What Is Email Marketing? Definition, Tips, and Tools

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn how a well-executed email campaign has the potential to help you meet your marketing goals.

[Featured image] An email marketing manager in a green shirt and sweater sits on an orange sofa and works on her laptop. She's holding a white mug.

Email marketing is a form of digital marketing that uses email to connect with potential customers, raise brand awareness, build customer loyalty, and promote marketing efforts. 

In the world of online marketing, email marketing is commonly considered a low-cost and high-impact tool with the ability to increase customer engagement and drive sales. As a result, it is often a cornerstone of many digital marketing strategies created today.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what email marketing is, discuss some benefits of email marketing, and offer tips and tools for getting started with your email marketing strategy.

What is email marketing?

Email marketing is when a business uses email to communicate and connect with their customer base. This is a form of direct marketing used to inform customers, increase brand awareness, and promote specific products and services.

There are several types of marketing emails that you might consider incorporating into your email marketing strategy. Some common types of emails include:

  • Welcome emails

  • Email newsletters

  • Promotional emails

  • Lead nurturing emails or re-engagement emails

  • Transactional emails, such as confirmation emails or password reset notices

  • Feedback or survey emails

  • Milestone emails, such as for customer birthdays or anniversaries

Benefits of email marketing

Email is one of the most popular modes of online communication. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 306.4 billion emails were sent daily in 2020. That number is projected to grow to 376.4 billion by 2025 [1]. 

The ability to reach large numbers of potential customers with just a click makes email a relatively cheap digital marketing tool with a potentially high impact. One 2021 study, for instance, found that the average return on investment (ROI) for email marketing is $36 for every $1 spent [2]. 

Nonetheless, the ROI for email marketing is not the same for every industry. In the same study, the researchers broke down the average ROI per dollar spent for four different industries as follows:

  • Retail, economics, and consumer goods: $45 

  • Marketing, PR, advertising agency: $42

  • Software and technology: $36

  • Media, publishing, events, sports, entertainment: $32

Whatever the industry, it is clear that email marketing offers a potential return worth many times the initial investment. 

Email marketing best practices and tips

A successful email marketing campaign can engage previous customers, attract new ones, and help you meet your marketing goals. To pull this off, though, you will need to create a thoughtful email campaign that strategically engages customers with relevant and well-timed messages.

As you are working on creating your own email marketing campaign, keep the following tips in mind: 

  1. Craft eye-catching email subject lines.

  2. Intentionally structure your message.

  3. Keep your design simple.

  4. Only email people who opted into your list.

  5. Strategically time your emails.

  6. Keep tabs and run tests.

Let's take a closer look at each tip.

1. Craft eye-catching email subject lines.

A subject line catches the reader’s attention and prompts them to open the message, while the content of the message elaborates on your value proposition and urges readers to act.

The high volume of daily emails means that competition is high in recipients’ inboxes—a stellar subject line can help you stand out from the crowd. This reality is underscored by the fact that the average open rate for branded emails across all industries is only 21.33 percent [3]. 

Standout subject lines are intriguing and relevant to those who open them. Some ways to improve your subject lines include: 

  • Clearly state a promotion. (“Get 15% off Your Next Purchase”)

  • Create a sense of urgency. (“Hurry! Our 30% Off Spring Sale Ends in 24 Hours”) 

  • Evoke a sense of curiosity. (“Ice Skating in June?”)

  • Highlight a specific time period. (“Still Have Christmas Shopping To Do? We’re Here to Help.”)

  • Personalize it. (“Jane, Your Subscription Has Almost Expired!”)

2. Intentionally structure your message.

Structure is an important piece of any writing, but especially so for marketing emails. 

Effectively structuring the content of your message will allow you to immediately articulate your value proposition to your reader so you don’t waste their time. In fact, according to one study, the average time email users spent reading branded emails in 2021 was estimated to be just 10 seconds [4]. You might literally only have seconds to get your message across. 

To optimize this brief time, make sure that your email is well structured. Some ways to maximize impact in the little time you have with your reader include:

  • Put the most important information at the top of your email, such as the promotion you most want them to see.

  • Make it scannable so readers can easily find the information they need.

  • Keep text at a minimum and use links to re-direct readers to longer pieces, such as blog posts referenced in the email.

  • Include CTAs, such as links, throughout your piece.

  • Make sure there is a clear CTA at the end of the email to direct those who have scrolled through the whole email.

3. Keep your design simple. 

There is a thin line between eye-catching and distracting. On one hand, you want to create a dynamic visual design that attracts attention. On the other, you want to make sure that key information is easily conveyed and highlighted. A simple design, then, is generally more effective than a more complicated one. 

Some key considerations when designing a marketing email include: 

  • Use three or fewer colors in your email. A reduced pallet will be eye-catching without being overly distracting.

