The Course Creators Guide to E-mail Marketing

By Jeff Cobb.  Last Updated on July 11, 2024

E-mail marketing written on notepad with list of tasks - laptop above

According to a study by McKinsey & Co., e-mail marketing can be up to 40 times more effective than social media. That might seem incredible, but social media networks are designed to separate people by demographics and interests, meaning even your top performing social media post or ad is only seen by small segments of people, not all of whom will be interested in what you have to say. Email marketing, by comparison, delivers your message straight to the inboxes of people who have already declared themselves interested and engaged.

Because your e-mail audience has already self-selected to be receptive in your content, there’s less pressure on you to attract and convert through your emails, but more pressure to keep your email recipients engaged. Too many dud emails and they’ll unsubscribe. With every email you send out, you run the risk of turning warm leads cold.

Done right, however, e-mail marketing is a great way of driving sales conversions, and of maintaining interest during periods when you don’t have any new products to offer. You can funnel learners who missed out on signing up for your latest course into an e-mail marketing list and keep them engaged until you reopen the course at a later date. Periodic reminders of your products and learning opportunities are more effective at later converting leads into sales than simply collecting email addresses and failing to contact potential learners until months down the line.

This is where content marketing for e-mail comes into play—you continue to maintain contact with interested learners and provide information that convinces them of your authority as an educator, priming them to want to purchase your next product (course, book, seminar, etc.), as soon as it becomes available.

Best E-mail Marketing Platforms

If you are looking for the right platform to grow and manage your e-mail list, check out our overview of the best e-mail marketing platforms.

How to build an e-mail list

Before you can think about content marketing through e-mail, you have to get the basics right, starting with building your e-mail list. Chances are you already have a list or two started, but maintaining a dedicated list of warm leads is a great way to further target your email marketing for maximum effectiveness.

Learners who have already completed one of your courses don’t need to be convinced of your expertise in your field and might find material targeted at potential learners to be repetitive and boring, increasing list atrophy. You should always try to segment your mailing lists into groups of closely related learners at similar stages in your sales and marketing funnel in order to provide the most useful information to each segment.

Create dedicated landing pages for learners who have yet to purchase any of your courses or books. You can also use other content marketing methods, such as blogging or podcasting, to generate interest and encourage your audience to keep in touch. When you offer a product for sale, redirect any learners who missed out to a signup page for your mailing list. That way you can increase demand for your courses and material by limiting places, without losing the learners who didn’t buy in time.

Whenever you create a mailing list, always try to make the signup process as easy as possible. Between GDPR and the CAN-SPAM Act, there are various laws governing how mailing lists can be administered, so a double opt-in approach is almost inevitable. That means you have to get learners to sign up for your list and confirm their membership. Extra steps always cause some people to fall off, so double opt-in has a negative effect on the number of people who complete signing up. Still, those small losses are a price worth paying for a legally compliant and attentive mailing list – and one filled with people who value what you offer enough to go through a little extra effort to opt in.

Outside of your legal requirements, try to simplify the signup process as much as possible in order to maximize the number of people who join your mailing list. Use segments or create separate lists to track where people signed up from, and what their interest is in you and your products. You shouldn’t ask for more than an email address and a first name on your signup form itself, because the more information learners have to provide, the more will drop out before completing the registration. You can always schedule a welcome email for new subscribers, asking them to introduce themselves in more detail.

Finally, consider using a lead magnet to incentivize signups. Lead magnets are free gifts or special offers, such as short ebooks or discounts on your available products, that learners unlock when they subscribe to your mailing list. Not every freebie makes a great lead magnet, but if you can offer something that learners want, that’s worth them giving you their email address to access, you’ll encourage far more people to join your mailing list.

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All about e-mail A/B testing

Once you have subscribers to your e-mail list, it’s time to get in contact. A/B testing lets you determine the best ways to attract your subscribers’ attention and prompt them to act. In its simplest form, A/B testing takes two variables of one element, such as the email subject line, and sends them to a small number of recipients. After gauging which variable gets the highest open rate, the winner is used for the email sent to the remainder of the list. A/B testing, even in the most basic way, can improve subscriber responses and raise the overall quality of your mailing list.

To take your A/B testing to the next level, start by list splitting. The more information you can collect about your subscribers, the more variables you can control for with your testing methods. Most mailing list managers record opens, clicks, and forwards through tracking pixels inserted into the emails you send out. You can also collect more data by asking subscribers to provide you with additional information. Perhaps your male subscribers react more positively to dynamic verbs such as “get” and “go,” whereas female subscribers are more likely to click on subject lines posed as a question. Without testing, you’ll never know.

Over time, test your list for as many variables as you can think of in order to achieve the most comprehensive results and get the most success from your e-mail marketing efforts. Knowing how factors like job role, level of experience, education levels, and past purchases (among many others) affect your open, click, and forward rates means you can tailor your emails to your list and speak more directly to your learners.

