In this episode, Steli and Hiten discuss the strategies and knowledge needed to utilize email marketing in the most effective way possible for your business campaign. Listen and learn as Steli and Hiten discuss the advantages of email marketing, the content and frequency of a strong, marketing email, and how to test your headlines to turn those “opens” into conversions.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

  • 00:44 –  In Episode 14, Startup Chat talked about the “cold email”
  • 01:00 – Today’s episode is focused on email marketing
  • 02:18 – “Email is a wonderful marketing channel”
  • 02:27 – You can control every aspect of your email marketing
  • 02:55 – Email marketing should be tested by yourself
  • 03:23 – Email marketing is not for the “teenager” market
  • 03:49 – Most SaaS businesses are not sending enough emails
  • 04:30 – Email is considered similar to pop-ups
  • 05:18 – Reasons why customers give you their emails
  • 05:47 – Tactics you can use with your customers’ emails
  • 06:37 – One of the biggest mistake you can commit is to have an email list and do nothing with it
  • 07:40 – One of the most effective popups is the “exit intent popup” that appears when someone tries to leave your web page
  • 08:10 – An “exit intent popup” is not intrusive and does not annoy people
  • 08:20 – People who have been in your email list for a long time will have less engagement, thus the need for new emails
  • 09:57 – Start increasing your volume and send them 2 or 3 times a week
  • 10:30 – Send the email the same time you post on your social media channels
  • 11:10 – Send an email update once a week
  • 11:49 – Customers need to know that you’re improving your product
  • 12:04 – Customers want to know that you are looking after them
  • 12:38 – When people cancel a product, they would usually compare your product to others
  • 14:35 – “The rule of thumb is that you’re looking for 100 conversions per variation”
  • 14:45 – If you have 1000 people in your email list and a 20% open rate, there are 200 people opening your email
  • 15:30 – Do A/B testing with different subject lines and check which ones work best
  • 16:25 – If you have 5000 email subscribers and have a 10% open rate, this equates to 500 people opening your email—you can A/B test 3 to 4 subject lines with that number of people
  • 16:50 – Make sure the subject lines are distinct and you’re only changing one or two lines per variation
  • 17:23 – When your open rate is high, make sure to start A/B testing to get a much higher open rate
  • 17:55 –
  • 18:58 – Email is an ongoing conversation
  • 19:13 – Make sure you are building a relationship with your clients
  • 20:35 – If you dehumanized your email, people will not engage with it
  • 21:33 – “Write like a human being to a human being”

3 Key Points:

  1. Email is one of the BEST tools that you’re just NOT utilizing enough. 2.
  2. The rule of thumb is that you’re looking for 100 conversions per variation.
  3. Build a relationship with your customers through email—consider it an ongoing conversation.

Resources Mentioned:

Steli Efti: Hey, everyone. This is Steli Efti.

Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.

Steli Efti: In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about email marketing. So how to think about utilizing email, sending emails, what type of emails to send as part of your overall marketing strategy. We did an episode prior on email. It was more kind of cold emails more from a sales perspective. That was episode 14. Wow, I didn’t realize it was that early. But if you want to check out the cold email episode Hiten and I recorded, just Google Startup Chat, Episode 14. You’ll find it. But today, we wanted to talk about email more from a marketing perspective than a sales perspective.

I get a shit ton of emails. You get a ton of emails. I’m using and testing so many different products and part of so many people’s lists and newsletters and all kinds of things. So I see a lot of emails from a consumer or receiving end of things. But also, we over this year in particular built our email list up and started experimenting a little bit more with it. But it’s still something that I think is fairly neglected in our overall marketing in terms of being really effective with email. So I want to riff raff on that and see what works today. How should companies think about email? What are some common mistakes that companies make today that we’ve noticed? All that good stuff.

