Anatomy of a Successful Email Campaign: What to Optimize And When

by Etienne Garbugli no comments.

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Great. You’ve setup your email marketing program, and it’s starting to perform. Let’s take it to the next level.

To get great results with email marketing automation, you need to change your mindset.

Your emails get sent day and night, every day. The sooner you start optimizing their performance, the more results you’ll see in the future.

  • More people opening your emails = more prospects considering your offer.
  • More prospects considering your offer = more sales.

Well… if you’re doing email campaign optimization.







Once you’ve established baseline performances for your emails, you only need a few minutes each week to make real progress with your program.

To make sure you find the time, we recommend blocking one or two hours each week to review email performance, improve copy, and setup A/B tests.

We created the following guide to help marketers know exactly what to optimize when it comes to email.

When to Optimize Email Deliverability

According to ReturnPath’s 2015 Email Deliverability Benchmark Report, 21% of opt-in emails never make it to the inbox. That means that 21% of your audience probably never hears from you… That’s huge!

A lot of factors go into email deliverability (reputation, relevance, email format, send volume, spam complaints, bounce rates, blacklists, etc). Unless you’re sending your emails via a transactional email platform (SendGrid, Mandrill, MailGun, etc), it won’t be easy to benchmark yourself against that 21%. Most email platforms will only let you know when there’s issues:

MailChimp Deliverability Report
MailChimp’s Deliverability Dashboard

As a rule of thumb, if you’re receiving spam complaints or are having deliverability issues, you need to address those first. Deliverability issues will drag down the performance of your email marketing program.

What to Optimize – Email Deliverability

To assess the deliverability of your emails, you can run spam checks with the Free Email Spam Checker or Litmus (Not Free) (For more testing tools, read 19 Email Testing Tools to Ensure Campaign Success Before You Send Emails). You can also improve deliverability by optimizing the following:

  1. The Double Opt-in: Double opt-in is when a user needs to confirm his or her wish to be added to your email list twice. In many parts of the world (Europe, Canada, etc), double opt-in is the standard. Asking for a second confirmation reduces the risk of getting flagged as spam.
  2. The Unsubscribe Link: All of your emails should have clear one-click unsubscribe links and a physical mailing address in the footer. Delaying handling of unsubscribes or forcing your subscribers to jump through hoops to get off your mailing list is a bad idea; it often results in getting your emails marked as spam (it’s the easiest way to unsubscribe!).
  3. The Content: In the eyes of spam filters, words aren’t created equal. To ensure delivery of your emails, avoid spammy words, all cap text and exclamation points. This is especially true for subject lines.
  4. The Sender’s Name: A recognizable sender’s name will help improve the deliverability of your emails. Again, make sure that the name doesn’t include spam words.
  5. The Sender’s Email Address: To help further improve deliverability, you can ask your subscribers to white-list your email address. Email whitelisting will help keep your emails out of the Spam folder and improve your email’s score.
  6. The Email Format: Although this is certainly less true than before, offering both HTML and plain text versions of your emails helps improve deliverability. In fact, the lighter your emails are, the more likely they are to be delivered.

Thankfully, most email marketing platforms (MailChimp, Hubspot, ActiveCampaign, etc) monitor deliverability to ensure that your emails reach the inbox.

A lot of platforms won’t actually allow you to send digital marketing emails if they have high spam scores.

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When to Optimize Email Opens

Your email’s open rate is one of the most important metric to evaluate the performance of your email marketing campaign.

In short, the more people open your email, the more people are able to consider your offer. Improving your open rate is the easiest way to widen your email marketing funnel.

As mentioned before, it doesn’t make sense to optimize email open rates when emails under-deliver. However, if you’re ready to optimize the open rates of your emails, you’ll want to aim for opens of 30 to 50%.

With good customer segmentation, an engaged subscriber-base, and constant email campaign optimization, I’ve seen open rates of 78%.

