Optimizing Your Email Engagement & Deliverability

Email is incredibly important to our company: It's our second-highest source of traffic (behind organic search) and our leading organic outbound marketing channel.

When done right, your email strategy can pave the way for an incredibly successful business and provide an effective and inexpensive way for reaching a large amount of users, quickly. However, it's hard to do email right. This article will hope to improve your email marketing strategy by offering some recommendations for best practices based on what has proven most effective with our audience thus far:

Tracking Your Email Success

If you track one stat to measure the success of your overall email marketing efforts, it should be your year-over-year growth in traffic to site from email. This is the best indicator of all of your email-related KPIs (list size, open rate, click rate, unsubscribe rate, etc) rolled into one.

This stat is found by going to Google Analytics -> Acquisition -> All Traffic -> Channels -> Email, and then comparing your date range to the previous year. 

Here is a snapshot of DoLA's YoY email traffic for December 1-17, 2019.


DoLA's YoY sessions are up 62% for this December so far, which demonstrates that their email strategy is growing at a stellar clip. (In general, 30% is good and 60% is excellent.) DoLA's team should feel good about the work they're doing this month.

Please let us know if you have any questions about your YoY email traffic stats once you check them out. If you're sending from MailChimp and don't already have GA tracking enabled, here is how to set that up. GA tracking is automatically enabled for those sending on Emarsys.

For more information on analyzing your content in Google Analytics, check out this article.

Deliverability = Engagement

Similarly to your SEO strategy, your best path to maximizing email deliverability is less a game of tweaking small things and taking shortcuts than one of providing real value and engaging content to your users. The best way to increase your deliverability is to make your emails more engaging; the best way to make your emails more engaging is to make them better

Email clients such as Gmail use all of the information they have at hand to determine the importance of each send to any given subscriber. Some of the major factors that Gmail considers when deciding whether to place your email in a subscriber's Inbox or Primary folder, Promotions, or Spam are:
  • The individual subscriber's engagement history with this sender
  • All Gmail users' engagement history with this sender
  • All Gmail users' complaint/abuse history for this sender
Let's dig into each of these factors in more detail:

Teaching Gmail That Your Subscribers Want Your Emails

Once your emails start going to a subscriber's Spam folder, it's very hard to ever get them back to that subscriber's Inbox. For that reason -- and also because of the fact that Gmail relies on individual subscribers' engagement histories with any given sender to determine email placement -- it is of paramount importance that you prove to Gmail within your first 3 emails that each subscriber wants them and is going to engage with them. You do this by getting your subscribers to open them, click them, and not mark them as spam/abuse.

Step 1: Your Welcome Email

Regardless of sign-up source, your welcome email is the first email that any of your registered subscribers will receive. This is your first -- and best -- chance to show Gmail that your subscribers are going to engage with your emails.

Your welcome emails are sent from Mandrill. All cities should regularly update their welcome emails to include the best of their city's current giveaways, editorial content, invitations to owned events, and anything else especially exceptional. Your goal should be to introduce your new subscribers to everything you have going on, show them the overwhelming value of your offerings, and get them to engage with you immediately (in that email).

We recommend A|B testing your Welcome email subject lines and content to maximize engagement. To implement A|B tests (called Split Tests) in Mandrill:
  • Login to Mandrill (via MailChimp -> Reports -> Mandrill Reports)
  • Set up alternate versions of your template for testing:
    • Navigate to Outbound -> Templates
    • Open the control template in one window
    • In a separate window, return to Outbound -> Templates -> Create a Template
    • Copy all the elements from the control template to the new template (including its template labels)
    • Change only the elements of the template you'd like to test (eg - subject line, content, etc)
    • Save your changes
    • Repeat the steps above to create each variation of the control template you desire.
      • Mandrill lets you test up to 4 variations against your control template at a time.
  • To implement the Split Test:
    • Navigate to Outbound -> Split Tests -> Create Split Test.
    • Follow the instructions on the screen to implement your test.
Do312 ran tests on their Welcome email's subject lines and content in 2018. Here was their winning email:

Step 2: Your Giveaway & RSVP Confirmation Emails

Because ~75% of our sign-ups come from Giveaways and RSVPs, one of the first emails that most of your subscribers will receive will be a confirmation email for a promotion.

This makes it all the more imperative that your confirmation emails put the best foot forward for your local brand, especially for events that are likely to drive a significant amount of registrations. 

Please check out this article to learn more about customizing your giveaway and RSVP confirmation emails.

Step 3: Daily Emails

Your email sending reputation is heavily tied to both your domain (eg - do312.com) and your sending subdomain (eg - toppicks@goto.do312.com).

In order to best set your business up for success, we recommend sending your daily emails from a dedicated subdomain such as goto.do312.com. This helps ensure that any deliverability issues related to your marketing emails have less of an effect on deliverability of your employees' emails and important one-off emails such as giveaway 'Notify Winner' emails.

Every time you send a daily email, there will be some subscribers receiving it for the first time.

