As email marketers, we’re always looking to do better. This is because when it comes to emails, it’s not just about opens or getting people to see your email. It’s also about making sure that the next step happens.
Jetlore has a nice term for this: email marketing performance. This is when you look at your numbers in order to evaluate your success, and use those numbers to improve your emails.
But while measuring the success of your email marketing is important, it’s essential to understand the whole process. Dela Quist, the CEO of Email Marketing at Alchemy Worx, says that clients should focus on totals as opposed to things on a per-email basis — and he’s not wrong.
To effectively measure the performance of your campaign, it works well to use a holistic approach to email marketing, where each of the steps are separate entities that work together interconnectedly. In other words, think of the journey an email makes as part of a conversion funnel. Here, I’ve broken this so-called email funnel down into a series of steps, explaining what they are, what kinds of metrics you need to look at, and how you can improve your numbers.
The starting point of the email funnel is to begin by looking at the number of subscribers a list has. For the purposes of explaining, let’s assume you have a hypothetical list with 100,000 email addresses. If you’re a shop owner, then these are the people who likely bought from you once (or thought about buying from you) and said, "I'd like to receive some information from your store in the future." For other businesses, maybe this number comes from the people who signed up to receive your newsletter, or who gave you their email address in exchange for something like a download.
At some point, whether once a month or once a week, you send out a nice little email campaign with the goal of reaching as many people as you can, whether that means building a relationship or just having a better conversion. Right away, you’re going to encounter the first challenge that you want to overcome.
Of the 100,000 initial subscribers, only 99,000 of them received your email. Why’s this? According to Tom Sather at Return Path, “83% of permission-based emails worldwide reached the inbox over the past 12 months, with 6% being sent to spam and 11% blocked.”
Most ESPs will show a metric known as the delivery rate, where you can see how many emails made it to an inbox. Often this number will be very low. Even so, solving the problem is important, the reason being that all these people are still on your list, and you’re probably paying for the size of your list in your ESP.
But rather than just looking at what was delivered and what wasn’t, it’s important to focus on the specifics. Where your emails are concerned, how many are a result of non-existent email addresses (hard bounce) versus inboxes that are simply full and rejecting mail (soft bounce)? And what about your sender reputation — is it positive?
If your list is really old, and you feel that many of your subscribers are not interested in receiving your emails anymore, you might consider sending an email that invites them to renew their subscription.
After issues of delivery are addressed, the next place where the funnel really starts to narrow down is inbox placement. Gabriel Gastaud writes on the Return Path blog that “delivery is different from deliverability,” which is a key point. What he means is that even though your campaign has been delivered to an address, that still doesn’t mean it’s ended up in the proper place. Or, as MailChimp explains, “Deliverability is a way to measure the success at which an email marketer gets a campaign into subscribers' inboxes.”
In short, this step confirms whether your emails have reached the inbox or if they have been placed in the spam folder. Of all the emails you’ve sent out, how many of this campaign made it to where people will actually see the email? In our given scenario, only 84,000 of the initial 100,000 subscribers will see the email, with the other 15,000 recipients probably never seeing the message at all.
Depending on the service being used, emails are often sorted automatically according to factors such as engagement level, subject lines, and tabs. Gmail is one such service implementing tabbed inboxes, which marketers were initially wary of. Interestingly enough, however, the promotions tab is a positive development, “[outperforming] the Primary tab on both inbox placement and read rates,” according to Sather.
Why is this? We want to be looking at what's important to us. And those are the emails that we get from colleagues, from friends, etc. But the thing about promotional emails is that we subscribe to those on purpose, so we are still interested, even if we don't click and open every single one right away. When they’re separate, they’re less likely to be a nuisance, as we know they’re there, and we can look at them when we have the time or desire.
What should be more disconcerting is the spam rates, as this number is not clear cut, and you can’t see how many of your emails are ending up in the spam filter. However, in a lot of ESPs, you can see if people flag a mail as spam. If that number goes up, you might want to think about not sending out the emails you’re sending, or look at how you’re using your subject line and content. Is it always the same? Is it fresh? Is it really what your customers would like to see? In other words: are you being relevant?
In addition to paying attention to your content, many marketers opt to do the occasional spam test, which looks to see if emails are making it past filters. This is particularly important to pay attention to if you are selling medical supplies or supplements, because those two industries are red flags for spam filters. But there are other things you can watch out for, and SendGrid’s Elmer Thomas has compiled a helpful list of best practices for avoiding the spam filter.
The funnel continues to narrow as we arrive at the open rate. Of your initial 100,000, only 20,000 people actually open the email. Of course, the true rate varies based on the industry, but a typical average is around 20%, according to Silverpop’s 2014 Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study. As such, displaying the most relevant and interesting content is valuable, because it’s where people see what you have to say and potentially engage with it.
As always, be careful not to invest in that number too much. Silverpop explains the danger in this by sharing that “the open rate works best as an in-house benchmark to track over time, because it can signal progress or problems with engagement.” However, it isn’t and shouldn’t be the be-all end-all, as it’s not the most reliable of numbers, especially when sending text-only emails, or to recipients who block image downloading in HTML emails.
Still, if you want to focus on increasing the open rate — in particular the number of unique opens — you can do this by writing engaging subject lines that people just can’t wait to click. Another tactic that Campaign Monitor suggests is to “make sure your email is recognizable, and that your key points are in the top third.” By placing the most interesting and intriguing content at the beginning of your email, users who can see previews will be more prone to opening, and those who open will be more inclined to keep reading.
After the email is opened by the people above, the number of those continuing along the email journey narrows again, this time down to 5,000.
At this step, it’s common for people to focus on the click rate, but that’s actually not the only metric you want to pay attention to. At AVARI, we assess engagement with email content using the click-to-open-rate (CTOR), because then you know people see your content and can potentially engage with it. Gabriel Gastaud says CTOR is “the best metric...to identify the quality of the content proposal and the design of the communication,” and he’s right. This is the essential step, and it’s where a lot of people can still improve, as the content you include in your email is going to set the bar for what people do and how they connect with you.
The aforementioned tip to keep the best content at the top is also true here; however, to take it a step further, consider including a bold link or call to action high up as well. Other things you can do include personalizing your email in real time, keeping things short and to the point, and playing upon the power of social proof. By doing all these things, you might end up with a CTOR of 25%; that’s one in four people who are clicking on your emails and going through to your website. Which leads to the final number in the email funnel...
In the end, you might be left with 1,000 people who make a purchase. Of the 100,000 people you sent the initial email to, that’s 1,000 extra orders.
Now, if you’re looking at all these metrics and the associated to-do lists, it’s quite probable that your head is spinning. But keep in mind that optimizing the performance of your email marketing is a process full of trial and error.
As the folks over at Jetlore said, “granted that the other metrics stay constant, a lift in any of these metrics will produce a lift in the revenue per email sent. Understanding and measuring changes in each of these individual metrics provide us insights into how and through what means efficiency in revenue are achieved.” By choosing to focus on only one or two of the discussed metrics, you’ll already be on your way toward better, more successful emails.
UPDATE: The previous version of this article improperly reflected Dela Quist's point of view towards a clients focus on metrics. After a discussion in the comments section, we've accurately updated this article.