Email Marketing Basics for Small Business


If you're a small business, you know you need to do some kind of email marketing or newsletter to keep your business near the top of your customers' minds. If they can't remember who you are or what you do, it's pretty unlikely they'll buy something from you. Chances are you already have some type of email marketing set up, even if it just means a list of email addresses that you BCC an update to every week, month, or whenever you remember. With this guide, I'll walk you through the simple steps for setting up an email marketing system that will actually work! All the tools I use are free (with premium versions available) and you can set all of this up in less than 1 hour. If you already have an email marketing system setup, you should still pay attention because there's going to be some great hints for capturing more customers, following up with them regularly, and sending great emails. There are basically 3 steps to setting up a robust email marketing system. In this post, I'll give an overview of what to use and how to use it.
  1. Capture email addresses as subscribers
  2. Gathering Content
  3. Sending emails to your subscribers
Email marketing Workflow

Here's our workflow for setting up email marketing

Step 1 - Capture Email Addresses

All three of these steps are critical, but I would argue this is the most important because if you don't have any email addresses to contact, the next two steps are not very useful. We need to set up a way to capture, save, and manage contact email addresses.

Create a MailChimp Account

To start off, we need to use some email marketing tool like MailChimp. There are lots of free and premium tools available to handle this task, and some might work better than others depending on your situation or what you prefer. But the leader in this field is absolutely MailChimp so unless you have a particular reason NOT to use it, I suggest starting there. It is free to sign up and does not require a credit card plus, as long as you have less than 2,000 subscribers it will always be free. This makes it a good place to start. If you're not familiar with it, MailChimp does a couple of really useful things for us.
  1. Easily create a "List" for contacts you want to keep track of
  2. Add "Subscribers" to your lists from various channels (more coming on this)
  3. Design & send emails to all the subscribers (or a sub-group) in a list
Once you create an account, the first step is just to create a list. You can call it anything you want right now like - "My Company's Newsletter". Then you'll want to add any existing email addresses you have that you feel belong on this list by adding them 1-by-1 or importing from a CSV or other files. Note, you shouldn't add every contact you've ever communicated with because you could get flagged for spamming, if the person would reasonably be interested in your information then it is probably okay. Use your own judgement.

Send New Subscribers to MailChimp

Okay, that was the boring part. Now it's time we add new subscribers to our list as they visit our site, contact us, fill out a form, etc. and there are a few tools we're going to use to achieve this.
  • SumoMe - plugin for your WordPress site that prompts visitors to sign up for your newsletter
  • Wufoo Forms - easily create forms (like a contact us form), embed in your website, and form submissions will be sent to MailChimp
  • Google Contacts - add all new contacts to your MailChimp list
  • Gmail + Zapier - add certain Emails to MailChimp using labels + Zapier


This is a free and easy to use plugin for your WordPress site that will prompt visitors to subscribe to your newsletter (or take other actions if you want), then it will send them to MailChimp for you. See the picture below, SumoMe puts on the top bar, social sharing bar on the left side, and a popup window if the user's mouse leaves the page (plus it does way more).
Sumo Me in action on this very site.

Sumo Me in action on this very site.

I'm sure you're asking... isn't this annoying? Yes! Is the screenshot above from the very website I'm on now? Yes!!! Why? Because it works. It works way better than it annoys people. It is possible to overkill the user with popups and prompts (I perhaps, am doing this currently to you!) but for the most part it works very well and is a tool you should use. When you setup SumoMe, you can tell it to send email address entries to your WordPress account. So when someone inputs their email, it automatically puts them onto your WordPress list! It usually works best if you offer the user something, like a free eBook or download or guide or video or something that is valuable to them. It really depends on your customer.

Wufoo Forms

There are lots of ways to put forms on your website, and lots of tools that are designed for the only purpose of putting a form on your site. You by no means need to use Wufoo Forms, but it is a very good tool and I do suggest it highly. It will make it very easy to build an online form, embed it in your website, and send the form data to different places when it's completed. For example, you could have a "Contact Us" form that sends that sends you an email with the information, adds them to your MailChimp subscriber list, and sends them an automatic email saying thanks! It is all very easy to do in WuFoo Forms.

Google Contacts

This one is very easy actually, all you need to do is create a Zap in Zapier that will look for any new contacts in your Google Contacts list (or any other contact list you use) and then send that person to your MailChimp list. This will capture ALL your new contacts and add them to your list automatically!

Gmail + Labels

Maybe you don't want to add every person who sends you an email to your subscriber list. Could be a supplier, or a support person, or another person on your team. You may not want to have each and every contact of yours added to the list (also, this could be a way to get flagged for spam as well). We can very easily put individual people on this list without much difficulty. Step 1 is to setup a Gmail Label specifically for this task. Call it something like "Add to MailChimp List" so it is very specific. Next, we'll create a Zap in Zapier that will look at your label in Gmail and notice when you put a new email in there and add the email address on that email to your MailChimp list, automatically. Then, when you get an email from someone you want to add to your mailing list just add the label of "Add to MailChimp List" to that email and Zapier + Gmail will take care of the rest!

Step 2 - Find Content for Your Newsletter

Most likely, you'll be sending out your newsletter on some rough schedule like once per week or once per month. Depending on what your goal is for your newsletter, you'll probably need to find some content from external sources to include. For example, if you sell office furniture you might want to include articles that talk about new brands, products, or other concepts in the office furniture industry. Most likely, this content is not going to come entirely from you because let's be honest, you don't have time to write all that content.

