Look beyond open and click rates to gauge the health and effectiveness of your email campaigns. Here is a simple process to create goals, track key performance indicators, and optimize your email conversions.

How do I get better results from my email marketing? It's a question that has 260 million answers according to a simple Google search. Most of the articles you'll click on talk about tactics like segmentation and personalization to improve the results from specific campaigns. And yes, segmentation, personalization, and other techniques like behavioral triggers, marketing automation, and email design all play a part in how you go about fixing broken email campaigns.

But what's missing is a process for identifying and fixing the areas of your email marketing that are underperforming in the first place.

Keep reading for that process. There are only four steps. I'll go through them in Part I of this article. In Part II, we'll use a typical email newsletter as a way to walk through the four steps and create a plan to measure performance. In Part III you'll learn how to apply the plan when I analyze two typical trouble spots for email newsletters and what we could do to fix them.

PART I: The Four Steps to a More Effective Email Marketing Strategy

Step 1. Start with what goal you want to achieve.

Your goals are going to vary by message type, that is to say the goals for your email newsletter, and those of a lead nurturing sequence, are going to be different from one another. The goals for your email campaigns also aren't necessarily the actions you want someone to take from within the email itself, or the stats you get from your email marketing service. They could be, but think beyond open rates and click rates to how a healthy email marketing program actually benefits your business in the long run.

I'll walk through a full example for an email newsletter later in the article. But first, let's finish the remaining steps.

Step 2. Outline what information will help you achieve it.

This step is where you would develop a dashboard or health summary of your email marketing key performance indicators (KPI's), which we'll talk about in the next step. Ask yourself, what would an email marketing program that is meeting my goals look like? How will I be able to demonstrate the performance of different types of campaigns as it relates to overall business goals and specific marketing campaign goals?

Of course, if you don't know the answers to these questions, bring in a professional. It's crucial to know what to measure, and what success is supposed to look like.

Step 3. Identify the Key Performance Indicator (KPI) data that will create the outline.

Now that you know what a healthy, goal-achieving email marketing program looks like, it's time to identify the actual metrics and data points that will funnel into your reports. Again, look beyond simple metrics like open and click rates, and think about how subscriber behavior matches up with your buyer personas and value nurturing processes. Also think about the experiences you're creating for each type of email campaign: what data will help you identify the quality and effectiveness of that experience?

Step 4. Evaluate and Optimize how you will get that data.

In this step, you will look at all the technical setup things that need to happen on your website, and within your analytics/email marketing/marketing automation stack. Now's the right time to bring in a professional if you haven't already, because once you start sending and tracking this data, the hope is that all the pieces work together in the background so all you need to do is focus on those KPI's.

Important note: You may need to take a step back and implement some new tools in order to have everything you need to start measuring and improving the performance of your email marketing program. If that's the case, don't worry about bad data at this point, just put the tools in place and start to track some baseline information for a few months. It's actually a good exercise, because you will have the ability to see if all the data and marketing automation you've set up is working the way you intended, and providing the intelligence you need to make informed decisions about how to improve results.

So here we are, at the end of the four steps in our process. In the next part of this article, we will look at a specific type of email (the newsletter) and walk through the four steps to build out a performance assessment that can then be optimized.

PART II: Using the process to create email marketing KPI's

Let's walk through an example. We'll use an email newsletter because it has a broad and diverse purpose in your email marketing toolbox. First, we'll use the framework from above to map out the plan, and current performance, for the email newsletter. Later on, we'll look at an actual email newsletter, measure it up against our plan, and go over how to set up some tests to improve results.

Step 1: What goals will the email newsletter achieve?

Best used as a brand touchpoint, your email newsletter should serve to keep you top of mind with your customers, grow your email list, and help you build out interest-based email segments for when it's time to send a promotional campaign.

Step 2: What information will help you achieve these goals?

A rising trend in subscriptions and engagement rates (opens, clicks, replies) will signal that your email newsletter is valuable to your audience as a brand touchpoint.

A rising trend in subscribers added to interest-based and engagement segments is also important, because it means that the content you're sharing is appealing to more than just a small segment of highly-engaged brand champions.

A rising trend in web, social, phone, and chat activity in the 24-48 hours following an email newsletter will signify that you have activated your subscribers beyond just the content of the email.

Step 3: What data do you need to track?

Organic Subscription Rate - subscriptions through forms on your site, blog, checkout process, and anywhere else where a website visitor will consent to signing up for your email newsletter. In other words, leave out the people who get dumped into your email from webinar registrations, trade shows, and of course, bulk list buys.

Engager Segment Growth - you should have at least one segment of subscribers who are defined as highly engaged: the ones that open the vast majority of your newsletters, and click on at least one link each time. Report this in absolute numbers.

