Back in 2014, Forbes compiled advice for CEOs from 40 different business leaders — celebrated titans like Warren Buffet, Meg Whitman, and Indra Nooyi. Though each quote has a different flavor, a common thread runs throughout most of them: the importance of long-term thinking.

When you’re running a company, a million things can go wrong on any given day. A CEO who is too focused on small, immediate issues would be incapable of seeing the bigger picture and moving the business forward. In fact, they’d probably collapse under stress.

The same idea holds true in email marketing. Planning and executing email campaigns is a huge responsibility. You’re tasked with reaching people in one of the few digital mediums that remains truly private; you send messages to thousands of subscribers across the country (or globe), messages that have to display properly on every conceivable browser and device. When there are so many variables — many of which are outside your control — you can’t expect to see the same numbers with every send, as if you’re simply punching numbers in a calculator.

What you can and should expect is steady improvement over time. The key to getting there is to keep things simple, and maintain a laser-like focus on the performance indicators that matter — the ones that show you’re doing right by your subscribers.

Focus on the Top-Line Metrics

The most important top-line metrics are open rate (OR), click-through rate (CTR), and click-to-open rate (CTOR). (For more detail on how to think about these metrics, check out our resident data scientist’s post.) If your OR, CTR, and CTOR are up to your company’s standards, you’re golden. If one of them is flagging for a day or even a week, keep an eye on it, but don’t make big changes until it’s been down for at least a few weeks; in business — as in life — there’s always a natural ebb and flow. A single send can tell you very little about the overall success of your email marketing program; a single subscriber’s actions can tell you even less. We recommend evaluating your performance in roughly eight-week chunks, and doing a deep dive at the end of every quarter.

Once you’re sure there’s a problem, create a hypothesis that explains the problem and A/B test it. (For example, if CTOR is down, you might want to test the wording of your CTAs.) If the test doesn’t move the needle, run another test. Rinse and repeat until the metric is back where it needs to be.

The one exception to this rule is deliverability. If your bounce rate is above 0.5%, something’s up, and you should take action as soon as possible. Generally, the problem lies in the list: it might contain too many unengaged subscribers or invalid emails. Otherwise, you might have cranked up your send volume too quickly. Your email might be too big. Email rules are constantly evolving and getting stricter, so it’s a good idea to check up on them frequently; for example, Gmail now penalizes emails that seem too clickbait-y or salacious. Finally, if you’ve recently switched ESPs, it’s possible that you’ve accidentally brought over some previously suppressed contacts, and need to import that original suppression list.  

Keep Segmentation Simple

When people subscribe to your newsletter (or newsletters), they likely tell you about themselves: their state, their interests, how much email they prefer to receive, et cetera. While it’s important to act on the information subscribers give you initially, very few of them keep it updated. What if someone moves? What if they said they were really into fitness, but they spend the majority of their time on the gardening section of your website?

It’s best to avoid creating too many segments based on granular self-reported data. The most effective segments are based on real-time engagement: we recommend creating dynamic segments that automatically opt subscribers up, down, or out depending on how much they’re interacting with your content. Moreover, unless you’ve got a massive variety of content, having more than two or three newsletters is generally unnecessary. If you personalize content recommendations based on how subscribers interact with your site, you might not even need more than one newsletter.

Design With One Goal in Mind

First off: email is a high-ROI channel, but you shouldn’t treat it as a source of easy money by putting ads front and center. You’d be doing a disservice to the people who subscribed to your emails (in spite of the enormous amount of email they wade through already!). Plus, people are quick to express dissatisfaction with emails they don’t like… being called out on Twitter for sending bad email is never great for your brand. Put your best stuff above the fold, clearly differentiate between ads and content, and your subscribers will thank you.

Second, minimize the chance that your email will look funny on someone’s device by keeping the template simple. Stick to web-safe fonts, and avoid adding too many bells and whistles in the name of establishing your brand identity; email is mainly a vehicle for driving traffic to your site, and extra flourishes don’t serve that goal.

Last, when you create an email, ask yourself, “What’s the one thing I want people to do?” Do you want subscribers to click on a piece of content? Share on social media? Comment on your forum? Whatever that thing is, make it the main focus of your email. When you present people with too many options, they tend to respond by choosing none of them.

Ultimately, leadership is about setting the right goals and focusing rigorously on the activities that serve them. It’s never easy, but it’s worth it.

Ready to get fancy with email? Check out our webinar on the best triggered campaigns for publishers, or read about the best triggered campaigns for retailers.

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