Understanding the Basics of Email Marketing - The Complete Guide

Steven L.
Steven L.
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Have you ever heard the expression: "If it isn't broken, don't fix it"? Email marketing perfectly relates to this as one of those age-old strategies that remain as valid today as ever when promoting your business or products.

It's easy to forget about this classic form of marketing in the era of social media, but in fact, 79% of marketers named it in their top three channels for generating leads and revenue. If you haven't already taken advantage of email marketing, now's the time to get up to speed on how it works and how it can help you reach your business goals.

This comprehensive guide to email marketing will help you understand the basics and show you the steps you need to take to get started. Let's dive in.

Table of Contents

What Is Email Marketing?

In a nutshell, it's the process of sending emails to customers and prospects to build relationships by informing them of company offerings, discounts, events, and sharing helpful information in a specific niche. These emails are used to build trust and sell products or services.

Email marketing allows you to deliver content tailored to the consumer's interests to send targeted messages that have a greater impact compared to traditional marketing methods. Segmenting subscribers into different groups based on their demographics, preferences, and behavior is often used to deliver even more personalized content.

Is Email Marketing Still Effective?

It's understandable to be skeptical of email marketing in the age of the Nigerian Prince scams and fake "you've won" messages. But the truth is, email marketing remains one of the most effective ways to communicate with your customers and potential buyers.

Firstly, over 4 billion people worldwide use email. While they may not have an Instagram account or an active Twitter presence, they almost certainly have an email address. That makes it possible to target an incredibly large audience with your messages.

As for B2B (business-to-business) emails, these are often seen as more effective than social media marketing. A study found that 31% of B2B marketers claim email to be the most effective channel for nurturing leads.

Finally, the proof is in the pudding: email marketing can be incredibly effective when done right.

According to Omnisend's report, the average Return On Investment (ROI) from email marketing is 4,000%, which means that for every dollar spent, $40 of revenue is generated.

A more “conservative” study from Litmus came to a similar result at about $36. Let that sink in.

The Two Main Categories of Emails

Email marketing messages can be broadly classified into two main categories: Promotional and Informative. Within these categories, there are several specific types of email messages that serve different purposes. Here's an overview:

1. Promotional Emails

Promotional emails are designed to encourage recipients to take action, such as making a purchase, signing up for a service, or attending an event. These emails often contain sales offers, discounts, or other incentives.

  • Sales and Discounts: Emails that offer limited-time deals, seasonal sales, or exclusive discounts to encourage purchases.

  • New Product or Service Launches: Announcements about the release of new products, services, or features to generate interest and drive sales.

  • Special Offers and Coupons: Exclusive offers, coupon codes, or incentives for subscribers to motivate them to take action, such as making a purchase or signing up for a service.

  • Cross-selling and Upselling: Recommendations for additional or complementary products and services based on customers' previous purchases or interests.

  • Limited-Time Promotions: Emails that create a sense of urgency by promoting a short-term offer or a time-sensitive deal.

  • Re-engagement and Win-back Campaigns: Messages aimed at reactivating dormant or inactive customers with incentives, personalized offers, or new product or service updates.

2. Informative Emails

Informative emails are designed to provide value to recipients by sharing useful information, updates, or resources related to the brand or its products/services. These emails help to build trust, establish expertise, and maintain engagement with subscribers.

  • Newsletters: Regularly scheduled emails containing company news, industry updates, curated content, or helpful tips related to the brand or its products/services.

  • Educational Content: Emails that provide valuable information, resources, or insights, such as how-to guides, whitepapers, case studies, or webinars.

  • Event Invitations: Announcements and invitations to webinars, workshops, conferences, or other events relevant to the target audience.

  • Transactional Emails: These include order confirmations, shipping notifications, invoices, password resets, and other messages related to a customer's interaction with the company.

  • Customer Onboarding: Emails that help new customers or subscribers get started with a product or service, providing guidance, tutorials, or best practices.

  • Feedback and Surveys: Requests for customer feedback, testimonials, or participation in surveys to gather insights and improve the overall customer experience.

While these categories provide a broad overview, many email marketing campaigns can blend elements from both promotional and informative types to create a well-rounded and engaging strategy. The key is to strike a balance between promoting the brand and providing value to subscribers.

