Are You Sabotaging Email ROI by Ignoring the Subscriber Experience?

As an email strategist, many of my projects include an audit of my clients’ existing email programs. This foundational check helps me understand the current subscriber experience and identify where breakdowns may be occurring. For many of my clients, this base level audit can be surprisingly eye opening. Despite the fact that many of them are singularly focused on the email program and its success, it’s very common for them to be disconnected from the subscriber experience that they are creating.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand how this can happen. As an email marketer, so much goes into keeping the program running. Just getting emails out the door can sap bandwidth and limit deeper thinking about program optimization.

What’s more, there is often an immense amount of pressure placed on owners of the email channel and the results they drive. The typical success metrics are focused on ROI, engagement, website traffic and the like. While important, these KPIs are focused solely on benefits for the business and can be poor indicators of whether the email program is providing a rewarding experience to end users. In addition, laser focus on business oriented KPIs can help deliver quick wins but may actually damage long term performance.

How NOT To Boost Performance

To illustrate how business oriented KPIs can send performance into a tailspin, here’s a common scenario that I come across:

  • YOY email ROI has shown a decline, which means that Q4 performance is critical to balance declines (and prevent a reduction in email budget for next year).
  • Pressure is placed on the email program to send more email, increase send frequency and mail to a broader audience.
  • Increased subscriber impressions lead to an initial increase in ROI.
  • These efforts are deemed a success, so this strategy is carried forward through Q4 and becomes standard practice going forward.

While this sounds like a good way to salvage end of year revenue, this approach often comes with damaging side effects:

  • Along with initial revenue, negative metrics like complaints and unsubscribes increase. If the audience is broadened to include those with patterns of inactivity, unknown user rates and spam trap hits are also increased.
  • Deliverability starts to decline, especially at Gmail, limiting visibility in the inbox and damaging engagement.
  • The increased unsubscribe rate erodes the size of the active list over time.
  • Subscriber dissatisfaction with the email program and brand becomes more prevalent.

This brings email marketers into the new year with deliverability issues, a reduced list and an audience that is checked out or worse — annoyed with the brand.

If your YOY performance is declining or stagnant and/or the above scenario sounds eerily familiar, it’s time to take a step back from performance goals and start thinking through the experience you’re crafting for subscribers.

Where to Start

Ideally, all email marketers should be able to answer the following questions, either offhand or through easily accessible documentation and data.

What are your primary points of acquisition?

  • Do subscribers entering the program have similar engagement rates or do they differ by point of acquisition? (Note: For deeper understanding, use points of acquisition to review the metrics listed below as well as patterns of disengagement by timeframe.)

What does your onboarding experience look like?

  • Do all subscribers have the same onboarding experience?
  • Where does (or should) the onboarding experience differ?
  • How many emails are included in the onboarding experience?
  • What are the creatives and subject lines for onboarding messages? (Note: Be sure to include all messages received upon signup, including all text transactional messages that may be triggered from other systems.)

On average, how many emails does a subscriber receive? (Note: I suggest verifying the actual counts. In my experience, marketers’ estimate of this number is often very different than what it actually is.)

  • Are there differences in frequency based on subscriber type, segment, or engagement patterns?

For key segments, what are the average rates across the following baseline metrics?

  • Open rate
  • Click rate/click-through rate
  • Unsubscribe rate
  • Complaint rate

What are your baseline metrics for the overall subscriber lifecycle?

  • What is the average lifetime value of subscribers?
  • What is the average duration of the email subscription?
  • When does engagement typically wane?
  • Does this differ across key segments?

Do different segments or individual subscribers receive targeted, relevant content?

  • Does this content change based on subscriber activity, inactivity, or self-reported information?

What percentage of your subscribers have not opened or clicked a message in the last 6 months? 12 months? 18 months? Longer? (Note: Timeframes should be customized based on business model or key inflection points in the lifecycle.)

  • What positive and negative engagement metrics are associated with these groups?

What inactivity thresholds have you put in place (i.e., suppression policy based on prolonged subscriber inactivity)?


As a Senior Email Strategist with Return Path, Casey specializes in driving increased engagement and boosting deliverability. Casey has a healthy fixation with helping marketers realize the potential of their email programs by addressing human needs, building better relationships, and ultimately driving improved results for the business. Her nine years of experience and obsession with evolving the email space helped land her a spot on ExpertSender’s list of “25 Email Geeks to Help You Get Your Geek On.”


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