How to Develop an Email Marketing Strategy

Margarita Golod, visiting partner at Pear VC, and former head of trade marketing at Houzz, the leading platform for home remodeling and design, hosted a talk on email marketing in April for Pear Founders, and we wanted to share the key takeaways with you. 

When many founders think about marketing, they think about channels like YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok, but email marketing is still the most cost-effective channel for growth, especially at the startup stage.

Why email?
What makes a great subject line?
What makes a great message?
How do you build your list?
What metrics should you target?
What tools should you use?

Why email? 

Email is an important channel for any startup. It’s important to understand how it compares to other channels. 

  • Volume: Unlike social media, 92% of adults online use email, so email is still a comprehensive way to reach your audience. 
  • ROI: email has the highest ROI of any digital marketing channel. The ROI of email marketing is, on average, 4X higher than the average of other marketing channels. 
  • Tracking: Unlike other channels, feedback on email campaigns can happen instantly – you can see who opened and click your email and iterate future campaigns based on instant data.
  • Personalization: Email allows you to tailor your message to each individual subscriber at scale. You can personalize people’s names, companies, and titles. You can also easily segment different email copy by various personals and track engagement across these segments.

What makes a great subject line? 

Subject lines are the most important part of the email. People decide whether or not they actually open an email based on your subject line. Here are some best practices for subject lines:

  • Incorporate people’s first name. Doing so makes the email pop out for them more in a sea of other messages. People reading your email also feel as though your email is tailored to them, which encourages them to pay attention and read on. You can also avoid getting your email stuck in the promotions tab in gmail by personalizing it. 
  • Avoid exclamation marks. Stay away from overly click bait like language. Using too many exclamation marks or words like “urgent” can land your message in people’s spam. 
  • Pique curiosity. For example, Margarita shared an email with the subject line “Margarita – here are 3 sites that have your information.” Of course, this subject line piqued her curiosity: she is now interested enough to open the message to see which 3 sites have her information. 
  • Be concrete. Margarita shared an email advertising a webinar with the subject line “Have 9 minutes?” The sender was very explicit about what exactly they needed from the reader, which made readers more comfortable opening the email to explore the ask further. 
  • Use the “fwd” trick. People are more likely to open an email that was forwarded to them. Add “fwd” or “forward” to the start of your subject lines. Of course, you can’t do this too often because people will catch on, so do use this trick carefully and sparingly. Relatedly, you can add “did you see this” to the start of subject lines as a more eye-catching way to check in with people who did not open the first “forwarded” email. 
  • Leverage cliffhangers. Margarita shared some great cliffhanger subject lines that caught her attention, such as “I didn’t wanna do this” (which prompted her to engage since she was quite curious about what this person did not want to do) and “Can emails save a life?” 
  • Use a real name. In your “from” field, use a real name. For example, at Houzz, many of the marketing emails were sent from “Kirsten from Houzz” (she is a real member of their customer success team, but you can also use a fake name if you prefer). People make genuine connections with other people, not abstract company names. Using a real person’s name in your “from” field helps establish a more authentic connection with your prospects and customers. 
  • Get creative about the sender. Margarita shared an example of an email she received because her friend referred her to use a company’s product. That company sent Margarita an email through her friend’s name with the subject line “Don’t let your friend down.” The combination of the sender and the subject line caught Margarita’s attention enough for her to open the email. 
  • Don’t forget your preview text. Your preview text is also important. Consider how it can complement your subject line. For example, Margarita shared an email from a startup with preview text that said “help shape our product.” That line makes early users feel like they are a part of something special and motivates them to open the email and engage. 

What makes a great email message? 

Now that you’ve written an excellent subject line, it’s time to craft an equally compelling message. Here’s how: 

