Email Marketers Should Know Subscribers Better

How important is email list segmentation? Some leading retail brands and marketplaces are allowing subscribers to opt-out of Father’s Day email promotions this year. Etsy, Free Fly Apparel, Tesco, and many others have asked subscribers if they want to receive marketing announcements for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.

For example, Father’s Day is this coming Sunday in many countries. It is typically a celebration of family and the parent-child relationship.

But Father’s Day marketing is uncomfortable for some email subscribers. Imagine a daughter who is grieving her father’s recent death. Or a husband who wants to be a father, but for some reason cannot have children. In each of these cases, a Father’s Day promotional email, however well executed, might still spark negative emotions for the recipient.

Thus, companies that reached out to customers about opting out of Father’s Day or Mother’s Day serve as a reminder to all email marketers to consider how well they know and segment subscribers.

Image of a smartphone screen with the Gmail icon prominently displayedImage of a smartphone screen with the Gmail icon prominently displayed

Knowing what is important to a subscriber is key to doing a better job of marketing to that person. Photo: Stephen Phillips.


Any discussion of email marketing and list segmentation should start with “it depends.” What works for one business may not work for another.

What day is best to send promotional emails? It depends. What are the best ways to segment a list? It depends. And should I ever send a message to my entire list? Well, it depends.

We can definitively say, however, that list segmentation, done well, leads to better email marketing performance.

“I’ve seen brands that send [email marketing messages] to very small lists because they are honed in on who they are talking to, and those lists have 70-or-80-percent open rates and high click-through rates,” said Val Geisler, a customer evangelist at Klaviyo, the email marketing platform.

Geisler relayed the example of a multichannel retailer with physical stores in St. Louis and email subscribers in New York. Segmenting the email list so that New Yorkers are not bombarded with local, in-store promotions will improve email marketing performance.

Similarly, asking folks if they want to opt-out of Father’s Day likely boosts performance for at least two reasons.

First, subscribers who would not have responded to the promotion are removed from the segment. The result is fewer emails, but to shoppers who are more likely to buy a Father’s Day gift.

Second, subscribers who read the opt-out email but didn’t respond could look for your store’s Father’s Day promotion. They have, in a sense, chosen to see the email.

In this way, asking a shopper about Father’s Day or Mother’s Day is like asking about her physical location or her preference for one product category or another.

Subscriber Info

The more a marketer knows about a subscriber, the better job she can do segmenting that subscriber and, thereby, providing the most relevant offers.

But it takes a bit of work.

If your company knows that a subscriber tends to buy women’s clothing but purchases gifts of men’s clothing during Father’s Day and Christmas, you might send her a message describing the popularity of men’s chino shorts.

Likewise, a shopper who has purchased men’s chino shorts for himself and also buys gifts of men’s clothing could receive an email message pointing out that the chino shorts he loves would make a great gift for dad.

Assembling these segments would likely produce better results than a generic message to both customers, but it would take more effort to collect the information. That includes taking action based on a subscriber’s decision to opt-out of a certain promotion.

Geisler pointed out that each of us wants to be treated as valuable individuals. Thus, when we as marketers gather info on a subscriber, be it behavioral or a preference like opting out of Father’s Day messages, we should act on it.


“A lot of marketing is very reactive, and we [unfortunately] don’t get ahead of our work,” said Geisler.

Thus, you could send an opt-out message a few days ahead of a holiday such as Father’s Day, or you could ask subscribers about their overall preferences. Geisler suggested doing the latter a couple of times every year. Rather than asking about Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June, inquire also about birthdays, or category affinities, or other interests.

Apple’s iOS 15 Will Change Email Marketing

Apple recently unveiled its iOS 15 software, which rolls out this fall. Most of the new features focus on privacy, data tracking, and user security. Two features, “Mail Privacy Protection” and “Hide My Email,” will dramatically impact email marketing. I’ll address both in this post.

Mail Privacy Protection

This feature will offer iOS 15 email users the option to load remote content privately and not disclose their IP addresses. The result will block the sender’s ability to track opens and forwards and will mask the recipient’s IP, which determines the physical location.

Screenshot from a smartphone of iOS 15's "Mail Privacy Protection" opt-in page.Screenshot from a smartphone of iOS 15's "Mail Privacy Protection" opt-in page.

iOS 15’s “Mail Privacy Protection” will offer users the option to load remote content privately and not disclose their IP addresses. Image: Apple.

Email service providers — Mailchimp, MailUp, Constant Contact, many more — insert an invisible 1-pixel image in outgoing deployments. The image tracks whether a recipient opens an email and how often, resulting in the reporting of unique and gross open rates. This is longstanding, valuable info for email marketers, reflecting the impact of subject lines, pre-headers, and overall subscriber engagement.

With iOS 15’s Mail Privacy, marketers will now be blind to email opens for users who have opted-in to that protection. Other users, those on desktop and Android devices, are still trackable.

Emails in 2021 are mostly opened on smartphones. iOS is a big share of that market. If Android adopts similar privacy options, 98% of smartphone users will have the option of not disclosing their email opens.

iOS 15’s Mail Privacy Protection is not enabled by default. Users have to opt-in. However, it is safe to say that, once released, senders can expect a decline in the reported open rates. The impact extends beyond subject lines and pre-headers. A user’s engagement over time often affects marketers’ segmentation tactics. Subscribers who open relatively less might receive fewer messages with different creative, for example.

Moreover, marketers frequently purge inactive subscribers. Such database cleaning is essential because it improves overall deliverability. Deployments with large percentages of inactive recipients can end up in junk or spam folders, as internet service providers assume those emails have little value. Apple’s new privacy update makes deleting inactive subscribers more difficult.

Finally, analyzing open rates by domain (@gmail, @yahoo, @hotmail) can identify ISPs who have blocked emails or have otherwise altered the deliverability. With the new iOS email privacy option, marketers lose this ability.

Hide My Email

“Hide my Email” is another new Apple feature, available on iOS 15, macOS Monterey (unveiled this month), and iCloud settings. The feature allows users to sign up for email offers with an Apple-generated randomized address instead of the real email address. Apple then forwards emails into the user’s main email account. Users can delete this new email address easily and thereby prevent its spread across the web.

Hide My Email poses several issues for marketers. First, there is no easy way to tell if a new email sign-up is a legitimate account or a “burner.” This will presumably cause deliverability issues, as subscribers can quickly delete their email, resulting in increased bounces and thus concerns to ISPs, who could alter its deliverability. (However, reputable email service providers automatically purge “hard” bounces, removing their impact on ISPs.)

Prepare Now

Prepare now for iOS 15’s Mail Privacy Protection. