7 tips to get your customers to forward and share your marketing emails

Email forwarding isn’t typically recognized as a means for eCommerce stores to grow their lists (and spread their messages). But email forwarding is, perhaps unexpectedly, common: One major study found 95 percent of marketing emails are forwarded to at least one person. That being said… it’s rare they’re forwarded to lots of people. The average marketing email is forwarded just once for every 370 opens.

It’s absolutely worthwhile to try to increase that rate. After all, wouldn’t it be great if every time you sent an email, lots of people who aren’t on your list got to read it? Over time, that could build up serious brand awareness, new subscribers—and more sales.

In this article, we’ll cover some of the key reasons why it’s good news when subscribers forward your emails. We’ll also look at what the data says about the most forwarded types of emails, and share seven tips to help you earn more forwards.

Why you want people to share your emails

Email forwarding can increase subscribers and sales

Ultimately, there are two main goals with a forwarded email: the person who receives it makes a purchase and/or the person subscribes to the email list themselves. When someone forwards your email, that’s free, targeted marketing for you—and, as you’ll see next, it’s an extremely effective form of marketing at that.

The trust factor

Sadly, a large chunk of your potential audience won’t trust your marketing as a credible source of information. (It’s not just you. They’re skeptical of all advertising.)

But you know who they WILL trust? Their family and friends. When a trusted source forwards a marketing email, it’s immediately more interesting, credible, and actionable.

When I forward a marketing email, it’s because I’m pretty sure the person I’m sending it to will be interested. We can assume most people have a similar mentality, and will only forward an email to someone if they believe something in that email is relevant to that person. That’s good news for you as a brand; it means your emails will reach people in your target market, and those people will find them relevant. That can help you increase everything from brand awareness to sales. 

More likely to become top customers

It can be extremely lucrative to have customers recommend your brand to friends. One study found that over the course of three years, a customer who was referred by a friend will spend 75 percent of what the original customer spent. (PDF) In other words: When a good customer vouches for your store by forwarding an email, they can create another good customer for you in the process.

Validation of your strategy

If your subscribers forward your messages, that’s valuable feedback that you’re doing the right things with your email marketing. Your emails are targeted and relevant—and your customers deem them, and your brand, worthy of sharing. That’s important information as you continue to build your eCommerce email marketing strategy, and can help guide the types of emails you send, sales you run, and even products you sell.

A side note here: It’s also a validation that you’re getting the fundamentals of email marketing right:

  • You’ve addressed potential email deliverability issues so your emails are making it to subscribers’ inboxes.
  • You have a solid email open rate, because the more people see your emails, the more people can share them.
  • You have good content, a nice design, good photos, and enticing offers.
  • Your emails are professional, as people might be reluctant to pass along something that appeared amateurish.

Why people share your emails

The most thorough study to date on sharing and forwarding emails comes from Litmus. In the study, they looked at hundreds of emails that were in the 99th percentile and 50th percentile for number of forwards.

Chart of what inspires email forwards.
Via: Litmus.

The emails in the 99th percentile represent the most shared marketing emails of all; the emails that were shared more than 99 percent of all other emails. Here are the top five topics and categories of those heavily-shared emails.

  1. Events (requiring registration or RSVP), 31 percent of the most shared emails
  2. News/helpful content, 21 percent
  3. Transactional emails, 18 percent
  4. Promotions, deals, and discounts, 18 percent
  5. New product, service, or store opening, 8.9 percent

The other emails they examined in the study were those in the 50th percentile—meaning they were right at the average for the total number of forwards. Half of emails were shared more, half of emails were shared less. There’s some clear overlap in the topics and categories of those average emails and the heavily-shared emails. Here are the top five sharable categories for average emails.

