When Good Enough Shouldn’t Be: Fixing Email Performance Problems

December 4, 2019 | 11 minute read
Clint Kaiser
Head of Analytic & Strategic Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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When faced with a problem, it’s easy to get sidetracked into focusing on superficial metrics or jump to conclusions, especially when it involves what appears to be a quick fix. Instead, marketers need to look beyond the obvious and easy, and ask deeper questions like:

  • What’s the core driver of the issue?

  • Are there multiple issues at work here?

  • What levers can I pull to mitigate or accelerate what’s happening?

  • What’s the best way to test my theories to come to a clear course of action?

 Let’s break down some common email performance problems where it’s easy to misidentify the symptoms as the core problem rather than asking more questions and properly identifying the root cause. 

“My open rates are bad and getting worse.”

If your open rates are under 15% and trending down, that’s definitely a problem that needs fixing.

If you treat this as the core problem, you might…

Blame your subject lines. Perhaps you’d try some really vague, mysterious, and intriguing subject lines to entice people to open. Perhaps you’d run some subject line A/B tests, determining the winner based on which one drove the highest open rates. But if you did those things, you’d likely see your open rates jump...and then fall to lower lows as your open-bait subject lines frustrate and fatigue your subscribers.

Blame your from name. Perhaps you believe that your subscribers would be more inclined to open your emails if, instead of using your brand name, you used your CEO's name or the name of someone else at your brand. If you did that, you’d likely see your spam complaint rates increase, as some of your subscribers wouldn’t open emails from people they don’t recognize. And for the people whose curiosity got the better of them, some of those folks would feel tricked and would be less inclined to engage with you in the future because of this deceitful tactic. 

Now it’s possible that your poor open rates are due to problems with your subject line strategy. If your subject lines strike the same note every time, you could be boring your subscribers. If your subject lines aren’t transparent about what your email is about, your lower email performance could be a sign of declining trust.

 And it’s possible that your from name is an issue. Have you changed your from name strategy recently? Is your brand name front and center to maximize recognition? Most countries read left to right and will start with the from line, so if there’s some tinkering that’s happened there, it’s worth re-evaluating. 

If you recognize this as a symptom of the root cause, you might…

Improve your segmentation. Sending more segmented emails based on subscriber interests or behaviors can improve your open rates overall. Can you send segmented emails based on geography, such as subscribers within 200 miles of a ski resort? Or based on an interest, such as subscribers who have browsed a certain product category within the past six months? You want a segment that represents a substantial revenue opportunity but isn’t so broad that the message loses focus, so that’s the sweet spot you’re aiming for. Of course, you can also segment emails simply based on engagement levels, which brings us to the possible need to...

Strengthen your inactivity management and reengagement programs. Behavioral cues are strong in email. One of the strongest is when subscribers consistently ignore all of your email messages. Inactivity tolerances vary by ISP, with Gmail and Outlook.com having lower tolerances and Yahoo and AOL having higher tolerances. Your email frequency will also affect where you set your inactivity limits, with higher cadence senders needing to set tighter limits. Various clients I work with have inactivity thresholds set at 45, 90, 180, or 365 days—or, in some special cases, even longer—after which they pause contact and start working on re-engaging a subscriber. Regardless of where you draw the line, continuing to send messages that are virtually certain to be ignored will only exacerbate your open rate decline.  

Apply greater targeting parameters to your frequency rules. Just like emailing your less-active subscribers decreases open rates, increasing your email frequency does the same. For instance, if you go from mailing three times per week to five times per week, your open rates will almost certainly fall significantly. The smartest marketers recognize and then identify the sweet spot in email frequency for each individual based on how in-market they are or could be at any given point in time. 

Optimize your deployment schedule. There’s a lot of data available to inform the best days and times to send your emails. Whether you send daily, weekly, or monthly, targeting your subscriber base when they are most likely to be in their inbox and willing to engage with your messaging is one anecdote to declining open and click rates. Ignoring this data month after month will contribute to a decline in open rates. 

Determine if it’s all of your subscribers or a subset that’s driving the decline in opens. Is the decline in email performance largely driven by your most valuable customers, by infrequent purchasers and non-purchasers, or by a mix of the two groups? Knowing this will help you to understand how to prioritize the issue and where to start focusing on the resolution. For instance, if it’s your best customers that are ceasing to open your emails, that’s a much bigger issue than if the dip is being caused mainly by window shoppers.  

