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Metrics that matter: email marketing

December 5, 2017 | By Tim Bourgeois — Digital Media Auditor and Consultant @ChiefDigOfficer

Email marketing, which was likely the first digital marketing tactic to go mainstream, has experienced a public relations drubbing over the past decade. Maybe it all started in the wake of the CAN-SPAM act of 2003, and the category has yet to recover its shiny gloss. But savvy professionals know otherwise: When employed smartly, email can be one of the core components of a successful marketing operation.

Source: Smart Insights, GetResponse Survey


When thinking about your organization’s email marketing strategy and planning for improved performance, here are the metrics you need to keep top-of-mind.

1. Everyone’s Doing It

This statement applies to both individuals and corporations. According to Pew Research, 88% of smartphone users actively check email on their phones. Also, after being around for more than two decades, most organizations have some kind of either active or passive email marketing strategy in place – because it works. In a recent survey by Smart Insights and Get Response, more than 50% of marketers said email marketing performed good or excellent, outperforming all other tactics. And, eMarketer forecasts the U.S. email advertising market to increase from $343M this year to $500M+ in 2021 – not the skyrocketing growth we see in other digital categories, but not bad considering it’s been around awhile. 

If you don’t have a formal email marketing strategy in place, prioritize its design and launch as soon as possible. It’s likely there’s an in-house list that exists somewhere and can be dusted off and put to use. If are currently engaged in email marketing, have a senior member of the marketing team assess its status and budget. Depending on the type of organization, the email marketing budget should account for 2.5% – 25% of overall marketing spending. A large, B2B company will skew smaller while a small B2C company will skew larger.

2. Be Wary of ‘Rate’ Metrics

Yes, this is an article on metrics, but too many organizations measure email marketing team performance on their rates: open rates, click-through rates, deliverability rates, etc. While meaningful in some ways, they aren’t very useful in the context of strategic marketing goals like branding, engagement, and conversions. Deep-pocketed technology companies with sophisticated marketing and sales operations like Constant Contact, Hubspot, Marketo, and Salesforce have force-fed the industry a set of metrics which, outside of small and specialized email teams, aren’t very meaningful. Senior marketing managers and non-marketing executives don’t need to understand the minutia of the operations, and sharing ground-level performance data with them only weakens the impact.

Email marketing performance is best viewed vis a vis other marketing tactics (direct mail, events, telemarketing, etc.) and its ability to contribute to customer acquisition and retention. While the true, absolute contributions of a tactic like email can often require sophisticated modeling and measurement operations – rolling up to attribution – the baseline metrics that are easy to track and serve as a reasonable proxy for attribution are engagement and sharing. Both are genuine measurements of the impact of an email’s content and strategies.

3. Take the Long View

Successful email marketing operations follow a 3-to-1 give-versus-ask ratio. That is to say, they only ask for something – a purchase, a piece of information – one time for every three times they give. While people have an overall preference to email-based communications from brands, their biggest point of feedback, according to an Adobe survey, is to make the correspondence “less about promotion and more about providing me information”. This is a big challenge for brands of all stripes, as hammering email lists to meet quarterly or year-end goals is a common tactic, but a short-sighted one.

While challenging, employing the 3:1 ratio isn’t as difficult as it might seem. A “give” to a user base could be a coupon, an entertaining but brand-promoting video, or a white paper or webinar pass. It takes some creativity, but most organizations have enough assets in place to make this happen without extraordinary effort. The important thing is to approach an email marketing strategy from a user-based perspective, and get the audience to look forward to opening your emails. It’ll pay major dividends over the long run.

To be sure, email marketing is capable of delivering on nearly every major marketing goal in our crosshairs: branding, awareness, thought leadership, engagement, acquisition, and retention. So, from a marketing strategy perspective, it’s not a question of “if”, but rather “how much”? That email marketing is the oldest and least shiny object among the current digital marketing toolset – which includes search, display, social, native, video, etc. – means that it might require an extra dose of support during budgeting season. But for most organizations, it’s well-worth the effort.

Tim Bourgeois (@ChiefDigOfficer) is a partner at East Coast Catalyst, a Boston-based digital consulting company specializing in strategic roadmaps, marketing audits, and online marketing optimization programs.

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