How to Get Started in Email Marketing
More than you probably want to know about jumping into this career path
Cover photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash
I cut my teeth working in email marketing and I have a lot of love and respect for the profession. If email marketing is something you’re looking to get into, I’ve included my journey and some tips on getting started in the industry.
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Why did I go into email marketing?
I’m something of a late bloomer. I graduated college with a Public Relations degree when I was 25, I had been married for 3 years, and the last year of my education I just hated going to school. I loved my professors and classmates but I had this really scary epiphany…
I didn’t want to work in PR.
Well, shit. Right?
Being in your mid-twenties, faced with the challenge of being a sole-income provider, and not having the slightest clue what you want to do with a career is…
But I had some good leads. The year leading up to graduation was full of experiments. I interned for an ad agency in New York City getting paid $10/hour to basically create fake Facebook pages. I was so bored that I taught myself a little code.
That code landed me a designer/developer role at a company called Qualtrics. At the same time, I jumped on to a kickstarter success story called Dark Energy with a few other inexperienced, barely-graduated students and dropouts. Qualtrics paid great, Dark Energy didn’t pay (because they had very little cash), but it gave me the opportunity to learn from hard knocks and lucky breaks.
I scored a few media placements for Dark Energy with PC Mag and Uncrate just from digging around for email addresses online and sending cold messages. I sent a lot of messages, folks, but these two got back to me. I also had win by landing a revenue share deal with AhaLife (trust me, I had no idea what that meant at the time!).
Meanwhile, I grew restless at Qualtrics. The pay was great for a not-yet-graduated student, and I learned a solid foundation in web development, but I wanted more action. The team leads at Qualtrics gave me space to create a new and more efficient way to design surveys for high-ticket clients. I had a lot of help to get it done and those survey designs are still around today!
With graduation approaching, I found I lacked a specific internship credit to get my diploma. I scoured the internet for PR-focused internships and found none (that paid, or that were more than media pitching). But then, late at night, I stumbled upon a listing for an approved internship at a startup company called Needle. I jumped on it and got the gig!
The gig was not public relations focused, and I was grateful. It was “Demand Generation.” This is a form of B2B email marketing that automates sales emails to prospective clients so sales people don’t waste their time. This turned into a full-time job a few weeks before graduation, with a starting salary of $55k + benefits.
For what it’s worth, Qualtrics offered me a starting salary of $35k for a web development role. At the time, dev roles were super hot. My coworker had just gotten a gig as a junior developer in NYC for $75k. Needless to say, I took the email marketing job.
So that’s how I got into email marketing. Kind of by mistake, kind of by necessity. But my scrappy, GSD approach to finding work had prepared me for the task. I had an excellent mentor at my first job who put a lot of faith in me, but also challenged me to figure things out for myself.
What is email marketing?
Email marketing can be a tough concept to describe. In its most basic form, you’re sending emails to people with the intent to call them to action, en masse.
From there, it gets a little more complex: you’re trying to send the right person the right message at the right time, through the right channel (hint, not always email).
Email marketing involves a technical knowledge of how electronic mail works. Did you know there are like, a ton of steps that have to go right in order for an email to go from your outbox to someone’s inbox?
It also involves a keen sense of segmentation. Should you send a particular message to everyone? Or just to a small segment of your audience.
Lastly, it requires solid organization and strategy. Depending on your role, you could be sending multiple emails to various lists of tens or hundreds of thousands of people at the same time. Keeping things tidy in your email marketing platform (and your brain), is a must.
Email marketing & the conversion funnel
When you get into sales and marketing, you’ll learn there are several stages potential customers (a.k.a. the “customer lifecycle”) go through before they actually purchase a product or service. A lot of people start out in the first stage of that lifecycle, and few people make it to the last stage (purchase). Visually represented, this looks like a funnel.
The top of the funnel is all about finding new people to buy your product. That’s known as “acquisition.” You’ll see jobs for digital advertising managers, or Facebook Ads, or acquisition managers, programatic advertising, etc. – these are all top-funnel jobs. They’re looking for leads (people who haven’t purchased) that aren’t in your marketing ecosystem yet.
