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What to track when you send email?

September 19, 2007 

Email is among the most flexible and cost effective tools at a marketers disposal. However, before diving in and sending emails to your customers and prospects, there are several things that should be taken into account. In this month's email clinic, Mark Brownlow, publisher and editor of the Email Marketing Reports website, blog and newsletter, runs through the key areas to track when using email for marketing.

The joy of email is in its measurability. Every time you send out a message, you get a report containing detailed information on the performance of that email. A lot of the numbers important to you depend on the goals of your campaign but here are some basic email metrics that every marketer can use to better understand what's working - and what isn't.

Changes in subscriber numbers
Inevitably, some people will choose to leave your list (unsubscribe) after they receive an email - but some readers often just delete unwanted emails or flag them as spam for filtering into a junk folder. So an absence of unsubscribes does not always mean everyone still wants your emails.

However, watch how the number unsubscribing changes after each email delivery. Did a particular email topic or approach spark a mass desertion? Do the departing addresses share anything in common? Perhaps they all subscribed at the same place (your website, a tradeshow, whatever). If so, that suggests the expectations you set at sign-up are not being matched by your emails.

When you send out an email, a standard campaign report tells you how many were sent and how many failed to reach their destination because they bounced (i.e. came back marked as undeliverable). If the problem is temporary, a rejected email is not a great issue. Next time you send to that address it will probably get through. But permanent problems - such as when someone closes their email account and the address becomes invalid - are an issue.

Each time you send email to such dead addresses, you run the risk of getting labelled as spam. That's because the systems that "guard over" email addresses (at the ISPs and webmail services) may assume only spammers could be sending emails to non-existent addresses. They might then flag all your email accordingly...including email you send to addresses that do exist. So before each new email mailout, get into the habit of checking the bounces from the previous mailouts. And take those defunct addresses off your list.

Open rates
Open rates (typically the percentage of sent emails recorded as "opened") are a vital, yet misunderstood, metric.

The number in isolation is, frankly, meaningless. An "open" is recorded when an email is called up on the recipient's screen and a tiny tracking image is thereby "displayed" (it's actually invisible to the viewer). Many email software packages and webmail services block images from displaying, so it's difficult to get a truly accurate open rate for any one mailout. More confusingly, a recorded "open" just means a tracking image was triggered. It says nothing about whether the recipient actually read, or even looked at, the email. But open rates come into their own when you compare them between successive emails, or between different versions of the same email.

For example, which emails produced the best open rates for you? Is there a trend, where particular offers, topics or subject lines always seem to get higher rates? Use open rates to test different elements of your email, too. For example, split your list into two groups and send them both the same email, but with different subject lines. The comparative open rates are a good measure of which subject line resonates better with your audience.

Click through rates and click behaviour
Knowing how many people click on the links in your emails helps you understand how well you engaged the reader. The clickthrough rate (CTR), for example, typically tells you what percentage of "delivered" emails produced at least one click. Like open rates, clickthrough rates can give you a general understanding of how well your email is doing compared to previous or alternative messages. But dig a little deeper and see exactly which links are clicked.

Say you send a travel email with links to two pages: one promoting hotels, the other campsites. Knowing the overall clickthrough rate is great, but isn't it more interesting to know exactly which accommodation type proved more popular with readers? Armed with this information, you can tailor future emails accordingly, or send different emails to "hotel clickers" and "campsite clickers".

What people click on tells you a lot about their needs and preferences. The more you know about these needs and preferences, the better you can adjust your email content to satisfy them.

Final thoughts
Open and clickthrough rates are the most common email campaign metrics used by marketers. But they are rarely your ultimate goal, which may be a purchase, download, registration, "more loyalty" or similar. So don't stop measuring once the recipient has left the email via a link.

After all, which email is more successful? One that generates a CTR of 45% and no sales, or one that generates a CTR of 5% and 100 sales?

Author:  Mark Brownlow

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