Three ways to tell if your email campaign is rotten

I was recently involved in a fast-paced advocacy campaign aimed at quickly raising the profile of a petition supporting people with a disability. The online campaign was spread quickly using social media and email marketing. I worked with several groups and was able to get some insights into email marketing standards for open rates and click-throughs.

For unions going down the email marketing route, it can be easy to get the analytics numbers but often difficult to make sense of them. What’s a good open rate, what’s a bad rate? What’s a good or bad click-through rate? How can you tell if the campaign you’ve sent is a success or a failure?

Here’s some advice on how to set your bench marks.

1. Understand your email list

There are three kinds of email list. What kind you’ve got will determine, in large part, the first benchmarks for your email campaigns.

The first kind of email is your in-house legacy email list. For unions, you’ve probably got email addresses for around half or more of your members (more if you’re a white-collar union). Depending on how much you’ve used email before, these email addresses will either be high quality (that is, “fresh” and accurate) or low. For legacy membership lists, email addresses probably haven’t been the main objective when collecting details.

The second kind of list are in-house, purpose built email lists. These are lists based around specific campaigns, either industrial or public policy. The emails have been collected specifically, and are typically much higher quality. You may also have the email addresses of non-members. Hopefully you also have a better idea of the issues that the person is interested in — they’ve likely opted in at your website or campaign site.

The final kind is the external list — bought or rented, or sourced from a third-party. These are the least good lists. In fact, for spam and opt-in reasons, you really should never use an external list. If you are being supported by a third-party, it’s best to ask them to send an email from them to the recipients asking people to visit your campaign site to opt-in (sign up).

2. The subject line is important

A brief look at the 2012 Obama email subject lines indicate the importance of a good subject. In fact, it can be the most significant factor in whether an email is opened. These days, you can use an email marketing system to test different subject lines.

Writing a good subject line is a mixture of art and science. Making it descriptive, specific and accurate regarding the contests of the email will help. The key thing is to remember that most people are time poor and scan the email subject lines to see if it’s worth their time opening it up and reading it. The more relevant and personal it is, the more likely it is to be opened. Lots of email marketing systems let you embed personal elements into subjects, such as their names, locations or interests.

3. (Email) Content is king

How good is the content of your email. Is it interesting? Is it relevant? Is it personalised? Why should the recipient bother to read it? Especially for union emails, your email creative should be compelling and have a strong call to action (CTA).

This is often where I’ve seen union emails fall down. They’re either filled with insider jargon and acronyms, or needlessly opaque. At their worst, they’re overly long and have not call to action at the end. Emails that are “just for information” should be re-thought. Why are you sending this information and how can you re-write it to ask the recipient to do something?


By mastering these three things, you can really maximise your email campaign performance. The best thing about email is that it is measurable and testable. You can run A/B split tests to see what versions work the best and analyse emails that fail or succeed.

If you’ve got a low open rate, check your subject lines and test multiple versions. If you have low click-throughs, check the email creative/content and test different calls to action. If you’ve got a high bounce rate, unsubscribe rate or overall poor performance, check your list quality. Use the tools that your email service makes available to check for the quality of your creative and your HTML design across different email clients; make sure you get the best delivery possible so your emails don’t get caught in spam traps.

Follow this advice and you’ll be able to quickly start mastering email as an online campaign tool.

One response to “Three ways to tell if your email campaign is rotten”

  1. Laurie Avatar

    We have seen the biggest change in our email click-thru rates by changing the times we send them out. We have always done split a/b testing, and assumed that after work/ dinner time would be best to send out emails. It turns out though that our emails are significantly more effective when we send them out at lunch time. I am sure it varies business to business, but it really can make a difference. We now use ( ) because they are more flexible with our split testing, so we can test more variables, at various times of day.

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