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Ultimate Guide to Getting Started with Email Marketing for SMBs

Your Small Business Competitors Suck at Email Marketing.

…or they do it completely wrong.

…or they don’t even do it.

And this means with a little bit of planning and effort, you can get some big wins with this tactic.

Why Email Marketing for SMBs?

I have long been a proponent of any amount of time a small business can spend growing and cultivating an exceptional email marketing presence and leveraging that content across multiple channels and opportunities.

The issue for small businesses has always been time, consistency, and content.

Image via & Oberlo

The truth is, a list of 70 past customers, or a list of 10,000 leads and customers are both valuable resources for your local business.  Strong email lists have value to a business, just like a list of past customers who have made multiple purchases have value.  In many cases these lists are included in a sale or valuation of a company, why not invest time in growing and using them? A study by the DMA in 2019, highlighted in an Alpha Investors article, states that for every $1 you spend on email marketing, you can expect a $42 return.  That’s a pretty solid investment and return, you just have to commit.

Most companies that run successful newsletters list that newsletter reach and readership as an asset to their business.  If they’re creating a valuation for funding or purchase – their email marketing program goes on that list.  Anyone with commitment can build their list into an asset, you just need to dedicate proper time to the tactic, and have a firm understanding of what your readership is looking for.

Most who open and read an email from a business are looking for the WIIFM factor – what’s in it for them?  Why should they read and continue to subscribe?  Adding value to your emails is a key piece of expanding readership, and creating engagement.  Voice and value are great ways to build this relationship.

5 Tips for Growing Your List

I do think email marketing strategy is worth it, even if you’re starting with a small list.  Here are a few tips for growing that valuable list of interested people:

  • Get that signup on your website
  • Ask your customers to subscribe, either via your online receipts or with a simple “sign up list” next to a register or check-out desk.
  • Give them the opportunity to opt-in via a check box on your contact forms or order forms. 
  • Add an email list signup to your Facebook page
  • Share newsletter/blast snippets via social with a link to a subscribe page on your website

I will add a warning here – DO NOT BUY EMAIL LISTS!  If you do have an opportunity to buy a list from a relevant/reputable business (maybe you’re buying a competitor out?) you still must ask everyone on that list to opt into YOUR newsletter.  Build your list organically – you’ll see better conversion rates with a clean marketing list.  This is a great article about “permission” in email marketing from

You can also take the list of emails you have from past customers, design an “opt-in blast” that sends them 1 email that asks them if they’d like to receive news/deals from you.  They can indicate their desire to be included, and you can add them to your list if they opt-in.  The key to growing and maintaining a good list is to show value.  If you promise them information on DIY tips, specials, offers, sales, etc. on the regular, you better deliver it.

Voice and Value

Voice is the “tone” you create for your brand and your emails.  Helpful? Funny? Analytical?  What voice or tone will most resonate with your readers?  For a plumber – helpful or funny may be really useful.  For an exterminator, helpful with a bit of the “creep factor” might get your readers engaged and sharing with friends or on social media.

Value is the perceived “cost” to the reader. They invest time in reading the newsletter – what do they get out of it? News? History and facts? A discount? DIY Tips? The ability to give back to the community?  Combine a strong voice with your “hook” and a value proposition that resonates with your audience and you can create an email that engages with anyone on your list.

Design and Length

I subscribe to the K.I.S.S method for starting out in email marketing.  Keep it Simple, Silly!  There’s no reason to begin your foray into email marketing by spending a ton of money and time on an elaborate template.

  • Make it pleasing to read
  • Make it extremely mobile-friendly
  • Make sure it gets your message across without requiring a ton of scrolling to read everything.
  • Include images, but not too many, and not too large. A good rule of thumb I try to follow is 1 image per ~200 words or more. If your text-to-image ratio is too small, you can run into spam filter issues.
  • Use your email marketing platform’s recommendation and “spam test” (if they have one) to guide you here.  They have the most data on deliverability out there.  You can also use some of the tools out there like or

Hook Ideas for Local Businesses

Ultimate Guide to Getting Started with Email Marketing for SMBs

Sometimes coming up with an idea is the hardest part.  I encourage my clients to keep a running list of ideas so when it’s time to build their email for that week/month – they don’t have to rack their brains coming up with their topic.  Keep a folder on your phone or on your computer that just has a brain dump of ideas.  I think of these email marketing themes, hooks, and ideas a lot and shared just a few below to get your brainstorming juices flowing.

