Today, the cost-of-entry to starting a small business, selling products online, or offering professional services is lower than ever. Consequently, the competition is fiercer than ever before. How can small business owners face this challenge head-on and win – regardless of the industry they’re in? The answer is a five-letter word, yet don’t mistake it for a simple undertaking. Your brand is your greatest asset in driving revenue and building brand-preference and trust amongst your desired audience.

Contrary to what you may believe, a brand is much more than a set of visual and verbal guidelines. A brand ultimately is a sum of the professional representation of your brand across your owned channels combined with how your customers perceive and experience your brand across the purchase cycle. 

Your brand includes every touchpoint from your website, search results, and reviews on other websites, your social media handles and the chatter around your brand on them, your customer service, the actual product or service quality, advertising campaigns (online as well as offline), and a physical storefront if you have one.

Before we look at how to apply consistent brand communications to today’s topic, email marketing, let’s go over the basics you need to have in place even before you apply them to any given channel, such as email. 

Here’s a handy checklist of branding essentials every small business should have covered, at a minimum:

    1. Brand visual identity: including a defined color palette, logo, photography guidelines, typography and fonts, illustration guidelines if you use them. Document these eg. in a presentation or a PDF – this way, you’ll be able to quickly brief any graphic designer or freelancer you may use in the future.
    2. Website: half of small businesses still lack one – don’t lose the googling game by being on the wrong side of this statistic as consumers are increasingly researching brands and services prior to purchase.
    3. Custom website domain: related to the website, invest in a domain that is unique to your business for some search engine love and credibility, this will also help you create consistency in email marketing as you’ll have a destination to take your audience to. 

 

  • Tone-of-voice guidelines and brand persona: take a moment to map out what your brand should sound like: do you want to be playful, warm, sassy, or professional? This will help you tell your story in an authentic manner.

 

The Branding Basics of Email Marketing

Once you have your brand essence detailed, it’s time to apply it to all email marketing assets. What does it entail? First, you’ll never want to send a marketing email from a personal email address. Just like your website domain, you’ll want to have an email address customized to your company name. A whopping 75% of customers say that a professional email address is a key indicator of a trustworthy business. Trust begets open rates (among a few other tactics we’ll discuss further on).

A good rule of thumb is to compose your website address and your professional email in an identical manner. If your website URL is www-dot-hansonhardware-dot-com, then your email could be, for instance, firstname-at-hansonhardware-com. We recommend you include your name in the email send – email marketing software usually allows you to create something in the lines of Hanna at Hanson Hardware. As a small business, you’ll have the benefit of sounding human and hence, less salesy if your audience feels like there is a real person behind the send-button.

Next, let’s take a look at some best practices in visual email branding. Since over half of people say they’ll hit “unsubscribe” if the content is badly designed, it is paramount to your campaign success to nail these key components:

 

  • Responsive design: your audience is mobile-first, make sure your emails are designed in a responsive manner so the contents scale to the small screen.

 

    • Stick to your fonts: you defined your brand font for a reason, now stick to it! Going wild on the fonts hinders readability and credibility. In the worst case, it can even land your email in a spam filter.
    • 600px is the magic number for maximum width. Also, single column emails are the go-to format for marketing emails. The good news is that many email marketing software are already compliant with these.

 

  • Include your logo: your template design should instantly relate back to your brand so your customer recognizes the sender and is more likely to pay attention to the content
  • Template variation: if you send different types of emails, such as offer or sale emails, “new in”, or industry news, trend alerts, order confirmations or shipment notifications, it pays off to design templates for different use cases. While the style and composition may vary, make sure that they work harmoniously together so you can educate your customer on the type of email they’ve received.
  • Images: only include crisp, high-resolution images into your emails. You can also consider GIFs to liven up the content with lightly-animated sections. If you go for them, however, less is more in this case, too. An overkill of movement can turn a customer into an unsubscriber.
  • Don’t rely on images alone: since over 40% of people block images on their email providers, don’t include key information only on the image. While using visual assets such as a header banner or product images can drive conversions, you’ll still need to have the contents work for those who can’t see them. Alt text is key here: it will display in place of the image so make sure it doesn’t just say “screenshot1234”.
  • CTA buttons are your best friend: Call-to-Action buttons, commonly known as CTAs are essential to driving performance. Think of one main destination you want to drive your people to and include it both as a designed button link and a plain text link embedded in the copy to maximize click-throughs. As for the actual design, be sure to comply with your design guidelines but also experiment with a few different styles to find the best performing design variation for your campaign KPIs. However you wish to design it, make sure it pops visually from the rest of the content.

