Email Marketing Strategy 101: Your Guide to Mastering the Customer Inbox

There are a million ways to meet your customers where they are: on their social feeds, on search engines through your company’s blog, in person at tradeshows. The only problem: in all these places, you lack agency. Tradeshows require prospects to come to you. Socials render you powerless to their algorithmic whims (the great Facebook crash of 2017, anyone?). And if you’re not ranking high enough for what your prospects are searching for on Google, no matter how awesome your blog is, they’ll never find you. 

Enter: the email inbox. 

Your customer’s inbox is arguably the most useful environment for brand reach and resonance (not to mention moving prospects down the funnel and reengaging your loyal customer base). It’s also the best place to have what feels more like a personal conversation with your prospect or customer—with GDPR in effect and email opt-ins galore, you’ll only be reaching people that actually want to hear from you. And, upon opting in, your prospects or customers give you what you need to serve them best: agency.  

I like to split email strategy into two camps: in-inbox and in-email (and you can’t have one without the other). Today, we’ll be hitting on in-inbox strategy only. 

But what does that even mean? And how can you use it to master the customer inbox?

We’re so glad you asked. 

More than Just the Subject Line: How to Stand Out in the Inbox

When we talk about in-inbox strategy, we’re talking about everything you’re doing to lure the prospect or customer to click into an email. (In-email strategy is all about whatever you’re doing in the email once they click to keep them moving down the funnel.)

In-inbox strategy can be broken down into parts: 

  • The subject line & personalization
  • Brand name
  • Send time
  • Test parameters
  • List hygiene 

True inbox masters have already weaved all of these things into their email marketing strategy. This is what they do. 

Inbox Mastery Tip #1: Don’t Let Your Subject Lines Come Second

Imagine standing in a room surrounded by people shouting at you. Some of them are yelling things that are work-related; you listen to them first. Next, your ear perks up at something that sparks your interest; it’s using your name, it’s saying something you haven’t heard before, it’s… using different sentence construction. You’re into it. You listen. 

That’s essentially what happens when a great subject line works: it stands out in the vast echo chamber of the prospect’s inbox. Your subject lines are competing with every other voice that matters to your prospect: work emails, newsletter subscriptions, brand lists they’ve subscribed to. This is why you can’t let your subject lines just be the thing you write once you’re done writing email copy. Give them some serious thought (What would make you click? What kinds of emails do you see all too much of?). And, most importantly, if your email service provider (ESP) allows, test your subject lines. Add personalization. Add an emoji for visual differentiation. 

Morning Brew, a news aggregation newsletter company, is a master at standing out in the inbox. 


email subject line examples

Notice that their subject lines always begin with a coffee emoji. This allows for brand recognition, visual differentiation, and adds a little bit of fun. Notice also that unlike brands like The Strategist, they write subject lines out as if they were sentences, and usually only keep it to a couple words. The Hustle does this well, too. Again, this allows for visual differentiation, and in Morning Brew’s case, adds enough mystery that will make me want to read. 

Inbox Mastery Tip #2: What’s Your Name? 

This one may seem obvious, but for brands looking to get a little personal with their outreach, it can be useful to test how your brand name versus a person’s name resonates with your prospects or customers. This is useful on a case-by-case basis (it might work wonders on your welcome emails, for example), but it’s where that agency we were talking about earlier comes in—it will help you forge a slightly more personal interaction when you need to. 

Check out what Later, an Instagram analytics tool, does below, next to a newsletter from the Atlantic

personalized email marketing

Hey there, Matt! What also makes this great—and clickable—is that there’s a personalized tagline instead of a personalized subject line—it’s much more subtle, but still gets the job done. (Plus, according to Campaign Monitor, an ESP, personalized emails get a 6x higher transaction rate.) Clicking!

Inbox Mastery Tip #3: When Is The Best Time Is to Send Emails

Lots of ESPs optimize email send times to send out on the hour, and many more brands schedule their emails to do so. That means that if you’re scheduling emails to go out at say, 1 o’ clock, you’re likely to overlap with other promotional material from other brands—putting your emails squarely in the “delete” zone. In general, it’s a best practice to send emails either early in the morning (6 or 7 am) or later in the evening (around 8 pm) rather than in the middle of the workday—because that’s when the bulk of emails are getting sent. 

Check out what Sofar Sounds, The Hustle, and Morning Brew did up above. None of their emails send at a neat time, but all of them send early in the morning—now, they’re at the top of my inbox when I come into the office. 

Inbox Mastery Tip #4: Test Everything to Refine Your Email Marketing Strategy

And I mean everything, especially if email is one of your brand’s major touch points. Setting testing parameters and strategy can take some time, as can the actual test timeline, but this will be so helpful to answer any lingering questions you might have, especially related to churn. Why aren’t people clicking? Well, maybe your subject line isn’t sticking. Why aren’t people converting? Well, maybe, in combination with boring in-email copy, your send time is right in the middle of their busy hours. 

If you have the resources to A/B test, try it on one of these: 

  • Subject lines
  • Email content
  • Send time
  • Your “From” field or brand alias

Or anything else you want to learn about, do so. You can’t expect to know exactly what your audience needs or responds to on the first go (and if you already have that type of user research, use it!). Testing parameters are also super dependent on your goals: if you’re going to run a reengagement series, you might test personalization. If you’re running a welcome series, you might test engaging subject lines or a personal “from” field. And if you’re into catching prospects where they’ll be most likely to see you, you can test send time. 

Inbox Mastery Tip #5: Keep a Clean Email List

Keep Your Lists Like You Keep Your Hands: Clean

Keep your email lists like you keep your hands: clean. This tip is more a behind-the-scenes one, but any opportunity you have to check up on your list(s) hygiene—that is, taking a look at your subscriber base to check up on who’s opening, who’s moving you to spam, what domains (gmail, hotmail, yahoo, etc.) are kicking your emails off their servers at a higher rate, and what your bounce rate looks like—take it. 

Keeping a clean list helps you get accurate engagement numbers and allows you to target with more precision. You can also give different lists different testing parameters to help you understand each segment more accurately. Don’t be afraid, after looking at your lists, to remove people who aren’t opening. You can always reengage new subscribers with a lead generation campaign down the line so that you end up with a more loyal subscriber base. 

Whew! That was a lot. Need some help from an expert? Give us a call today. 

Free Download: 7 Social Media Questions You Must Answer

Madeleine LaPlante-Dube | Content Marketer
About the Author
Madeleine LaPlante-Dube, Content Marketer

Madeleine LaPlante-Dube loves to write about emerging trends in content – video, podcasting and interactive webpages. When she’s not crafting compelling content and scheduling savvy social, she’s creeping on the outliers in the industry – seeing how leaders are doing things differently and figuring out how she can help readers learn from them.