The worst thing that could happen would be for the new subscribers to mark the email as spam or file an abuse complaint. These complaints have a strong negative effect on our sending reputation. In order to maximize engagement and reduce the likelihood of spam complaints:
  • Don't import emails from 3rd-party lists or off-site promotions.
    • We strongly warn against doing this. If someone else wants to help drive user growth for your site, then they should promote opportunities for new users to discover your site (such as giveaways and RSVPs) which will lead them to register your site if they engage with the opportunities presented.
  • Keep your branding clear and consistent.
    • Users should be able to immediately link their first daily email to the site on which they registered. The more you can help visually establish this connection, the better.
  • Prevent your emails from feeling too sold.
    • If any of your subscribers can read an email and fail to find something valuable for them, then you've failed.
  • Maintain clear and easily-discoverable unsubscribe links.
    • Most people are accustomed to finding these links in email footers.
  • Sell users on your value with every email.
    • Each email should be an opportunity to wow your users. Speak up if you're about to send something out that you don't feel is worthy of your brand.
    • Users should love your brand so much that they don't need to read a subject line to determine whether they want to open an email: They should know that every single one of your emails is valuable; they should look forward to - and be excited to receive - each one.
Cleaning Your List

There is nothing to be gained from sending to inactive subscribers:
  • It's expensive: Email service providers charge based on subscribers and sending volume. 
  • It's a bad look for advertisers: Inactive subscribers hurt your engagement rates; they make it seem like people don't care about your emails.
  • They decrease the chances that your emails will be seen by the people who do want them: Email clients like Gmail use total engagement rates to determine where they place senders' emails.
    • Gmail will also occasionally flag inactive email accounts that no one is using, and then punish all marketers who send to them (since those marketers are clearly not cleaning their lists).
We recommend regularly:
  • Suppressing inactive subscribers from your sending list (eg - subscribers who haven't opened a single email in the past 3 months)
  • Sending them plain-text reengagement emails

    • If you have the bandwidth, it's best to send reengagement outreach emails (like the above) as 1-to-1 emails from a real employee or intern.
  • Archiving all dormant subscribers who do not reengage.
To locate your dormant subscribers (for cities sending on MailChimp):
  • Log into MailChimp
  • Select Audience -> View Contacts -> Manage Contacts -> Segments -> Create Segment
  • Set up a new segment where subscribers match all of the following conditions:
    • Email Marketing Status is Subscribed
    • Campaign Activity: Did not open: All campaigns within the last 3 months:

  • Select Preview Segment
  • Then select Save Segment to save it (so you can suppress it from your daily email sends and send reengagement emails to it).
    • The segment will refresh automatically as users' campaign activity matches (or stops matching) the criteria.
    • You can then set up a reengagement campaign as a plain-text email campaign and use this segment as your recipient.
  • Or select Export Segment to download it (for when it's time to archive the dormant emails of those who didn't reengage).
    • Since your segment criteria is looking for users who haven't opened any campaign in the past 3 months, anyone who opens your reengagement email will be automatically removed from the segment.
To archive your dormant users:
  • Download the segment of dormant users as outlined above
  • Select Audience -> View Contacts -> Manage Contacts -> Unsubscribe addresses
  • Copy and paste users from your dormant user export into the unsubscribe field, then click Unsubscribe to complete the process.
    • Depending on how many dormant users you have, you may need to do this in batches.

A|B Testing

You should regularly A|B test your content, send times and subject lines to maximize engagement. 

For those using MailChimp to send email:
For those using Emarsys:
If you do not need to send an email to everyone at a specific time (for instance, to announce a festival lineup) and are not already planning on A|B test, it's good practice to run a simple subject line test to ensure that your email is being opened by as many people as possible.

Surveying Subscribers

It's prudent to regularly survey your subscribers to uncover opportunities to make your emails more valuable.

To do this, we recommend sending NPS (or Net Promoter Score) surveys to your subscribers. Ideally, every subscriber should be surveyed at least once per year. We recommend using SurveyMonkey for your surveys: You can read more about sending NPS surveys through SurveyMonkey here.

NPS surveys are short, two question surveys that are used to measure user satisfaction over time. Introduced in 2003, NPS is used by businesses around the country to assess product/market fit, including two thirds of Fortune 1000 companies.

The two questions are:

Users are only required to complete the first question in order for their scores to be counted.

Respondents are then classified as follows:
  • 0–6 = Detractors: unhappy users who can hurt your brand through negative word-of-mouth
  • 7–8 = Passives: generally satisfied but mostly indifferent users
  • 9–10 = Promoters: loyal users who will continue to stay engaged and will likely refer others
Your Net Promoter Score is defined as the difference between the percentage of Promoters and Detractors. For instance, if you wind up with 25% Promoters, 70% Passives and 5% Detractors, your NPS score would be +20.

NPS Surveys allow you to:
  • Establish an objective success benchmark and track it over time.
  • Identify opportunities to make your content more useful.
  • Discover missing venues and events.
  • Suss out your biggest fans, which then allows you to:
    • Leverage those users to refer other (hopefully highly engaged) users.
    • Get insight into which user acquisition sources lead to the most engaged users.
…. and so much more.

Our hope is that, by sussing out the specific strategies for converting individual detractors and passives into promoters of our brand, we can apply those some strategies at scale to significantly increase the impact of our business as a cultural institution.

Your NPS Score is perhaps the best way to monitor the degree to which you matter in your local market, and one of the most important stats you can grow YoY. We recommend distributing NPS Surveys through all of your channels, including social and on-site. Please let us know if you'd like any help implementing these surveys in your city.