Is How You Send More Important Than What You Send?

Email marketers spend a lot of time, effort, and creative energy building new email programs and perfecting creative. Email marketing teams spend over half their time building, testing, and optimizing HTML emails. Are there other things to focus on?

After some research, I can confidently say that once the basic campaign types are covered, there is frequently more leverage in optimizing send practices than building new email programs. (In this context, “basic” campaigns include segmented pre-planned campaigns and some of the more common types of triggered messaging, like abandoned shopping cart and abandoned browse.)

What kind of sending practices am I talking about? There are three primary areas of focus:

Cadence: How frequently are you sending to each subscriber?
Time and order: When are you sending messages to each subscriber?
Suppression policies: How do you decide who is eligible to receive email?



Email marketers spend only a fraction of the time on these practices that they spend on producing email creative and building new email programs.

Here’s how to best leverage each of these sending practices:

Cadence: In our experience, optimizing cadence on an individual basis has driven a minimum of 5% incremental revenue over a 12-month period. In some cases, optimizing cadence has increased click rates per subscriber per month over 35%, with only a small uptick in unsubscribes.

When marketers experiment with cadence/frequency optimization, they tend to test by changing frequency for all subscribers, which drives suboptimal results. Cadence must be personalized based on the activity level of each subscriber. Crude activity buckets (“subscribers who haven't opened or clicked in over X days”) tend to underperform. Instead, more subtle signals that can be captured by machine learning models tend to do a much better job at optimizing cadence.

Time: Personalizing the time when you send messages can (for some industries and message types) drive higher open and click rates. This makes intuitive sense: Most subscribers have a time when they are more likely to be active in their inbox. Sending at that time increases the probability of an open or click.

If you have deliverability problems at mailbox providers that heavily weight user engagement, the order with which you send to subscribers can also be important in getting more mail through. The basic theory is that by sending to more engaged customers first, the reputation of the content, sending domain, and sending IP will get a “bump” that helps other, less engaged subscribers get delivered.

The majority of marketers have not experimented with either of these levers. In our experience, personalizing send-time works in very specific cases (mostly “batch” campaigns) and in specific industries such as online retail.  

Suppression policies: In our analysis, the biggest surprise has been the wide variety of suppression policies that email marketers use. These practices are frequently the result of only the briefest analysis and are typically based on rules of thumb that have been developed over the years.

Marketers tend to use broad “activity bands” when making these decisions, based on their own first-party data. Looking at the activity of suppressed addresses with other senders indicates that a lot of potentially good addresses are being suppressed.

In other words, there are many subscribers who may be active with other marketers but are not active with you. These are addresses that you don’t want to suppress. The sort of data that will allow you to see how active your subscribers are with other brands is frequently  available from online email activity cooperatives.

What about you? Do you spend enough time addressing how you send, as opposed to what you send?

This column was previously published in an earlier edition of Email Insider.

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