue per message” (more on email marketing metrics a little later).
13. Send more emails
The biggest advice Firestone wants to impress upon ecommerce brands: “Triple the amount of emails you send.”
Ultimately, segmentation and email list cleaning are actually what enable this tip. It’s a pretty simple principle: Engaged subscribers want to hear from you, and they probably want to hear from you more often.
Brandon Matis, owner of Luxor Marketing, notes that most companies send 1-2 emails per week. “You need to be active with a consistent email cadence,” he emphasizes.
“A lot of marketers are afraid they’re going to get a high unsubscribe rate, but think about the amount of emails you get every day,” Firestone points out. “The average adult in America gets somewhere between 150 and 300 emails on a daily basis. You have a better chance of getting them to notice you if you’re willing to email more.”
“You need to communicate more than you think you should,” Firestone adds—“far more than you think you should.”
6 content tips for ecommerce email marketing
14. Show, don’t tell
You may have more freedom to be long-winded in email compared to SMS, but Murray still advises keeping the word count in your emails “really tight”—and including as many photos and assets as possible.
It’s a basic rule of creative writing: “Try to show, not tell,” Murray says. “Educate through imagery. People are on their phones and they’re busy and they don’t care. You can actually be less salesy when you let the product speak for itself, and you can only let the product speak for itself if you show it.”
“I don’t want to be told this is the newest, hottest, best,” Murray explains. “I just want to be shown, and then I can decide for myself.”
15. Keep it simple
That said, be careful that you don’t stuff your emails so full with images they impact load time.
“Ensure your images are an optimal size so that it’s a nice user experience for the customer when they’re scrolling through your email,” Cen advises. “You don’t want someone clicking on your email and getting super excited about a President’s Day 20% off sale, and then when they open it, it takes a long 5 minutes to load.”
Similarly, “if you have a crazy amount of HTML content in your email, it’ll get clipped and it will not actually display fully in the reader,” Firestone points out. “You need to be running it through a clipping service to figure out, ‘Do I have too much content in this email?’”
On this note, Firestone has actually found that plain-text, non-HTML emails perform quite well with certain demographics—but this strategy is category- and user-dependent, he cautions.
For women in the 25-45 age range, for example, “highly designed HTML emails with gifs work better,” Firestone says. “It’s something that each brand is going to have to iterate with.”
16. Stay true to your brand
On that note, Cen’s biggest piece of advice for ecommerce email marketers is to make sure your email’s look, feel, and tone align with your brand.
This goes for everything from brand colors to brand imagery to brand tone. For example, “if you’re more of a fashion lifestyle brand, shorter copywriting with tons of images works really well,” Cen says. “If you’re a health brand selling supplements, more informational, long-form content tends to work better, because customers want to know how this will benefit them.”
Morgan Mulloy, director of retention marketing at Avex Designs, agrees that paying attention to brand identity is a top email marketing best practice for ecommerce brands. “You want to clearly inform while keeping in mind those short attention spans,” she says. “Make actions simple, and make sure your customers know why they should purchase from your ecommerce store vs. a competitor.”
17. Pay attention to email design
“If you want more revenue from your emails,” Cen says, include at least 3 things above the fold: the headline, an image, and the CTA.
Your email headline, for example, might be “20% Off President’s Day Sale,” accompanied by a nicely designed image and a “Shop now” button.
This way, “right when someone opens their email, they see everything in that first part—before they even scroll,” Cen explains. “That’s your goal. Captivate your audience before that first scroll. Because believe it or not, I guarantee that 80% of people do not scroll past the first part of the email.”
18. Reserve some of the exciting stuff for email
This is a unique approach compared to posting first on social, for example. But Murray is a big fan of introducing new product lines or drops over email.
“I love it when a brand is introducing something to me vs. saying, ‘Shop now,’” she says. “If you have a new drop, you should always show it to your own audience first.”
19. Don’t be afraid of emojis
This may seem trivial, but Murray has tested it: “I think you have to own an emoji, and I love an emoji as the first character in a subject line.”
Whatever that emoji is, “it has to say what you need it to say,” Murray cautions. “If you’re a cookware brand, maybe it’s a flame. But whatever emoji you choose to own, use it every time or as often as makes sense.”
“It’s a way to stand out and quickly pull that visual trigger so the subscriber immediately recognizes your brand and they know to open,” Murray adds. “They know as soon as they glance at their inbox, that emoji is what to look for.”
6 automation tips for ecommerce email marketing
20. Be strategic about it
Even more so than email marketing campaigns, McKay says that ecommerce email marketing automation is “the way you’re communicating your brand’s value to customers.”
But “that requires a skill set,” he cautions. “Marketing automation is powerful, but strategy and execution are going to determine the ROI you see.”
Think strategically, McKay says, to “build out the most dynamic, impactful flows possible.”
“Especially in a business that’s always changing like ecommerce, you have to keep up to date with trends and make sure that the messages you’re sending are hyper-relevant to your customers,” McKay explains.
There are several ways to do that. Here are a few.
21. Get the email automation basics down first…
Jeremy Vale, VP of product development at Logical Position, advises starting with the basic types of email flows:
22. …and grow from there
Once you’re sending consistently and earning high engagement, you can try branching out to other automations that might make sense for your brand, Vale says:
- Post-purchase and follow-up emails
- Transactional emails, like order confirmation emails and shipping updates
- Cross-sell and up-sell emails
- Win-back emails
- Back-in-stock emails
- Replenishment emails
Let’s say you have a segment of customers who bought something once, then received a bunch of emails and saw a bunch of ads, but 45 days later haven’t bought anything else. “Trigger a discount ladder automation,” he suggests.
“What we do is we collect individualized data points on people—‘What month were you born? What kind of dog do you have? What color hair do you have?’” Firestone explains. “Then we trigger automations based on the data points that we collected.”
23. Perfect your abandoned cart flow
Cart abandonment emails consistently achieve higher conversion rates and generate more revenue per recipient than any other automation—so you probably don’t want to just stick to the status quo, here.
Consider these strategies for taking your abandoned cart email from good to great:
- Cross-check it with your other flows. “Offer a discount that aligns with your welcome offer only if a user has not previously purchased and—and here’s the kicker—the user is not currently in a welcome flow,” Zettler suggests. “Too often, users get served conflicting discount codes or multiple offers. That makes for a confusing experience.”
- Customize it for your business. “Every brand has a unique customer base,” Vale points out. “Make unique content that represents your brand well. If you’re serious, be serious. If you’re funny, be funny. How would someone from your brand try to sell someone in person? Work to recreate that in your flow.”
- Reserve discounts for VIPs. “Put a split in the flow to offer a discount to repeat customers only,” Hardy advises. “If a customer has already exceeded your brand’s lifetime value, why not get them to exceed it more?”
- Make it move—and moving. Brandon Amoroso, founder and president of Electriq, has seen “tremendous results” from including personalized video content in abandoned cart messages—specifically, “a personalized video message from the founder of the brand.”
- Highlight customer support options. Mulloy says abandoned cart emails are “a great place to list out return policies, shipping estimates, and channels for assistance.”
- Track what works. “A/B test everything, from timing to the number of emails, content vs. no content, images vs. no images,” Vale suggests. “Start with best practices for timing, but don’t be afraid to get wild with your approach.”
24. Get creative about deliverability
“One of the things that you’re trying to do with your emails is to get into the actual inbox, not the promotions tab,” Firestone points out. “In your post-purchase email flow, try sending an email out that says, ‘Hey, do we have the correct shipping address? Yes or no?’”
When that subscriber replies back to you, Firestone explains, “Google thinks, ‘Oh, this Gmail account replied to this address, so it must be a good address—I’m going to inbox it in the future.’ There are a lot of little tricks like that you can do to improve your deliverability.”
25. Set it and forget it—but not forever
Most people think of automations as the “set it and forget it” arm of marketing—the thing that works hard so you don’t have to.
And that’s not necessarily untrue. It’s just not permanently true.
“You need to continue optimizing those flows every single month,” Cen says. “Your customer demographic, believe it not, changes every single month. Your products change every single month. It’s important to really keep those automations in line every single month.”
3 measurement tips for ecommerce email marketing
26. Determine top email marketing KPIs for your brand
Of course, you can’t optimize unless you know what you’re looking for. In general, experts agree it’s important to track email marketing metrics like:
- Open rate
- Click-through rate (CTR)
- Revenue per recipient
- Placed order rate
- List growth rate
- Unsubscribe rate
- Spam rate
- Bounce rate
- Unique clicks
But which KPIs matter most will depend on your business needs and goals. Take unsubscribe rates, for example: “Unsubscribe rates generally are going to be pretty standard across most of what you send, unless you’re sending something really aggressive or egregious or you’re mailing 7x a day,” Firestone says.
Or open rate: Hardy believes “none of your other metrics matter if you can’t make this one work.” But to Firestone, “open rate has to do solely with the subject line, which doesn’t tell you the value of the email. What it tells you is directional information about what someone is interested in.”
“If you have a really salacious subject line,” for example, “but it doesn’t relate to your content, it does you no good,” Firestone explains. “You get a bunch of people to open it, but nobody reads it or clicks.”
That’s why Amoroso recommends focusing on click rate: “The higher the CTR, the more your content is resonating with the audience—they found it engaging enough to click through to learn more, shop now, or whatever the CTA may be.”
If you’re focused on sales, Firestone advises focusing on how much money your emails are making for you. “What will tell you ultimately how valuable a piece of content is, is how many people are coming from this piece of content and landing on the product page, and then what’s the revenue per visit from that traffic source?”
If you’re focused on retention, Bonnie Pecevich, director of product marketing at Pantastic, recommends focusing on repeat purchase rate. “Repeat purchase rate tells you how well you’re engaging and converting your existing customers and compelling them to buy from you again,” she explains.
27. A/B test everything
Remember that tip we shared early on to send more emails? “Try sending more, but be open to the idea that your audience may not want 3 emails a day,” Vale cautions.
This is where it’s important to “let the data guide you,” Vale says. “You will limit what you can achieve in email marketing if you don’t consistently A/B test. There are an infinite number of things you should test—don’t rest until you’ve tested them all.”
28. Re-evaluate regularly
Cen’s team looks at what’s working and what’s not on a monthly basis; Murray’s team takes stock of their email strategy quarterly.
“We’re really focused on a 90-day look-back where we’re analyzing what happened, whether anything changed for the worse, what we did that was different, what’s happening in the macroeconomic climate, what are we seeing other brands do that we don’t like,” Murray explains.
The point, here, is to maintain and update your strategy, on a cadence that makes sense for your brand, for what needs to happen “to make sure this is a really sound, up-to-date experience,” Murray says. “As we go forward, we’re always trying to get numbers that are red into the green and numbers that are green even greener.”