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The science of email

publication date: Aug 22, 2013
author/source: Steve MacLaughlin

Email remains a very powerful and effective communication tool for nonprofits. The rise of social and mobile have yet to dethrone the king of digital communication. Despite how long email has been around there are still plenty of opportunities for nonprofits to improve how they use it.Steve MacLaughlin photo

Successful use of email for communication is both an art and a science. Let’s focus on the science behind email metrics and how you can use them to measure your results. How you measure what happens after you push the “send” button can be the key to improving your performance.

Measuring certain key email metrics can provide valuable insights into what is and isn’t working. These metrics represent the cornerstone of an effective email measurement program for your organization. Understanding each of them individually and how they tie together can help you improve your results.

Deliverability rate

The deliverability rate measures the percentage of emails that are successfully sent and delivered to the intended recipient. Measuring the deliverability rate is an inexact number because not all email services report delivered email the same way. Deliverability is important because if your messages never reach people, then none of the other metrics or actions mean a thing. Most reputable email software providers handle important deliverability best practices. But remembering to be a good sender is the best way to make sure your messages get delivered.

Open rate

The open rate measures the percentage of opened email that was actually delivered. Measuring the open rate of an email is not an exact science because the tracking method doesn’t always work. The open rate is tracked by placing a small image in the message, but that is often blocked by preview panes or mobile devices. There will always be a margin of error for your email open rates, but it’s still an important metric even though it’s never 100% accurate.

Most successful nonprofits look across multiple email appeals and campaigns to establish average open-rate metrics. Drastic changes in one direction or another signal that recipients are favorably or unfavorably reacting to your communication with them.

Click-through rate

The click-through rate (CTR) measures the percentage of links clicked by unique individuals in an email.

Measuring an e-mail message’s CTR requires that you place links to websites within the body of the message. The CTR is highly dependent on the quality of the segmentation, content, and design of your e-mail messages. Make sure that you include both unique CTRs and unique individual CTRs in your metrics. Click-throughs are the first email metric that have a high degree of reliability. They are very important in tracking what people are doing with an email message once it has been delivered and opened.

Deeper analysis of the links being clicked will also allow you to measure how much recipients are scrolling down in your e-mail messages and taking action. CTRs should also be used to improve your web site content.

Conversion rate

The conversion rate measures the percentage of delivered messages that resulted in an action. The action may be a donation, event registration, or other action driven from the email message. Different actions may result in different conversion rates. The conversion rate is the ultimate measure of the success of an e-mail campaign. This requires that each and every e-mail message sent by your organization has some type of call to action in it.

There are some other email metrics that need to be taken into consideration. One of the most important is looking at the unsubscribe rate and overall email list churn. Increases in the number of unsubscribes from your emails are an indication that the messages may not be relevant or appropriate to the recipients. A certain amount of list churn is healthy and to be expected over time.

The big picture

Keep in mind that if you don’t segment your lists, carefully craft your content and test your campaigns, then these metrics won’t help much. Now that you’ve identified all these metrics, be sure to keep testing. You can test anything from subject lines to the day of the week and time of day that messages are sent, and different call-to-action options for the targeted segments to see how they affect these metrics.

Steve MacLaughlin is Blackbaud’s director of Idea Lab where they leverage the company’s expertise, information, and technology to accelerate bringing new solutions to the nonprofit sector. Steve has spent more than 15 years building successful online initiatives with for-profit and nonprofit organizations across the world. He is a frequent blogger, published author of a chapter in the book People to People Fundraising: Social Networking and Web 2.0 for Charities, and is a co-editor of the book Internet Management for Nonprofits: Strategies, Tools & Trade Secrets.

Contact him by email.

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