The Benefits of Email Marketing

To be successful with email marketing, it comes down to getting the tactics right and understanding how to leverage this powerful element of your marketing strategy. It helps to be familiar with the benefits of email marketing, here are a few key ones.

  • Stay connected with customers: Regularly send emails to keep your business fresh in their minds and strengthen connections.

  • Monitor performance and adapt: Use metrics like open and click-through rates to evaluate and adjust your email marketing strategy.

  • Tailor messages for your audience: Personalize emails by segmenting your list and crafting customized content for better engagement.

  • Drive low-cost website visits: Entice customers to visit your website with engaging email copy and valuable content.

  • Integrate with overall marketing efforts: Combine email marketing with other tactics, like social media and content creation, for a comprehensive approach.

  • Focus on interested leads: Segment and target individuals who have shown interest in your business to increase engagement and conversions.

  • Build relationships and maintain control: Establish strong bonds with customers by controlling your email content and ensuring it aligns with your brand messaging.

Nobody can change the algorithm to favor or disfavor your emails, and you don't have to compete with other businesses for attention. Email marketing gives you the power to build long-lasting relationships with those who matter most to your business.

Getting Started with Email Marketing

Now that you know what email marketing is and how you can benefit from it, you're ready to set up your first campaign. Exciting, right? A lot goes into creating a successful strategy, but don't feel overwhelmed. We've put together a few short steps to give you an overview of the process.

Define Your Audience

Before you start crafting your first email marketing campaign, knowing who you're talking to is crucial. Defining your target audience ensures that your emails are relevant and more likely to achieve your marketing goals.

Start by creating buyer personas. These are fictional, generalized representations of your ideal customers. Consider their demographics, such as age, gender, location, and occupation, as well as their interests, needs, and pain points. The more specific you can be, the better.

Buyer Persona Infographic

You can gather this information by conducting market research or analyzing your existing customer base. You can also use analytics tools to study your website and social media audience. Armed with this data, you'll be better equipped to create targeted email campaigns that resonate with your readers.

Establish Goals

Setting clear, measurable goals for your email marketing campaign is vital to track its success and making data-driven decisions. Your goals should align with your overall business objectives, such as increasing brand awareness or generating sales. Some common email marketing goals are:

  • Boosting open and click-through rates
  • Retaining subscribers
  • Growing your email list
  • Nurturing leads
  • Encouraging customer loyalty

Setting specific goals gives you a benchmark to measure your campaign's performance. It allows you to refine your strategy and optimize for better results over time.

Make sure to use SMART criteria when setting goals. That means they should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. For example, instead of saying "increase engagement," you should set a goal to "boost click-through rates by 20% within two months."

Create a Schedule

Consistency is key to maintaining subscriber engagement and ensuring the success of your email marketing campaign. To achieve this, you should create a well-planned schedule outlining when and how often you'll send your emails.

Start by determining the ideal email frequency, which can vary depending on your industry, audience, and goals. Some businesses may send daily updates successfully, while others might see better results with weekly or monthly newsletters. Remember that too many emails can lead to subscriber fatigue, and too few can result in missed opportunities.

Once you've decided on a frequency, select specific days and times to send your emails. This can help you establish a routine that your subscribers come to expect and look forward to. Try to choose times when your audience is most likely to be active and engaged, such as during their morning commute or lunch break.

Creating a content calendar can help organize your email marketing efforts. It lets you plan, ensuring your emails are well-thought-out and relevant to your audience. Additionally, a content calendar enables you to track the success of your campaigns and make adjustments as needed.

Get Familiar with Regulations

Compliance with email marketing laws protects your subscribers' rights and helps you avoid potential legal issues and maintain a good reputation. The two most important regulations to familiarize yourself with are the CAN-SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act) in the United States and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in the European Union.

The CAN-SPAM Act outlines requirements for commercial emails, such as:

  1. Providing a clear and easy way for recipients to unsubscribe from your emails.

  2. Including a valid physical postal address in your emails.

  3. Using accurate "From," "To," "Reply-To," and routing information.

GDPR, on the other hand, focuses on data privacy and protection for EU citizens. It requires businesses to:

  1. Obtain explicit consent from subscribers before sending marketing emails.

  2. Provide a simple way for users to withdraw their consent or unsubscribe.

  3. Protect subscribers' data and inform them of any data breaches.

All your email marketing practices should adhere to the relevant regulations in your region and the regions where your subscribers are located. This will help you build trust with your audience and avoid potential legal consequences.