Save Topics for Inspiration

Instead of writing everything in your newsletter, spend the time between your newsletters saving interesting content (in once place!!!!) that you find in your industry. That way, when it comes time to write your newsletter you'll have 2, 5, even 10 articles, tweets, or ideas to help spark your newsletter creation. I suggest using Evernote as the storage location for this, but this one could be nearly anything like Dropbox, Google Docs, etc. Any place where you can send your content throughout the month and save it for when you need inspiration! Here's an example, you're planning on writing a blog post in 2 weeks but you're on Twitter today and see something interesting in your industry, you can save that tweet to Evernote with the tag of "Newsletter Ideas." Then a few days later you see a blog post about a new product in your industry, save that article to Evernote with the same tag. A week later you think of an interesting thing to include in the newsletter, so you send a quick text message to a pre-set "robot" phone number (more on this later) and that text get's saved to Evernote with the same tag. Then when it comes time to write your newsletter, you can open up Evernote, filter for that tag, and see all the things you found or thought of during those few weeks and quickly write the newsletter.
This is a Zap you can use to save Tweets to an Evernote Note.

This is a Zap you can use to save Tweets to an Evernote Note.

Even Better for Teams

This works even better if you have a small-medium size team. Just setup each person the ability to save items just as I described above, all going to one shared folder, tag, document, etc. Then when your newsletter writer needs inspiration, they have one folder to go to and find interesting topics! This will make it super easy for you (or whoever writes the newsletters) to put content together each month, and maybe make it more reasonable to send newsletters out more frequently.

The Setup

Depending on what tool you want to use, this setup can be very easy. Part of the reason I suggest Evernote is because it comes with a Chrome extension called Evernote Web Clipper where you can click one button and save whatever web page you're on as a note in Evernote (as well as add tags). This works even better in Gmail because you can save the email itself as a note to Evernote, so if you get an email from a co-worker, supplier, brand, etc. you can save that right into Evernote (with a link to open the original email in Gmail too). You can increase your content gathering super powers by including Zapier in this process. Want to send a text message to a robot and have it save your text to Evernote? That's easy with Zapier, just set up a phone number (do this in Twilio for $1/month), link it to Zapier, and you're ready to store your SMS notes. If you have a company Twitter, Facebook, or Google + profile, you can automatically save any tweets or posts that you like, favorite or +1 to that same Evernote tag for use as inspiration. Zapier has lots of integrations so whatever tools you already use, it is likely you can set up a way to save the content you find to a single place and make it easy to write your newsletters.

Why do this step?

You're right, you don't actually have to do this step of gathering content for your newsletters. If you'd prefer to sit down once each month and completely write a newsletter from scratch, then do that. But, try this for a couple of newsletters and see just how valuable it can be. It will make your newsletters much more rich with content, which means you'll get more interaction from your subscribers. Plus, it won't take you very long to copy a couple of links and write a short 1 sentence snippet of what the article is about.

Step 3 - Design & Send Your Email

This is the easiest and final step for your newsletter. MailChimp and other email marketing tools have very good Drag & Drop editors for creating your newsletter, plus templates so you don't have to start from scratch. Just pick a template, insert some of your content (logo, articles, social media icons, etc.) and you'll have a beautiful email to send out in no time! I do have a few tips for writing your newsletter, which are not requirements but they'll help point you in the right direction.

Provide Value

Provide actual value to your customers. They will not open, read, or click your emails if you're not providing any kind of value to them. This means that the articles you send MUST be useful.

Subject Line

Write your subject line with one goal: get your email opened. Do not summarize the email, or write "My Company Newsletter". It is not going to get opened. You are competing with every other email in their inbox, so write your subject line to get opened. Example, base it off the content, but don't summarize - "You must read this email marketing article, from My Company". It will depend a lot on your customers, the email itself, the goal of the email, etc. But think about it as the headline of an ad, not the summary of the email.

Keep it Short & Sweet

I know, ironic coming at the end of a lengthy blog post, but if you've gotten this far I'm assuming you're actually looking for good information! Your email subscribers, though, they have other things to do. Do not write long paragraphs updating about how you just got a new office or are working on growing. Give them information that provides value to them. I hate to break it to you, but most of the time your customers do not really care about your new office. If you're a restaurant or store, okay then they will care.
  • Use bullet points
  • Summarize information and provide links to more in-depth articles
  • Don't go overboard on pictures / graphics
  • Make it easy to read, and short!
    • I can't stress this enough. I once got an email from a company who had copy/pasted 3 entire articles into one email so it was crazy long. I laughed and archived without reading anything essentially.

Have a Call-To-Action

A call-to-action is basically an action that you want your customer (email reader) to take when they read the email. Have them DO something, click a link to an article, click a link to your website, send a tweet to your company, forward the email to a friend, or anything else like that. Now, if your goal for the newsletters is simply informational then your call-to-action does not have to be the center point of your email. Maybe just a quick note at the bottom to forward the email along. But, if you're trying to get your customer to buy something then you absolutely MUST have a call-to-action. So, here's a call-to-action for you. Sign-up for my newsletter here and get even more great tips for streamlining your business.
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