Last Updated on October 26, 2021

We’re strong believers in email as one of the most effective forms of digital marketing. We’ve written before about why that is and why a good database of opted in email contacts can be one of your company’s most valuable marketing resources. That said, sometimes email marketing can feel like a bit of a thankless task, particularly when you’re starting out and you only have a few names on your list.

It’s not unusual for people to send out one or two emails, for those not to generate much in the way of response and for the focus then to switch to other marketing channels with email marketing left by the wayside. We firmly believe that’s a mistake. Done well, email can be one of your organisation’s most effective marketing tools.

So what makes an effective marketing email? What are the things you need to consider to maximise the response that you get from each marketing email? That’s what we’ll consider in this article.

What does success look like for each email that you send?

First of all, it’s worth taking a step back to decide what it is that you’re actually trying to achieve with each email that you send. What does success look like? What do you want respondents to actually do as a result of reading your email? This is likely to be different for different types of emails. For example, the goal of an email newsletter might just be to have people click through and read some articles on your website, whereas the goal of a campaign email might be to persuade people to buy a product, book on an event or request a meeting. Understanding what the objective is of each outbound email tells you the metrics that you need to use to measure its success.

How can you measure the success of an email?

The most common metrics for measuring email success are the open rate, the click through rate, the bounce rate, the unsubscribe rate and the percentage of people who take whatever action you’re interested in on your website. For these reasons we generally recommend using a tool like Mailchimp to send out your emails (we have written more about why we recommend Mailchimp and how to get started here) as these tools tend to come with a suite of analytics tools that give you the key metrics for each email.

Let’s just take a moment to break down what each metric actually is.

  • Open rate – This is the percentage of people who actually open the email that you’ve sent them.
  • Click through rate – This is the percentage of people who click on one of the links in your email to go onto your website.
  • Bounce rate – This is the percentage of emails that cannot be delivered for whatever reason, perhaps because the email address is incorrect or does not exist any more. Email lists degrade at a fairly quick rate as people move jobs and change email addresses so the older your list is, the higher the bounce rate is likely to be.
  • Unsubscribe rate – This is the percentage of people who have asked to be removed from your email list upon receipt of your email.

These statistics can all be tracked from within a tool such as Mailchimp, perhaps in combination with a tool such as Google Analytics which tells you how people came to be on your website and what they did once they were there. It is worth noting that Apple’s recently introduced privacy measures enable Apple users to opt out of having their behaviour tracked in this way, so your open rates, click through rates and so on are likely to be undercounting the true situation if you have a large number of Apple users in your email list.

People often ask what constitutes a good response rate. This is one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ kind of questions. There are rough benchmarks available (take a look at this chart from Mailchimp which gives a rough guide to open rates, click through rates and so on by industry) but really a good response rate is one that makes sense for your business, so will depend on what the objective of the email is and other factors that are specific to your business, so don’t get too bogged down in comparing to industry norms, particularly when you’re starting out.

So, what are the factors that influence the response rate of your emails?

Is the email going to the right people?

This is really the single most important thing. It doesn’t matter how well written your email is, how enticing the special offer is, how effective the call to action – all that is wasted if your email is going to the wrong people. For example, I got an email recently to my Awesome Tech Training address from someone trying to sell health and safety training courses aimed at lorry drivers. This could have been the best written, most enticing email in the world and the training courses could be the most amazing, effective training you can possibly imagine, but there’s no way I’m going to respond to that email because I’m not a lorry driver.

So, a very low response rate could be a sign that you’re not emailing the right people. This is less likely to be a problem if you’re emailing a list of your existing customers or of people who have signed up for your newsletter via your website, but it may well be a problem if you’re mailing a very old list of people who have not been contacted in a while or if you’re buying in a third party email list.

A low response rate might also be a sign that your email is getting trapped in the recipients’ spam filters so they’re not actually seeing it. How to avoid this is a whole topic in itself but there are a few simple things you can do to improve your chances that the email gets through.

  • Use a tool like Mailchimp – These tools convey some legitimacy on your email and make it less likely that it will end up in spam than if you just email people from your Outlook or similar.
  • Don’t be spammy – It seems obvious to say it but spam filters are designed to look for emails that seem spammy. Too many exclamation marks, too much use of hyperbole (free!! amazing!! incredible!! and so on).
  • Email the right people about the right things – If someone marks one of your emails as spam then the chances are that the next one you send them will end up in their spam folder, so the key thing here is to make sure you’re talking to the right people about things that are likely to be of interest to them.
  • Set up email domain authentication – A slightly more technical option is to authenticate your email domain, which essentially tells spam filters that your email is coming from a legitimate sender. There’s more information about how this works in Mailchimp here.

What determines whether someone will open your email?

