Email Marketing Optimization: How you can create a testing environment to improve your email results


I recently attended the MarketingSherpa Email Marketing LEAPS Advanced Practices Workshop in Boston and, though these events are always good for new information, I found myself surprised – and even outright alarmed – by one particular statistic cited at the beginning of the event: 61% of companies do not routinely test their email campaigns.

Sixty-one percent. See for yourself:

Chart: Minority of organizations routinely test email campaigns to optimize performance

Perhaps my shocked reaction comes from my employment at MECLABS, where everything we do comes from a background of testing and optimization. (Oh, I’m serious. I was recently forced to stop eating tuna sandwiches for lunch, because a quick A/B split test showed that I was more productive in the afternoon when eating ham on rye.)

But am I to believe that nearly two-thirds of email marketers choose to throw their efforts to the proverbial wall, just to see what sticks? It doesn’t matter where you work – this is poor practice.

It’s not that email marketers are lazy, or simply aren’t trying – they just aren’t testing. According to MarketingSherpa presenters Jeffrey Rice and Adam Sutton, it seems organizations spend time and resources on researching email best practices, and update their knowledge through reading industry blogs, and attending webinars and workshops such as the LEAPS training I attended.

But, while best practices are a great starting point for email marketing, they’re an even better starting point for testing. Use best practices as test ideas. Because only through testing and optimization will you find out what works best for your company and, more importantly, your customers. And doing this on a regular basis is the quickest path to maximizing your email deliverability and performance.

Let’s talk about how you can create a testing environment to improve your email results…

1. Build and maintain a culture of continuous improvement

This subhead may sound like it was stolen from one of those self-help gurus that hold seminars in the airport Ramada, but it’s important in terms of email marketing. Testing is an ongoing process – and one that requires resources. This means that team members assigned to email testing will have to push themselves to think differently in order to create meaningful experiments.

From this creativity, new approaches and initiatives will arise, and results will reveal insights on your organization’s marketing strategy and its ability to effectively communicate with its core audience.

Remember, for every new piece of knowledge you gain, future email marketing efforts will become more efficient, more effective and (hopefully) more profitable.

Earlier, I made a mildly amusing joke about my office and a ham sandwich (there’s a sentence you’ll likely never read again). Whether or not the joke was funny, it was based in truth, as MECLABS is an environment that strives for continuous optimization and improvement. Through this way of thinking, our teams constantly devise new tests that improve not only our clients’ output, but also our own.

You can create a similar culture of improvement by building your own “testing lab” within your existing team. In this setting, you can establish a process for experimentation, measurement and implementation that aligns with your business objectives. Having your team maintain an ongoing list of ideas, ranging from simple to impossible, can inspire creative thought and help implement unique new trials.

And, if your company is large enough, be sure to garner input for test ideas from teams outside the marketing department. For example, when struggling with new ideas for subject lines and email copy, why not ask customer service reps for some recent buyer insights and feedback? Though it’s hard for many of us to fathom, you’d be surprised at just how creative non-marketers can become, with a little nudging.

(I know, I know…accepting this wasn’t easy for me, either.)

Finally, much like adults told us when we were children: don’t be in such a hurry to “grow up.” Though seeing noticeable returns can be exciting, it’s important to maintain perspective and make smaller-scale changes to build and gain momentum. These tests have the greatest flexibility for new experiments, while maintaining a relatively low risk. In time, once your testing provides consistent, measurable results, you can speed up the introduction of new practices without facing too much resistance from higher-ups.

These seemingly small successes will only support you as you seek additional funding and resources to expand your research.

2. Structure a thought sequence

Okay, group participation time. On the count of three, I want you all to repeat the following with me:

“NO UNSUPERVISED THINKING.” — Dr. Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director/CEO, MECLABS

Got it? Good. Now go repeat it to the rest of your marketing team.