  • Emphasize your logo and branding. You want the recipient to quickly know exactly who sent it and where they can go to get your product.

  • Visually emphasize CTAs.

  • Optimize your message for mobile devices. Many people read their email on their smartphones, so it is important that your messages are well-suited for their devices.

4. Only email people who opted into your list. 

It is important that you only email individuals who have purposefully opted to receive them. There are several reasons for this practice.  

First, while it is technically possible to purchase lists of email addresses from third-party sellers, this practice is often forbidden on many marketing platforms.  

Second, in some cases, it may actually be illegal for you to send marketing emails to individuals who’ve opted out of receiving them. In the United States, for example, the CAN-SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act) is a 2003 law that expressly forbids sending emails to those that have previously opted out of them. According to the law, “each separate email in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act is subject to penalties of up to $43,792” [5]. 

Additionally, sending unsolicited emails can be inefficient. While it may seem like sending as many emails as possible will help you reach your marketing goals, the reality is that email marketing is most effective when you are targeting a specific audience. Rather than sending emails to people who don't want them—and risking your emails being sent to spam folders or boosting your unsubscribe rates—it makes more sense to advertise your product or service to those who have already expressed an interest. 

5. Strategically time your emails. 

In many ways, email marketing is all about timing. Sometimes, sending the right message at the right time is the best strategy to improve customer engagement and meet your email marketing goals.

As a form of digital marketing, email marketing benefits from being easily automated. Marketing automation allows you to automatically send emails to a targeted audience. You can use email automation to send targeted emails at certain times of the year, such as during the holidays, or to create automated email series to send after a potential customer takes a specific action, such as subscribing to your email list.

Automated nurture sequences help keep recipients engaged by automatically sending out relevant emails that maintain brand awareness and guide them through your marketing funnel. 

6. Keep tabs and run tests.

One of the benefits of digital marketing is that you regularly receive data on the efficacy of your campaigns. As you further develop your marketing campaign, this data can be invaluable to finding more efficient approaches to reaching and communicating with your target audience. 

Email marketing platforms allow you to keep track of important data, such as your open rate, click-through rate, and conversion rate. Furthermore, many of them also allow you to run A/B tests, which compare the performance of two different campaigns to identify the characteristics of high-performing emails.

Routinely analyzing your data and conducting tests will help you improve the performance of your overall email marketing campaign. Additionally, as you collect data, you can develop email templates based on what tends to work for your business and further your efficiency for future campaigns.

Email marketing platforms and tools 

Email marketers tend to use a range of email marketing tools and platforms to maximize their team efficiency. As you are implementing your marketing strategy, these platforms offer advanced features that can help you design personalized emails, manage your contact list, send automated emails, and monitor your email marketing efforts. 

Some common email marketing platforms include: 

Whatever your marketing goals, you can use these platforms to execute on your email marketing strategy. 

Email marketing glossary 

Digital marketers use a variety of terms to describe the email marketing process. This glossary includes some key terms you should know: 

  • Acceptance rate: The percentage of messages received by recipients’ email servers.  

  • Bounce rate: The percentage of messages not received by recipients’ email servers.

  • Open rate: The percentage of emails opened by recipients. An email campaign’s open rate is one of the key metrics for determining its success. The higher the open rate, the better. 

  • Subject line: The text that shows up in a recipient’s inbox describing the email. Subject lines should be intriguing and relevant to recipients. 

  • Call-to-action (CTA): A link or button that connects to a download or website, such as a product page, blog post, or scheduling page.

  • Conversion rate: The number of recipients who follow through with a CTA by clicking a link or making a purchase, such as when a recipient clicks onto a link to your website. 

  • Click-through rate (CTR): The percentage of recipients who click on a CTA in an email. 

  • IP warming: The practice of gradually sending an increasing number of emails to a recipient in order to establish your IP address. 

  • Opt-in/opt-out: To either subscribe (opt-in) or unsubscribe (opt-out) from an email list. 

  • Nurture sequences: A series of automated emails that are sent when someone signs up for your email list. Nurture sequences foster engagement throughout the customer journey and help push customers further along the marketing funnel. 

Keep learning

A well-executed email marketing campaign has the potential to lead to future marketing success. Prepare for a career in marketing with a flexible online marketing certificate, like Google's Digital Marketing & E-commerce Professional Certificate. Or gain in-demand technical skills to help you better analyze your marketing campaigns with Marketing Analytics Professional Certificate from Meta on Coursera. 

Article sources


Statista. “Number of sent and received e-mails per day worldwide from 2017 to 2025, https://www.statista.com/statistics/456500/daily-number-of-e-mails-worldwide/.” Accessed March 22, 2023.

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