Commentary

How To Properly A/B Test Your Email Marketing Campaigns

I’m going to throw it out there: The average email marketer focuses too much on increasing open rates.

I’ll even take it a step further: The average email marketer also focuses too much on click rates!

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “How can my emails trigger sales if users don’t open or click on my emails in the first place?” This is a legitimate concern, but it shouldn’t be your only or even primary concern. Often, email marketers need to be reminded  why they’re sending thousands of emails out in the first place: to increase sales or conversions. This is the ultimate, most important KPI of your email marketing campaign -- and it should, therefore, receive the most attention and effort for improvement.

Email marketers improve their campaigns through A/B testing. It is a sound, scientific process for determining what works best with their subscribers and increasing engagement. Traditionally, most email marketers a/b test by sending two unique email campaigns to a small percent of their list of subscribers. The two testing campaigns will be identical except for a single difference, which will allow you to attribute an increase or decrease in performance to that single element. You can test different subject lines to increase open rates and different calls to action or images within the email to test click rates. Whichever test campaign yields a better result is then sent to the remaining majority of your email subscribers. This allows the email marketer to gain insight from a small percent of their list and optimize campaign performance when sending to the remaining majority.

However, considering that many email campaigns are one-offs that advertise time-sensitive material like a limited time sale or temporary promotion, your  focus should be on getting as many sales, leads, or conversions out of that campaign as possible, not as many opens or clicks.

The best way to optimize your email campaigns for conversions is to test entire offers. This means that instead of settling on a single promotion, come up with a second one, and test those entire offers against one another to see which one is more appealing to your subscribers and triggers more sales. For example, instead of mailing a single 15% off campaign and using your testing opportunity to increase open rates, a/b test the 15% off campaign against a campaign that gives a free gift with purchase. By testing in this manner, you can maximize conversions for that email campaign and also gain insight into the type of campaigns that work best with your subscribers.

Even if you were to coordinate your a/b test to optimize your open rate, that information would only be useful for that individual, one-time campaign and won’t provide insight for improving future campaigns. By testing offers against one another, you gain a much greater perspective on the type of content your subscribers want to receive via email and that actually drives revenue.

But there is still a place for open and click-rate testing. Open and click-rate testing is most applicable for automated emails or other emails where the content of the email remains the same for each campaign. Examples of these type of emails include confirmation emails or other emails that delivered based on a user’s specific action onsite. Since the content of these emails is consistent, email marketers can increase their performance through open and click-rate testing rather than conversion testing. When a/b testing to increase open rates, do not simply plug in two different subject lines and hope that one does significantly better than the other. Try testing subject lines that execute a distinct hypothesis that will educate you for future campaigns. For example, you can try testing capital vs non-capital letters, spelled out numbers vs numerical numbers, or even use of symbols in subject lines.

There are dozens of elements to test when optimizing click rates. Popular elements to start with include the text within your call-to-action, location of call-to-action, and color of call-to-action.

However, the priority of testing in email marketing should typically start with conversion/content testing, then click-rate testing, and then open-rate testing. This testing hierarchy will put conversions first. After all, that's why we’re sending these campaigns in the first place!

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