A ‘Back-to-Business’ Email Optimization Checklist

Back to school is also back-to-business time. Set aside a few hours this final week of summer to freshen up your email program and take advantage of the silence before the rush. Here are six ways to quickly improve reader satisfaction and response rates:

Back to school is also back-to-business time. Set aside a few hours this final week of summer to freshen up your email program and take advantage of the silence before the rush. Here are six ways to quickly improve reader satisfaction and response rates:

1. Put on the proverbial tie. Just as we don suits again in September, smarten up your email look with a template minirefresh. A simpler, more streamlined template will focus subscriber attention on key content and calls to action. Gather your creative and content teams and do a quick inventory of all the changes made to your newsletter template in the past nine months. Remove those that no longer make sense. Nearly every program has them, including the following:

  • small image, link or headline additions requested by the brand, product or sales teams;
  • the multilink masthead that no longer matches the landing pages;
  • that extra banner at the bottom of your emails promoting a special event that never seemed to go away;
  • a bunch of social networking links that no one has clicked on (usually, you’ll find two or three that your subscribers actually use. Keep those and give them breathing room so they’re more appealing and inviting); and
  • extra legal or other language in the footer.

2. Insure against failure. Take a quick look at two key engagement metrics this year: unsubscribe requests and complaints (i.e., clicks on the “Report Spam” button). First, ask everyone on your team to make sure the unsubscribe link works. Then, take a look if the unsubscribe and complaint rates for your various types of messages (e.g., newsletters or promotions) are erratic, growing or steady?

If erratic, you may find certain message types or frequency caps need to change. If growing, your subscribers may be moving to a new lifestage and are now uninterested in your content, or a new source of data may be signing up subscribers ill-suited for your brand and/or content. Both of these are great segmentation opportunities.

3. Turn frequency into cadence. Back when everything reached the inbox, being present was enough to earn a brand impression. So, many marketers just broadcast often to be near the top of the inbox. People are now fatigued from inbox clutter, however, and are employing more filters as a result. Being relevant and timely trumps volume. Subscribers visit their inboxes expecting to see timely messages tailored to their interests. On the other hand, repeated reminders about last week’s sale may turn them off forever.

4. Adopt a new attitude. Gather new information about subscribers, and use it to test content or segmentation strategies. Run a few instant polls to gauge how important key demand drivers are to your subscribers. Ask for a vote on some product taglines you’re considering. To get higher participation, make it fun by featuring the results of the poll on your Facebook fan page, inviting comments that you can share. Or keep a Twitter tally of response in real time.

5. Arm yourself for the crush. Just as traffic swells on the highways and commuter trains this time of year, the email transit way also fills up as marketers promote their fall offerings and gear up for the holidays/Q4. Just like in any rush hour, the more email traffic, the higher the likelihood that your messages will wait in line or be filtered.

Make it a habit to check your sender reputation every day that you send broadcast mailings — it only takes a minute if you have access to inbox placement data. If you don’t have this data, get it from a deliverability service, demand it from your email service provider (ESP), or even check simple diagnostics such as my firm’s free email reputation service SenderScore.org or DNSstuff.com, another free email reputation service.

Sender reputation is directly tied to inbox reach, and the best senders enjoy inbox placement rates in the 95th percentile. Don’t be fooled by ESP reports of “delivered” (i.e., the inverse of your bounce rate). Even for permission-based marketers, about 20 percent of delivered email is filtered or blocked and never reaches the inbox, according to a study by my firm. You can’t earn a response if you aren’t in the inbox. Imagine the immediate boost on all your response metrics if you move your inbox placement rate up 10 or more points.

6. Make new friends. You likely already read a number of blogs or e-newsletters that cover topics relevant to your brand and important to your audience. Audit these for new, fresh voices, then regularly link to those websites in your own messages as part of a regular “view from the world” feature. Your subscribers will appreciate the additional heads up to interesting or helpful articles, and you’ll start to build a network of experts and potential referrals back to your business.

These might be tasks already on your to-do list. Do them this week and get back to business a bit stronger and ready to optimize. Let me know what you think; please share any ideas or comments below.