Your open rates decline. Click rates, falling.
‘Subscriber recency’ sets in, resulting in declining performance across the board.
So what now?
You send more email. And at first, it pays off handsomely. The increased frequency – at volume – works at first. And then?
Over optimization. People ignore. Complain. And unsubscribe.
Then things get interesting.
How the Engineering Behind a Billion Daily Emails Affects Your Results
MailChimp alone sends a billion (with a ‘B’) emails a day, according to an excellent, recent Wired article.
And apparently, that ain’t no thang – as alls you gotta do is add more servers to send more email. A simple equation any third grader can tell you.
Instead, the hard part (and the focus of the article) isn’t sending, but delivering.
The real problem facing MailChimp (along with every other email marketing service out there) is making sure that they’re evolving along with Gmail, Outlook, and others to make sure all of your emails are getting delivered.
This used to be easy back in the good old days. Sure, email service providers would scan incoming emails for the basic key phrases like ‘Viagra’. Other obvious signals included spammy ‘from’ addresses. Unfortunately for marketers everywhere, that ain’t the case any longer.
Instead, today they use things like ‘Reputation scoring’ (say what?!) that factors in a bunch of different variables which make sending any ‘group messages’ increasingly more difficult.
To combat this, savvy providers like MailChimp use techniques like ‘batch processing’ according to Vice President of Operations Joe Uhl. Instead of delivering your email all at once, they’ll send in tiny groups initially in order to get some quick feedback.
For example, are the rate of unsubscribes or spam complaints rising in that first group? Not a good sign for that account, as MailChimp won’t hesitate to kill that campaign or even suspend pending a manual review).
The reason MailChimp is infamously aggressive in policing who’s sending what through their system comes back to the original issue at hand: deliverability. A few bad apples abusing their servers threaten to jeopardize deliverability for all of MailChimp’s other accounts too.
In contrast, if the initial ‘batch processing’ results show that people are opening emails quickly, it’s a promising sign that people are eagerly awaiting to receive this email.
Of course, this is just one tiny example of techniques used to combat the growing deliverability problem that threatens to plague marketers everywhere.
And that’s just the start of your problems.
How to Value Your Email Marketing Results
The biggest problem you face when sending marketing emails is deliverability.
But let’s say you actually get those things delivered in the first place. You’re still not out of the woods just yet.
Machine learning is now being used en masse to assess the relationship between you and the recipient in real-time, also considering factors like the number of images or links being used in an email, to correctly categorize your newsletters as Promotional at an astonishingly accurate pace.
That means X% gets ‘delivered.’ But you’ll have to account for X%-Y% for all the ones that your peeps won’t see.
Figuring out your effective Open Rates, out of that updated ‘delivered’ number, isn’t a cakewalk either.
Email Open Rates, one of your HiPPO’s favorite vanity metrics to obsess over, have unfortunately been notoriously unreliable for as long as most marketers can remember. Because it’s not a ‘true’ rate, but a calculated one.
Most email marketing software, like MailChimp, will: “load a tiny, transparent image into each campaign, counting how often the image is loaded among delivered campaigns”. The problem comes when many email service providers, especially desktop-based clients like Outlook, turn images off by default.
Images turned off = the transparent tracking image doesn’t load. That tracking image doesn’t load = an Open is not counted (even though it theoretically should have been).
The result is that your Open Rates are commonly much lower (or under-reported) than reality.
(1) The way you’re valuing emails is wrong. The focus should instead be placed on actions driven (like clicks or sales), with less attention heaped on Reach metrics.
(2) The race to the bottom in order to improve said Reach metrics – specifically over-emphasizing the quantity of emails being sent regardless of the quality – slowly sabotages your long-term results.
Here’s how to fix that.
3 Ways to Combat Declining Email ROI
Here’s why you should, and alter your approach to improve results.
