Plain emails aren't going to propel prospects to website content, but targeted, visual messages can get the clicks that drive leads to eventually convert.

Email marketing is the workhorse behind most brands’ email efforts. It isn’t as flashy or obvious as social engagement, but it gets the job done behind the scenes. It’s no wonder that, as Brafton reported, 68 percent of marketers call it good or excellent in terms of ROI. Yet one of the main challenges it poses to brands is that they need massive contact lists to see measurable conversions.

According to the 2014 Silverpop Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark study, the median click-through rate for marketing emails is only 1.5 percent. This low figure means companies need to build large databases of addresses in order to make email sends profitable. Fortunately, consumer behavior is trending in another direction.

A rising email tide raises all ships

A study by Yesmail found that between Q4 2013 and Q1 2014, the average number of actual emails sent by marketers dropped by 20 percent. However, the same timeframe saw open rates increase 6 percent and click-through rates jump 8 percent. Clearly, brands are getting better at targeting ideal customers and creating engaging emails.

In fact, the Sliverpop Benchmark research turned up a related piece of news: The top quartile of email marketers blew the median company out of the water. Their CTRs were 9.5 percent, or six times higher. It isn’t clear exactly what these companies are doing that the average firm isn’t, but two possibilities stand out.

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1. Rich media

Email isn’t the plain canvas it’s traditionally been seen as. While delivery systems are becoming more sophisticated – and as consumers become accustomed to a richer media experience throughout the web – they’re more likely to engage with pictures and video. In fact, Brafton reported that 82 percent of marketers believe emails are more likely to be opened and clicked if there are visual elements within them.

The top quartile of email marketers have CTRs of 9.5 percent, or six times higher than the median. 

2. Segmentation

When marketers send out emails as part of larger campaigns, the best they can hope for is a 9.5 percent CTR – so the volume of recipients must be substantial. However, even breaking a list into two or three groups can increase open rates and engagement. Some of the top email segmentation methods include past previous interactions with content and position in the sales pipeline.

It’s also a good idea to make sure email marketing materials are produced in coordination with larger campaigns. Short, punchy inbox messages that include images and have been tailored for specific user groups can successfully be clicked – but then it’s up to website content to move them toward converting. When unified strategies are planned ahead of time, the customer journey can be seamlessly engineered from inbox to blog copy to conversion.

Alex Butzbach is a Marketing Writer at Brafton. He studied Communications at Boston College, and after a brief stint teaching English in Japan, he entered the world of content marketing. When he isn't writing and researching, he can be found on a bike somewhere in Metro Boston.