It isn’t only subject lines you can A/B test either. Do more people click on a red buy button, or a green one? Are subscribers more likely to forward plain text emails, or ones that are image heavy? Does sending an e-mail at 9 a.m. generate a better response than sending at 9 p.m.? All these factors and more play a role in how successfully your overall email marketing strategy performs.

As you continue to A/B test, keep a record of what worked and what didn’t, but don’t be afraid to revisit ineffective tests to determine why they failed. Perhaps the email you sent out would have had better results if it was delivered closer to payday for the majority of your list, or maybe the most successful subject line you created performed well because it coincidentally referenced something that was newsworthy that day.

Ongoing testing and monitoring is essential to effective e-mail marketing. Repeat your A/B tests on different days, times, and with different segments until you’re sure you understand how your list responds and what factors motivate them to open or ignore your e-mails.

Creating e-mail content marketing campaigns that work

Once you have a mailing list, and you know what it takes to get subscribers to open your emails, you need to figure out what to say to keep readers engaged.

The first thing to keep in mind is what you promised subscribers in order to get them to sign up. Did you offer more educational materials and resources, news and updates, or discount coupons? Whatever incentive you promised, you have to provide, and continue providing in order to keep learners opening your emails. Although mailing lists can be incredibly successful marketing tools, people soon stop opening emails they learn aren’t relevant to them anymore.

Your next consideration should be the baseline level of knowledge subscribers have of your subject. An email content marketing campaign aimed at novices will perform well with a series of emails teaching the basics, but advanced learners won’t perceive any value in opening those emails. For those learners, the latest news and updates about your field will be more interesting and produce a higher open rate with lower list attrition.

Poll your subscribers to discover what they’re interested in getting from your emails. Set up a brief questionnaire with your ideas using a service like SurveyMonkey in order to find out exactly what learners want. Don’t forget to include a free space for respondents to add their own suggestions for content you haven’t considered.

Email frequency is another important consideration. You might have already conducted A/B testing on the best time to send emails to your list. Generally speaking, you’re better off sending emails less often and providing higher quality content than emailing daily if you don’t have much to say.

Data from Campaign Monitor shows that the number one reason mailing lists get marked as spam is because they emailed too frequently. While your emails should always have an unsubscribe link prominently displayed, many subscribers simply hit the spam button in their inbox to make unwanted emails go away. This is a problem not just because you’ve alienated a potential learner, but because too many spam complaints can see your account with your email management software shut down.

According to SmartrMail, the most common frequency for email marketers is 1-4 emails per month, yet the most opened and clicked mailing lists contacted their subscribers 4-8 times per month. This suggests that although companies shy away from emailing too frequently, if their emails provide value then subscribers are happy to read up to two each week.

While the content you provide in your e-mail marketing will depend on your field and what your subscribers want, there are some universal tips for writing good mailing list emails.

Keep it simple. Few people have time to really concentrate on what an email says. Your language should be simple, direct, and straightforward. Keep sentences and paragraphs short, and make the email “skimmable” as much as possible using bullet points, dividers, and graphics.

Don’t be too formal. A conversational tone creates an instant rapport between you and your subscribers. Your learners should be relaxed and engaged when they read your emails.

Be personal. You may be writing to a large mailing list, but each subscriber reads your words on their own. Address them directly as much as possible. Use second person pronouns (you/your etc.) and personalize your emails wherever you can. That means not only inserting their name into the email, but by splitting your list into segments so you can add specific details that make the email feel more personal. For example, using female examples in emails to female subscribers, and male examples to emails sent to men.

Tell subscribers what to do. Use language that prompts your subscribers to act. Buy Now, Click Here, Hit Reply, and more are all straightforward calls to action that give learners clear instructions on what to do next. If you want to prompt a response, don’t leave your subscribers guessing.

All about sales funnels

The ultimate goal of content marketing is to drive sales of your products. As such, your mailing list is part of your overall sales funnel. Email lists are typically found in the middle of the funnel, after you’ve attracted potential buyers and enticed them to learn more, but before they’ve committed to a purchase.

Graphic of e-mail marketing sales funnel

Consider what it will take to prompt a subscriber to buy. Why are they still on the fence? The issue could simply be timing—they discovered your work during a period when you didn’t have a course available for them to join, and they’re waiting for the next opportunity to sign up. These are your hottest leads and the most likely to convert once you release a new educational product.

Cooler leads might be intrigued by your subject but not committed to spending money on learning more. Providing valuable information that assures them of your authority as an educator should be your priority in order to convenience these subscribers to buy. This doesn’t mean giving away all your secrets, but it does mean demonstrating the effectiveness of your lessons through a combination of micro-classes, excerpts from existing courses and seminars, and social proof in the form of reviews and testimonials. These approaches provide an incentive for subscribers to keep reading and establish your credentials as an subject matter expert.