Tip #1. Get Rid of Dead Weight
One of the first, best things to address is all of the ‘dead weight’ literally pulling down your current email performance.
You’ve got tons of subscribers, who’ve undoubtedly been there for months and months and months, who haven’t opened or clicked on a single thing since they first joined. So step 1?
Start by deleting email subscribers who’re no longer engaged and active. These people can do more harm than good, typically being among the first to hit Spam when your email comes in or unsubscribing in large droves – all of which threaten your ‘reputation’ and thus deliverability.
We’re ignoring the obvious here too: people who’ve been signed up against their will.
No matter whether you’re met them at a conference, or purchased their list, get them out of your email marketing software to keep your deliverability intact and put them into something else entirely (I like PersistIQ for example).
There’s no greater way to double-down on quality rather than quantity by deleting people who’ll (a) never sign up as a customer anytime soon and (b) only jeopardize your results.
(If the thought of deleting emails makes you squeamish, simply put those emails in a custom audience for remarketing or retargeting ads, reactivating them when the time is right to join again.)
Tip #2. Raise the Barrier to Entry
Counter-intuitively, raising the barrier to entry can also keep your email list squeaky clean; ensuring that only people who really want to be there will sign up.
For example, when HubSpot deleted 250,000 (!) email subscribers for the reasons listed here, they also got rid of their ‘Instant’ email sign-up option. Instead, people had to take a lengthier (and thus, lower converting) process.
That extra effort required weeds out the fickle for the few.
Sure – that full-screen welcome mat feature that takes over your entire blog visitor’s screen probably bumps up the number of people opting-in. But are you attracting people interested solely in the immediate gratification of whatever you have to offer at that moment? Or are they true fans; the ones who’ll click on every email over the next few months (even years) and purchase what you got to offer?
There’s a reason MailChimp strictly enforces a double opt-in. Lists with double opt-in members show significantly higher engagement levels over time (with less spam to boot). And engagement is what leads to sales.
Ultimately that lower subscriber count might make you a little less cool when you #humblebrag about your social proof online. But if it means better deliverability, higher engagement, and more clicks? Probably a good bet.
Tip #3. Don’t Broadcast; Personalize
It should go without saying at this point that the traditional spray-and-pray email approach should, obviously, evolve with the times too. The first step is to move away from broadcast-based emails in favor of a more personal, tailored approach. (And I ain’t talking ‘bout no “Hey $FNAME” either.)
How? Marketing automation.
Specifically, start with segmentation. What are the triggers, or reasons, people joined this list at this moment in time. This should be so obvious as to make statistical evidence superfluous. But here’s a few:
As the number of qualified leads, sales opportunities and average sales goes up, so does revenue.
There’s also the added bonus of utilizing automation, taking a bunch of work off your (and your team’s) plate, allowing you to go back and focus on what you’re good at in the first place.
Automation workflows can even be used to pick up on the unengaged people who might churn in the near future, either unsubscribing them on purpose ahead of time or sending a reactivation campaign to elicit some interest and last-minute action.
This technique also has the ironic benefit of enabling you to send more emails (albeit for a short amount of time), getting around the frequency problem discussed ad nauseam here.
Blasting people’s inboxes only teaches them to ignore you over time. Incorporating more nuance with specific triggers and timing can allow you to send more emails when the moment is right, and back off the frequency when you’ve overstayed your proverbial welcome.
But with billions of email sent daily and the ever-increasing number your subscribers are already getting, more isn’t better. Better is.
Getting through to the people who care, the ones you’re eagerly awaiting what you have to say, should be priority #1.
And many of the things people used to favor, like Total Subscribers, Total Sent and Open Rates, might only hurt deliverability in the long run.
Instead, doubling down on quality by (1) getting rid of dead weight, (2) raising the barrier to entry and (c) focusing on personalization rather than broadcasting can help you cut through the noise that shows no signs of slowing.
Because actually getting your email delivered into their inbox has never been more challenging.