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Email marketing metrics to watch by Jessica Best @bestofjess

Email marketing metrics to watch by Jessica Best @bestofjess

Email Marketing Metrics to Watch

Email Marketing Metrics to Watch

Last week, a friend of mine called in a favor. He was prepping for a big job interview and while he had great experience in interactive, he was begging me for a “crash course” in email marketing. As a true EMN (Email Marketing Nerd-ess), I couldn’t wait to impart some of what bounces around in my head all day.

After about 15 minutes, I’d already used the word deliverability 50 times. I wanted to be sure my friend understood that shooting emails out and delivering emails wasn’t the same thing.

“So, how do I know if deliverability is bad?” Wow, I thought. Isn’t that a great question. I found myself offering him the Metrics to Watch speech. The list of warning signs goes something like this:

Metric to Watch #1: Bounce Rate – meaning, those emails that actually send a bounce message back at you. They could bounce because the address you tried to send to doesn’t really exist (a hard bounce) or mail is temporarily not getting through for any one of five hundred reasons. My example to him was if your bounce rate is higher than your reported Open Rate, you have a problem. (OK, this is oversimplified: in this case you’d have a BIG problem.)

If it’s your first send ever to a list you’ve been collecting for three months, a 5% bounce rate wouldn’t surprise me. If you’ve been collecting emails for three years… er, well, let’s just say you should do some list cleansing first. Ongoing, your permission-based list (since I pointed out that’s the only way to go) shouldn’t see much higher than a 1% bounce rate unless you’re sending B2B on Black Friday, getting tons of Out of Office messages. A valid marketer who uses an email service provider or some other method of automatically handling bounces should have a pretty clean list.

BUT, I explained to my friend, a low 1% bounce rate doesn’t mean you’re getting 99% of your emails delivered. (Unfortunately.) Email clients like Gmail and AOL don’t have any obligation to you, the sender, to deliver your mail. And if they decide you’re shady, they can decide not to deliver your emails… and never tell you about it. So how do you know? This brings us to the second metric.

Metric to Watch #2: Open Rate by Domain – meaning what your Open Rate @yahoo.com or @aol.com was in comparison to the overall average. If your Open Rate for a campaign is 22% and only 5% of your Yahoo! subscribers opened, that’s a big warning sign. In the best case scenario, you’re getting through to your subscribers but the images in your email are turned off (because Open Rate is tallied when images are pulled into the email). Be sure you have a “View as a webpage” option at the top of your emails. This will help you get a more accurate count of Opens since each click assumes an open as well.

Equally likely, your low Open Rate at Yahoo! is because you got junked or – worst case scenario – you didn’t get delivered at all. You can also get an idea of if this is the case by seeding your list and watching whether emails go Inbox, Junk or disappear.

Metric to Watch #3: Unsubscribes & Complaintsmeaning people are telling you, with their mouse, that you’re not interesting. Everyone gets a steady flow of unsubscribes (“opt-out”) or complaints (“This is Spam”), but generally, a clean, happy list will stay between 0.1-0.5%. A spike in one or both of these metrics should set off some alarms. If suddenly a full 5% of your list is calling you spam, something went wrong. You may have sent something so uninteresting, out of character or (yikes) offensive that your subscribers are letting you know it’s not cool. Worse would be that something went logistically wrong: sending to the wrong list or an old copy of a list or broken images (since broken emails can look kind of like spam to a user).

My friend seemed sufficiently terrified about not reaching his email subscribers, but at least now he knows how to measure his success or failure in order to do something about it. I pointed him in the direction of some good deliverability help. Check out The eMail Guide’s posts on improving deliverability for some other smart people’s thoughts.

Takeaway: Keep an eye on your emails’ performance metrics like bounce rates, open rates and complaints to “listen” to your email subscribers and what they want and need.

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Your thoughts here
  1. Hi Jess…

    Great posts…love the stats.

    We like the idea of opens by domain. It’s a great idea overall to look at many of these stats by domain or any other segmentation factor you have.

    How did this age group open and convert
    How did life-timers versus my newbees open and convert

    So many stats to look at. I like that you choose the meat and potatoes version for new to email marketing. It should remind us all who have been doing this for a while to go back and look at some of these numbers again.

    We might be missing something or able to see something new.

    Thanks for the great post.


  2. Really good stuff. Another thing to look out for from Yahoo and Hotmail is deferrals. This is where the ISPs will essentially soft bounce your emails because your volumes at the time were more than your assigned reputation allows. This is a big signifier that you are getting too many hard bounces, complaints or hotting spam traps.

    It is a great statement that the metrics are your recipients speaking to you about how engaged they are with your emails.

    Why not try segmenting the most engaged and giving them some really shexzy content: (http://bit.ly/a0S9fc)

  3. Jessica,

    Good post and advice. The only one I get a bit stuck on is the open rate by domain for two reasons:

    1. Auto-image suppression at some of the major ISPs depresses open rates, as you alluded to, which could artificially skew opens negatively. I would suggest looking at action rates (clicks and conversions) as well to see if it’s a pattern.


    2. The audience at each ISP varies. Depending on your brand, you could very well have an active and engaged octogenarian audience at AOL or Yahoo, for instance, but see low opens/actions at Gmail because your content isn’t as engaging to that group of folks. The same can be said for the desktop ISPs like Roadrunner and Outlook. The core audience and breakdown of the demographics at each ISP can help put results in context before applying assumptions to the whole bunch.

    Overall, very sound advice. Thanks for sharing!
    Kelly Lorenz

    • Thanks, Kelly – these are great points!

      I love your advice about overlaying demo- or even psychographics to email addresses by ISP. It’s a great way to monitor your behavior by domain more accurately.

      Thanks for reading!

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