Hiten Shah: Yeah. I think that’s – I’m just going to jump in and talk a little bit about email because one of the biggest things that I hear from people and one of the biggest tricks that I suggest to people is pretty simple. So one thing I hear is I get a lot of email. I hate email. So that’s like the general sentiment a lot of founders or people inside of a company that are kind of thinking about email marketing and things like that have as a mental model. Then, on the other end of it, the thing I think you, me, my co-founder, a lot of businesses that are successful know that email is a wonderful marketing channel.

It is probably the number one marketing channel that you have full control over in terms of you can build a list, you can know who is on the list, and you can decide what to send them, and have control over that. So it’s one of the biggest open platforms that no one company generally owns. Obviously, Gmail is becoming more and more popular. There’s a whole bunch of things around the promotion tab and all that. But that’s just getting really deep into the details. It’s not even a tip. It’s just like your mental model should shift from I hate emails.

So we’re not going to send that much email to we’re going to test this and send as much email as possible to figure out what kind of emails you should be sending. I think that so many people don’t realize that email is not bad. Email is not something most people don’t like. Email is a truth in today’s reality regardless of who you are. Now, the one caveat is if you’re targeting post-millennials, people that are high school or early college, they might not be really into email meaning they just don’t open their email. Right. But there’s a lot of other channels for them.

So this is more like if you’re dealing with people that are essentially in their 20s and above, email is still literally one of the biggest channels. Probably the number one channel that you could utilize in your business that you’re probably not utilizing.

Steli Efti: Yeah, absolutely. Some investor, I think, said that if some of your customers – if some people don’t think your spamming them, you’re not sending enough emails or something. It was a whole blogpost on something like with a lot of data about how too many companies, specifically I think this was about, not sending enough email. Right. I remember we even talked about this. We can talk about some of the tactics later on like when you send emails, today, you can track who’s opening them and who’s not. You can start sending more emails to the people that seem to like them and open them and engage with them and less or stop sending emails to people that don’t care. Right.

Overall, I do agree that there is this attitude that because – especially probably because founders might get overloaded with emails that we have a dislike for it. So we don’t want to use it. It’s the same thing with popups, right. A lot of popups seem to be effective in terms of capturing emails and converting people to give their email. So marketers love popups. But then, founders and a lot of other people within startups and more of the engineering team hate popups. So they always like – you see this a lot with startups where the founding team will be lobbying against something that is working because it’s against their personal taste and preferences. Right.

So this is – but I don’t want to open up that Pandora’s box with the popups. Let’s talk about email a little bit, right. Today, when it comes to marketing, there’s obviously a ton of a type of email that you could do. We’re going to exclude the kind of outbound cold email, emailing people that didn’t expect to hear from you and didn’t subscribe or give you their email. That was covered under the episode of Cold Emailing. Today, we want to talk about the people that have opted in. They’ve given you their email in one way or another either because they’re customers of your service or because they sign up for a specific list or subscribe to your blog or something.

At some point in time, they’ve decided to give you voluntarily their email because they wanted something in return to be notified of your contact, get your e-book or white paper, participated in a webinar, or whatever. Trial of your product. Now, as a company, you have these emails. Right. There’s a plethora of things you could be doing, right . You could be sending these people newsletters. You can set up drip emails to email them based on how they’re interacting with your product or other properties of your content or marketing properties. You could do all kinds of stuff to send these people emails.

Where do you start? What is today something you think is not maybe working anymore as well? Or companies do, and they do wrong? What are some of the basic and simple things or normal things that most companies don’t with all those emails thy collect? Let’s exclude that they don’t send them enough email. That’s probably the number one mistake we’ve committed at [Inaudible] [00:06:42]. This is crazy because I’m such a loud advocate for taking action and doing things. We had all these email lists that we didn’t send emails to or not enough. Right. So that’s probably the biggest mistake.

You’re collecting these emails, and you don’t do anything with it. Okay. So now that I’ve already started, let me finish that thought with say why, in our case, the mistake we made was that we tried to be too sophisticated too quickly, which is usually ending up slowing you down. We had the ambition to create very distinct drip email marketing campaigns for all our different lists. Because that was a daunting task and didn’t have enough resources, we never got really started doing that right. So we’re collecting all these emails, but we’re not getting into the job of sending the emails.

