How To Think About Email Lists & Campaigns


Become a more effective email marketer with these set-up guides.

Email marketing takes time, especially if you’re doing it well. Between building your audience, maintaining your list, writing interesting content, and measuring everything, we’re looking at a full-time job here! This is one of the main reasons it is so important to set up the foundation of your email marketing efforts properly. Early mistakes when designing the structure of your lists and campaigns can have major effects further down the road.

Your first move? Take a nice, hard look at your marketing funnel, which ultimately drives the purpose and goal of every email you ever send.

What Does Email Have To Do With Funnels?

By now you’re familiar with the traditional marketing funnel in which prospects are taken through awareness and consideration phases and finally into a purchase. Your approach to email marketing needs to be rooted in your overall marketing funnel, otherwise your efforts will be aimless. Here’s a quick example:

Acme Co. has developed a new technology that allows musicians to market test their songs before putting money into production and promotion. Early customers love it and the product is being developed at a fast pace. The problem that Stacey, the CMO of Acme, discovers is that musicians don’t even know that this kind of service exists. That means Acme is essentially in a new market, which places strong emphasis on creating awareness of both the problem and the solution. When the Email Marketing Manager at Acme is involved in this planning, he can focus drip campaigns heavily on the top parts of the funnel.

Understanding marketing funnels allows you to avoid wasteful activities. You don’t need to send emails full of awareness content to a prospect who is in the later part of the consideration phase.

How To Structure Email Lists

The first rule of email marketing is K.I.S.S. – keep it simple, stupid! Unless you have a deeply complex product, the best move is to have a basic set-up that can grow with time based on performance data and optimization.

Before you dive into campaigns, you must first organize your email lists. For illustrative purposes, I’ll use three categories of complexity moving forward: Amateur, Pro, and Veteran. Here’s how to begin structuring email lists:

Amateur: One catch-all list for every new email that signs up for your service. You can still segment this list by a few factors like join date and open rate, but your ability to send customized messaging will be limited.

Pro: One list for subscribers who have not purchased anything and one list for subscribers who have made a purchase. Purchase behavior is often the most significant segmentation filter, so having two lists like this will allow for basic customization of emails and data capture.

Veteran: Multiple lists based on different product purchases. A customer who buys one product from you every six months clearly has a different value compared to one who has purchased five different products in the last seven weeks. So why treat them the same in your emails? This list structure makes it easy to upsell and cross-promote at the right time to the right customers.

When making lists, always ask yourself why a separate list may or may not be necessary. It’s obvious why you would want to message users who have bought and those who haven’t differently, but perhaps segmented lists for every single product is just going to create unjustified work for your team.  

Real-Time Emails vs. Drip Campaigns

With your lists ready to go, you can move your attention to creating email campaigns. One of the most common questions I get asked is, “Should I automate all my emails or just some?” The answer, of course, is not an easy one. Let me tell you a quick story:

When my friend first set up the email marketing program for his former company, he decided to go fully automated. He created two drip campaigns that lasted approximately three months, so he didn’t have to concern himself with writing new email content every single week. It was truly set-it-and-forget-it. After a while, he decided to switch to real-time emails, so he reduced automation to only five onboarding emails.

Which one was best? Well, neither. And both.  

Fully automated emails save time in the long run but lack flexibility. Real-time emails take more effort but are highly customizable.

The optimal structure for you may end up utilizing both approaches.

An Example Plan

Let’s go back to Acme and work on a new email program for the company. We already know that Acme is in a new market with special focus on educating the consumer, and it sells at least one product. Let’s assume Acme collects emails without having to make a purchase, so we’ll need to convert free users to customers. A basic list and campaign structure could look like this:

Lists: One called Unpaid and one called Paid to differentiate those who have purchased a product and those who haven’t. Every new email captured goes directly to the Unpaid list and is automatically moved to Paid when a purchase is made.

Drip Campaigns: All new sign-ups are placed into an automated Onboarding Drip, which lasts three days and has four emails. This drip is meant to introduce the company and create awareness around both the problem and the solution that Acme addresses. When the first purchase is made, a new drip campaign is triggered called Purchase Drip. This one lasts three days and three emails and its goal is to teach the recipient how to activate the product and offers customer service to alleviate any pain points in the process.

Real-Time Emails: Outside of the drip campaigns, Acme will send one weekly email in traditional newsletter fashion, weaving product messages with industry news and educational resources.

This is a relatively bare bones design, but it still covers the basics and then some. Again, I always recommend starting simple and then adding on as you become more comfortable with the interdependent workings of lists and campaigns of varying types. In the end, the best email marketing program is the one that achieves the greatest results for your business.

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