  • Dermatologist – recommended over-the-counter product of the week
  • HVAC – tips to keep your equipment running well
  • Plumbers – how to DIY XYZ (i.e. how to clean your shower drain if it’s slow)
  • Dentists – tips on how diet affects decay
  • Lawyers – interesting case types/results (this is a bit of the “train wreck” hook – nobody can look away from a hot mess)
  • Tree Trimmers – signs of issues in your trees and shrubs
  • Plastic Surgeons – constructive before & after stories (celebs, or just regular people)
  • Therapists & Counselors – brain games & Journaling topic ideas
  • Real Estate Agents – home showing horror stories or “found on Zillow” fun 
  • Vacation Rental Companies – unit tours, area attraction, or restaurant spotlights
  • Locksmiths – tips for securing your property or vehicle
  • Builders or Construction Companies – trend vs classic – picking finishes that span trends

Once you create your “hook” you can brainstorm sub-topics.  Here’s what I’d do for a dentist:

Hook: Foods that can damage teeth

  1. Sour Candy
  2. Citrus Fruit
  3. Alcohol
  4. Dried Fruit
  5. Potato Chips/Salty Foods
  6. Hard Candy
  1. Bread
  2. Sugary Soft Drinks & Juices
  3. Sticky Candy
  4. Coffee & Tea
  5. ICE – no chewing!
  6. Popcorn

I just created a year’s worth of newsletter topics in the exercise above – it took me about 20 minutes, tops.  Writing a paragraph about each topic and what it does to teeth and how to keep your teeth healthy after eating these things should take 15-20 minutes max each month. Then find a good image (maybe a before & after picture?) and add a review near your call to action.  Job done.

I have the idea, now what?

Once you’ve defined your voice, topics and content idea – the format or structure of your email blasts is the next important element to define.  I’m generally not a fan of long-form email marketing. I think unless you’re an exceptional writer that can really engage the audience – this is setting yourself up for a struggle.

Include a tip, the value proposition for your business, a deal/special/discount, and calls to action.  Remember – you’re not judged in email marketing by the length of content or amount of words you write – so keep to the KISS method whenever you can – keep it simple, silly.

Share your tip, your deal, and make that call to action BIG.  Big phone number, big button to click.  

When, and how often?

This is a key factor in determining success with email marketing – but if you ask 10 email marketers, nearly all of them will give a different answer.  It really depends upon your product/service and market.  We can give some rough guidelines, but I do recommend testing a send on each day of the week (over a longer timeframe, not all in the same week, please) to determine which gets the best open rates.

Wordstream released a study in June of 2021 with some info about the best times and days of the week. 


Their recommendation?

  • Thursdays between 8-9 am (your local time – or the time zone of most of your customers). 
  • Tweak that general recommendation with information you know from your demographic.  If you target the younger tech-obsessed crowd, then a send at night might serve more of your audience than an 8 am Thursday blast might reach.  If you’re in the entertainment biz, a Friday email might set your audience up for some fun over the weekend.  While we can give general guidelines – the best information comes from your own sends, testing & analytics.

Frequency is another matter.  How often do you email your list? My general recommendation when getting started is every two weeks or once a month, but you can supplement your sign-ups by promising a specific number of emails.  Ottica Seattle does this beautifully by stating emphatically you will receive 6 emails a year (h/t to Rand Fishkin for sharing this one).

If you find great engagement, and you have enough time and topics to do weekly, you can move to that as you get your process hammered out and more efficient. Some products or services might require more frequent blasts, some might be less – on a monthly or even quarterly basis.  Again, you need to test this.  The key is to deliver on what you promise. If you promise a weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly communication, you follow through on that promise.