  • Incorporate aspirational language. Margarita shared an example of an email sent to marketers that started off with “as a data-driven marketer.” The company tailored its messaging to its intended audience and who their intended audience wanted to be (“data-driven marketers”). 
  • Send text-based emails. Avoid templated emails that look inauthentic. Try to use direct text in your emails whenever possible to make your readers feel like you are talking only and specifically to them. 
  • Add personalization. Beyond just their names, consider adding other information to further personalize the message, such as their recent purchase data to show you are truly tailoring your message and speaking directly to the reader.  
  • Share stories. Bring your reader on a journey through, for example, highlighting the transformation they can undergo with your partnership. In particular, incorporate other people’s stories advocating for your product, such as testimonials in written and video form. 
  • Give a reply option. Your readers are more likely to feel more genuinely cared for and heard if you give them a real way to reply to you. Instead of just sending messages from a no-reply account, include contact information and invite their response. You can set up a separate inbox for this to not clutter anyone’s personal inbox, and you can carve out a bit of time each day to read and respond to inbound notes. 
  • Offer something useful. For example, at Houzz, Margarita and her team sent an email with the header offer “We’ve built a beautiful website out of your Houzz profile.” Right off the bat, Houzz was offering readers something of value, which drove very high engagement. 
  • A/B test. When possible, A/B test your emails and subject lines. For example, send version A to 25% of people, version B to 25% of people, and the winner of A and B (the version of the best metrics) to the remaining 50% of people. 

How do you build your list? 

With a sound email strategy, it’s time to plan how to kick start your email list, grow it over time, and keep up its quality. 

  • Start with your network. Add in the contact information of your family, friends, colleagues, investors, advisors, etc. By doing so, you warm up your IP address and build up your email reputation to avoid having your first “real” customer or prospect email sent to spam. 
  • Share gated content. Put together valuable eBooks, guides, templates, and other resources that people in your prospect base would want to download. Before you let them download the content asset, ask for their email address and other contact information. This helps you build a list of engaged subscribers.
  • Remove unengaged subscribers. If a lot of people on your email list don’t open your email, then, over time, you will get a low email reputation, and your emails will no longer be delivered to the inbox. To remove unengaged subscribers, send an email to them saying “this is your final email” and ask them to confirm if they would like to stay on. If you still don’t receive any engagement, remove them from your list. Similarly, be sure to include an unsubscribe option in all of your emails. If you don’t have one, people may instead mark your email as spam, which would hurt your reputation score. 
  • Segment. Segmentation is critical for sending more personalized emails and tracking engagement more precisely. Start capturing audience information right away (for example, through the gated content forms mentioned above or through the newsletter subscriber form or through the customer onboarding process). Ask questions about the user that will help you identify which bucket of customers they fall into so you can segment them properly.

What metrics should you target? 

Of course every industry and business is slightly different in terms of what success looks like, but here is a general sense of the metrics to measure and thresholds to aim for: 

  • Open rate (percentage of people who opened your email): 
    • >30% for very engaged people, such as existing customers 
    • >15% for less engaged people 
  • CTR (clickthrough rate – percentage of people who actually clicked through the links you shared in your email): >4% 
  • Unsubscribe (percentage of people who unsubscribe after your email): <0.2% 
  • Delivery rate (percentage of people who actually received your email – this is more a measure of email list health, that is, whether the emails you have on your list are accurate and up to date): >96%
  • Conversion rate (percentage of people who ultimately take the action you want them to from your email) really varies depending on your business and goals (for example, some companies want to convert people into paid users, others want them to get a free trial, and others want them to make a one time purchase).

What tools should you use? 

It’s time to get started! There are so many tools out there and below is a list Margarita has put together, based on her experience. You should always evaluate and demo every tool before deciding to use it. 

  • For designing, creating and sending emails:
    • Mailchimp (for smaller lists when you are just starting out)
    • Active Campaign (more robust automation)
    • HubSpot 
    • Marketo (more for b2b)
    • Pardot (more for b2b – integrated with Salesforce)
    • Eloqua (more robust for b2b enterprises)
  • For lifecycle marketing (across push notifications, SMS, in app notifications and email): 
    • Iterable
    • Braze
    • OneSignal 
  • For understanding deliverability (how accurate is your email list and whether your emails are landing outside of the inbox): 
    • (helpful for determining if your emails are landing in Spam) 
  • For previewing emails: Litmus (lets you see how your email looks across devices and browsers) 
  • For cold emailing: 
  • For inspiration: has great email examples 

Here’s important factors to keep in mind when evaluating what tools are best for you: 

  • Whether the platform integrates with your CRM and event management systems like Zoom to ensure automatic sync with your contacts and data
  • Whether they offer end-to-end value for landing page creation, SMS marketing, and other marketing use cases important for your business
  • How easy the service is to use
  • The cost of the service and potential add ons 
  • Whether they have great customer service 

We hope this article has been useful in helping you lay the foundations for your email marketing strategy. Margarita is available to answer further questions regarding your email strategy – just send her an email at