Email marketing really starts around the second stage of the conversion funnel. When a lead comes into the marketing ecosystem, they often give their email address. Ever filled out a form to get a download or to enter a contest? When you hit “Submit,” you’ve officially entered the ecosystem, and thus, the realm of email marketing.
Now here’s the cool part: While acquisition roles really only deal with pre-purchase customers, email marketing is what guides customers to purchase, and what drives recurring purchases or customer retention in the future. Therefore, email marketing is extremely valuable to businesses.
It also means there are a variety of email marketing roles out there. Some focus on conversion, others on retention, and others that straddle both!
What skills or experience is needed to get started in email marketing?
Here are a few skills you’ll need to get started in email marketing. This isn’t a comprehensive list, nor is it necessarily “gospel,” but these are skills that have helped me in my career:
Pay attention to detail
Emails sent to thousands of people need to be checked and vetted, lest you send the wrong message to the wrong person at the wrong time! Believe me, I’ve made some big mistakes, but I’ve caught a ton of them before they went out because I paid attention to detail.
Decent writing skills
Many companies want a one-person show for email. They want you to write, design, send, and report on email marketing. I am personally against those types of jobs for entry-level roles, but I understand why they exist. Being good at writing comes in handy wherever you are. That said, you don’t need to be perfect (see #4).
The ability to find answers to questions
A lot of challenges arise with email, like email client inconsistencies or IP reputation, that require an adept knowledge of how email works. I guarantee you most business leaders just know the term “deliverability” like a buzzword, but couldn’t tell you how to fix it. That’s where you come in. You need to be able to dig deep and find credible solutions to email challenges that business leaders are too busy to solve.
Handling loads of feedback
One downside of email marketing is that it is so visible within the company that it often attracts a lot of opinions. If you write email copy, be prepared to have it torn to pieces in a Google Doc. Most of the time, your copy serves as a baseline that’s better than a blank page. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your choices, but don’t get mad if a higher-up rewrites your masterpiece. In my experience, marketing leaders fret way too much about email copy details, but it’s a cross we email marketers must bear ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Good communication with others
Re: email is highly visible at a company — this means it affects everyone. A poorly crafted email might not affect the Marketing team so much as it creates a headache for the Support team. An email about a new feature that flops can have a negative impact on the Product team. Keep people posted about what emails are going out and when. I used to keep a public Asana calendar for blast emails, and I would give regular presentations about automated email flows I managed. This kind of education and communication will earn you respect and trust.
A basic understanding of HTML and CSS
I’m a firm believer that email marketers should not waste time coding emails, but having a knowledge of how HTML and CSS work can really help you excel at using drag-and-drop editors, or troubleshoot breakdowns in email designs.
How do you get started in email marketing?
If an email marketing role is not obviously available to you, you may need to get creative.
I got experience by side-hustling at a startup. You might find a startup, a non-profit, or a small business that needs email assistance. Get “email marketing” into that job title and keep track of your relevant responsibilities, and you’ll be on your way.
Another way is to find email marketing responsibilities at your current place of work and ask to take them on. Perhaps you’re already doing them! In either case, negotiate to put “email marketing” in your job title. That will be a big help. If I’m hiring for an entry level email role and someone comes to me with “email marketing” in their job title, I’m definitely going to take a second look at their résumé.
It should go without saying that a job title change doesn’t automatically qualify you. But it can help you get on the right path at your current gig, or the next one.
Email marketing resources:
If you’re looking to get more involved the email marketing career path, here are a few resources and platforms to help you on your way:
EmailGeeks.io (this is also a slack group that I highly recommend)
Mailchimp.com - The gold standard for entry-level email marketing
Klaviyo.com - Like Mailchimp, but for eCommerce.
Code School - Learn code — this school has a lesson devoted to email development.
Codecademy - Learn code, but it’s free.