How to Build Relationships through Email Marketing

How to Build Relationships through Email Marketing

As a Fractional CMO who always has to remind potential clients of the importance of email marketing, I think it is important to look at it through the lens of this question: In email marketing, what is a relationship?

Your approach to email marketing should be all about developing relationships.

Especially in an environment where people are watching what they spend, building relationships with customers is challenging.

Here’s the problem: How do people decide that your products and services are the best choice for them, even if they cost a little bit more? There are several methods we use, such as online reviews, following influencer advice, and informational material found online. However, while these approaches are all valuable, they fall short unless you can build a relationship with your customers.

One of the most effective ways to build and nurture lasting relationships is with email marketing. But you must do it right to set your emails apart from the competition. In this post, I’ll show you how.

Understanding Relationship-Based Email Marketing

Where do you turn in tough times? Who do you consider trustworthy when it matters most? If you’re like most people, it’s your relationships. Maybe that relationship is with a family member or long-time friend. For most of us, having the same doctor, banker, or lawyer for years is important because we trust their judgment.

Ultimately, we retain these relationships because they provide value—both for us, and the other person.

Building relationships through email marketing provides a similar phenomenon. In a nutshell, this technique is the practice of providing your email subscribers with value over time, even when they don’t need your products right now. That way, subscribers will have a relationship with your brand that develops—and matures—over time.

This approach is highly effective. Even as a marketer, I hate it when everything I hear from a company is “sale, sale, sale.” Sure, a discount is nice, but why should I buy from you, when the next company is cheaper. On the other hand, as the saying goes in sales, “people pay people.”

Giving people value for the time they spend reading your emails has a lot of benefits. Not only are they more likely to buy something from your company when needed, but they are also less likely to go to the competition, even if the price is lower. Furthermore, when people engage with your brand, they might spread the word about your products or provide you feedback for improvements.

All of these things are golden, especially when you’re facing stiff competition or want to expand.

Laying the Foundation: Attracting the Right Subscribers

Part of learning how to build relationships through email marketing is finding the right people. If you’re like me, chances are that you find professional relationships at conferences and on LinkedIn. Some of the same people may eventually become friends. On the other hand, if you love dancing to disco, you might look for buddies at the hottest club in town.

If you try to find dancing buddies at a professional conference or a lawyer at the bar, you will have a low success rate. Similarly, relationship-based email marketing requires the right audience.

Defining Your Target Audience

Defining Your Target Audience

Identifying your ideal subscriber persona is the first step. Generally, this is a subset of your ideal buyer persona that you’ve developed for other marketing efforts, but you might make some alterations. As an example, my Fractional CMO services are less valuable for large companies that have a full-time CMO. On the other hand, “big fish” are valuable for my audience because they might vouch for my expertise to someone they can’t take on.

Once you’ve defined your audience, understanding their needs, preferences, and pain points is critical. People who run a general contractor firm need different services than the head of a marketing agency. So, you wouldn’t try and sell marketing tools to the contractor, or hammers and nails to the marketer. Trying to do otherwise will mostly get you ignored.

Tailoring your opt-in forms and lead magnets to attract the right audience is also important. Give the right people something of value, and they’re more likely to come back for more. As an example, restaurant supply companies might offer some tips on how to get ketchup out of their white tablecloths. By setting the tone for your emails up front, you have the best chance to attract, retain, and delight.

Creating Compelling Opt-In Incentives

Offering valuable content upgrades or exclusive resources in exchange for subscribing has proven highly effective over time. Especially in our transactional world, providing value for the minimal cost of an opt-in demonstrates that you’re willing to make an investment in potential customers rather than cramming something down their throats.

Crafting irresistible lead magnets that solve a specific problem works better than random facts or articles filled with fluff. Especially as AI content seems to take over the SERPs, truly quality content that addresses pressing issues has become more valuable than ever.

At the same time, ensuring your opt-in incentives align with your overall email marketing strategy is crucial. You don’t want people to subscribe based on false expectations because they’re likely to leave once they see what you truly have to offer. Worse, they might feel cheated and avoid your brand.

Optimizing Your Opt-In Forms

Placing opt-in forms strategically on your website helps drive traffic to them. An approach that many people use is adding links in the middle of articles with a relevant invitation (“subscribe to get more”). Other people get results with a “subscribe” button on the side or across the top. No matter how you display the pitch, use persuasive copy and clear calls to action.

Simplifying the sign-up process to reduce friction also helps encourage people to sign up. Modern consumers have a short attention span, so they’re less likely to follow multiple steps. Business leaders have a lot of other things to do, so they won’t waste time clicking through many screens either. On the other hand, if you make subscribing quick and easy, then people are more likely to see it through.