  1. Promotions, deals, and discounts, 56 percent
  2. News/helpful content, 23 percent
  3. Events (requiring registration or RSVP), 9.9 percent
  4. Seasonal, 8.9 percent
  5. Transactional emails, 4 percent

We’ll dig into those results more in the next section of this article but it’s important to note the key takeaway from comparing the two lists: While promotional emails often get an average number of forwards, the most forwarded emails offer something beyond just a deal.

7 tips to get people to forward and share your emails

1. Ask for the share

Believe it or not, one of the simplest ways to get your subscribers to forward your emails is to include a call-to-action (CTA) asking them to do so. Litmus found the most forwarded emails were 13 times more likely to ask for a forward than other emails. 

You don’t want to detract from the main CTA in your email, but when you’re designing your email, it’s easy to add a share or forward request near the footer. 

Here’s an example of an eCommerce marketing email with a simple “forward to a friend” request beneath the offers. The “forward to a friend” request isn’t detracting from the major calls-to-action, but it’s reminding someone who gets to the bottom of the email: Hey, you might have a friend who’d be interested in this, so click to pass it along. Again, that simple line can make a big difference in your number of forwards. 

A small "forward to a friend" ask can go a long way.
Via: Milled.

2. Hold an event

Almost one-third of the emails in the 99th percentile for forwards are about events. That’s likely because events push a lot of psychological buttons. They’re naturally social events, so people are inclined to share them with coworkers and friends who might also want to attend. They’re on a specific date (and often say “Register by [date] to save money”), which gives them a sense of urgency. And they’ll almost always remind people that “spots are limited,” which triggers our natural worries about scarcity. 

Now, in-person events aren’t always the bread and butter of eCommerce stores—especially those without a physical presence. Still, if you’ve got a good idea for an event that your customer base (and potential customer base) would want to attend, or you’re showcasing your products at an event, make sure to lean on your email marketing to promote it. From there, your subscribers can forward the email to help spread the word.

The email from Recess, a hemp-infused sparkling water brand, showcases the company’s in-person events around New York and Los Angeles. It’s the kind of email their target audience might share because they’re drawn to those trendy events—and, of course, they’d want friends to go with them. 

3. Include a promotion

We know everyone loves getting deals and discounts—that’s marketing 101. So if you include a good deal in your emails, some of your subscribers will want to pass it on to their friends. (Check out our article on email marketing coupons for tips on integrating coupons into your strategy.)

As the Litmus study found, your deals might not be your most forwarded emails, but they should, at the very least, earn an average number of forwards. But… unlike the most forwarded emails (events, content, transactional), promotions emails are all about making the sale. So even if fewer people forward them, the hope is that a good percentage of those forwarded emails will lead directly to new customers making purchases.

The example below from Ecobee, a smart thermostat brand, bakes the idea of sharing into the entire discount email—from the headline of “It’s easier than ever to share the savings” to the text above the CTA button telling people to “Spread the word.”

4. Make it newsworthy (but non-promotional)

More than 20 percent of the most forwarded emails featured news or helpful content. Create content that your subscribers love, and you’ll build engagement—and inspire people to share your content with others. 

Here’s a good example of a sharable, content-driven email from Modkat. That’s a brand that makes kitty litter boxes and accessories which, on the surface, doesn’t sound particularly viral. But… this email isn’t about litter boxes. Instead, it ties in to the Winter Olympics that were going on at the time with a funny GIF of an Olympic curler and a cat. It features plenty of cat-related links, content, and trivia. Finally, at the very end, they lightly promote their products. The topical, relevant, and interesting content here makes the email extremely forwardable—far, far more forwardable, one would imagine, than an email hard selling litter boxes with no other content.

Modkat's content-driven marketing email.
Via: Milled.

5. Be personal and relevant

If you read a lot of articles about email marketing, you may be tired of all the talk about personalization and segmentation. The reason everyone keeps mentioning them? They’re that important. And they really matter for email forwarding; a study by Hubspot found targeted emails were shared 90 percent more than untargeted ones. Plus, the most forwarded emails were 450 percent more likely to feature personalized content than other emails.

