When pilots can’t see the ground or horizon, they rely on six instruments to safely fly an aircraft. These instruments show the plane’s motion, orientation, position, and other critical data. Individually, the information they provide doesn’t mean much but, when taken together, they tell the pilot what to do and where to go.
In some ways, running an email campaign is like flying a plane solely by instrument. The only way to know whether your campaign is actually heading in the right direction is to pay attention to the numbers flashing on your dashboard. But like an aircraft’s instrument panel, a typical email marketing analytics console can be a bit tricky to figure out.
Today’s post provides a complete walkthrough of email marketing analytics. This guide breaks down email analytics into its key component metrics and untangles the relationships between the numbers. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to refine your email marketing analytics suite, know what metrics to focus on, understand what each number means, and find out how to turn raw metrics into actionable insights.
Things You Need
Before getting started with email marketing analytics, you need to have a few things in place to ensure smooth flying. You need to set specific goals, tweak your email marketing process, and choose the right supporting platforms. Here’s a quick pre-flight checklist.
1. Define your email marketing goals clearly
The first step in any marketing activity is to set specific goals. What exactly are you trying to achieve with your campaign? Your answer helps you determine which campaign metrics to prioritize later. Some typical email campaign goals include:
- Reaching out to new prospects
- Nurturing leads and opportunities
- Signing up subscribers
- Verifying/Updating subscription
- Building awareness for products, events, brand, etc.
- Closing deals or generating revenues
- Responding to triggers or actions
Litmus recommends a 4-step process for defining email marketing goals:
- Action (what do you want your recipients to do?)
- Audience (who are you sending the emails to?)
- Benefit (why should your recipients care?)
- Results (how will you measure the success of the campaign?)
Clearly, this entire post revolves around step 4, so we’ll go into more depth about choosing the right metrics in a later section.
2. Refine your email process
Having an end-goal simplifies outlining the exact steps involved in the email campaign. You need a well-defined process in order to identify the things to be measured and tracked. Though exact steps vary from one campaign to another, the following components form the bare essentials for any email marketing initiative (as pointed out by SEMrush):
- Target market segment (email list)
- Email content/copy and design (email templates)
- Email delivery schedules (specific times or triggers)
- Landing or conversion pages
- Email marketing platform (more on this later)
Successful email marketing campaigns deliver value through relevant messages. That’s practically what the entire process strives to accomplish. Each component’s performance and contribution is gauged using a specific metric (or set of metrics). That’s why it’s important to smooth out the email marketing process.
3. Choose the right email marketing platform
There are tons of factors that go into choosing the right email marketing platform, whether you’re doing your campaign in-house or outsourcing it to a third-party provider. One key consideration to carefully weigh is a platform’s reporting and analytics capabilities. Here’s what to look for:
- Provides metrics on long-term subscriber activity and list health (not just basic “vanity” metrics)
- Real-time campaign tracking
- Easy-to-understand reports and summaries
- Various levels of granularity (from segments to aggregates)
- Ability to integrate with other channels’ metrics (e.g., Google Analytics)
- Availability of cross-section and time-series reports
Your email marketing software should enable quick access to the insights you need. You don’t want to spend hours bent over spreadsheets, doing repetitive computations and data retrieval. In addition, it should also be able to provide metrics that tell you about engagement and conversions, not just the usual opens and clicks.
Metrics to Track
Email marketing still ranks as the most data-driven channel in a marketer’s toolkit. From delivery to conversion, each activity is closely tracked, measured, and reported. As a result, the number of different metrics to keep an eye on can get a bit overwhelming. In this section, we’ll take an in-depth look at 10 crucial metrics that should form the core of your email marketing analytics suite.
But first, let’s clear up something that tends to confuse both new and seasoned email marketers alike: the difference between metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). It’s important to get this straightened out because your usage of these two not-so-interchangeable terms has a huge impact on the way you interpret your analytics.
Jonathan Taylor over at klipfolio points out that the difference between metrics and KPIs goes beyond simple semantics. KPIs are values that show how well you’ve met a given business objective (hence, “P” for “performance”). Metrics, on the other hand, track the status of a specific business process.
In other words, all KPIs are metrics, but not all metrics are KPIs. A metric becomes a KPI if and only if the metric is used to gauge how well or how poorly you’re able to hit a target or goal.
With that out of the way, here’s a list of 10 essential email marketing metrics (arranged in no particular order) you need to thoroughly monitor.
1. Delivery Rate
In email marketing speak, a sent email is “delivered” once it makes it through all the servers, gets past the ISP filters, and reaches a valid recipient’s account without bouncing. The delivery rate is simply the ratio of delivered emails to the number of total emails sent.
In short, delivery rates tell you the percentage of emails sent that got accepted by valid email addresses. It gives you an idea of how successfully you’re able to reach recipients’ email accounts.
Delivery rates, however, don’t indicate how many sent emails actually made it into the recipients’ inbox or how many ended up in the spam folder. That’s why it shouldn’t be your sole measure of deliverability.
2. Inbox Placement Rate
Another deliverability metric is inbox placement rate. This is computed by dividing the number of sent emails that actually reached the inbox over the total number of emails sent.
When your email gets “delivered” to a valid address, the mailbox provider decides whether to place your message in the inbox or junk folder. That’s why even if an email is delivered, it doesn’t necessarily mean the recipient gets a chance to see it.
This is why inbox placement rates are a better deliverability metric than delivery rates. Use delivery rate to gauge your email list’s overall health, but refer to inbox placement when figuring out actual deliverability.
3. Soft and Hard Bounces
A bounce happens when an email can’t be delivered. When a bounce occurs, the recipient’s email server rejects an email. This can be due to a number of reasons, which in turn can be permanent or temporary. As MailChimp explains, bounces are classified as soft or hard, depending on how serious the problem is.