Crafting Engaging Email Content

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Developing a good email list is only part of building relationships through email marketing. Once people subscribe, you must keep their attention over time and build trust. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to engage your audience by following a few simple rules.

Providing Value in Every Email

Focusing on delivering relevant, informative, and actionable content helps your subscribers to see that you aren’t just trying to spam their email boxes – and encourages them to open each email. When an activity is rewarding, there’s an incentive to keep doing it.

Balancing promotional content with educational and entertaining emails also helps provide value. While it’s easy to focus only on your products or brand, lighter content like humor helps build rapport. Plus, your subscribers might share that funny joke – with your branding.  At the end of the day, consistently meeting and exceeding subscriber expectations will keep people on your email list and even encourage more signups.

Personalizing Your Email Messages

I don’t like to feel like “just a number” to companies, and neither do your customers. Personalize your messages to avoid this trap and build relationships through email marketing.

Using subscriber data to tailor content and offers typically produces the most effective copy. Increasingly, people spend lots of time comparison shopping before they buy anything, so you want to present the most compelling option.

Addressing subscribers by name and acknowledging their preferences also gets results. Younger generations are needle-focused on both relevance and authenticity, so they won’t waste time on things that make little sense to them. Similarly, demonstrating that you listen to your audience increases the overall credibility of your brand.

Lastly, segmenting your email list based on behavior, interests, or demographics lets you reach the most people effectively. Just because a product is popular with your customers doesn’t mean everyone on your list will want it because that item may not be relevant to them. For instance, the same customer is unlikely to buy both stiletto heels and spit-polished wing tips. If you offer the wrong item to someone, they’ll probably ignore you.

Further Reading: 8 Personalized Email Marketing Strategies You Don’t Want to Miss (with Examples)

Telling Compelling Stories

Using storytelling techniques to connect emotionally with subscribers. An effective example of this technique is how certain car companies depict families having fun on a road trip or being saved from horrible injuries by their car, which has a top-notch IIHS safety rating.

Sharing behind-the-scenes glimpses and personal anecdotes helps humanize your company and its employees and build bridges. When customers understand what life is like at your company or how workers are treated, it brings the brand into focus and ceases to be a nameless, faceless corporation.

Highlighting customer success stories and testimonials helps to give your brand credibility and illustrates the possibilities. Plus, it lets readers make a connection with past customers and see themselves trusting your company for their needs.

Incorporating Engaging Visuals

The days of boring, text box emails are over – at least when you’re trying to build relationships through email marketing. Nowadays, using eye-catching images, infographics, and videos to break up text help attract and retain your subscriber’s attention.

However, you should be sure that all visual elements complement and enhance your message. Having the text say one thing and the visuals something else is not good. Furthermore, gaudy or overwhelming content can detract from your message and discourage continued participation.

Finally, be sure to maintain a consistent visual brand across all emails. It isn’t enough to slap your logo on random design elements – branding often gets lost when insufficiently reinforced. Instead, make it clear throughout your emails that they come from your brand, even if the content itself doesn’t discuss your products or services.

Nurturing Relationships through Email Sequences

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Just because you build relationships through email marketing doesn’t mean you can skimp on follow-up. Rather, these relationships require maintenance and nurturing so people stay in touch with you and your brand. Luckily, all you need is a little planning ahead and some quality email copy.

Crafting a Welcome Series

Setting the tone for your email relationship from the start is critical, and a welcome series helps you do that. Ideally, you’ll start the welcome with the “opt-in” email since these are the first impressions of your emails. Welcomes also effectively introduce your brand, values, and unique selling proposition. While people typically know something about your brand before they sign up, it’s always worth reinforcing your brand’s distinctive.

Delivering on your opt-in promise and providing immediate value is also very important. Modern consumers have a very short attention span, and business decision-makers are very busy. If you send low-quality email in the beginning, there’s a good chance you won’t have much opportunity to build a relationship long-term.

Implementing Onboarding Sequences

Guiding new subscribers through your products or services helps show people what your brand offers. Often, people only know a small aspect of your business when they sign up. For instance, a travel agency might sell a lot of cruises, but do its customers know independent travel is also possible? Don’t assume that they do.

Providing educational content and resources to help them succeed helps drive sales and boost feedback. Most people do significant research before making a large purchase, such as machinery or a home appliance. However, research for smaller transactions has become more common. If subscribers understand their options, they’ll be more likely to buy from you instead of the competition.