Most people’s close social networks are filled with others who are similar to them—people in the same industry, people who live in their city, people with the same hobbies, and so on. So if you send an email that’s targeted and relevant to a customer, odds are it will also be relevant to some of their closest connections.

This example from Sportsman’s Guide illustrates that point. It features personalized product recommendations based on a customer’s prior interest in hunting and fishing gear. People virtually always go hunting or fishing with someone else—so they could forward this email to their friend who, say, just so happens to need a new set of binoculars. 

6. Work those transactional emails

Some of the most viral emails are the emails we all take for granted. Transactional emails, which are automated, business-focused emails like order receipts and shipping confirmations, are surprisingly sharable. And that’s often because someone’s excitement about an order peaks with the order confirmation and/or shipping confirmation email—and they want to share that feeling.

To that end, make sure to play up excitement with the headline and word choices in your transactional emails to signal to your customers, “Yes, you’re right to be excited right now—so let someone know how you’re feeling.”

This order receipt from Sam’s Club is quite basic, but just might earn a forward—after all, the person who ordered this ottoman is going to be excited to let whomever they live with know about their new piece of furniture. I know I’ve definitely received plenty of “Hey, look what I just bought for the house” email forwards.

Sam's Club sends a receipt for an ottoman.
Via: Sleeknote.

7. Offer an incentive

This isn’t a technique we’ve observed from too many eCommerce stores, but it’s definitely one worth exploring: Offer a reward for forwarding your email. The reward can be a prize, or just a shout out or recognition—but hey, if you want to get your biggest fans to share your emails, it couldn’t hurt to make it worth their while.

TheSkimm uses this technique to get people to share their email newsletters. The “Skimm Share” section in their daily newsletter asks readers to pass along the email, tallies that reader’s total forwards, and offers membership in the “Skimm’bassador” program once they’ve passed it along 10 times. People who get into that program are sent some various swag items—which further promotes the brand.

Skimm's email referral box.

Key takeaways

Email forwarding isn’t a widely-recognized method for growing an email list or making sales—but it has quite a bit of potential.

When your subscribers forward your emails, it provides a valuable type of free marketing for you.

  • Subscribers and sales. When someone forwards your email, it helps promote your list and your store—and can lead directly to new subscribers and/or customers.
  • The trust factor. People are much more inclined to trust marketing they receive from friends and family. So when someone vouches for you by forwarding your email, it instills a sense of trust.
  • Create good customers. When a customer recommends your brand to a friend and that person becomes a customer, they’ll spend nearly as much as the original customer.
  • Validation of your strategy. If someone feels positively enough about your email to pass it along, it shows your strategy, fundamentals, and brand are solid.

And here are some tips to inspire people to forward your emails.

  • Ask. It seems simple, but just having a “forward to a friend” link can lead to a significant increase in your number of forwards.
  • Hold an event. Event-related emails are among the most shared. So if you are holding an event, lean on your email list heavily to promote it—and your subscribers will help spread the word.
  • Include a promotion. When someone passes along an email with a deal or promotion, the hope is their friend will take advantage and make a purchase.
  • Make it newsworthy. News- and content-driven emails are highly shareable. Create good content, and your subscribers will want to promote it.
  • Be personal and relevant. When you include targeted, relevant content for a subscriber, odds are it will also be relevant to people in their immediate circle.
  • Use your transactional emails. Build a sense of excitement with your order receipts and shipping confirmations and you can inspire people to forward them along.
  • Offer an incentive. Consider offering a prize (or recognition) to customers who forward your emails to a certain number of people. 
Sharon Hurley Hall
Sharon Hurley Hall is a professional writer and blogger. She's written for publications as varied as IBM, OptinMonster, CrazyEgg, Search Engine People, and Unbounce. In her previous life Sharon was also a journalist and university lecturer (teaching journalism, of course!) You can learn more about Sharon at sharonhh.com.

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