 

Once your email is ready to go, triple-check all of the links you include on your emails work and lead to the right place. Run a spell-check on your content, typos don’t play well when you want to appear professional. Always, always test your emails on different email clients and devices – luckily, marketing software providers tend to provide previews for these to make things easier. The last thing you want is a broken or weirdly formatted email after spending all that time composing, writing, and even designing your marketing email.

From Looks to Content – To Write is to Brand

Oftentimes, marketers mistake branding for visual design. Granted, it is that but words are equally important. What you say, and how you format it, dictate everything from open rates to spam filters, and lastly, whether your audience will continue to engage with your content or if they will unsubscribe.

Let’s start with subject line do’s and don’ts. Your subject line your brand ambassador and the gatekeeper of email performance. To create a favorable brand image, your subject lines to perform many tasks in a few words. First, they’ll have to represent your brand in a consistent and positive manner: if your brand is playful, it would be weird to send an email with a formal-sounding subject line. Second, they have to represent your main message and not mislead people. For example, if you’re having a sale, you should mention this in the subject line.

Here are some click magnet tactics to write for better open rates:

  • Make the benefit clear: do you have a sale, a special offer, first look to the newest products?
  • Personalize: include a personalization token and segment your email lists so you can tailor your copy to each audience.
  • Keep it short and sweet: people read on mobile and long subject lines can be cut off
  • Write with action-oriented words: join, meet, check out, find your next, etc.
  • Make your audience feel special: give them something others won’t have access to.
  • Use numbers and stats: quantify the benefits when people use your product or service.
  • Provoke interest: ask an interesting question.
  • Play around: write funny or punny subject lines to delight.

How about things you should avoid in subject lines?

Look out for these copy faux pas that not only harm your brand but can also land you in the junk folder: 

  • Writing in all caps
  • Misleading subject lines such as including “Re:” at the start
  • Using special characters such as $, #, @, &
  • Spammy words flagged as suspicious: Incredible deal, Info you requested
  • Single-word subject lines

Now that you’ve mastered the art of brand-friendly subject lines, it’s time to look at the final destination of our branding journey: email body copy. While shorter is usually better, you’ll need to test a few different lengths depending on your email campaign KPIs. If your main goal is to drive conversions, it is better to keep things compact with short sentences and avoiding long paragraphs.

A thought-out email signature is also a great way to strengthen your brand and drive replies as well as engagement. By including a customized signature that details your contact information, company location, and even visual branding like images or promotional banners, you’ll sign off in a professional – and memorable – manner.

Approach your email copy with a set of questions in mind: what is the main message I’d like to convey and does it come through clearly enough? If the message is clear, does it still sound like my brand or could this be any competitor in my space? If you’re struggling to find a unique tone-of-voice, it’s perhaps time to join forces with a freelance copywriter and hand it over to a professional.

If you enjoy writing, one last thing to consider is the art of storytelling. Many businesses are quick to jump to features when you should be talking about product or service benefits. There isn’t a better way to bring this to life than by highlighting customer stories. By leading with real-life testimonials and advocating loyalty by telling the stories of your brand ambassadors, you’ll be able to establish your brand and drive sales all at the same time.

Christine Goos is an award-winning marketer and copywriter with a decade of experience in advertising, tech, and digital marketing.