How to avoid the 3 most common slip-ups in email marketing

Sam Holding, Head of International at SparkPost, explains how new thinking and metrics are needed in order to support marketers as they focus on driving customer value.

As marketers, we all aspire to gain a deeper understanding of the customer’s journey and, although metrics regarding inbox and deliverability behaviors can produce meaningful insights, we may on some levels be using a little bit of guesswork… Even on our best days. But not everything we need, in terms of metrics, tools and technologies, is currently available to us, and our collective reach currently exceeds our grasp.

Conventional metrics – as great as they are – don’t tell the whole story; a story we need to know, because it will help us build deeper engagement and more lasting relationships with customers.

The turning point
Marketers have never before had as much data, or as many tools and channels available to them. Yet the general feeling is that marketing is more challenging than ever.

Case in point: consumers are suffering from information overload. This is certainly not new news, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s increasingly difficult to get their attention, and to break through the noise. Not to mention that it’s more difficult to generate interest and consideration, let alone conversions, and that one of the things that increases noise and clutter – interruptive digital marketing – also erodes attention.

The regulatory environment is more challenging as well, GDPR being a notable example of the regulations affecting the way marketers collect and use customer data. Add to this the purge of third-party cookies to the list of challenges too, as their demise will likely compromise the efficacy of many ad tech products, eliminating vast pools of third-party data.

Marketers are forever in search of the perfect balance. Too much customer communication may lead to diminishing returns, and you run the risk of being ignored or unsubscribed, but too little communication and your customers may forget about you, lose interest or focus on another shiny object. With a nod to Goldilocks, it’s got to be just right.

Naturally, there is no one-size-fits-all number; as always, the answer is “it depends.” What is not up for debate is that customers ignore or are irritated by contact about things they don’t care about. It’s also clear that they respond to emails that add value to their lives and are relevant to their interests. It’s why listening to the customer remains the top priority, and why canary-in-the-coal-mine metrics including Click to Open Rate and Unique vs Total Opens and Clicks are so critical.

So what are the three most common slip-ups in email marketing, and what can we do to avoid them?

No. 1 – Blind to the true impact of your campaigns
There are a lot of reasons to love email. It gives unrivaled return on investment; extraordinary, immediate impact; global reach and scalability; easy measurement and rich analytics; and is highly targetable, with low friction. And did I mention it can work really well?

It’s therefore important to understand the true impact of email campaigns, which may go beyond engagement and conversions to disengagement or worse. A failed campaign is not necessarily just a missed opportunity; there are costs involved, too.

For example, a customer annoyed by the barrage of irrelevant emails may ignore them (which may be the best outcome under the circumstances). But what’s worse is if they unsubscribe. That equates to more than the simple loss of an email record – it’s the squandered time and money spent acquiring that record in the first place, causing higher customer acquisition costs because you have to replace the unsubscribed person.

A series of negative experiences can diminish customer engagement and cost you goodwill. Ultimately, they can mess with the hard-earned equity in your brand. It’s therefore important to calculate the future loss attributed to unsubscribes from campaign revenue to get a true picture of the revenue impact of losing a subscriber.

No. 2 – Not seeing true measures
It’s tempting to focus on the performance of campaigns or programs, but it’s just as important to consider another measure, which may be lesser known but is also critical for fueling your understanding of the customer relationship: the disengagement rate.

This looks at unsubscribes using clicks as the denominator. Adopting the disengagement rate metric is a small change that can pay big dividends as it shows you the campaigns that stand out as the worst offenders – something typical unsubscribe rates do not.

Here is an example:

Unsubscribe rate (delivered as denominator)

Disengagement rate (clicks as denominator)









Combined with this, you may also want to consider these key measures, which should be on every CMO’s dashboard: ­

  • True clicks. This figure is calculated by subtracting the number of unsubscribes from the number of clicks in your email.

  • True deliverability, which is the percentage of your emails that are actually delivered rather than the volume accepted into the email client. True deliverability tells you how much of your email is ending up in customers’ inboxes rather than in spam folders.

  • Click to Open Ratio. This is a net calculation that paints a clear picture of performance, measuring the number of clicks as a percentage of opens.

  • Unique vs Total Opens and Clicks. This involves understanding the number of unique opens and clicks an email gets. Knowing whether a customer engaged with the email multiple times is just as valuable when wanting to see if your content and message are engaging enough for revisits.

  • Mobile vs. Desktop Opens. It’s helpful to know the environment where your customer is seeing your email. It may change the way you think about them, and how best to engage them.

No. 3 – A concealed customer’s journey
Just looking at the first click or last click in the customer’s journey is a bit like inspecting an object in the dark: you are never going to see the full picture. Of course, every marketer would like to see every step, stumble and digression in the customer’s journey but the reason they don’t is because they can’t.

Even with the amazing strides in marketing attribution, it is often difficult to understand behaviors that start with an email or other digital touch, and end offline – especially if there is no loyalty program or it’s a cash transaction. Unfortunately there’s not always enough clarity about how the customer is navigating a multichannel environment. Nor how the customer’s needs and journey will change over time.

But focusing more on Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) can often lead to more long-term thinking about the customer, and more attention is paid to the things that transform occasional transactions into long-term relationships.

Adopting the long-term CLV view of things fundamentally changes the way companies go to market. Strategically, there’s less emphasis on products, and more on long-term drivers of what the customer considers valuable. Campaigns are viewed and measured not as discrete events, but as touch points along the way, based on each customer’s stage or status within the email subscriber lifecycle. More energy is invested in understanding the customer’s behavior across each channel and in determining the right mix of content, delivered at the right moments.

CLV also prompts companies to think about the relative value of customers. Some customers offer greater long-term value than others, and merit a greater investment of time and energy to cultivate.

Those CMOs that understand the importance of CLV are able to appropriately reallocate a portion of spend previously earmarked to acquire customers to retention efforts. Instead of losing money on individual customers, meaning the cost to acquire a customer is higher than the CLV, brands leveraging this metric see stronger and more stable returns on their marketing spend.

So where to start when planning out your next email marketing campaign? Here are five steps to get going:

1. Get greater alignment with your team – including your management – on the customer metrics that matter, and ensure they are on everyone’s dashboard.

2.Take a fresh look at how you measure customer value, including assessing total purchase engagement rather than on responses to email alone.

3. Rethink planning, management and optimization to ensure customer focus is at least as prominent as individual program focus.

4. Recognize that the true costs of email include the value of audiences lost from sending them too many, sending too many irrelevant emails, plus unsubscribes, opt-outs and spam complaints.

5. Use customer responses and behavior within the subscriber lifecycle to drive contact strategy and cadence.

Even the most sophisticated of marketers slip-up from time to time. Understanding where these potential mistakes are can help you avoid them.