Determining Email Success: It’s more than just KPIs
One of the most important attributes of a successful email campaign is not measurable in a traditional sense – it’s an email’s ability to supplement a company’s holistic marketing plan.
Like any delivery channel, email was never meant to operate independently, yet campaigns often end up disjointed from other outbound marketing.
Internally, this makes sense as most channels and disciplines are operated by different people. However, customers don’t think the same way brands do. Customers need a cohesive brand experience, whether they’re digesting advertising through email, social, broadcast, or web. This is why one of the first things that I consider when evaluating an email campaign’s success is whether it fits with a brand’s overall outbound and inbound marketing efforts.
Emails that supplement a brand’s holistic marketing plan need first to match the brand’s voice and feel. Color palettes, typefaces, and image styles are obvious indicators of whether an email is on-brand. Voice and feel are a little more nuanced, and this can be a difficult place for an agency or third party to step in without the customer feeling a shift. I try to empower my clients to contribute their voice and feel to email campaigns upfront as much as possible. This can be as simple as providing a concept and direction for a campaign or as difficult as writing out subjects, preheaders, and body copy. Either way, I always recommend a health-check being performed during the approval process. Brand owners and executives can be especially helpful during this step because they’re often removed from the process. If a campaign doesn’t pass their sniff test, it likely isn’t on-brand.
This is a great example of an engaging subject line that only works with the brand-image that Catori Life has cultivated. Any other brand would come off either gimmicky or stupid here, but this is definitely in line with the rest of Catori Life’s marketing.
In this example, I’m less concerned with whether this email “sold” well. It’s as much a branding piece as it is trying to sell necklaces.
Being authentic matters. Not only do customers hate inauthenticity, but email is probably the easiest medium of communication to disconnect from. This means there is added pressure for marketers to be true and get it right.
This principle is in lock-step with keeping communications cohesive to a marketing plan, but measurable email KPIs can make it tempting to deviate. One example of this would be subject line manipulation. Over-the-top subject lines that either over-sell or under-deliver can garner more opens, but they do so at the customer’s expense. Outrageous subject lines are mostly a thing of the past, thanks to modern SPAM filters, but if you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to slip one into a customer’s inbox, expect a lot of unsubscribes. And once someone unsubscribes, their contact information is useless unless they choose to subscribe again later. It’s just not worth it.
Overly-cute or attention-grabbing subject lines would fall into this category as well. They probably won’t cause unsubscribes or SPAM complaints, but too many of them will cause customers to tune out. If it’s not a tone that you would take with your web copy, it probably doesn’t belong in your subject line.
Exhibit A: this is clearly a win-back campaign, but it is seriously over-the-top. Painted Memory took a page out of the worst sales book ever and asked if I was “okay”.
It had been 30 days since I had ordered a specialty product from them. This is the brand equivalent of the “Overly Attached Girlfriend” meme…
Know your voice and know your customer. In this case, I haven’t unsubscribed yet, but they are one hard eye-roll away from being permanently deleted from my inbox. I don’t think padding Open Rate statistics is worth that risk.
Trust in God. Measure everything else.
Key Performance Indicators
All too often, the numbers are all anyone seems to care about. “Did the email open well? How many people engaged with its content?” Don’t get me wrong, these metrics matter, but an email’s ultimate purpose is to move traffic from an inbox to your site. Too often, emails are relied upon to be the sales cycle on their own, when they’re best served as referrals to where the best content should be housed. There’s no reason to recreate the wheel – a thoughtful landing page or product page should do the heavy lifting.
This is where sales attribution can be an unfair metric. Last-click attribution models, like those used by Google Analytics, credit the last click with the sale. Therefore, good emails that move traffic to websites might not get the credit for the sale when Google Analytics is used to measure revenue. It’s like getting penalized for doing the right thing. Most email service providers realize this and employ first-click attribution modeling, which captures the traffic source that is ultimately making the purchase. This accounts for some pretty large discrepancies when reporting revenue and is another reason why analytics should always be reported in context.
Of course, classic metrics matter. If no one is opening or clicking, emails can’t accomplish their ultimate purpose. Here are some classic measurables and what I like to see as benchmarks:
|Open Rate||The number of customers who open your email, compared to the number of deliveries – these can be unique or the total number.||I like to see an Open Rate above 20%.|
|Click-Through Rate*||The number of customers who click somewhere on your email, compared to the number of deliveries – these can also be unique or total.||A solid CTR is over 1.5%, but I shoot for over 2%.|
|Click-To-Open Rate**||The number of customers who click somewhere on your email, compared to the number who opened your email.||I like to see these over 20%, which equals roughly a 2.5% CTR.|
|Revenue and Source||The source is important to see what revenue is coming through campaigns vs. automated sends.||Too many variables for a good benchmark.|
|Unsubscribes||These are the people who opt out of receiving your emails on a given campaign.||Any number consistently over .1% is a concern.|
*Klaviyo calls this click rate.
**Klaviyo calls this click-through rate.
This is not a comprehensive list – a good email marketer will go deeper. I like to see what email referral traffic does once it hits a landing page. Other metrics I pay attention to are time on site, time on page, bounces, and of course, conversions.