There’s a simple remedy which is start collecting emails in all these different places but just put them all in one big list and send them useful content, relevant content. Once you get better and more sophisticated and more resources, you can start segmenting that and get smart about it. This is both a mistake we made, the reason why, and what you should do about it in my summary. I’m dying to hear some of your thoughts on this.

Hiten Shah: Yeah. One type of popup that is the most effective strategy which is when people try to leave your website, you should popup an email collection box. It’s the number one tip I can give anybody that wants to collect more emails. I don’t care what page they’re on on your website whether it’s your marketing site, your blog, or even your support site, to be honest. I would popup an email collection. There’s a million tools out there to do this. I’m not going to get into that, but it’s basically called an exit intent popup. What it does is when people try to leave your site, it pops up a screen. It is not obtrusive; it’s not really annoying to most people.

It really is effective at collecting emails. So if there’s one tip I give, it’s use that to collect more emails. The reason I say that is because if you have an email list, the one thing that happens is over time people get pretty old on that email list. They’re engagement with the email list or the emails does go down. It’s natural. Right, over time you get bored or you get tired of the same thing. No matter how great it is, it’s just what older cohorts of subscribers to your list having less engagement with you unless it’s like super hyper engaging, which is possible. There’s been certain things out there that are like that.

What I like to do though outside of that is like just easily figure out what is the content that we can create? When we create it, can we just send it to people via email? For example, if you’re a creating a blogpost a week or even ideally if you’re putting two or three blogposts a week, I see a lot of teams debating should we do it in a newsletter? Or should we send one every time we post? If you haven’t started either, send one every time you post. Don’t do a newsletter.

Those people don’t need more newsletters, but they’re happy to get the option to know when you have something new and an option to go read it, especially if they’ve signed up for your product or signed up for your newsletter and they’re really engaged in the category that you’re servicing. So in your case, if you post something new on the blog, you should definitely be sending that post to all of your email lists, especially the ones, obviously, that subscribe to be notified when you have new posts on your blog. Right. So I get into these debates with people about, oh, no, I want to do a weekly thing. I want to send every one.

They start debating it. My advice is start by sending every single post. See what your open rates, what your click ratings are. See if that’s acceptable. Once you start increasing your volume a lot, I would actually go to sending it just two or three times a week. Then, I would go start thinking about a newsletter or something like that when you have a ton of content. One of the reasons is if you – I just want to play this logic out. This is very content marketing oriented, but many people – well, I’m sure those who are listening are either considering it or doing it. I know we are in all the things we’re doing.

I know you do in all the things you’re doing. One of the things you’re going to do as a business, you’re going to go put it on Twitter, on Facebook, put it on all the channels you have. If you’re not using email, you should put it on email too. The reason is if someone has to wait three or four days to see it in your newsletter, there’s a high chance that if they’re engaged in your category or in your case a sales person, they’ve already read it. So you’re kind of wasting their time in a weird way by giving it again in a newsletter when they’ve already read it in some other way. You didn’t send it to them right when you posted it.

So I think there’s a lot of balance there. But if you’re not doing it, just start sending more email like that. Here’s another one. If you’re regularly making updates to your product and you have a list of people who are signed up for your product, you should be sending those updates of what you’ve done once a week at least. The reason is people – Sass is competitive more than ever. Most of you who are listening are probably working on Sass or something like that. So if you don’t think about it like that, then basically what’s going to happen is customers are not going to know that you’ve been working for them.

That you’ve been making the service part of your product better. That’s why software is a service. It means we’re continually thinking about the service we provide to customers, or we should be. You should be telling them all those improvements you’ve been making even when they’re minor. Sometimes those minor improvements make a big difference to your customers. I mean, we’re victims of this at Kissmetrics. We wouldn’t send these emails even though we made great updates to customers. We would only send one out when we thought it was a big deal. What we’re learning these days is people want to know that you’re looking out for them.