Sign Up for Email Marketing Software

You absolutely need email marketing software to remain organized and ensure your email campaigns are successfully sent, automated and tracked.

But not all providers are the same, so it's important to find a tool that suits you. Since the choice is extremely large, we have researched the best email marketing software to rank all providers on the market. Check it out and choose a tool that best suits your needs.

Mailchimp Dashboard Template

Mailchimp Performance Overview

While email marketing software usually comes with many features, here are a few essential ones that you'll always need:

  • Automation: Create automated email flows that are triggered when someone signs up to your list or takes specific actions.

  • Segmentation: Group subscribers into lists based on interests, demographics, and more.

  • A/B Testing: Test two versions of an email to see which performs better.

  • Analytics & Reporting: Track key metrics and analyze campaign performance.

Once you have chosen a software, you can start building your contact list. Do so by embedding a signup form of your software on your website or creating landing pages for lead magnets such as a free gifts, ebooks, or webinars.


Most email marketing software providers offer landing pages as part of their plans. Look out for this feature if you want to use them. Landing pages make it easy to create individual web pages to capture leads using a drag and drop editor.

Create Your First Email Campaign

You've decided on a software, done some exploring, and now you're ready to send your first email, perfect. But what should you write about?

To help you get started, here are some basic types of emails you can send:

Welcome Emails: These should be the first emails a new subscriber receives, welcoming them to your list and setting expectations for future emails. Welcome emails can also be a series of automated messages that onboard your new subscriber over the next few days or weeks.

Newsletters: Sent on a regular basis (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, etc.), newsletters can include a mix of industry news, company updates, and promotional content.

Promotional Emails: Designed specifically to promote a product or service, these emails should include a clear call-to-action (CTA) to encourage subscribers to take action.

Abandoned Cart Emails: Do you own an ecommerce store? If someone adds items to their cart but doesn't complete the purchase, send them a reminder email with a CTA to encourage them to come back and complete the transaction.

Customer Feedback Emails: Send these after a purchase to gather feedback and reviews from customers. This information can be used to improve your products or services and build social proof.

If you already have an audience, listen to them and write down what topics they want to learn more about. E.g. constantly encouraging discussions on social media gives you a great opportunity to understand your followers and never run out of topics to write about.

1. Prepare the Content

No matter what kind of email you want to create first, it should be engaging, informative, and aligned with your marketing goals and buyer persona. To create effective email copy, consider the following tips:

  • Write in a conversational tone that reflects your brand's voice and personality. It will make your emails more relatable and enjoyable for your subscribers. Avoid overly formal language or industry jargon that may be confusing or off-putting.

  • Prioritize clarity and conciseness in your writing. Break up large blocks of text into shorter paragraphs, and use subheadings or bullet points to make your content more scannable. This helps your readers quickly find the information they're looking for and makes your emails easier to digest.

  • Incorporate storytelling into your email copy to engage your readers emotionally. Share customer success stories, case studies, or personal anecdotes that highlight the benefits of your products or services. You'll build trust and foster a stronger connection between your brand and audience.

  • Proofread and edit your email copy to ensure it is free of grammatical errors and typos. Errors in your writing can make your brand appear unprofessional and may negatively impact your credibility with your subscribers.

2. Craft Compelling Subject Lines

The subject line is often the first thing your subscribers see when they receive your email, making it a critical component of your campaign. A well-crafted subject line can be the difference between your email being opened or ignored.

To maximize your open rates, it's important to keep your subject lines short and sweet. Most email clients display only a limited number of characters, so aim for around 50-60 characters or fewer to ensure your message comes across clearly. Personalization can make a big difference in grabbing your readers' attention as well. Use your subscribers' names or tailor the subject line based on their interests, preferences, or past behavior.

Creating a sense of urgency or curiosity can also be effective in encouraging subscribers to open your email. Phrases like "don't miss out" can prompt readers to take immediate action, while asking questions or making bold statements can pique their curiosity.

Avoid using all caps, excessive punctuation, or spammy words. These can make your emails look unprofessional and may even trigger email spam filters.


