A common fallacy regarding email programs is that they are self-sustaining. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Your email marketing demands regular maintenance: Consistent attention and a persistent desire to create a more meaningful connection between brand and customer are prerequisites to a profitable email program.

In this article I'll outline four steps you can take to help ensure your email campaigns and programs actually work.

1. Establish a solid foundation for email metrics

Identify your key metrics before launching your email campaign. If your email program is already in progress, it's not too late to make sure you're using the best possible success scoreboard.

The challenge with identifying key email metrics is that one size does not fit all: The metrics you rely on will be as unique to your program as your design, message, and call to action.

Whatever metrics you choose to embrace, the best scenario is that they match up with your actual business objectives.

As you begin to define what success looks like for your email program, you may consider reviewing studies and data that show email marketing benchmarks for your industry. Benchmark reports can provide a good starting point to gauge your performance against others in your niche field.

But a word of caution: Those studies can be helpful, but they also lack context—i.e., your unique email program and marketing objectives. The best benchmark for any campaign is a previously sent campaign. The ultimate standard is whatever result you achieved with your most recent email send.

2. Watch and learn

After you've set a foundation for email measurement, it's time to start monitoring performance. Whether you are just starting out or applying a newly defined measurement process to an established email program, give your email marketing the necessary time to form a trend.

There is no better way to make your email program better than to use the scientific method, which you've likely been using the fifth grade. Here's how to apply it to email:

  1. Ask a question: How can I improve my key email marketing metrics?
  2. Gather data: Review metrics from previously sent campaigns, if available. Make observations from campaigns sent most recently. Identify trends specific to your key metrics. Document high and low levels for key metrics.
  3. Form a hypothesis: Develop a general theory about how slight modifications to your messages, design, cadence, or program will lead to improved results. Also, speculate about what you can expect if no changes are made.
  4. Conduct an experiment: Choose one element to alter according to your hypothesis, and then test it among your audience.
  5. Analyze the results: Review mailing-response metrics and test results. Determine whether your hypothesis was true or false.
  6. Report results: Collect and document the experiment results so that you can use them in future campaigns and hypotheses.

Although the scientific method offers us a recipe that is easy to follow, it requires quality ingredients. Poor data or limited data can lead to shoddy decision-making and lackluster results. So, although we all want to generate big results as fast as possible, give your program the necessary time and space (e.g., three to four campaigns with minimal alterations) to derive a recognizable trend that demands attention.

3. Do an email analytics assessment

Similar to how your business objectives should help determine your key metrics, the type of email program you're running should dictate what improvements you make.

For example, a newsletter program that seeks to hold the subscribers' attention and keep them informed over time should try to increase email open rates and click rates. But if you're running an automated campaign to encourage action from a subscriber in a progressive, step-by-step manner across multiple emails, you should focus on finding weak links in that nurture sequence.

Declines in participation from message to message are much more substantial and deserving of attention in a short-term automated program than in a long-term newsletter program.

Once you spot a trend, you can start to make alterations. The hard part is figuring out exactly what metrics matter and what to do if you see a problem or decline.

4. Consider the responses to your mailing

Marketers have a wide range of theories and opinions about which email elements have the biggest impact on results. Subscriber behavior, however, provides the best counsel for how a message should be modified.

Just as in any other measurement process, the number and variety of mailing response metrics is never in short supply. The challenge is to determine the metrics that are most meaningful for your program.

Place special importance on the metrics that reflect the business objectives of your email marketing operations (e.g., customer retention, increased sales revenue, improved lead conversion rates). A solid foundation for your measurement process should be established as soon as possible.

* * *

The typical email marketing job description likely involves skills related to list configuration, design, content development, and delivery. But measurement is also a crucial component to any email marketing operation, and relentless progress-monitoring should be considered a good habit as opposed to a best-practice. Your program's mailing response metrics will always be your guide. Subscriber behavior helps us determine the changes required and the alterations that can be made with purpose.

Show patience and allow time for real trends to take shape and inform your approach. Plan to make alterations at a campaign level in an iterative fashion, but revisit macro adjustments for your entire program at regular (monthly, quarterly, or annual) intervals.

To make massive advancements with your email marketing, you must adopt a culture of measurement and experimentation.

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Four Steps to Ensure Your Email Campaigns Work

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image of Nora Snoddy

Nora Snoddy is director of communications at Campaign Monitor, a global software-as-a-service company specializing in email marketing.

LinkedIn: Nora Snoddy

Twitter: @norasnoddy