How you doin’? 

While every industry, market, and list are different, monitoring how you’re doing is important to understand how your blasts resonate with your audience.  In campaign Monitor’s email marketing statistics for 2021 – they share the average open/engagement rates for email newsletters.

  • Average open rate: 18.0%
  • Average click-through rate: 2.6%
  • Average click-to-open rate: 14.1%
  • Average unsubscribe rate: 0.1%

What is normal or average for your industry may be a bit different, but this is a good set of stats to aim for as you get started.  You can also look at Mailchimp’s Email Marketing Benchmark Report from October 2019.

Industry Average Open Rate Average Click Rate Hard Bounce Soft Bounce Unsubscribe Rate
Professional Services 21.94% 2.55% .56% .83% .31%
Architecture and Construction 22.51% 2.51% .73% 1.18% .32%
Construction 21.77% 2.26% .86% 1.28% .39%
Legal 22.00% 2.81% 0.52% 0.66% 0.22%
Medical, Dental, and Healthcare 21.72% 2.49% 0.51% 0.63% 0.28%
Real Estate* 19.17% 1.77% 0.38% 0.56% 0.27%

*Real Estate – the open rate & click rate is low, comparatively,  because they tend to spam and send out way too many emails.  Better content less frequently is more likely to increase engagement.

Along with tracking open rates, ensure you’re tracking clicks through from your newsletter and have goals set up to track calls and form submissions (or e-commerce) via Google Analytics.  Ensure that EVERY link is tracked individually via your Google Analytics, either by built-in campaign tracking or by tagging your URLs with UTM parameters (some platforms do this for you.)  

Use a/b/n testing to see what types of content or subject lines create better open and click-through rates. Email marketing platforms like Campaign Monitor, Mailchimp, or Constant Contact have built-in features to help you test and improve your email blasts.

Cross-Platform Connections

Being able to write once and reap benefits from that content across platforms is one of the huge advantages of incorporating email marketing into your online marketing strategy. You can take one piece of content and share it via your email blast.  Then publish that email blast on your blog, then share it out via social media.  Take bits and pieces of your email blast and share it out over the week and prolong the value that content adds to your marketing strategy.

At the minimum you should be doing the following with your email marketing content:

  • Send out the email blast – make sure you have a link to the blast on your website (blog) so they can share it! (see next step)
  • Publish the main idea content on your blog – don’t forget the call to action
  • Share the main idea content from the post on social – again – don’t forget the call to action:
  • Link the social media posts back to the blog post

With this simple strategy – you’re creating consumable, likable content that will not only increase your brand presence in front of your target audience, you’ve also added unique content to your website that can help with SEO.  Duplicate content from your email marketing to an on-website post is not hurtful to your SEO efforts.

Your competitors probably suck at this…

Let’s be honest – we don’t hear a lot about local businesses knocking it out of the park with email marketing. I’m sure some do a phenomenal job, but it’s pretty rare.  I surveyed the local business near me in 5 categories (restaurants, dentists, plumbers, general contractors, electricians) – not only did they not have a newsletter shared on their website/social – they didn’t even have a newsletter sign-up opportunity on their website.  Granted, I live in a rural-ish area – but I cast my net out to 35 miles and only found a few retail stores and a dentist that had any kind of email marketing activity/opportunity on their website or social channels – and these were limited to a sign-up form – there was no evidence of an actual newsletter/email blast going out.


TL:dr – You can win with email marketing with fairly minimal effort, channeled and planned correctly. 

  • Create great email blast content
  • Include easy ways for your audience to consume and interact with your calls to action
  • Keep the design simple
  • Only send to those who have expressed interest
  • Support the messaging across all of your active platforms (website & social media), and watch conversions come in. 

It won’t be a “slam dunk” in most cases, as you’re still building a clean, marketable list – but a few conversions a month is worth the effort to start, right?


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