Unsupervised thinking, in short, is what happens when you let customers navigate an email or Web page without directing their thought process and explaining value. When this happens, potential customers are often left confused, and as such, are more likely to conduct business elsewhere. To avoid this, it’s important to start a conversation with visitors, to explain why your product/service/solution is the best choice, and how they may benefit from it.

In email marketing, your communication of value begins in the subject line and should be maintained throughout the entire conversion process. You can ensure there will be no unsupervised thinking if you structure a sound thought sequence.

The first step in creating this thought sequence is to capture the reader’s attention in the subject line, making the recipient comfortable that the email is not only relevant, but is being sent from a credible company.

Once you have a reader’s attention, you only have a few milliseconds to convince them to read further. That’s not long, and you have a lot to do in this short amount of time. Be sure to be clear in your messaging, as you not only need this opportunity to expand upon your value proposition, you also need to direct readers to a call-to-action.

At the end of the email, you want to close by repeating the call-to-action – especially if the requested action is time sensitive, creating further urgency – followed by clearly labeled contact info so the reader can easily reach you with an inquiry.

3. Prepare your test

Okay, this is why we’re here. But, before hastily diving in, remember that poorly planned tests can cost you both time and money. During the workshop, we learned how to avoid bad assumptions and costly mistakes by conducting a preliminary check in three key areas – analytics, segmentation and frequency.


Before you begin, make sure you have a process or analytical system in place to capture the metrics tied to your goal. Workshop presenter Jeffrey Rice cited an example where a company tested a new subject line which increased open rates. Great news, to be sure. However, the subject line could be setting the wrong expectations about the message within by not delivering on the subject line’s promise of value, and subscribers could possibly be deleting the email immediately after opening.

In short, if you don’t pay attention to clickthroughs from the message to online sales, those increased open rates could be disguising the fact that the email could be decreasing total revenue.


Understanding who makes up your database is critical to productive testing. Universally testing across the board could leave you with unclear results, as these respondents will inevitably give you erratic, inconclusive data.

You can avoid this by segmenting your lists based on testing objectives. Investigate subscriber characteristics based on demographics and behaviors most relevant to your testing goals. This knowledge will help you better interpret testing results and provide reasoning for their actions.

As always, it’s best to start simply, by first focusing on your most significant segments, only adding layers of complexity over time, once you learn more about what motivates your subscribers.


As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to pace yourself early in your testing endeavors. With each new test discovery your team will likely gain excitement for further experimentation. This enthusiasm can be infectious, to be sure, but be cautious not to allow the team to become overzealous and test too often. Testing too much can result in diminishing returns, and can actually provide too much data that could prevent you from implementing improvements.

On the flip side of the coin, you don’t want to gain a successful new approach from an early experiment and stop testing entirely. Email subscribers are a continuously evolving bunch, based on a number of internal and external factors. As such, an incentive that worked just a few months earlier may not perform well now.

Continued testing not only allows you to see these patterns, but also lets you capitalize on trends that come about from them.

In the end, testing emails requires patience. Optimization is rarely an immediate success, but payoffs often occur gradually over time as your team tries new iterations. By documenting benchmarks and specific changes to your email content or design, you will make the testing process more efficient and in turn, better serve your evolving subscriber population…

…much like I better serve my co-workers by not eating tuna sandwiches anymore.

Related resources

MarketingSherpa Email Marketing LEAPS Advanced Practices Workshop

MarketingExperiments Quarterly Research Journal (Q1 2011)

Graphic vs. Text Emails: How differing approaches encouraged future testing

Crafting an Engaging Email Message (Web Clinic)

MarketingExperiments Email Marketing Course

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  1. salsa says

    I became looking for the information for a number of days right after which My spouse and i fall a little haphazard in this short article , several thanks

  2. CapitalSource says

    What I find most confusing is how to garner useful informations from a test when your mailing lists are quite small (sometimes less than 500) and one is dealing with B2B with a long sales cycle and no online sales…only clickthroughs.

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