Use A/B testing for different subject lines to find the best-performing ones. Please don’t ignore the pre-header either; try to use it as an extension of your subject line.

3. Don’t Forget the Visuals

While compelling email copy is essential, visuals also play a crucial role in capturing your subscribers' attention and enhancing the overall effectiveness of your campaign. Including eye-catching images, graphics, and videos can break up the text, reinforce your message, and make your emails more engaging.

Remember that balance is vital. While visuals can be powerful, it's important not to overwhelm your subscribers with too many images or graphics. Use visuals strategically to emphasize key points and guide your reader's eye through the content. Consider incorporating infographics, charts, or diagrams to present complex information in a more digestible format.

Also, keep in mind that many of your subscribers will view your emails on mobile devices, so make sure everything you want to show is visible there as well.

4. Add CTAs and Offers

A call-to-action (CTA) is a prompt that encourages your subscribers to take a specific action. It could involve visiting your blog, purchasing, or signing up for an event. To be effective, your CTAs should be clear and concise. Use direct language and create a sense of urgency to motivate your subscribers to act.

Offers are another way to drive engagement and conversions. You might consider offering discounts, exclusive content, or early access to new products or services, depending on your business goals and audience. Tailor your offers to your subscribers' preferences and needs to maximize their appeal.

5. Save Your Templates

Templates can be a valuable tool for streamlining your email marketing process, ensuring consistent branding, and saving time on design. Most email marketing platforms offer pre-designed templates that you can easily customize to match your brand's look and feel.

You can also turn previous emails into templates to quickly access a default layout for each type of content. For instance, your well-crafted welcome email could be an excellent starting point for upcoming newsletters or promotional emails.

When creating templates, ensure the design is easily read on both desktop and mobile devices. Pay attention to fonts, colors, spacing, and images. Consider the overall layout of your template – does it guide readers through your content? Does it provide a sense of hierarchy? Are the visuals and CTAs prominent enough?

6. Launch Your Campaign and Monitor the Results

It's time to send your email to the right people.

There are now two ways to do this. On the one hand, you can place your email inside an automation (e.g. suitable for a welcome email or series) or you can send the campaign immediately to your contacts (e.g. to announce a promotion).

If you're planning an automated campaign, open the automation builder of your email marketing software and create a new workflow. Name it, set a trigger (e.g. when someone joins your list), set a condition if you want to (e.g. wait 10 minutes), and place your email (e.g. initial welcome).

Welcome Email Automation Example

Example Automation inside of ActiveCampaign

This is the basic concept, feel free to add more emails and conditions to your workflow and further develop it over time. Once you have completed your automation, you can activate it, and your new subscribers will start receiving them according to your flow.

Let's move on to the one-off email campaigns. Usually you will find a "Create" button somewhere dominant in your email marketing software. From there you can select a default campaign.

Setting Up Email Campaign Inside Activecampaign

Creating a Standard Campaign with ActiveCampaign

After that, you can simply follow these steps (or slightly different, depending on your software).

  1. Choose which contact list you want your campaign to be sent to.
  2. Enter your email content.
  3. Specify a time and date for the sending (in case you don't want to send it right away).

That's it.

7. Track Your Performance

Sending your first campaign is a huge step, but your work doesn't end there. As you launch your campaign, track key performance indicators (KPIs) such as:

  • Open rates
  • Click-through rates
  • Conversions
  • Unsubscribe rates
  • Bounce rates

This data will provide valuable insights into your campaign's effectiveness and help you identify areas for improvement. One way to optimize your email marketing efforts is through A/B testing. A/B testing involves creating two or more variations of an email and sending them to two different groups of your audience. It will tell you which email performed better. However, this only works if you already have many contacts in your list, and becomes more important as the list grows.

But what if you're just starting out and you don't have any contacts yet? Don't worry, we'll get to that in the next section.

Keep in mind that email marketing is an ongoing process. Continually analyze your results, refine your strategy, and test new ideas to ensure your campaigns remain effective and engaging.

Growing Your Email List

Once you get started, the key to successful email marketing is building an extensive, engaged subscriber list. Here are a few tips to help you grow it faster.