People want to know that your engineering team, product team, your team is doing work for them. I would recommend also sending that. I consider that product marketing. I also will – oftentimes that’s the marketing team responsibility not the product team’s responsibility. That’s another one where it’s just like, hey, if you just think about sending more email, think about all these places where your customers, your users, and newsletter subscribers should be updated. Think about the logic. For example, what I see happen a lot is when people cancel a product, they give a reason like it doesn’t do X.

Your competitor does X. Then, what you do – this is the biggest, duh, like I feel like Homer Simpson on this when like actually, hey, that customer that is cancelling. The product actually does X. You just didn’t know.

Steli Efti: Yeah. That’s one of the most painful things. Oh, my God, it sucks. It’s like you want to punch yourself in the face in front of a mirror so you see the pain and not just feel it. Yeah, that one sucks. That’s a hard one. I feel like we could do a whole episode on that on how to keep your customers up do date with what’s going on. You have to educate them and train them. That’s a good one. All right. So I love all of this. This is, I think, really good stuff. Let me ask you this. I think that – maybe I’m wrong – I think that by now some people have come to the fact that when they want to do, let’s say, split tests that you need certain volume to make those tests relevant or even practical, right.

So if you have 10 visits on your website a month. It’s not time to a B test right now or set up something super sophisticated. How about email list sizes? Would you say that there is certain points where you – would you start being super sophisticated and fancy if you have the resources even if your email list is just 100 people? Probably not, right? When are the sizes or the scale you think once you get to this amount of emails you should start segmenting? You should start, you know, tracking or B testing subject lines and some other things?

You should start becoming more sophisticated as the scale goes on. Is that an accurate way of thinking about this? Is it a matter of scale? Or is it something else? Are there certain benchmarks that you have in mind or that you’ve seen work really well on that?

Hiten Shah: Yeah, great question. Absolutely. So there’s a very simple rule of thumb. I’ll give some examples to it too. The rule of thumb is that you’re looking for 100 conversions per variation. So if you – I’ll do math for everybody because math can be hard sometimes – if you have a 1,000-person email list and your open rate which is basically impacted by the subject line and the first line in your email because it shows up in the email providers. If you have 1,000 people on your list, you have a 20 percent open rate on your emails – you’re essentially getting 200 people to open it, right.

That’s a general guidance there where if you’re getting 200 people to open it, that means you can run one AB test in whatever amount of time you get those 200 people to open it, which is probably each blast. That’s a general rule. You want 100 per variation. If I had an email list and I have 1,000 subscribers and 200 people opening it; I would run an AB test on my subject line and possibly that first line in the email to see if I can come up with better subject lines and learn more about what proper subject lines are. The funny thing about email is there’s a lot of different ways to do this.

But the funny thing about email is like if you send one email and it’s to 1,000 people and you run an AB test of like a short subject line and a long subject line and one of those works better, then the next test you run should be aligned around the short one and testing different copy for the short one if the short one won. Because what happens is you’re not going to be able to literally in one email learn and get a higher conversion rate. You’re just going to learn in that email and realize that this one version worked better than the other. So the next time you form it with that, you get into a cadence. You should be responsible in doing that.

So you have to be a little disciplined or you won’t get effective results. So that’s my general rule of thumb. Another example would be if you have, let’s say, for some reason – not for some reason but a good reason you have 5,000 subscribers to your email list. Every time you get a 10 percent open rate. That would mean you have 500 opens. So you could test more than one subject line. Maybe you could test two or three. Then, you’d have four total counting the control. If you did three variations, you would still follow the same rule and be able to learn.

But you want to make sure each of these are distinct and only a single variable or single thing you’re changing. That gets into the AB testing stuff. Even if you don’t do it that sophisticated and just testing like that, that’s the rule. That works for anything whether it’s 100 signups on your site, right, or anything like that. When you send a welcome email, you’re getting 100 opens on it. I’m sorry, 200 opens on it, then you can start testing it. I like to wait until that point, then I start testing. One example is also I have an email list right now that’s about 400 people and there’s about a 60 percent open rate.