What to Optimize – Email Opens

If your emails don’t open as much as they should, chances are, you’ll have to improve one of the following factors (ranked by influence over the open rate):

  1. The Subject Line: The subject line is the element that has the most influence over an email’s open rate. A great subject line can get almost any email opened. However, if the content doesn’t relate to the subject line or the offer is irrelevant, it will damage the subscribers’ trust, and negatively-impact their willingness to open future emails. You can pre-test your subject lines using a subject line tester.
  2. The Preview Text: The preview text is the first line of your email or an hidden text element visible next to the subject line in most email clients (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, etc). It’s an opportunity to create curiosity, showcase personalization (e.g. ‘Hey John’) or highlight key email body elements.
  3. The Sender’s Email Address: The sender’s email address is the address that subscribers white-list or mark as spam. It makes sense to keep the same email address to help subscribers white-list it. However, sometimes changing that email address can help rejuvenate under-performing campaigns.
  4. The Sender’s Name: There’s a lot of experiments to run around the sender’s name: Personal vs Company, Male vs Female, Common name (e.g. Matt) vs Atypical name (e.g. Jorane), etc. Having a clear picture of your target audience can help inspire tests for different campaigns.
  5. The Timing: There are good and bad times to send email campaigns. If you think about your subscribers’ timezones and schedules (business or consumer), you can find ways to improve the timing of your email campaigns. Although platforms like MailChimp or Intercom offer automated scheduling and timezone adjustment (based on subscribers’ timezones), I’ve personally had more success sending emails at fixed times during the week (My go-to is 5PM EST on Mondays ;-).

Other factors that might impact the open rate of your emails are customer segmentation and timing within your email marketing program (e.g. Send on Day 1 or on Day 10?). We’ll cover those in other posts.


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When to Optimize the Email Body

There’s limited value in doing email optimization of the email body without a decent open rate. With open rates of 10 to 20%, it can take time to get anywhere close to statistically significance.

However, if 30 to 50% of your emails get opened, but you’re getting less than a 1/6th of your subscribers to click, respond or engage, you’ll want to improve the performance of your email content.

What to Optimize – Email Body

If your subscribers open your emails, but don’t engage with the content, you’ll have to improve one of the following factors (ranked by influence over the email clickthrough rate):

  1. The Offer: The offer is your core. Without an appropriate ask, your email will never work. Understand the goal of the email, and test variations. 20% off? 15% off? 10% off? Make sure the offer is appropriate and is well-timed within the customer journey of your subscribers.
  2. The Template: The email template helps create the first impression. If your template is image-heavy, and under-performing, try a more personal format. Your emails are short, but don’t hit the mark? Try long-form copy. If your plain emails aren’t performing, add formatting.
  3. The Greetings: Greetings (e.g. ‘Hi Sandra’) are the minimum level of personalization you should be doing for your campaign. It helps capture the reader’s attention and creates connection. You can add more personalization (e.g. city, company, use case with the product, etc), but personalization often shows a diminishing return.
  4. The Pull: The pull is the first paragraph of your email. It’s the introduction copy that convinces your subscriber to read the email. If your offer, template and greetings are good, the pull is your best bet to increase the clickthrough rate.
  5. The Call to Action (CTA): Before I started weekly email campaign optimization, I thought call to actions would have a lot of influence over clickthrough rates. It turns out that CTAs help, but they don’t have a transcending impact over the performance of the email. If the offer is compelling and the reader is engaged, the button label doesn’t seem to matter so much. Instead of experimenting with the labels, try testing text vs button links or link placement within the email. Some businesses position their CTAs at the top of the email. Bonus: Try adding a P.S. to your email. 😉
  6. The Tone: Once your email is starting to perform, you can start experimenting with the tone of the copy. Your target audience might react positively to more direct, salesy or casual tones.

When to Optimize Your Landing Page

Your emails are opening, and you’re getting clicks to your website. What next?

Email clicks often aren’t enough to properly assess an email’s performance. To truly understand what happens when a subscriber clicks the links in your emails, you’ll want to track performance on your website or landing page. You’ll want to know if your users perform the action you want them to perform (purchase, read content, engage, etc), or if they just bounce.

Core metrics for your analysis will be Time-on-Site, Reading Rate, Bounce Rate and Goal Completion.

You can use Google Analytics with utm codes or Highlights to quickly get that information.

We’ll cover what to optimize on-site in an upcoming post. Sign up to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything!

Etienne Garbugli
Étienne is a three-time startup founder (Flagback, HireVoice and Highlights), and the author of Lean B2B: Build Products Businesses Want. At Highlights, Étienne is responsible for customer success.

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