Assuming you’re emailing the right people and your email is not being caught up in their spam filters, the next challenge that you face is getting the respondents to open it. Again, the email could be the best written email in the world and the special offer could be the most amazing special offer imaginable, but if the respondents don’t open the email they won’t see either of those things. So, you need to understand the factors that determine whether or not someone opens an email. A good starting point here is to think about how you personally decide whether or not to open an email. The factors that determine your choice are likely to be some combination of:-

Is the email itself clearly and persuasively written?

Once someone has opened your email the next challenge is to persuade them to actually read it and then to take some kind of action as a result of having read it. There are a couple of common errors here.

  • Taking too long to get to the point – The key to good copywriting is to have a clear idea of what you want to say and then to just get on and say it. You’ve got such a short amount of time to persuade people to keep reading. Your first paragraph needs to immediately tell people the purpose of the email and give them the information they need in order to decide it’s worth their while to carry on reading.
  • Lack of a clear call to action – If you want people to do something as a result of reading your email you need to tell them that as clearly as you possibly can. Too often there isn’t a clear call to action in the email or the call to action is buried so deep in the email that most readers will never get to it.

Should you personalise the email or not?

In an ideal world you would be addressing people by name in every email that you send them. ‘Dear Lorna’ is a much more compelling start to an email than ‘Dear Valued Customer’ or similar (indeed few things make me feel less like a valued customer than being addressed as ‘Dear Valued Customer’). In reality, whether you can personalise or not is going to depend on the quality of your data. If you don’t have reliable first name data for the majority of the people in your list then you probably won’t be able to personalise. You should only personalise if you’re very confident that your data is correct. Worst than no personalisation at all is addressing someone by the wrong name.

Mailing and database systems these days allow for much more detailed personalisation than just the salutation. You can use your knowledge of someone’s job title or of the products they’ve bought from you or virtually any other bit of information you have about them to personalise your email further. Should you though? You can certainly have too much of a good thing here and overdoing on the personalisation can start to feel a bit gimmicky or make the recipient feel as though you’re stalking them. You can still use what you know about the products someone has bought to segment the mailing and target them with appropriate follow up products without necessarily explicitly saying “As you bought product X we feel sure you’ll also be interested in product Y”.

Is everything technically working the way it should be?

Sometimes the reason an email gets a poor click through rate is down to simple errors in the way the links are configured. I can’t overstate how important it is to check and double check that all aspects of your email are technically working as they should be before you press ‘send’.

  • Do the links all work properly and go to the right places?
  • Is the personalisation correct?
  • Are the email addresses and / or telephone numbers in the email correct?
  • Are you using UTM tracking tags in your links so you can track email traffic in Google Analytics (more information on what these are and how they work here).

Is the timing right?

Don’t assume that if someone doesn’t respond to your email that means they’re definitely not interested in your product or service. Assuming you’re talking to the right people in principle, quite often whether someone replies to a marketing message or not just comes down to whether the timing is right.

That might mean the timing of when the email arrived in terms of whether the person was in a receptive mood, had the time to read the email and so on. It can also mean whether the person is in the right stage of the buying cycle for your product. After I’ve moved into a new house is probably a great time for furniture companies to email me with details of their products and services, but if you know I’ve just bought a sofa from you there’s probably limited value in immediately emailing me with information about more sofas.

Most emailing systems like Mailchimp will enable you to see how many times someone has opened an email as well as whether they have passed it onto someone else. These can be useful metrics to give you an idea of whether someone might be interested in your message in principle but just not at this particular time.

Test, test and test

One of the things I’ve learnt after years and years of sending out emails, both on my own behalf and on behalf of clients, is that it’s almost impossible for anyone to reliably predict which emails are going to chime with people and which are not. Sometimes things you’re convinced won’t work go on to be hugely successful and, conversely, things you’re convinced are going to be great end up disappearing without a trace.

Mailchimp and other similar tools offer the ability to run so-called AB tests (more information about this on Mailchimp’s website – note this functionality isn’t in every level of Mailchimp subscription). An AB test enables you to automatically split your email list into different groups and send different versions of your email to each group and then track which one performs the best. You can test more or less anything you like – different versions of your subject line, different ‘from’ email addresses, different special offers, different design features – whatever you want. The most important principle, however, is that you only test one change at a time. For example, if you’re testing subject lines you should only change the subject line and everything else should remain the same in the two emails. This means that if there’s a difference in the response rate you can be sure that it’s definitely because of the different subject line. If you’ve changed the subject line and the design and the special offer then you’ve got no way of knowing what the change was that ended up making the difference.

Using AB testing not only enables you to settle internal discussions about what the best subject line might be (!) but, used properly, enables you to consistently improve the effectiveness of your email marketing over time. You run a test, you see which version is the better and incorporate that change into your standard email template, then run another test to see if you can further improve the response rate. All the while you’re using data rather than hunches to drive your email performance.

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