What does good look like when you are an email marketer, and how do you go from good to great if you feel like your marketing program has plateaued?

Recently, we at Validity partnered with Demand Metric to survey email marketers to see what high-performing email marketing programs are doing differently that sets them apart. We compiled the results in our latest State of Email Marketing report.

We found the following six areas of notable differences between best-in-class marketers and others.

1. High-performing marketers have goals and objectives that align with company initiatives

Too many email marketers that report below-average performance have no objective, or simply the wrong objectives—i.e., those that aren't aligned with the company's goals.

Often, organizations have revenue goals, but email marketers are focused on things like communicating with customers and prospects and brand awareness. Those are worthy goals of any email marketer, but often they focus more on open rates than they should on the entire path to purchase.

Email marketers who have tied objectives to revenue were much more likely to report above-average performance compared with email marketers who have focused on simply communicating or have no objectives at all.

So start by writing down 3-5 specific business problems your company faces, and then next to each one write how Marketing can help make an impact.

2. Best-in-class email marketers focus on the right tactics

Email marketers still report email as the most, or one of the most, important channels in their mix, according to our survey. And it's not because email marketing isn't challenging.

Email marketers reported that competition with other brands in the inbox, staffing and resource constraints, and avoiding the spam folder are the top three challenges facing them today. The top three tactics in use to help overcome those challenges were email personalization, email list management, and subject-line optimization.

The good news is that those and nearly all tactics reported on resulted in increased open rates. There's even better news. Three tactics also resulted in outsized performance compared with other tactics: email personalization, email deliverability optimization, and A/B testing.

Why those tactics improve performance is simple: To be seen, your campaigns need to be delivered to the inbox; and to stand out, the subject lines need to be personalized and A/B-tested to ensure you use the highest converting subject line.

3. They use the right technology for the tactic

While any of the tactics mentioned in No. 2 can be done manually, using the right technology helps not only by saving time but also by significantly improving performance.

Consider deliverability optimization, for example: Email marketers could pre-deploy a campaign to a few personal addresses to lookout for any potential issues, but by using inbox placement technology, marketers can do that at scale across hundreds of mailbox providers, and see results within minutes. In fact, marketers with above average open rates are 29% more likely to use inbox placement technology.

Above-average marketers also use technology to help them monitor for things like reputation issues and blacklisting. We can assume that through automating monitoring and insights, marketers are able to course correct more quickly, and focus on more strategy, compared with those not using such technology.

4. They invest in acquiring the skills and training

Above-average marketers also invest time and resources to acquire new skills and training, our survey found. Moreover, by accrediting their email marketing program, they also ensure they do not squander that investment.

Email marketing has been around a lot longer than most other digital channels, so it's not surprising there are more opportunities to learn new skills and tactics to help improve performance. But, by accrediting or whitelisting their email program too, email marketers also ensure they don't waste their efforts and high performance.

Email accreditation programs are in a lot of ways like whitelists, but the key difference is that a third party will verify the practices of a sender beforehand, thereby giving them a stamp of approval that mailbox providers can trust and so allow their mail to bypass spam filters.

That helps in a few ways. For one, it helps overcome a major obstacle of email marketers—deliverability. For another, it frees up time for marketers by giving them peace of mind that their emails will be delivered to the inbox.

5. They understand their customers' preferences

No one would argue that marketers should understand their customers. For email marketers, that also means understanding their preferences and habits around how they prefer to consume email.

There were two surprising elements that above-average marketers tracked that correlated to higher open rates: how long subscribers spent reading an email and on which device (mobile, desktop, tablet, etc.) they were reading emails on.

Time spent reading an email is a very strong indicator of how engaged a subscriber is and provides insights into how engaging email content is as well. And understanding what device they read your emails on is important for many reasons, too, including understanding how to optimize email content and knowing what's important when testing email creative before deployment.

6. They know and track the competition

It's not uncommon to track performance by comparing with one's own previous performance. But if you're not also tracking and comparing performance against your competition, it's a bit like running a race blindfolded. Sure, you may be beating your old records, but that doesn't help if you're running in last place.

The reality is only 43% of marketers monitor their competitors, either by signing up for their email programs or using technology from a third party, but those that do enjoy above-average open rates compared with those that do not.

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image of Tom Sather

Tom Sather is senior director of marketing at Validity, provider of email and customer data-quality solutions. He is an email marketing and deliverability expert.

LinkedIn: Tom Sather

Twitter: @tom_sather