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When Doug Dennison founded MailNinja in 2005, he was able to combine his interests in design, copywriting, and marketing into a single venture. And given that the company has been helping e-commerce clients increase revenue for the last 12 years, it’s pretty clear that he’s been successful. Much of that success has come the hard way: hands-on experience, trial and error, and incremental improvement over time. Below, Dennison shares some of his hard-earned email marketing wisdom with us.

When you use email marketing to help clients increase sales, where do you usually begin?

Typically, increasing sales means we’re talking about automation. There’s got to be at least basic automation to make e-commerce a success, whether that’s in the form of a welcome series, abandoned cart emails, or another campaign. But if a client doesn’t have those in place, they’re basically losing money.

And it’s not uncommon to have one piece or another missing. One of our clients came to us with a great welcome email, but no abandoned cart series in place. But once we set those up for them, we were able to start generating sales through automation.

Speaking of that, why are so many people leaving carts abandoned in the first place?

It’s the internet. People are very easily distracted—they click over to check email or social media and it completely derails them. Sometimes, too, they may just get shy. They’ve put something in their cart and decided they want to think about it.

But that question—why didn’t they check out?—is why these automated series should have a piece of engagement. Ask your customer, is there something I can help you with? Is there a problem that we can solve? There’s a whole host of reasons why these things happen, and by simply asking the question you may help complete the sale.

And even the simple act of reminding your shoppers that they’ve left something in the cart helps convert. The data shows that just sending the reminder is enough to help increase your sales.

Let’s back up again—when you get a new client, how do you begin to craft your strategic approach?

Initially, we want to look at where they’re at and where they want to go. So that process begins with an audit where we’ll look at what automations they have in place, what campaigns they send and how often. As we review all that, we’re making notes on what we can do to improve that existing infrastructure.

Then we’ll have a conversation with the client to map out their goals and put together a plan of action to carry us through the next 6 months to a year.

How much does research affect your strategy?

Quite a bit. One of our recent clients was a startup brand selling subscription-based products to new mums. The owners had come from much bigger businesses but were new to using email as a driver for e-commerce. So one of the first things we did was to gather the research they’d already done and supplement it with our own.

To sell successfully to their demographic, we wanted to understand who they were. Where are these young mums networking socially, what’s the language they respond to, what kind of graphics or CTAs will connect with them? One thing we learned during our research was that new mums don’t take kindly to being sold to. They get online because they want to be involved in a community. That affects the emails you send, because you’re less focused on selling a product than on providing a benefit to the community at large through advice and expertise.

What kind of customer data goes into that kind of research?

Certainly demographic information, looking at where they live, how old they are, gender, spending habits, and anything else that’s going to be relevant to the client’s goals. In the case of the new mums, the client gave us the seed of the market research, and that’s not uncommon.

Most people know a little about where their customers are and how to reach them. What we do is develop the language that will work and look at which emails are connecting with subscribers by monitoring open and click rates.

When you’re implementing strategies over months or years, how do you avoid drifting off track?

It can be a bit of a risk. We’ve got clients who we have regular communication with, regular phone calls, and with whom we worked out very early on exactly what the content should look like—and then they send us something completely different. The requests look nothing like what was initially agreed.

And the reason is that clients can be a bit risk averse and have a tendency sometimes to fall back on what they’ve always done. But when clients come to us, it’s generally because we’re the go-to people in email marketing. They do trust us to help them get results. The best-case scenario for us is when people give us a little autonomy.

But I would say that anytime you’re having these kinds of issues—disagree if you need to. Be honest with your client. You’re the experts, and they’ll respect you for it. Because otherwise you get 6 months down the line and you’re just doing what your client asked, and you’re not sharing your expertise, and they’ll wonder why they should renew their contract with you.

If you’re honest with them, they’re going to trust your opinion and come looking for it, even if they ultimately disagree with you.

"One of the best ways to figure out how to move forward for your clients strategically is to start by looking back."

Background check: how to gather good information

One of the best ways to figure out how to move forward for your clients strategically is to start by looking back. What has your client already attempted? What’s worked, and what hasn’t? And how can you use this information to develop the right plan of action?

Here are a few ways to gather good intelligence for better strategic planning.

1. Slice that data every which way.
“When we look at the client data on open and click rates, we try to compare it against multiple segments,” Dennison says. “So we’ll look at subscribers by age, and then by location, and then by purchasing habits.”

Depending on the tools your client has been using, you might not have much data available at first glance. But approaching the data you do have from multiple angles can help you form a more complete picture of who’s been engaging—and who hasn’t.

2. Explore your audience’s community.
To understand how new mothers behaved online, Dennison’s team explored the places they liked to congregate.

“We looked at their networks on Facebook and Instagram and paid attention to what they responded best to,” Dennison says. The internet has made it easier than ever to find out what your audience wants. You just have to find them and listen.

3. Research your client’s competitors.
“If our goal is purely about increasing sales, then we want to look at the current market,” Dennison says. “What are their competitors doing, and what are they doing well? What are the opportunities? Where can we stand out?”

Subscribe to a competitor’s mailing list. Create an account and abandon your cart. Make a purchase. By investigating the way competitors use email marketing, you’ll be better equipped to help your clients differentiate themselves.



Illustrations by Jess Rotter, a Los Angeles-based artist whose illustrations have appeared on public murals, album covers, and a whole lot of T-shirts. Her first book, I’m Bored, was released in October 2016.