Soft bounces are temporary delivery issues caused by problems such as:
- The recipient’s inbox is full.
- The email server is down or offline.
- The email message is too large.
A hard bounce, on the other hand, means that the email encountered a permanent delivery issue such as:
- Sending to invalid email addresses
- Recipients having nonexistent domain names
- Email servers permanently blocking the sender
Among the two, hard bounces are clearly a more serious problem. Hard bounces indicate list quality issues or poor sender reputation. If left unaddressed, high bounce rates can lead to lower deliverability.
4. Open Rate
Email service providers (ESPs) typically compute open rates by taking the number of emails opened and dividing it by the number of emails delivered. While this sounds fairly straightforward, email opens are a little tricky to identify and measure. Usually, ESPs look at two conditions to count email opens (according to CRM provider SuperOffice):
- Images are displayed in the message (either enabled by recipient or based on settings).
- The recipient clicks a link in the message.
This makes open rates a somewhat unreliable engagement metric. When an image on an email finishes loading, it’s recorded as opened regardless of whether the recipient actually sees or reads the message. Also, recipients opening your emails more than once can artificially inflate open rates.
That’s why open rates need to be analyzed together with other email metrics, not taken in isolation.
5. Click-through Rate
Click-through rate (CTR) is calculated by dividing the number of clicks over the volume of delivered emails. CTRs indicate how effectively your subject line, copy, design, offer, and call-to-action are able to engage recipients. The DMA estimates that around 70% of marketers use it to measure their campaign’s success.
But, like open rates, CTRs only show you a partial (and sometimes skewed) picture of email engagement. ConversionXL recommends taking the following into account when analyzing CTRs:
- Difference between total and unique CTRs
- Emails and links opened on different devices
- Recipients clicking on links multiple times
- Firewall checking links for threats
- Links posted on the Web or on social media
Again, CTRs shouldn’t be examined in a vacuum. CTRs need to be monitored and compared with other engagement metrics.
6. Click-to-Open Rate
CTRs take the ratio of clicks to total emails delivered, regardless of whether the emails were opened or not. That means CTRs look at engagement driven by a ton of factors such as timing, subject lines, from lines, etc. CTRs can’t isolate engagement or activity driven by the email’s content/design.
For that, you’re going to measure click-to-open rates (CTORs). Click-to-open rate is the percentage of clicks relative to the number of opened emails.
To make things a bit more concrete, let’s go over a quick example. Let’s say you send 1,000 emails to 1,000 valid addresses. Let’s assume (for simplicity) that all 1,000 messages got delivered and reached recipients’ inboxes. Suppose that 200 people opened the messages and 50 people clicked on a link on the emails. In this example:
- The CTR is 50 / 1,000 = 0.05, (or 5%)
- The CTOR is 50 / 200 = 0.4, (or 40%)
So, which metric is better at measuring engagement? CTR or CTOR? Both CTR and CTOR complement each other. CTR measures an email’s overall performance, while CTOR shows the emails performance in terms of what’s actually in it.
7. Spam Complaint Rate
The spam complaint rate is the percentage of spam complaints relative to the number of delivered emails. Each recipient that marks your email as spam or junk adds to the number of spam complaints. Spam complaint rates indicate negative engagement. The higher this value is, the more unfavorable it is for your campaign.
When the spam complaint rate exceeds some given threshold (usually 0.1%) for some length of time, ISPs tend to look at this as a reason to block your future emails.
To maintain this metric within acceptable levels, make sure to immediately purge your list of contacts who placed spam reports. Also, make sure to send relevant, personalized emails that appeal to your recipients.
8. Unsubscribe Rate
Anti-spam laws and regulations like CAN-SPAM require you to include an unsubscribe option in your emails. The unsubscribe rate is the number of recipients who requested to stop receiving your emails as a percentage of the total delivered emails. In general, you want to keep unsubscribe rates low.
While it can be concerning to find elevated or rising unsubscribe rates, seeing a few unsubscribes from time to time in a campaign is normal. Neil Patel argues that it’s sometimes okay to see spikes in unsubscribes because it’s a way to remove the not-so-engaged contacts from your list and retain those who really matter.
ReturnPath also warns against analyzing this metric by itself, since a decreasing opt-out rate can indicate either better engagement or a lower inbox placement rate.
9. List Churn Rate
Your email list’s rate of churn tells you how fast it’s shrinking in a given time period. List churn refers to the number of records removed due to unsubscribes, hard bounces, and spam reports.
Depending on your email platform or ESP, this metric might not be readily available on standard dashboards and campaign reports. There’s still no universally agreed-upon way to compute list churn rates, but one approach suggested by The 60-Second Marketer is a good starting point:
- Choose a time period
- Determine how many subscribers you’ve lost
- Divide that number by the size of your list
GetResponse estimates that the average email list churn rate is between 25% to 30% each year.
10. Conversion Rate
This is the number of recipients who completed an action (conversions) expressed as a percentage of delivered emails (or some other base number such as total landing page visits). The actions that define a conversion (e.g., filling out a subscription form, downloading an eBook, signing up for a webinar, etc.) depend on the campaign’s goals. This means that your email conversion rate indicates how well you’re actually achieving your objectives.
Conversion rates measure both email engagement and landing page effectiveness. That’s why you need to integrate web analytics into your email platform (step #3 from the previous section). This involves using unique tracking URLs in your emails in order to help you attribute conversions to specific campaigns.
Metrics tell you a lot about your email campaigns. In fact, they reveal everything you need to know to make informed decisions—that is, if you know where and how to look. The things we’ve covered in this guide should help you navigate your campaign toward its objectives. So, keep these ideas in mind and always remember: if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.