Developing Post-Purchase Nurturing Sequences

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One of the best ways to make people think you’re only interested in their money is to ignore them. On the other hand, thanking customers for their purchase and offering support during use lets them feel valued. Similarly, offering complementary products or services based on their interests helps customers get the most out of your relationship – while also encouraging future purchases.

Encouraging product reviews and user-generated content reinforces that you consider customers to be valuable for your business. Not only do they get an opportunity to give feedback, but UGC helps spread the word.

Creating Re-Engagement Campaigns

Identifying inactive subscribers and segmenting them from people who engage consistently gives a great chance to reconnect. For them, you’ll want a different approach, much like you’d use to contact a high school buddy you haven’t heard from for years.

Luckily, reaching out is easy. Crafting compelling subject lines and content to reignite their interest frequently works, especially if your company offers highly durable products or something you only buy occasionally.

Sometimes, an email nudge isn’t enough by itself. Offering incentives or personalized recommendations to win them back provides value that goes beyond small talk. And, of course, it’s a highly effective approach.

Encouraging Two-Way Communication

Relationships aren’t a one-way street. Eventually, if mutual engagement stops, then the relationship dissolves or goes dormant. In the world of building relationships through email marketing, ROI declines when there’s no communication. My best tips for encouraging two-way communication are similar to what you’d do in offline relationships.

Further Reading: 15 Powerful Ways to Use AI in Email Marketing

Soliciting Feedback and Opinions

Asking subscribers for their thoughts, preferences, and challenges gives them a great opportunity to be heard by your marketing team. Often, people don’t reach out to brands unless they’re really mad or a major fan. Asking people for their thoughts makes it easy to communicate before customers hit a breaking point.

Another effective option is conducting surveys or polls to gather valuable insights. These are more purposeful than the open-ended approach. However, they’re also more likely to get a response from people who don’t spend the time to type out comments or questions. Chances are that you’ll get insight from a larger proportion of your audience.

Finally, don’t forget to show people your appreciation and implement some of their suggestions. Customers get a sense of ownership when they see ideas turn into reality. Likewise, getting a simple “thank you” (or even a small reward, like contest entries) motivates people to participate again in the future.

Responding to Replies and Inquiries

Nobody likes to feel like they’re talking to a wall. Monitoring email replies and providing timely, personalized responses is critical if you want to build relationships through email marketing.

Responses should cover both positive and negative feedback. Addressing concerns or issues promptly and professionally helps rebuild confidence in your brand and reduces the chance that people will cut off the relationship. You might even avoid bad press. Ultimately, giving responses to feedback is the best example of using subscriber interactions to deepen relationships and build trust.

Creating Interactive Email Experiences

Sometimes, it pays to have fun with your customers as part of relationship building. For instance, incorporating quizzes, assessments, or gamification elements gives people the chance to show what they know, earn prizes, and interact with others – not just your brand.

Encouraging subscribers to click, explore, and engage with your emails is another option. One method that retailers use is giving a coupon to subscribers which must be activated by clicking through the email. Sometimes you’ll even see those senders require readers to click on the email to learn what offer is up for grabs.

These content types don’t only add some fun. Using interactive content to gather data and personalize future emails enhances your ability to maximize ROI. Besides, email-related data can help guide other marketing efforts that reach far beyond relationship building. To take advantage of this option, use some analytics tools.

Further Reading: 8 Best Email Marketing Best Practices for 2024

Measuring and Optimizing Relationship-Building Efforts

Although my tips are an excellent place to start when you build relationships through email marketing, you must take other steps to optimize results. To start, get clear analytics data on your initial, and continuing, efforts.

Tracking Key Email Marketing Metrics

Tracking Key Email Marketing Metrics

Monitoring open rates, click-through rates, and conversion rates is critical if you want to know the effectiveness of your emails. If people don’t open them much, then you’ll need a new approach to elements such as subject lines. Likewise, people only click through or make a purchase if they find the content compelling.

Analyzing subscriber engagement and identifying trends makes it easier to predict what customers want or need. For instance, a catalogue that sells clothing might discover that people in New England are more receptive to pitches for a winter coat sale, or that Texans love wide-calf cowboy boots. Similarly, analytics analysis can determine which kind of promotion is most effective.

Using data to inform and refine your email marketing strategy is critical. Often, you can learn the latest trends before your competitors that are less strategic. Furthermore, data can show what kinds of emails people like the best and when your efforts fall flat. Over time, you’ll refine an approach that works well for you.