Engager Segment Growth Rates - if you have more than one level of engagement segment, then I would suggest tracking this metric, too. Break down your list into however many engagement segments you have (including non-engagers), and look at the % growth or loss for each during a certain time period. It's kind of like a marketing funnel for your email newsletter. What this will show is the level of interest in your content over time, and could provide some eye-opening insights to direct future decisions on email design, content, and marketing automation.

Interest Segment Growth - interest segments group subscribers by the type of content they are consuming, both in your emails and on your website. Don't forget to include brand content (product updates, company news) as an interest. You can measure this two ways: first, what % of total subscribers have fallen into at least one interest-based segment? Two segments? Three or more segments? The second way to measure this is to look at the market share of each interest-based segment, which could help inform future decisions on content, marketing automation, and promotion.

Open Rate - you're already familiar with email open rate, which is widely defined as the number of people who opened your email divided by the number of people it was delivered to (so bounces are netted out first). Analyzing open rate helps illustrate the general value of your email marketing program; a rising open rate over time means your subscribers continue to trust what's inside your email when they see it in their inbox. Spikes or dips in open rate can help identify deliverability issues, or inform decisions on subject line copy, from field names, sender addresses, pre-header text, and even time of day.

Click Rate - you're probably familiar with email click rate too, which is widely defined as the number of delivered emails that had at least one click (again, netting out bounces first). Just like open rate, a rising click rate is another value indicator. And just like open rate, you can look deeper at the stats across email newsletter campaigns, which typically have more than one link in them, to see if your subscribers are using the email newsletter as a launching point for one piece of information or multiple pieces.

Click-to-Open Rate - if click rate is used to gauge the ability of your email newsletter to drive traffic to your website, click-to-open rate is used to gauge the ability of individual links within the email newsletter to drive traffic to your website. It's calculated by dividing the number of people who clicked on at least one link by the number of people who opened the email. CTOR is an optimization metric that you'll want to use with email design tests. That said, you can (and should) have a primary link or call to action in each of your email newsletters; tracking the CTOR for this link can help inform email design and copy decisions, especially if you cross reference this information with other subscriber stats like mobile device usage, time of day, and the experience you're creating with that particular link.

Inbound Leads/Call Activity - since the newsletter is a brand touchpoint, it's expected that at least someone on your email list might see it at the exact moment your services were on their minds. If you can't specifically attribute inbound calls, chats, replies, and lead forms to marketing sources, measuring any uptick during the first 24-48 hours after sending your email will likely mean those new leads came from your newsletter doing its job as a brand touchpoint.

Web Traffic - You should use campaign tagging with any links in your email newsletters that point to your website, so you can get a complete picture directly in Google Analytics (or whatever visitor tracking tool you use) of subscriber behavior once they click through from the email to your website. Pro tip: in Google Analytics you can create filters for traffic called segments. Use the UTM parameter for source and/or medium, depending on how you structure your campaign tagging, to pull out only the traffic coming to your site from your newsletters. Then, you'll have a way to measure the impact of the traffic from your email newsletter over time, and for any report you want to look at.

Step 4: How do we get this data?

I'll be candid with you, and say that not all of these metrics are readily available in your email marketing system, or even a marketing automation platform. You may need to break out an Excel spreadsheet and talk to your dev team about pulling API data to create a dashboard (or just track things by hand). Nevertheless, here is what you'll need to be able to get the data that feeds the KPI's that create the reports that help you see if you're meeting your goals:

Organic Subscription Rate - you need some method of tagging subscribers by subscription source. If you aren't using tagging, it's arguably one of the most flexible and smart ways to manage subscriber data.

  1. Use hidden fields in forms to identify subscription source.
  2. Create triggers that tag the subscriber by source.

Engager Segment Growth & Engager Segment Growth Rates - you need to define engagement segments, have triggers that identify subscribers who meet the criteria of a particular segment, and have triggers that move subscribers from one segment to another. I would recommend:

  1. Engagement scoring (different points for opens, clicks, replies).
  2. Tags to identify subscribers.
  3. Triggers that remove one engagement tag and add another when the subscriber changes segment.

Interest Segment Growth - you need to define interest segments, have triggers that identify subscribers who meet the criteria of a particular segment, and have triggers that add/remove interests from the subscriber profile.

  1. Create tags for each interest.
  2. Use site tracking on your website (your marketing automation platform will have this) to watch for when subscribers visit certain pages of your site.
  3. Create triggers to tag them with interests related to those pages (then they'll fall directly into the interest segment).

A side note about engager and interest segments: If you don't have the ability to use tagging with your subscribers, then use behavioral activity within your emails and from site tracking on your website. A high engager would be someone who "has opened the last 5 emails and clicked on at least one link in each." You should be able to query your subscribers using criteria from that phrase (or something similar). The downside to this approach is that you'll have to manually adjust your criteria each time you send an email, whereas tagging and behavioral triggers can be set up once, and work in the background.

