Your email data will help you ask smarter questions

Dig deeper

Crafting an email newsletter requires creativity, resourcefulness, and time. But it’s a worthy endeavor. Email marketing has an incredibly high return on investment—far surpassing social media channels like Twitter and Facebook. But there’s a lot more you can get from your email data.

According to a 2013 MarketingSherpa study, 92% of marketers surveyed believe that their email marketing is either already producing an ROI (60% of respondents) or will produce an ROI in the future (32% of respondents). On average, respondents reported an estimated ROI of 119%.

Email Data Woman

Because email marketing works, it’s worth taking the time to do it well. You can read case studies, follow the latest design trends, and get inspiration from the email newsletters you personally enjoy. Another way to learn about email marketing is to geek out on your own email statistics.

If you’re just tracking your open rates and unsubscribes, you’re missing out. To get the most out of your email data, you need to ask the right questions. Here’s why—and how.

Put your email data in context

Your analytics are just a pile of numbers unless you look at them from the right angle. The number of eyeballs on your content is trivial. If you want better results, you need to ask smart questions.

Author Avinash Kaushik’s “Three Layers of So What” test is a great place to start. Let’s look at how this might work for your email:

“I got 5,000 opens!”

So what?

“Well, lots of people are opening my emails!”

So … what?!

“What do you mean, so what?! 5,000 opens is great! I must be doing something right. I think …”

And? So what now?

“Well, I’ll keep things the same I guess. Or I’ll change something. But what? I don’t know.”

See? Having numbers in your pocket is interesting at best. At worst, the data can be useless or misleading. What if your 5,000 views only represent a 5% open rate? What if people are opening your emails but rarely clicking through?

Leveraging your email data is all about asking the right questions.

Learn how to ask smart questions

If you’re happy with how your email newsletters are performing, simply sit back and observe who clicks which links. If you want get amazing results, you need to ask smart questions.

Here’s an example of the wrong type of question: “How can I improve my open rate?”

The problem? Too many possible answers. You could try working on your subject lines, cultivating a more engaged email list, or finding the best time to send your email newsletter. Maybe you’ve turned people off because your content is too long, or perhaps you don’t send frequently enough to keep people engaged.

Any or all of the above answers might be correct, but how would you know? To use your email data as a vehicle for improvement, you need to ask a more specific question. For example: “What happens to my open rate if I start writing my subject lines as short, provocative questions?” Now you’ve given your data an opportunity to provide answers!

If your open rate stays the same despite your new subject-line strategy, you can choose to stick with it or make further changes. If you see a downtick in opens, you’ve learned that this particular strategy isn’t effective. However, if you see a consistent uptick, you win! Keep in mind that leveraging email data requires patience. Success comes from many small, incremental improvements that add up over time.

Score small victories one at a time

Now that you’ve found your subject-line sweet spot, you can ask the next question. Start with a goal. For instance: increase my click-through rate (CTR). Then, brainstorm small, actionable changes you could implement right away. In this case, you could (1) adjust link placement, (2) use an image and make it clickable, or (3) change the wording of the link to be a “call to action.”

Next, phrase each idea as a research question:

  • “If I place my primary link in the first sentence, do I get more clicks?”
  • “If I include a clickable image, do I get more clicks?”
  • “If I write the linked text as a strong ‘call to action,’ do I get more clicks?”

These questions can all be answered with email data!

It’s tempting to try all three at once, but how would you know what worked? You may see a change in your CTR, but you won’t know what helped, what hurt, and what was immaterial. You run the risk of throwing away effective measures because of one strong negative measure.

So ask your questions one at a time. If adjusting the link placement leads to a nice increase in CTR over four newsletters, incorporate it into your strategy and then test the clickable image or the call to action. By making changes one by one, you get a more accurate picture of how your audience responds to your emails.

Warning: small changes require agility—not consensus by committee! Small changes pose little risk, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Even something as simple changing the color of your links could score you a few more opens, clicks, and sales.

Collect ample data

Take time to make sure your data show a consistent trend (up, down, or flat) before moving on to the next question. Keep in mind that outside influences like holidays, events, and competitors’ marketing efforts may influence your email data. You don’t want to base decisions on unusual activity.

How much data is enough? That depends on your goals, requirements, and resources. Are you part of an organization that values hardcore data science? Then you’ll probably need to calculate how much data is required to show a statistically significant change. If you want to be highly scientific about improving your emails, you need to collect more data.

If you prefer a more intuitive approach, you can iterate more quickly. In this case, you decide what’s actionable. For instance, while you may not be impressed by a 1% increase in open rate, you might be ready to act on a 1–3% increase in seven out of ten emails.

Test your assumptions about what already works

Sometimes you’re not sure which aspects of your newsletter need improvement. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about why a specific statistic is positive (or negative). When looking at your email data, be mindful of your own false assumptions. Here’s what I mean:

“My engagement metrics are high because of my images.”

How do you know it’s your images?

“Because my engagement metrics are high.”

See how it works? You may perpetuate your false assumptions by giving undue credit to specific elements of your newsletters. While your images are no doubt gorgeous, your audience might actually be responding more to the content, link placement, or subject line.

This is harder to guard against than you might think and worth keeping in mind when looking for areas to improve. Always test your assumptions!

Nothing beats good email content

Email data can help you understand how your readers engage with your content, but no data-driven wizardry can make up for bad content. A simple rule for good newsletter content? Always add value to the reader’s day.

Image by: Alejandro Pinto via Compfight cc

Dean Levitt
Raised on a farm in South Africa, Dean moved to the United States to pursue a career in music, eventually finding his way to both Hawaii and the tech world. While growing his previous company, Mad Mimi (acquired by GoDaddy in 2014), Dean realized he had a passion for helping small businesses grow online. Dean is the CEO of Yala. Yala combines social media video ads with intelligent scheduling software making design and posting simple for small businesses.