Further Reading: The 9 Email Marketing KPIs You Need to Track for Success

Conducting A/B Tests

Testing subject lines, content, and calls to action helps reduce costs and increase effectiveness.  Comparing the performance of different email variations, even in the planning phase, keeps your company from spending too much money on an approach or piece of copy that won’t work well. Ultimately, implementing the winning elements from testing lets you build stronger relationships than you would otherwise.

Further Reading: 17 Best Free Email Marketing Services to Check Out

Gathering Qualitative Feedback

Encouraging subscribers to reply with their thoughts and experiences gives you a great opportunity to improve your efforts and build those relationships. Besides surveys and other in-email techniques, consider conducting customer interviews or focus groups. Not only will you get great insights, but if you do the focus groups properly, then members of your community can meet each other.

Ultimately, using qualitative insights to complement quantitative data makes implementation of new initiatives more effective. After all, you’ll get a “human face” for the numbers. Which, in turn, provides practical suggestions.

Maintaining and Strengthening Relationships Over Time

As with other business efforts, it’s not enough to build relationships through email marketing. Rather, you need to maintain and strengthen the relationships you already have while widening your circle. These simple tips will help you achieve these goals easily.

Consistently Delivering Value

Customers sign up for emails because you provided them with some value upfront. Maybe it was a great deal on products, or it might’ve been good information. Either way, regularly providing fresh, relevant, and engaging content gives subscribers a great reason to stay on your email list.

Providing value is much easier if you can skillfully adapt to changing subscriber needs and preferences. For example, with sustainability such a buzzword these days, certain companies may benefit from showcasing their most sustainable products. Likewise, high inflation incentivizes customers to cut costs. Showcasing budget-friendly offerings can help address that pain point.

Ultimately, continuously improving the quality and relevance of your emails ensures that customers see the value of staying on your email list. Even if they don’t buy something today, they might spread the word to someone who needs what you offer.

Surprising and Delighting Subscribers

Offering unexpected bonuses, gifts, or exclusive opportunities is a great way to nurture relationships over time. In this case, the key is to not oversaturate your emails with offers. Although you’re trying to sell products and services, if every email has an “irresistible” offer then people will get bored. Instead, provide value that includes more than just coupons or extras.

Celebrating subscriber milestones or achievements is also effective. Every year, I get several birthday-themed emails during my birth month. These can include offers, but also inspirational quotes or other messages that don’t solicit purchases. With proper planning, your brand can also use this technique for non-recurring milestones or even individuals.

I believe that, at the end of the day, going above and beyond to create memorable email experiences is among the best way to retain subscribers. On the best email lists, you’ll see some subscribers for whom a brand is rarely relevant anymore, but they haven’t unsubscribed. Often, that’s because the content is too great to pass up. And down the line, they may share the content with someone who might buy your products.

Showing Appreciation and Gratitude

One of the best relationship killers, both on and offline, is a needy partner. If someone feels they’re being sucked dry or underappreciated, there’s a high chance that the relationship won’t last. Similarly, people end business relationships where they don’t feel valued in their role. Thanking subscribers for their loyalty and engagement helps avoid the pitfalls of one-sided attempts at maintaining a relationship.

Conversely, recognizing subscribers’ contributions and celebrating their successes makes them feel valued. Just as valued employees often stay in their jobs longer, email recipients often keep those subscriptions that make them feel good. At the same time, expressing genuine appreciation for people’s trust and support provides them a good reason to engage over the long term.


There’s no question that email marketing has a very high ROI, especially when done right. Particularly in an era when authenticity, sincerity, and personal connections are highly valued, companies simply can’t go without opportunities to build relationships through email marketing.

Fortunately, while other options can be quite technical, it’s simple to build relationships through email marketing. As a bonus, email is inexpensive compared to other advertising options. Simply subscribe to a few software tools, get someone who can right good copy, and you’re ready to go.

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Neal Schaffer
Neal Schaffer

Neal Schaffer is a leading authority on helping businesses through their digital transformation of sales and marketing through consulting, training, and helping enterprises large and small develop and execute on social media marketing strategy, influencer marketing, and social selling initiatives. President of the social media agency PDCA Social, Neal also teaches digital media to executives at Rutgers University, the Irish Management Institute (Ireland), and the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland). Fluent in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, Neal is a popular keynote speaker and has been invited to speak about digital media on four continents in a dozen countries. He is also the author of 3 books on social media, including Maximize Your Social (Wiley), and in late 2019 will publish his 4th book, The Business of Influence (HarperCollins), on educating the market on the why and how every business should leverage the potential of influencer marketing. Neal resides in Irvine, California but also frequently travels to Japan.

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