So we’re already going to start running AB test on it because the open rate is so high. We’re going to try to get the open rate even higher, or because of the subject line to get the click rates higher.

Steli Efti: So is this the Because Culture Matters email list?

Hiten Shah: Yeah, this is the Culture email list, correct. Yeah.

Steli Efti: So tell people where – this is basically Hiten sending some of the best like how to create a culture and how to think about culture within the company type of content he finds. He curates it and sends it. If people are interested, where can they give you their email to be part of this list?

Hiten Shah: Yeah. It’s We’ve already learned a bunch of stuff. We have two places we ask for feedback. People have given us feedback already. We’ve learned a ton about it. For example, just to rift on it for a second, it is email. Right. So we are talking on the right subject. We learned that – we first were sending like seven or eight links with a bunch of commentary and opinion about it. A lot of people, I would say at least a handful or more like maybe a dozen people, have emailed us saying, hey, we’d like less links. We only want the best content.

Reading between the lines, we’re like, okay, they don’t think all this shit is good. Fuck. Excuse me. That’s bad. We have to get better curating. I understand that. This is a new newsletter. So it takes time. Then, we realized the last email we sent we only had three links in there, a quote, and a tip. Basically, that one actually worked out really well. We have like five things to read there. That one actually had less clicks, unfortunately, which kind of bugs me. That’s okay. The sentiment and the responses on those has been great. We also said, hey, we learned from your feedback. So we made some changes. People love it.

One thing people forget about email is it’s an ongoing conversation. So you want to update it. You want to put at the top something that has continuity so you’re building that relationship. That’s another big tip here. When you’re thinking of email, if you’re sending repetitive email, have some area where you’re building a relationship. We always have a message at the top. For the last two or three emails, this is the fourth one we sent. But the last two or three, we’ve had the same thing at the top. Now, what I’m learning is that we need to change that shit at the top and make is so that we are actually having a conversation with people because people love that.

That would be a big tip I would give which is if you could find a way to have an area usually at the top where you’re giving a personalized message and different every time and contextual to the email, the category, the topic, and it’s different than the rest of the content; that can really help build that relationship. It will probably get people to keep opening it and wanting to read what you have to say that’s very custom, even if it’s just a sentence or two.

Steli Efti: Yeah, I love that. I’ll add on that with my tip. A riff on your tip with my tip and we’ll wrap up this episode. To me, this is like you need to – a lot of people think that when it comes to marketing email, they need to dehumanize the email. It needs to come from contact at or marketing at or support at or don’t reply – that’s my favorite one. Don’t reply [inaudible] [00:21:08]. We’re sending you emails that you don’t reply back. Then, it needs to be an html, and it needs to be designing. The subject needs to be written as if it’s a billboard on the one on one. It’s signed by the team or group of humans or even worse, the company. Yours truly, Incorporated.

So they dehumanize it as much as possible. If you dehumanize – anything you dehumanize, people will disengage with. Right. Whenever it doesn’t seem like it’s a human – communicating with another human being or communicating with me, I will be less interested to engage and communicate back or convert in anyway. Send emails even if marketing emails or newsletters through a real person’s email address. We still send our newsletters through Right. A lot of people decide to reply to that email, right, and ask me a question or give me a contact or tell me what we fucked up or give me an idea or whatever. Right.

But people reply to our newsletter because even if it’s a generic newsletter because it comes from Steli. They know they can reply. It’s my email. Send it from a real human being. No no replies or anything like that. If you can, I’m a big fan of plain text. If you don’t have to, don’t use html graphics or anything. Don’t make it fancy. Write like a human being to a human being. Engagement will typically go up if people feel like you’re talking to them, and it’s a real person speaking to them. Even if it’s Bobby or Mary from the marketing team, right, it just needs to sound like a real human being.

It can make a really big difference. All right. That’s it from us for this episode. We’ll hear you very, very soon.

Hiten Shah: Bye.