Content and context were two of the biggest buzzwords at Email Summit 2012 — and for good reason.

If you’re trying to generate more new business and retain more customers, these days you absolutely need to have strong content that’s aimed at the right audiences.

Most organizations know they need to do a better job of this, especially with email, as a MarketingSherpa survey of more than 2,700 email marketers showed.

Asked about their top email marketing priorities are for 2012, among large and mid-sized companies “delivering highly relevant content” ranked first (70% and 62% respectively), and for small businesses it ranked second (71%), surpassed only by “growing and retaining subscribers” – which also relies heavily on content.

Good news: This means email marketing will continue to improve in 2012. But it’ll still take a little work and creativity.

How To Get There Quickly

Survey data is great, but to really benefit from it and cultivate stronger relationships, you need a real action plan.

That’s why we teamed up with the Sherpa researchers to produce a free special report ebook and email series featuring five key ways to maximize your email marketing ROI.

With a mix of statistics, case studies, examples and tools, we broke down the special report into five key action steps:

1. Be more strategic about your list building approach 

Even a laundry list of email tactics and best practices won’t get you as far as a comprehensive email strategy. Sounds painful and time-consuming, right? After all, if decent results are coming in, what’s the harm in minor adjustments?

Less then one-third of email marketers said they “send relevant emails to segmented audiences with a clear conversion goal” — that’s a ton of potential money and business being squandered.

What would it take to implement a process for consistent testing, segmentation and analysis? How about using content to the fullest extent, for instance, but stretching the value through revisions, repackaging and syndication? If combining steps like those into a framework that improves consistency, just think of the increases you could see with your email efforts.

2. Let subscribers know what to expect — then deliver

Countless email forms request the bare minimum of information, because we want subscribing to be easy and painless.

The downside is, many times, we don’t provide enough information or context at the sign up stage, so people don’t always have a clear sense of what they’re going to get later in their inboxes. This can lead to lower engagement rates, higher unsubscribes and complaints and an unhealthy list with a lot of dead weight.

Make sure your offer is clear, from the opt in forms and confirmation emails to thank you pages and the emails themselves. Do they align? Is is obvious from a first-time visitor’s perspective what I’m going to get in exchange for my email, and will it maintain my interest over time?

3. Link your list segments to your priorities

Segmenting lists and sending more relevant content was a common theme at this year’s Email Summit. If you feel you’re way behind, take heart: many email marketers are in the same boat. Only about half of email marketers are using segmentation regularly, according to the Sherpa survey.

So, where should you start? What are your objectives? Sorting prospects from customers is one of the best places, because that’s where different content can have a major impact. Perhaps demographics are important your business. Or readers who typically access your emails from mobile devices vs. desktops or laptops. Another segmentation areas is actions, such as who opened and clicked (or didn’t) on certain emails.

Wherever you begin or augment your segmentation efforts, make sure they’re consistent with your marketing priorities and that you’re asking for the information you need.

4. Start using automation in your campaigns

Beyond the commonly used welcome, thank you and transactional emails, research shows a big drop-off in automated messages.

When it comes to building relationships, email autoresponder series are ideal for lead nurturing, drip campaigns and even re-engagement campaigns. Only about one-third of the emails sent by the marketers surveyed fell into this category.

If, like most marketers, you’re pressed for time and resources, autoresponders could be your best friend. Once you’ve created the series, using evergreen information such as how-to articles, training videos or links that won’t lose their timeliness for a while, you can let the series run and devote more time to juggling all those other priorities.

5. Test, optimize and test again

One of my favorite quotes from the special report? “Continuous experimentation is the quickest path to peak performance.” Problem is, only 28% of small businesses regularly test and optimize their email messages. Although mid-sized and larger companies fared better, still only about half of them are testing regularly, too.

If you still think testing and optimization is a hassle to set up, analyze and run regularly, I’d urge you to think again. There are several tools that make the process much easier than it was even a few years ago, and where email messages, opt-in forms and landing pages are concerned, setting up A/B tests is now a matter of a few clicks.

You’ll still need to be precise, since you don’t want what looks like a 37% gain to be false, but the real point is if you’re not testing regularly, it’s time to start. And if you’re just dabbling with tests now and then, it’s time to get more serious. Whether it’s simple tests like subject lines and time of day the email is sent, or more involved copy and call to action changes on emails and landing pages, this is the year to dig in and go for bigger gains.

About the Author: Hunter Boyle, Sr. Business Development Manager for AWeber, helps all kinds of businesses learn how to leverage the power of email marketing using the AWeber platform.