If it’s not obvious by now, these indicators are good for getting a pulse on a campaign’s effectiveness but do not tell the whole story. Any business should care about its long-term health. This means not sacrificing the greater good to chase good email metrics. I’ve read countless articles that suggest keeping squeaky-clean lists and purging inactive customers after as little as 1-3 months of inactivity. There are benefits to a clean list, but the purchase cycle is not being considered here! Most retailers get the bulk of their sales around the holidays. If that same retailer purges their list of inactive customers every three months, they won’t be reaching the customers who purchase their family gifts every Christmas. But hey, the email numbers will look better.
If you have customers who haven’t engaged in over 12 months, it’s probably time to send them a final win-back email and then put them in their own segment. From that point, reach out once a year to attempt to re-engage.
Let’s talk frequency. More emails equals more sales, right?
I mean, maybe, but it’s not a sustainable long-term plan. Too many emails most often result in decreased engagement and can alienate even the best customers. This is where the KPIs mentioned above can be really beneficial, especially as a function of time. If a brand experiences a slow, precipitous drop in open and click-through rates, their email frequency needs to be considered.
My preferred cadence is two emails per week. This allows for automated sends that might get triggered and decreases the likelihood of fatiguing a customer. Truthfully, the best cadence depends on the industry and the amount of engaging content available. It’s never a good idea to email someone just to get a customer touchpoint in. Customer’s email inboxes are inundated already, and that unsubscribe button is more accessible than ever – content needs to be meaningful and timely.
Less can mean more. If smart segmentation is employed, the right customers can receive the right messages without being overloaded. If a brand’s content only supports 4-6 emails a month, I recommend taking two or three emails and resending them to customers who didn’t open the first send. I will wait at least 24 hours before doing this, but typically 36-48 hours is best. This tactic isn’t for the faint of heart, though – the open and click-through rates will not be good. I typically see around a 10% open rate and .5% CTR, which will hurt overall email numbers. The important thing to remember is that if 10% open the resend, it essentially adds 10% to the original send’s open rate and might even be re-engaging some customers who hadn’t interacted in a while. It’s like playing with house money.
So What Does Success Look Like?
All of this is to say that email success is not easily defined. Good open rates and clicks do not necessarily mean a good campaign. Numbers can be manipulated and still be unhealthy.
In my role, I have my own quality checks for email success. I think through these questions before and after deploying any campaign:
- Was the campaign timely and relevant?
- Did it support a holistic marketing strategy?
- Did it get traffic to a landing page that made sense?
- Was it cohesive and on-brand?
- Did it perform well?
Performance at number 5 is not an accident, since it can be influenced by so many intangible factors. Numbers 1-4 are the essential questions. If you can’t answer all of those with a yes, performance doesn’t matter. Failure to comply with 1-4 can result in lost customers, reputation, or worse. If numbers 1-4 are met, it is already inherently meeting its objective, and consequently, performance will almost always be strong.
These quality checks require planning. An email marketer’s job cannot be done in isolation – it requires constant collaboration with anyone who touches outbound communication. In an agency setting, this means planning meetings with brand owners. Planning provides the playbook by which a campaign is deemed relevant. This has to fall in line with other outbound communication, like social media, advertising, intercept marketing, and inbound marketing on the website. If proper preparation is done, then an email campaign should pass the first two quality checks.
I see so many emails that try to do too much – they’re too long, too detailed, or too busy. If all of email marketing can be summed up into one objective, it’s this: drive traffic to the website. An email cannot do all the heavy lifting when it comes to informing or making a sale – that’s a website’s job. This is where quality check number 3 comes in. If an email’s purpose is to drive a click, does that destination make sense? If an email campaign is meant to be informative, it should drive to a page that is specifically created to educate the reader. If an email is about a product or product category, it doesn’t need to be filled with a bunch of superfluous information that distracts from that product or category – it needs to drive to the product page. Even if an email’s objective can be fulfilled entirely within the email (a video, for example), it should still drive to the website. Keeping traffic in a reader’s inbox is every bit as bad as linking to an external page from your site – you just don’t do it!
Determining whether or not an email is cohesive and on-brand is what the proofing process was made for. I take pride in my efforts to learn a brand and master their look and voice, but ultimately I know I’m better off always deferring to whoever the brand owner is. This is true regardless of whether an email marketer is internal or with an agency, and it can be tricky. My suggestion is to develop a proofing checklist. Someone should ensure all of the information, links, and spelling is correct, but executives typically don’t have time for that. Their critical role in the proofing process is the tonality of the email as a whole. If it aligns with their brand vision and voice, then quality check Number 4 has been met.
So the question is, do quality checks 1-4 ensure great performance? The short answer is yes and no. If success is defined as an XX% open rate and a YY% click-through rate, then no. There is no way to ensure that. However, email is a marketing channel that should not exist inside a vacuum. It is meant to engage a reader enough to drive a click to a website. Yes, this takes an enticing subject line, but it also requires meeting the four objectives defined above. By that standard, the campaign is a success.
Email is a numbers game with nuance. You have to be present enough to provide an adequate opportunity to drive traffic to a website, but not too frequently to prompt an unsubscribe. This balance takes strategy, planning, and experience. I’ve been leading email marketing for over ten years, and every mistake I’ve made has been a learning experience that has led to a stronger and more refined approach.
In case it’s not evident by now, email cannot be successful with a one-size-fits-all approach. It requires a professional, and if that person doesn’t exist within an organization, then an agency professional can be well worth the expense. Email marketing can be incredibly powerful, but only in the right hands, and only with the right plans.
Interested in learning more about how you can create an email marketing strategy that drives success? Contact us to help!