“My click rates are bad and getting worse.”

Your clickthrough rates are in the low single digits and falling. You need to get them higher because of engagement, revenue, or deliverability concerns—or all three.

If you treat this as the core problem, you might…

Blame your creative team. You might complain to your creative team that the color of your call-to-action buttons isn’t optimized or your preview text isn’t snappy enough. Perhaps you feel the copy isn’t pushing enough or that incentives aren’t positioned prominently enough. 

Add more content. You may decide that since what you’ve been sending hasn’t resonated as strongly as you’d hoped, expanding what’s already in the email is a good approach. More products, more stories, more categories—add enough additional content and presumably there will be something of interest for everyone in every email. However, unfocused emails can underperform.

Send more email. Perhaps expanding the number of chances your subscribers have to click by sending more email is in order. That might increase the total number of clicks across your campaigns, but it’s also likely to depress your click rate even more. After all, if your subscribers weren’t interested in your content the first 20 times, that won't change much on the 21st time. 

Yes, aesthetics matter and brand compliance are important, but would you rather have beautifully designed content that is vaguely relevant or a more generic design that meaningfully speaks to each subscriber? Of course, it’s not an either/or choice. However, if you need to prioritize due to resource constraints, start with the content relevance and then polish up the look and feel.

Additionally, while I’ve seen cases where more clicks are driven based on more content to click on, there is a limit to that rule. It often presumes that the added content is valuable and relevant and not just content for content’s sake.

If you recognize this as a symptom of the root cause, you might…

Ensure your email is truly mobile-optimized. As marketers know, the majority of emails for most brands are now opened on a mobile device rather than a desktop. If the email renders awkwardly, it’s easy to understand why subscribers might quickly delete it and move on, thereby suppressing your click-through rates. Even if you think your email is optimized, validate it again using tools provided by your marketing automation platform or tech partners such as Litmus. Be sure to do your rendering testing across a mix of inboxes and devices, focusing on the ones that are most popular among your subscribers. 

Ramp up your personalization. Customer expectations regarding personalization continue to grow. No longer do basic tactics like placing first names in subject lines enable you to check the box on personalization. Companies need to demonstrate that they understand their subscribers on a deeper level by responding to their interests, past purchases, click behavior, and more.

Build out your automated email programs. Because most of them are sent in response to subscriber actions, triggered emails get the right content into the hands of the right subscribers at the right time. That results in much higher engagement than the typical broadcast email. Creating an array of automated campaigns, and then optimizing those triggered emails on an ongoing basis, is a winning strategy. 

You might also improve your segmentation, use sent-time optimization, and use the other strategies discussed above as being potential cures for lower open rates. All of those are potential cures for lower click-through rates as well. 

“Inbox providers keep blocking or bulking my emails.”

Your emails are being outright blocked or are landing in your subscribers’ spam folders at one or more inbox providers like Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook.com. Perhaps you’ve been blocklisted.

If you treat this as the core problem, you might…

Blame your email service provider. Yes, your ESP may play a small role in your deliverability by needing to properly setup your dedicated IP address or police the shared IP address you’re on. However, sender behavior overwhelmingly drives inbox placement. 

Blame the inbox provider. For obvious reasons, ISPs don’t share the specific rulesets used to determine when to bulk or block email messages. It’s a black box by design because of the risk that spammers will game the system, as they’ve done in the past and continue to try to do. But that black box approach contributes to a lack of understanding and to mistrust. To add fuel to the fire, what worked yesterday may not work today, as inbox providers are constantly tweaking their filtering algorithms. While their aim is to thwart spammers, the ever-changing standards undeniably frustrate legitimate senders.   

The email deliverability environment is highly nuanced with few hard and fast rules. Deep experience in this area is hard to find. The business side of your brain knows that every time you push the send button, revenue comes in the door. But when it comes to the best practices side of your brain, it knows there are limits to that practice. Your ESP doesn’t know where that line is, and the ISP isn’t going to tell anyone. 

If you recognize this as a symptom of the root cause, you might…

Review and revamp your offline opt-in process. For a lot of companies, trouble starts at the point of sale. POS capture when the customer provides their email address verbally and relies on the sales associate to type in the email address is fraught with errors—same too with handwritten email addresses collected at events and in stores via paper forms that have to be transcribed. Some handwriting is so bad that it requires the Rosetta Stone to interpret. Incentives and goals that center around email address volumes rather than quality compound these problems, as data entry specialists rush to maximize their number of entries. Incentives for cashiers to collect email addresses have famously led to blocklistings and deliverability problems. I’ve personally seen files with a lot of email addresses like “1234@domain.com” because of quotas for cashiers. It only leads to poor data quality. 

