For many marketers, a successful holiday season can make or break yearly revenue numbers. With the season now in full swing, holiday spending is estimated to reach close to $123 billion, up almost 17 percent from 2017, according to eMarketer.
With so much at stake during the holidays, it’s important for retailers to target subscribers with emails containing enticing, relevant offers that are sure to stand out from their competitors. While we typically monitor monetary metrics during this time frame, such as conversions and revenue, focusing on these metrics alone can cause harm to your email program.
Mailbox providers pay close attention to inbox engagement, especially during the holidays, looking to the subscribers themselves to help with spam filtering decisions. To help maintain a positive reputation and successful deliverability during the holiday season and beyond, here are four important metrics to monitor:
1. Inbox Placement
While you may spend countless hours strategizing the perfect holiday strategy, all your time and effort will be wasted if your messages don’t actually reach your subscribers. Inbox placement — essentially the percentage of emails that reach the inbox — is a key metric to watch as a decline in inbox placement rates can indicate a larger issue. Mailbox providers take many factors into account when determining how to filter your messages, including reputational factors like complaints, spam traps, and subscriber engagement. Keeping a close eye on these metrics (detailed below) can help to catch and fix any red flags before inbox placement begins to decline.
According to Return Path’s recently released ebook, “Have Yourself a Merry Email Christmas,” overall inbox placement during last year’s holiday period remained relatively stable. While marketers sent more volume during last year’s holiday season, inbox placement was significantly higher than the previous year, with average inbox placement in Q4 2017 fluctuating between 90.4 percent and 92 percent.
However, taking a closer look at high stake verticals in Q4 — ones which typically increase their send volume during this time period — we can see that inbox placement did decline during November and December. This highlights the importance of paying close attention to this key metric.
As volume increases during the holidays and people receive more and more emails in their inbox, spam complaints tend to rise. A complaint is a key indicator to mailbox providers that subscribers are unhappy with your email program, and a spike in complaints can cause inbox placement to drop.
Looking at complaints during Q4 2017, we see an upward trend throughout the holiday season. Surprisingly, complaints dropped on Cyber Monday and remained lower throughout the rest of November, beginning to increase again at the beginning of December with a sharp increase in the two days after Christmas.
To minimize the impact of spam complaints, ensure that all complainers are suppressed from receiving future emails, and sign up for feedback loops from the different mailbox providers to help you gain more insight into the specific message driving these complaints.
3. Unknown Users and Spam Traps
Many marketers expand their list during the holidays, sending to email addresses that have previously been suppressed in the hopes of driving more revenue. Although this idea may sound good it theory, it can be detrimental to your email program, causing a rise in unknown users and recycled spam traps. Unknown users are email addresses which no longer exist and return a hard bounce code. Recycled spam traps are old emails addresses, no longer in use by the original owner. After a certain amount of inactivity, mailbox providers have repurposed these emails as traps to uncover senders with poor list hygiene and sending practices. In 2017, senders with lists that include more than one percent unknown users and even a single spam trap experienced reduced sender reputation and decreased deliverability at Gmail, Microsoft, and Yahoo.
To avoid this, apply the same suppression rules consistently all year round, mailing to subscribers who actively engage with your email. However, if you do decide to expand your reach, use a list hygiene service to help cleanse your email database and remove any unknown users or bad email addresses prior to sending.
4. Subscriber Engagement
As mailbox providers become increasingly sophisticated with their filtering algorithms, they are looking to subscriber behavior to help drive inbox placement. Over time, as more subscribers begin to tune out, spam placement rates can rise. Besides monitoring the percentage of subscribers engaging with your emails, also pay close attention to the percentage of subscribers reading your emails, ignoring your emails, or deleting emails without reading. While these specific metrics aren’t included in reporting provided by your email service provider, they are measured by mailbox providers — not ESPs — based on all the email they receive. Mailbox providers then analyze how users engage with emails from a given sender and factor this engagement into their inbox placement decisions. Until recently, marketers were unable to access these important metrics or use them to improve email performance.
Our research shows that one of these metrics, read rate, began to drop during November 2017, correlating with the time period most subscribers would see increased volume in their inboxes. However, the average read rate in Q4 was 24 percent, three percentage points higher than the average read rate for 2017. This highlights the fact that many marketers are getting smarter with their efforts, sending more targeted, relevant emails to subscribers to help drive increased response.
So as we near the end of the year, make sure to closely monitor these important metrics, making adjustments as needed, to ensure positive deliverability and a profitable holiday season.
Alexandra Braunstein has been helping world class brands grow and optimize their email marketing strategies and initiatives for over a decade. As an email strategist for Return Path, Alexandra uses her passion for analytical and creative thinking to help marketers refine their email programs, resulting in more emails getting delivered to the inbox, improved subscriber engagement, and increased ROI.