Open Rate, Click Rate, Click-to-Open Rate - you can get all of these from your email marketing service's campaign reports. Nothing to set up on your part. Give the person next to a high-five instead.

Inbound Leads/Call Activity, Web Traffic - when a subscriber clicks from your email to your website, their activity is lumped together with everybody else's activity on your website. Unless, of course, you implement campaign tracking with UTM strings. Then, as I mentioned earlier, you'll be able to identify visitor behavior on your site that came from your email newsletter.

  1. Be sure to use UTM strings in your email campaign links. And be sure to define a naming protocol for consistency over time.
  2. Set up goal conversions and possibly event tracking so that when someone clicks through from your email to your website, then fills out a form, you can not only see the conversion from filling out the form, but also know that it came from a subscriber.
  3. Create triggers that move subscribers into deal funnels for your sales team (and/or marketing automation) to nurture.

PART III: Applying KPI's to find which email tests we should run

Let's stick with our email newsletter, and look at how these KPI's can help us find shortcomings in our email marketing program, and pinpoint the areas where we can make data-informed decisions about copy, design, timing, segmentation, personalization, and all the other tactical areas of email marketing. In this final section, I'm going to tackle two common problem areas for email newsletters.

To reiterate, our goals for the email newsletter are as follows:

  1. Brand touchpoint
  2. List growth
  3. Data-rich subscriber profiles

Problem Area 1: They Just Aren't That Into You

This problem is one where your email newsletter has plateaued. Symptoms include consistent open and click-through rates, and little to no movement in either interest or engager segments.

In other words, we are hypothesizing that the same people are interacting with your email newsletter each time you send it.

You could tackle this from a number of angles, but since we have such rich subscriber data, the easiest thing to do to prove our hypothesis is to pull the open, click, and engager segment data for our list, and cross-reference it all in Excel. Look for unique email addresses across each campaign. If there's too much variety, this was a bad hypothesis; but let's pretend we were right, and that 90% of the people who engage on our newsletters are the same people each month.

Before we run any tests to get more subscribers engaged, take that 90% from above and tag them with something like "Newsletter-Control" so you don't experiment on them (why? You don't need to, we're after the rest of the list).

What's the easiest way to shake things up in someone's inbox? Change the subject line. Consider something that leans toward reactivation, like "we've missed you, {first name}" or "we want you back!".

Split-test different subject line styles to see which is resonating better with this segment of subscribers that isn't engaging. But be warned: going too bold, and having ho-hum content on the inside, runs the risk of you losing the subscriber's trust. Here's a case study of a time that happened.

What to expect from this subject line and segmentation test: If you have a good balance between subject line and newsletter content, you should expect to see higher open rates because you got the attention of these non-engagers. You should also expect to see movement in your lower tier engager segments (remember, you pulled out the high engagers already). If you don't see a lift in web traffic and interest segments, then all you did was successfully get the attention of people who weren't that interested in you in the first place.

Problem Area 2: Nobody Left to Talk To

This problem is a good one to have, but a problem nonetheless. You've essentially maxed out the effectiveness of your email newsletter. Symptoms include a high percentage of subscribers who are in one or multiple interest segments, solid open and click rates, that have resulted in leads and conversions over time. But inevitable list churn and no other ways to build new relationships has you questioning what to do next before the newsletter becomes useless.

Again, there are multiple ways to tackle this problem, but the easiest is to embark on a list growth campaign.

Look at the organic subscription rate by source and compare it to web traffic to that same source. How's your conversion rate for each of your forms? Is there one that's completely underperforming?

Isolate that form, and test ways to improve conversion. Remember to make a note in your Analytics software when you start running tests, so you can track your experiments and compare the results to your organic subscription rate KPI.

Similarly, if you have a form that's blowing away the rest, drive more traffic to it (or the pages where it appears).

WRAP-UP: What to do next

You have the framework for tracking the performance of your email marketing program.

You have a list of nine email marketing KPI's that apply to newsletters but could also apply to other types of emails in your toolbox.

You have two examples of problem areas, that were identified by symptoms shown by the process, then fixed using experiments that can be tracked by data we're collecting in the process.

From here, assuming all of this makes sense, the next logical thing to do is set up one of these puppies for yourself! Start with the type of email you send the most, be it a newsletter, lead nurturing sequence, webinar sequence, or something else. If you need help, send me an email from the "Get in touch" tab at the bottom of this page.

Thanks for reading this far. Cheers to your health, and to that of your email marketing program! ~Stephan

Stephan Hovnanian

Stephan Hovnanian runs the show here at Shovi, bringing over 15 years of email and web marketing experience to companies that need more from their digital marketing efforts.

Connect with Stephan here, on Twitter (@stephanhov), LinkedIn, or Google+.


We are no longer taking new clients. For support, please visit this page or reach out to Stephan Hovnanian via Twitter or LinkedIn. Thank you