Review and revamp your online opt-in process. Sometimes deliverability issues originate from online email sign-up forms that are completely unprotected. An “anything goes” email capture processes that doesn’t include CAPTCHA, double opt-in, or email address verification is an acquisition source that will inevitably cause problems down the road. Ideally, depending on the acquisition source, you’d want to use a combination of those protections.

Re-evaluate your subscriber acquisition sources. Just having the right process isn’t enough, though. You also need to be focused on the right organic touchpoints where hand-raisers will want to opt-in for email, SMS, and other communication channels. Conducting an email performance review by subscriber source is a valuable and insightful analysis that is highly instructive on which sources are providing high-, medium-, and low-value subscribers. Determining that also tells you where to reallocate your acquisition spend. 

Some of the previously mentioned remedies also help with deliverability. For instance, sending all or at least some of your email campaigns to subscribers who have opened or clicked an email within the last 365 days should boost your engagement rates, which inbox providers smile upon. If you’re a daily sender, you may need to shorten up your engagement window significantly.

Using personalization and sending automated emails also help with deliverability. If you are regularly sending emails that subscribers want, they'll engage with it, be willing to accept higher volumes, and mark you as a safe sender. This will also help keep unsubscribe and spam complaint rates low.

“I have a lot of never-actives.”

Many of your new subscribers never open or click on any of your emails during their first 30 days on your email list. These never-active subscribers should be viewed with great suspicion, as they represent a significant risk to deliverability.

If you treat this as the core problem, you might…

Blame your welcome email. Perhaps if your sender name were different or your subject line more enticing, you’d get engagement. Perhaps if you triggered your welcome within 60 seconds instead of 60 minutes, you’d keep the momentum of the interaction that drove them to sign up.

The welcome email is worth examining, including how quickly it arrives and whether the from name and address are recognizable. However, the problem is bigger than just the welcome email when you have sent 10 or more emails with absolutely no interaction with any of them.  

If you recognize this as a symptom of the root cause, you might…

Examine your subscriber acquisition sources. Are your never-actives predominantly from one or two sources, such as the sign-up form on your Facebook page or on your sweepstakes entry form? Conduct a source analysis to look at how the audience indexes by source. Also, reintroduce yourself to your email sign-up processes and use fresh eyes to understand what expectations were set, how they were captured, and consider refining it. Incentive-driven acquisition sources like sweepstakes and other contests often attract secondary email addresses that are rarely checked and will be persistently dormant for that reason. 

Take advantage of the honeymoon period. When the right expectations are set during the email sign-up process, new-to-file subscribers should be some of the most active on your file with the few emails reflecting higher than average open rates. Leverage what you know about them to customize your welcome email and other early messaging so it’s relevant to their interactions with you thus far. For example, have they already purchased and did they visit in-store or via your website? Connecting your messaging to their experiences will help push them down the path that is most logical to them rather than treating everyone the same. 

Check your deliverability. Perhaps you have a larger issue with email performance because few of your emails are reaching the inbox, especially among the domains that comprise the largest portion of your file. You should consider having lots of never-actives as a potential warning sign of email deliverability problems.

Sometimes the obvious solution is the right solution…

But sometimes it’s not. In digital marketing, oftentimes there are a mix of contributing factors at play rather than just one. That makes it necessary to deploy multiple solutions at once. While that requires more effort, it’s the surest way to get the best email performance.

Want more ways to uplevel your email marketing and avoid settling for good enough? Check out:


Need help taking your email marketing program to the next level? Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including strategists, designers, copywriters, trainers, deliverability experts, and more. Talk to your Oracle account manager, visit us online, or reach out to us at CXMconsulting_ww@Oracle.com.

To find out more about email marketing and the tools needed to make it successful, please visit: https://www.oracle.com/marketingcloud/

Clint Kaiser

Head of Analytic & Strategic Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Clint Kaiser is the Head of the Analytic & Strategic Services team at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. His background in the email marketing space includes 20 years of experience with ESPs and digital agencies. His analytical approach to driving change in digital marketing is reflected in his quantitative approach to improving clients' business outcomes.

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