Partner Insights: Tips to Optimize Email Program ROI

Each month in our continuing Partner Insights series, we asked several email industry experts to weigh in on timely topics vexing email marketers today. In this issue, we ask our panelists for their top tips to increase email marketing ROI.

Our contributors this month are:

FP (FreshPerspectives): Ed, let’s start with you. What are your top 3 tips to optimize the ROI of an email program?

Ed Hadley: My photography instructor said that by settling for “good enough,” you miss the shot that’s great. Many email marketers have fallen into the same trap. Buoyed by its low cost, email has the highest ROI of any channel ($40.56 per $1 spent1). However, conversion rates average a mere 1.73%2, and nearly one-fifth of emails never reach the inbox.3

Here are three tips to help email programs—and ROI—go from merely good to truly great:

  1. Discover the Holy Grail of 1:1 personalization: In an era of empowered consumers with sky-high expectations, mass marketing is no longer a viable strategy. To drive greater ROI, marketers must deliver highly relevant, personalized messages. Effective personalization hinges on real-time customer profiles encompassing all known and inferred information: socio-demographics, transactions, interests, past responses, present behavior, etc. Interestingly, what most marketers consider personalization is segment-based or even superficial (“Dear John”), which means there’s a huge opportunity to improve results with 1:1 personalization.
  2. Supplement campaigns with event-triggered messages: The best time to market to customers is when they’re actively engaged with your brand. Therefore, supplement traditional campaigns with event-trigged emails driven by customer behavior. Examples include transactional messaging (e.g. leveraging an order confirmation to recommend additional products) and remarketing (e.g. incenting users who abandoned an online shopping cart to complete the purchase). Gartner estimates that inbound and event-triggered techniques will see a 600% higher response rate than traditional outbound campaigns.4
  3. Don’t overlook deliverability: Often regarded as a technical issue, deliverability carries significant ROI implications. Poor deliverability restricts the top of the email marketing funnel, reducing opens, clicks, and ultimately conversions. To achieve great deliverability rates (98-99%), develop a comprehensive deliverability program around four pillars: data quality, message/content, sending infrastructure, and reputation. Companies with large databases can easily generate hundreds of thousands in additional revenue.

FP: Dennis, what advice would you offer our readers to help them maximize the return on their email programs?

Dennis Dayman: Email marketing can be a powerful marketing tool. After all, it’s the only medium that enables marketers to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. But email has its limits in its current state. It used to be that the only things that mattered to email senders were content and filters. But in today’s society, where consumers suffer from information overload and are worried about data collection practices, marketers face a new set of challenges. Abuses like spam, phishing attempts, and other security challenges have made it more difficult for legitimate senders to cut through the noise and deliver relevant messages to their targeted audiences.

Accordingly, deliverability is the foundation of every successful email marketing program. And successful email deliverability depends on a combination of best practices (list management), email authentication, and reputation:

  1. Digital body language: In order for marketers to improve email marketing deliverability and open rates, they must ensure they are delivering the right message to the right person at the right time. Marketers can accomplish this goal by reading a prospect’s “digital body language” and using this knowledge to guide the buying process. What Web pages did prospects visit? Which emails captured their interest? What “breadcrumbs” are they leaving behind that show their path through the buying process? Marketers should assess a prospect’s wants and needs while also looking back at previous purchasing habits to make informed decisions on how best to target them.
  2. Segment inactives: If someone is continually receiving email without ever opening or clicking through, they have unsubscribed in their mind without taking the time to physically click the unsubscribe link. These individuals pose a significant complaint risk – at some point, they will flag the email as spam out of annoyance. Inactives can also become spamtrap addresses. Either way, it’s best to get them out of your general marketing sends before they cause problems for your active users.
  3. Stay on message and do what you promised: Marketers often get overzealous with their programs and start sending irrelevant information to their subscribers. This leads to excessive spam complaints, which results in blocking issues. If the subscriber asked for a certain email topic from your company, you need to stick to that topic. Never assume subscribers will want new information; never think for them. Subscribers should have control over selecting the information that’s most relevant to them. If you remember this, you’ll be rewarded with a loyal subscriber base.

FP: Rick, we’re fortunate to have your participation this month, particularly to speak to our nonprofit marketing readers. We’re eager to get your perspective on this.

Rick Christ: I’m happy to oblige. Nonprofit marketers face many of the same challenges as their counterparts in the for-profit sector. That said, I’d add the following three pieces of advice to the mix:

1. Integrate with social: Combine your email messaging with your social media presence. Excerpts from your email content can become Facebook posts and Tweets. Social media expands your reach because it meets your supporters where they “live.” With consistent messaging across channels, it can help increase open rates and boost overall conversion.

  • Build excitement with posts and tweets a couple of hours before the email release and follow with updates a few hours after the launch. Link one of your posts or tweets to an online version of your latest email.
  • Provide sample “share” copy with colleagues, volunteers and friends, so they can help spread the word via their own social network sites.
  • Use compelling graphics for goal-oriented campaigns such as a thermometer on your Facebook page to display the latest results.
  • Include a “last minute reminder” tweet and post for appeals with a deadline.

2. Connect the dots: Read the last email you sent them, and analyze the results and feedback from donors before you send the next message. People expect a certain continuity from any correspondent; haphazard, “here’s-the-latest-urgent-news” emails get discounted. It can be as simple as, “Whether you donated or not to our emergency food appeal for Thanksgiving, we wanted to tell you that it was a success, and we collected 10,193 pounds of food to distribute to your neighbors in need.” THEN you can move on to the new point. If people think you’re talking with them, instead of at them, they’ll read on.

3. Accommodate mobile: Most smartphone users view much of their email on their phones, so make sure your email messages will render nicely on Apple and Android devices. Every page on your website should be optimized for mobile browsers; otherwise, if donors click once and get garbage, they’re not likely to click again from their cell phones.

FP: Thank you, everyone, for your valuable advice. We’d like to underline the importance of Ed’s comment regarding deliverability. Even the most compelling marketing message will fall on deaf ears if it doesn’t reach its intended recipient.Clean and update your list on a regular basis, and be sure to use an ECOA (Email Change of Address) service to keep in touch with the 30% of your subscriber base that’s likely to change their email addresses each year. In addition, consider cloud-based real-time hygiene and correction (such as REACT) at the point of registration, to keep bouncing, undeliverable, and problematic addresses out of your database in the first place.

Thank you again to our panelists for sharing your expertise!


1 DMA, “The Power of Direct Marketing,” October 2, 2011

2 DMA, “2010 Response Rate Trend Report,” June 15, 2010

3 ReturnPath, “Global Email Deliverability Benchmark Report, 1H 2011,” September 20, 2011

4 Gartner, Inc., “Top Seven CRM Marketing Processes for 2011,” April 15, 2011

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