An employee thinking over a business email, while working on computer in office.
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Most brands use email marketing to sell to their target audience, but this may not be the best use of the channel. A new report from SurveyMonkey and SparkPost found that only 18% of consumers say they are pushed to click "buy" through email communication, yet 50% of brand marketers report that email is "very important" in driving conversions. 

Do email campaigns that have low conversions drive sales through other channels later on or are some conversions wrongly attributed to emails? We’ve presented this debate to marketing experts to see where they stand on selling through email and their best strategies for email marketing.

Do Emails Drive Conversions?

“Attribution is a funny thing,” stated Danny Williams, VP Sales Operations & Growth Marketing at San Francisco, C.A.-based Valimail. He says at first emails do not appear to generate leads and sales, but they likely have an impact that’s hard to quantify. “However, as your analysis methods expand from first touch, to first and last touch, to every-touch models,” he explained, “you can see the influence of email, both direct and indirect.” That’s why Williams believes email has the greatest ROI when it comes to engagement and is the preferred method for brand-to-consumer communication.

“The big advantage of selling through email is that you can automate the entire process, from start to finish,” stated Morgan Taylor, CMO of LetMeBank. That means it’s a completely hands-off sales channel that eliminates the possibility of human error. “Any hands-off sales process that can be automated is going to end up bringing in more sales,” Morgan said, “even if the conversion ratio is lower, purely because you can concentrate entirely on building the funnel that feeds the system.”

Email conversions also heavily depend on the brand’s industry. For example, insurance and digital courses have proven to sell really well. “There are other more common niches where email is a very poor vehicle,” Morgan added, “but it depends entirely on the business you are in.” That’s why he strongly recommends testing different email campaigns focused on sales, brand awareness, engagement, and other valuable business outcomes.

The Real Purpose of Email Marketing

Williams says you shouldn’t just send ads or salesy content through email. “Send interesting content for the products that reflects how they are really being used,” he suggested.” Email marketing is an opportunity for brands to create a community of subscribers that want relevant and useful content. “Create trust,” Williams continued, “through how you handle people's subscriptions.” That means email marketing is a great way to build brand awareness and increase engagement.

“If you create good content people will want to stay in the loop,” agreed Jakub Kliszczak, Marketing Specialist at San Francisco, C.A.-based Channels. A large email list that actively engages with the content could also lead to sales on other channels later on. “You should get consistent with your email marketing,” he suggested, “and provide enough value so people will want to buy from you.” By fostering engagement or awareness first — especially with today's focus on omnichannel customer experiences — companies can positively impact their sales across numerous touchpoints. 

“For companies that don’t sell particularly well through email,” Morgan said, “it can be a good idea to focus more on offering deals by email, and by building your brand awareness in a very socially focused newsletter.” This could include linking to articles from the brand’s website or posts on social channels that inform readers rather than directly sell to them.

Effective Email Campaigns

“A good email marketing campaign is all about building a relationship between your company and the subscriber,” Morgan said. Consumers buy from companies they trust, and effective campaigns build trust through every email. “Even if you convert well by email,” added Morgan, “you should split test a campaign that doesn’t try to sell as quickly in the follow-on, and instead works on relationship building first.” That way, brands can confirm that their email marketing isn’t sacrificing greater sales over time for some quick wins.

Kliszczak believes 70-80% of email content should be educational and informative. “Plus, you should test what your audience likes the most — pictures or plain emails, short or long texts, etc.,” he said, “so they like what they see and you can enjoy high conversion rates.” Higher interest and engagement in email content can drive sales either directly or indirectly. “If you email your audience the way they want to read,” Kliszczak concluded, “conversions will come sooner or later.”