Defining the target outcomes for each segment of your mailing list will help inform the content strategy you employ to keep subscribers engaged. Break down your overall e-mail marketing goals into single-step actions. Monetary goals could include generating sales of a course, seminar, or book, but don’t overlook wider engagement—setting a goal of getting more social media followers, YouTube views, reviews of your products, or even replies to your emails, can all help you build your reputation, strengthen social proof, and develop a closer relationship with your learners that will pay dividends down the line.

Start a drip campaign

Once you’ve defined your goals, you can use drip campaigns to lead subscribers to the next step in your sales funnel. A drip campaign is simply a set of e-mails delivered in a predetermined order that encourages subscribers to act. A simple drip campaign might look like this:

  • Day 1: Thanks for subscribing
  • Day 2: Introduction to your background and products
  • Day 5: Link to a YouTube video or free lesson to get subscribers learning
  • Day 7: Link to purchase a full course

Keep your end goal in mind while creating the campaign. In the example above, the end goal is to sell an online learning course to a new subscriber. The steps are simple: introduce yourself and establish your position as an educator, then pique subscribers’ interest by showing them a small sample of what the course will involve, and finally encourage them to buy.

Your drip campaigns might be less direct, and less sales-driven, but the premise is the same. Each email should take subscribers a step closer to acting on your goal, while providing valuable content that keeps learners engaged from start to finish.

Once you’ve run your first drip campaign, don’t forget to analyze your results. How many subscribers completed the campaign? What was the attrition rate between emails? What percentage of learners unsubscribed from your mailing list?

Getting a drip campaign right is a matter of trial and error. If you don’t provide enough value in each individual email, subscribers will soon stop opening them, or even unsubscribe from your mailing list completely. Too many emails will have the same effect, but too few emails will feel like a hard sell and turn potential learners off buying. Test your mailing list with small campaigns to start and get a feel for how your subscribers respond to different types of email before going all-out on a major campaign that might backfire.

Assessing the performance of your mailing list

There are many metrics by which you can judge the health and success of your mailing list. How many sales does it generate? How much interaction? Does the list continue to grow, or are you losing subscribers faster than you can add them?

The size of your mailing list is important, but less so than the open rate. You’re better off cultivating 100 engaged, responsive recipients than 10,000 who ignore your emails.

The overall health of your list begins with your signup methods. Don’t purchase email lists—it’s probably illegal under anti-spam laws and definitely won’t bring interested potential learners to the table. Equally, don’t make your incentive to sign up too strong. If you offer a freebie or discount, make it worth the value of the contact information, and nothing more.

Extravagant incentives will only attract prize seekers who don’t care about anything other than getting the reward. For this reason, incentives with monetary value such as gift cards or free products are less successful than ebooks or discount coupons for your courses, that require subscribers to be interested in your subject in order to find the incentive worthwhile.

Most e-mail marketing lists have a very low open rate. Although industry-dependent, the average open rate rarely exceeds 25 percent, with a click-through rate only a tenth of that. Raising your open rate using A/B testing should be your first aim, because your email content is meaningless if nobody reads it. Nonetheless, don’t be disheartened if the majority of subscribers don’t read every email—that’s perfectly normal and doesn’t mean the whole list is worthless.

Look for warning signs in your metrics. An open rate of less than 15 percent, for example, suggests you aren’t making your subject lines enticing enough or providing enough valuable information in your emails.

A bounce rate (the number of emails that return undelivered) of more than ~2 percent also indicates trouble. Too many bounced emails suggests that the mailing list is out of date, or subscribers have used fake email addresses to sign up, probably in order to get an incentive that was too extravagant. High bounce rates are also a warning sign that your emails are frequently ending up in spam folders. Make sure to avoid common spam trigger words in your subject line to prevent this.

Finally, a high number of unsubscribes whenever you send out an e-mail – one that is above 0.5% – is a sign that you either have low list quality or that you are not providing enough value with the e-mails you send. That said, keep in mind that, within reason, unsubscribes are also a good thing – they help remove people from your list who aren’t really interested in being there and who will damage your open and click rates if they stay.

Ultimately, the final assessment of your mailing list hinges on whether or not it serves its purpose, whether that’s to generate sales or to provide an open line of communication between you and your learners. If your mailing list isn’t producing the results you want, review your goals again, and consider how each email you send drives learners closer to the action you want them to take.

The Bottom Line on E-mail Marketing

Managing a successful e-mail list takes time and attention to detail, but the return on investment can be enormous. Along with the content you publish on your web site, your e-mail list is one of the most valuable assets you can create for you course business.

A high-quality e-mail list list provides you with a direct line to your learners and it’s the most  effective tool you have for driving sales and building your reputation as an educator. Once you’ve built a responsive and engaged mailing list, you can use it to funnel sales, provide targeted feedback for new products, and keep learners engaged and interested in your products, driving your career as an edupreneur for years to come.

See also:


Sales funnel mage source (text added):

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