Whether you want to keep a regular visitor up-to-date about your latest offers and services, or bring an occasional buyer back through your doors, email marketing is a low-cost and highly effective way of speaking regularly to customers.

The trick is to get everything right – the message, the timing and the target audience – to make sure they don’t click the ‘delete’ button the second your email arrives in their inbox. A good marketing email will grab them long enough to read it. A great one will motivate them to get in touch.

Use the right tools – There are plenty of free-to-use email software packages out there. We recommend Mail Chimp or Vertical Response. They allow you to set up templates easily. Once you’ve sorted out your style, the next time you do an e-shot it’s just a matter of changing the words and the images.

Find the right style – Make sure your template is welcoming and dynamic. Use images to break up the text so it doesn’t look like hard work to read. Always test your template before sending it out to your customers, preferably on different devices. These days, your customers might use a PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone to read your messages, so you have to be sure the email looks right on all of them.

Choose the right topic – The trick to appealing to customers is to add value. “Interesting” doesn’t cut it. “Helpful” will get their attention. What do you know that would make your customers’ lives easier? Sometimes that means leading with a special offer that is too good to refuse. But it’s just as good to make customers aware of new stock or services, or give them expert advice to get the best out of popular products.

Get the subject field right – How many emails do you get a day? How many do you actually read? There’s an art to persuading people to read your message. Get to the point swiftly and snappily, but also with an element of surprise. If your subject sounds the same as everybody else’s, then you won’t stand out. Note, too, that spam filters look for obvious sales messages and send them straight to junk, so try to avoid words like “free” or “sale.”

Know who it’s from – The ‘From’ field is also important. While your first instinct might be for the email to come from your company name, the evidence suggests customers respond better if it’s a person’s name, such as a branch manager.

Try it both ways – One of the great things about software such as Mail Chimp is that you can test different ‘subject’ and ‘from’ details, without having to amend the email itself. The software will randomly split your database into two. With the monitoring tools, you can see at a glance whether one headline has performed better than the other, meaning you can use that way of phrasing things next time you do an email.

Make the most of your data – You can have the best email in the world, but it’s useless without reliable data. If you have an existing database of regular customers, then half the battle is won – although please note in some cases that the email you have may be for accounts, rather than the people at the sharp end who actually buy from you.

Cleanse your data – If you’re unsure whether your list of email addresses is up to date, Mail Chimp and other software packages will cleanse the data to remove duplicates or incorrect addresses. The first time you send a message to the list, any ‘bounce backs’ will be automatically removed, as will any addresses where the recipient has chosen to unsubscribe.

Segment your data – If you’re a general merchant, try splitting your data into specific groups based on their jobs and interest. Not every product will appeal to all audiences, so a targeted email message is likely to have a higher rate of interest.

Make it easy to sign up – It’s far better to build your own list. Make it easy for recipients to share the email if they have friends or colleagues who might be interested. Let people know in branch, online and on social media that you have an email and encourage them to sign up.

Send consistently – Decide if you’re going to be weekly, fortnightly, monthly, and then stick to it so that customers come to look forward to your latest e-shot. When it comes to days of the week, don’t send out on a Monday or Friday when people are thinking about the weekend, either the one they’ve just had or the one they’re about to enjoy. In email marketing terms, your best bet is Tuesday, the “real” start of the week when customers will be properly focussed and have plenty of time to act on your messages.

Be flexible – It might be that you want to mix it up. Try having two e-shots that you alternate – one for offers, the other with branch news. As I said about social media in last month’s blog, building a long-term relationship with your customers beats a one-off sale. By finding what works best for you on email marketing, you’ll be able to do just that.

Simon Kinnear is director of communications at Balls2 Marketing.