Auditing Your E-Mail Initiatives: Five Areas to Examine

By Jeanne Jennings | Posted January 02, 2003

Happy New Year! I've always looked at the beginning of a new year as a chance for a fresh start. It's a good time to evaluate your marketing initiatives against your internal goals, external standards, and industry best practices. Then you can adjust where necessary to optimize your results. I do these checkups for clients (I call them "audits") all year round. Here are five of the most important areas I examine.

1. House List
Every organization should have at least one opt-in house list to use for e-mail marketing. If you don't have one, start building one ASAP. See "New Year's Resolution: Grow Your House List" for more on the benefits of a house list and some tips on building one.

2. House List Growth
I like to start by looking at figures on subscribes, unsubscribes, and bounces. You're going to have a certain amount of turnover on any list, but the key is to minimize it as much as possible.

First, look closely at bounces. If any e-mail addresses on your list have been undeliverable/bounced over five or more consecutive sends, you'll want to delete them from your list. They're dead wood. Any further mailings to them would be futile. I've found the number one reason marketers don't delete bounces is they don't want to see their list size decrease. This isn't an effective way to address list attrition; it just masks it. Get rid of that dead wood.

When you're evaluating the growth of your list, you'll want your subscribes to -- at a bare minimum -- outnumber your unsubscribes, so you'll have growth rather than attrition. If this isn't the case, look at both and work the problem from both sides. You can add a "Please tell us why" question to your unsubscribe mechanism to better understand why people are leaving your list.

On the subscribe side, take a look at your registration page (more on that below), as well as how you are marketing the list to potential subscribers, and see if there are areas that could be more effective.

3. Send Frequency
Next, you want to be sure your mailing frequency is appropriate. If a frequency promise was made at opt-in (e.g., the promise of a quarterly e-mail newsletter or saying you wouldn't contact them more than once a month), you'll want to stick to that.

If not, be sure you're not bombarding them or sending so infrequently they forget about you. In general, less than once a month is probably too infrequent to maintain the continuity of the relationship, and more than once a week is usually a bit much unless they've specifically agreed to that frequency. Testing and surveys (see below) can also be used to help you determine appropriate frequency.

4. Subscription Page
Optimizing your subscription page is key to growing your house list. You'll want to examine the abandon rate on your subscription page (the number of people who land on the page versus the number who complete the sign-up form and click "submit"). In general, unless your abandon rate percentage is in the single digits you should try to decrease it. There are a number of things you can do to decrease your abandon rate, among them:

  • Keep to seven questions or less (you can always survey your registrants later to learn more about them).

  • Don't ask for information outside the scope of what you're delivering (e.g., asking for a USPS address to send an e-mail newsletter).

  • Include a link to a sample of what you're offering (e.g., a sample e-mail newsletter).

  • Include a sentence on your privacy policy (e.g., "We won't share your e-mail address with third parties.").

For more tips on subscription pages, see "Email Newsletter Tips, Tricks, and Stats, Part 2."

5. Surveys
Surveys are a great way to learn more about your audience. I've helped a number of clients survey their e-mail lists and their Web site visitors. You can use surveys to gather additional demographics about your readers, but the best use of this capability is to ask users how you can better serve them. That means including questions such as:

  • Would they like to hear from you more or less often via e-mail?

  • How do they rate the quality of the content they receive from you?

  • Would they like more or less content?

  • Are there other kinds of information they'd like to get from you?

Surveys are also a great chance to gather some competitive information -- to find out which other organizations are sending your subscribers similar content and how they rate that information. For more information on surveys, see "For Better Results, Survey Your Audience."

Optimization: A Continual Process
This list isn't anywhere near complete, but it's a start. Optimizing your e-mail initiatives is more of a process than an end in itself. You always need to be systematically testing and tweaking your efforts. Even small increases in return on investment (ROI) are valuable; after all, it's typically easier to find 10 ways to increase your results by 1 percent than it is to find one big way to increase them 10 percent. The key is to be patient.

Of course, you should be continually auditing and testing to optimize your e-mail efforts; it shouldn't be a once-a-year event. Consider bringing in an outside consultant occasionally to help with the process. Outsiders can often see things those close to a program miss. In addition, outside consultants, by their nature, see what's working and what's not for others in the e-mail space. They can help you punch up your efforts and avoid some of the pitfalls.

Give your e-mail program an internal audit and let me know what you find. Happy 2003!

Jeanne Jennings is an independent consultant with over 12 years of experience in the online, Internet and email realm; she specializes in helping businesses develop an effective and profitable online presence. Areas of expertise include strategy, product development, information/Web site architecture, marketing and email newsletters. Jeanne also publishes The Jennings Report an email newsletter with market research, articles and other resources for email marketing professionals. Visit her site at JeanneJennings.com.

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