Opt-in Forms

We touched on this earlier, opt-in forms are among the most effective ways to grow your email list. Placing opt-in forms on your website and blog will help you capture leads from visitors who may not be ready to buy yet, but are interested in learning more about what you have to offer.

You've probably been annoyed by a pop-up asking you to sign up for a newsletter before. Learn from the good and bad experiences you've had, and create an opt-in form that's both unobtrusive and effective. An easy way is to embed them in your website footer and in selected places on your website, such as on your blog or at the end of an article.

Lead Magnets & Event Invitations

Lead magnets are incentives that entice people to join your email list. Offer something of value in exchange for their contact information, such as an ebook, discount code, or free consultation. This is also a great way to repurpose content you've already created. If you have an ebook, create a short excerpt and offer it in exchange for an email address.

In a similar vein, consider using event invitations to grow your list. If you host webinars, workshops, or other events that require registration, use those as an opportunity to capture more email addresses. Make sure the invitation is persuasive and provides enough information for people to make a decision.


Use landing pages for both of these formats. They help you focus on the value of the lead magnet or event and make it seamless for the user to sign up.

Social Media

Lastly, don't forget to promote your email list on social media. Use your bio to highlight the value of signing up, create posts that link to a sign-up page, and engage with followers who mention wanting to join.

If you have an ecommerce business, take advantage of the opportunity at checkout. Add a checkbox that asks the user if they would like to receive product updates, offers, etc. This is a great opportunity to turn regular customers into loyal repeat customers.

How to Measure Email Marketing ROI?

Part of determining the success of your email marketing campaigns is to measure and track ROI. After all, the goal is to make sure that you're seeing a return on your investment. Here's how to do it.

Integrate with Google Analytics

The first step is integrating your email campaigns with Google Analytics and tracking the results. Doing so will allow you to see how many people are coming to your website from a particular campaign, what pages they visit, and where they're dropping off.

You should also set goals for conversions, such as sales or sign-ups, to measure your campaigns' performance. That way, when people reach valuable pages, you can track how many of them take the desired action.

Subtract the Cost of Sending Emails from the Revenue Generated

With the data collected, you can subtract the cost of sending emails from the generated revenue. This will give you a clear figure that shows how much money your email campaigns are making (or losing).

Isn't the cost equal to what I pay for my email marketing software?

Yes, technically, it is. However, you may invest in someone to manage your campaigns. Writers, graphic designers, and copy-editors may also be involved in the production process (not to mention your own time). These costs should be taken into account when calculating ROI.

Measure Traffic to Your Website

The return on your investment isn't always monetary — at least not instantly. You should also measure the amount of website traffic generated by your campaigns. It is a good indicator that people are engaging with your emails. Simply increasing your brand visibility can lead to more sales down the line. This part can also be tracked with Google Analytics.

The same can be said about social media pages. If you see an uptick in followers, it can be an indication that your email campaigns are working and people are more aware of your brand.

Analyze Relevant Email Metrics

Next, look at the relevant email metrics inside of your email marketing software. These metrics should be tracked over time so that you can see how each campaign performs and make adjustments if necessary. We mentioned some KPIs before, here is what they tell you:

  • Open Rate: How many people opened your email.
  • Click-Through Rate: How many people clicked on links inside your email.
  • Unsubscribe Rate: How many people unsubscribed from your list after receiving the email.
  • Conversion Rate: How many people completed the action you wanted them to take.
  • Bounce Rate: How many emails bounced back or were not delivered.
  • Email Sharing: How many people forwarded or shared your email.

All of these metrics can affect your ROI, so it makes sense to check them regularly and try to improve them. Some software tools let you define things like conversions in the tool itself, so you can see direct sales even without Google Analytics and other integrations.

Here is an overview of what most companies tend to track:

Email Metrics Businesses Track Infographic

Data Source: The State of Email Analytics (Second Edition)

Email Marketing Tips and Tricks

As a bonus, here are a few email marketing tips and tricks to help you create even better emails. Use these to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Use Automation

Let automation do the heavy lifting for you whenever possible. The best email marketing software tools offer a variety of functions to automate your email sending. Examples are welcome emails, abandoned cart reminders, and product recommendations.

But it doesn't stop there, you can build incredibly complex structures that can take a lot of pressure off you at the end of the day. Get creative and actively look for ways to use automation to reduce your manual work.

