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It’s no longer a surprise that email marketing, especially when executed strategically and effectively, has the edge over old-school mailers. The digital nature of email allows for endless flexibility and customization. It makes it almost turn-key when providing timely updates.

And, the means of distribution is effortless for even the most technologically challenged marketers, brands and consumers. Best of all, though, email marketing gives those key players a wealth of data through which they can not only assess the success of their recent campaigns but also strategize and adapt for what’s next in the long term.

Moreover, email marketing removes the guesswork often demanded of brands when researching what resonates most with their customers. Instead, they can point to KPIs (key performance indicators) that demonstrate what their audience finds the most meaningful to them and the content or messaging that compels them to take further action.

The responsible use of such data helps businesses of all sizes optimize their marketing efforts, ensuring everything they do is on point with what their consumers desire at a given point in time.

Making the most of your email marketing KPIs, however, isn’t always as easy as it seems. With so much data at the disposal of marketers, it’s also all too easy to utilize the wrong data sources and even succumb to paralysis by analysis, looking at so much data that it can seem nearly impossible to make key strategic decisions.

With that in mind, let’s look at five main KPIs that we use every day. These metrics inform the decisions of our agency, and they are essential to our success.

Open Rate

Let’s start with the simplest KPI of them all — open rate. In other words, how many people are opening your emails? Open rate is the number of people that opened your messages divided by the total number of emails sent. A high open rate is far preferable to a low open rate.

Open rate is best used within specific segments of emails. For example, the open rate for emails that were sent to a particular buyer persona should be calculated separately from the open rate for a different segment. This is also true of unique email campaigns and special occasions, such as birthday emails or holiday-themed emails. Calculating the open rate in this way will help you to drill down on the types of emails that work for each segment of your audience.

One critical component of open rate — and all email marketing metrics really — is the subject line. We test subject lines constantly so that we can determine the best subject lines to drive our email metrics. An increased open rate is a natural benefit of well-tested and effective subject lines.

Click-Through Rate

Now that people have opened your email, it’s time to look at our next KPI — click-through rate. This metric measures the percentage of people who have clicked on links within your emails. Just as we saw with open rate, the higher the click-through rate, the better you’re doing.

The reason why click-through rate is so important is that you’re no longer looking at vanity metrics. Anyone can open an email; it doesn’t imply any further action. But clicking through on an email indicates interest on the part of the recipient. They may be ready to buy something right now, or they may simply want to check out the terms of a promo code from your email.

In either case, the reader is showing that they’re interested in learning more about your company and your products. When an email recipient on our list clicks on a link in their email, we need to be ready to capitalize on this curiosity by providing enough incentive to move that consumer further down their path to purchase.

Bounce Rate

Unfortunately, not all email marketing metrics correlate to success. You’ll also need to keep an eye on some unsavory numbers. One such figure is bounce rate.

Bounce rate quantifies the number of emails that never made it to their desired destination. There are two different types of email bounces.

A soft bounce is when there’s a temporary problem with an email address, such as an inbox that’s full or an issue with an email server. A hard bounce, on the other hand, is an email that bounces back because of an issue with the email address itself. Hard bounces occur because of emails that are incorrect, invalid, or simply missing.

Unless the intended recipient updates their email address in their online profile on your site, you can’t do anything to get around hard bounces. However, there is one thing you should do — remove those email addresses from your distribution lists. We do this regularly, for one simple reason.

Internet service providers (ISPs) look at hard bounce rates to determine a sender’s reliability. Sending out lots of emails that bounce back is a great way for ISPs to think your domain sends out spam emails regularly, causing your valid emails to end up in the spam folders of your target audience. Clean up bounced emails regularly to prevent this undesirable outcome.

Subscribe & Unsubscribe

As we saw in click-through rate, consumers who subscribe to your email lists are demonstrating a clear interest in your business. Needless to say, lots of new subscribers is a great thing. But new subscriptions have to be balanced against unsubscriptions, which are unfortunately inevitable.

You may be familiar with the concept of churn rate — the rate at which current customers fall off and are replaced by new customers. Subscription and unsubscription figures represent the email marketing version of churn.

An increase in subscribers that’s not negated by unsubscriptions not only helps you to market to a bigger audience, but it also enhances the accuracy of all of your other KPIs. It’s also interesting to look at your records to see exactly who is subscribing and unsubscribing. Are you seeing previous customers coming back and subscribing again? At the same time, are lapsed clients now unsubscribing from your emails?

Don’t obsess over these curiosities, but it never hurts to take a look from time to time and see if any familiar names pop up on these subscription and unsubscription lists. It’s one of the things we do to keep tabs on the people beneath the metrics.

Engagement & Unengagement

No matter what you do in email marketing, you’re not going to get every consumer to open up every email you send. In fact, in a surprisingly high number of cases, you won’t get some people to open up anything you send, no matter how good your subject line is. The good news is that you can use the metrics behind unengagement to create a more enticing offer that might be enough to get inactive individuals to take action.

While it’s important to focus the majority of your energy on customers that are making purchases and driving revenues, it’s always a good idea to provide a little TLC to those email subscribers who haven’t shown much engagement lately. For example, we’ll occasionally take consumers labeled as unengaged — people that haven’t opened an email or clicked a link in a specified period of time — and give those people a great offer.

One such offer might be a “Before you go” email that includes a promo code worth 50% off their next purchase. If they utilize the offer, then they’re right back in the engaged category. If they don’t, we might consider taking them off our email list.

After all, if they won’t respond to our best offer, they probably won’t respond to anything else, either. Taking them off our email lists improves our open rates and bounce rates, since our email distribution audience will be more active after eliminating unengaged consumers.

Email marketing provides marketers with all the metrics they could ever need to become successful. But it takes the right approach and the right follow-up actions to get the most out of these email KPIs. Using KPIs and monitoring metric benchmarks can take your marketing to the new level.

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