Automation capabilities become even more powerful when using segmentation. It allows you to group your contacts according to their interests and behavior to send them more targeted emails.

Use A/B Testing

I believe this is the third time we mention A/B testing because it really becomes that important when you reach a contact list size of 200+ subscribers.

Rare are those who get it right the first time, so test different versions of an email and see which performs best. It will help you refine your emails to create content that resonates with your readers.

Test different subject lines, content versions, calls to action, images, and more. Take the time to experiment, and don't be afraid of taking risks. The way it works is that two versions of your email are sent to your subscribers, and the system detects which one performs better based on several KPIs.

ab split test infographic

A/B Test Illustration

Test Different Inboxes

Gmail, Outlook, and other inboxes all have their own quirks regarding displaying content. Make sure you test your emails in different inboxes to check how they look in each of them before sending them out. Make sure to save templates for your different types of emails, it will guarantee that your future emails will also look good.

Avoid the Spam Filter

One thing to remember is that your emails need to meet certain requirements to avoid the dreaded spam filter. Email deliverability is an entire topic unto itself. Pay particular attention to the following to ensure that your emails arrive consistently and don't end up in spam.

  • Use Double Opt-In: When someone subscribes to your email list, ask them to confirm their subscription by clicking a link in a separate email. This helps ensure that your emails are only sent to people who are genuinely interested in your content, reducing the chances of your emails being flagged as spam.

  • Maintain an Active List & Clean Up Regularly: Keep your email list up to date by regularly removing inactive or unengaged subscribers. This will not only help you avoid triggering spam filters, but it will also ensure that you're only sending your content to interested people.

  • Warm Up Your Email Domain & IP: When you start sending emails from a new email domain or IP address, gradually increase the volume of emails you send to build a positive reputation with email providers. This can help reduce the likelihood of your emails being marked as spam.

  • Set up Authentication Records: Authentication records such as SPF, DKIM, and DMARC help email providers verify the legitimacy of your emails. By setting up these records, you can reduce the chances of your emails being flagged as spam.

  • Avoid Spam Trigger Words & Symbols: Certain words and symbols commonly associated with spam can trigger spam filters. To avoid this, try to avoid using words like "free," "act now," or excessive use of exclamation marks. Instead, focus on creating engaging and informative content that your subscribers will find valuable.

Show Your Personality

Nobody wants to read generic emails. Your message should reflect your brand's personality and contains content that resonates with your audience. You can do this by injecting personal stories into your emails or using humor to break up the monotony.

It would also be best to address your subscribers on a first-name basis, as this helps create a more personal connection. If possible, the sender's email should also come from someone in your organization rather than a generic email address.

Don't Ramble

Email marketing works best when it's short and sweet. Some people receive dozens, if not hundreds, of emails daily and don't have time to read lengthy messages. Keep your emails concise and make sure they contain only essential information. If you need more space, consider setting up a landing page with additional content that people can visit after reading the email.

Be Smart about Your CTA

A call to action tells people what to do next, such as visiting your website, contacting you, or buying a product. Not forgetting to place a CTA is one thing, but placing it correctly is another. Here are a few best practices for your CTAs in emails:

  • Try to use only one CTA per email whenever possible to not confuse or overwhelm people.

  • Your text above the CTA should build up enough incentive to make a user click.

  • Use a high-contrasting button or hyperlinked text that matches your brand colors.

  • Test different CTAs and use the ones that get the best results.


Well done! You've outlasted the marathon of our email marketing basics. Time to exhale a little.

Email marketing can seem intimidating if you're new to it, but armed with the proper knowledge, time, and tools, it is an incredibly powerful way for businesses of all sizes. We hope this guide helped to provide a complete overview for starting your email marketing journey.

You can see that a lot depends on the right software, which makes things infinitely easier, especially if you send many emails. Be sure to check out our research on the best email marketing software to kick off with a head start.

Take time to familiarize yourself with your software and test out things from campaign creation to embedding forms on your website. After that, you can continue to step up and make your strategy more and more complex. It may take time to get things right, but the rewards are worth it.

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Average tennis player with above-average skills in marketing automation. I’m obsessed with delivering results but also tend to read each marketing email I receive five or more times to analyze it.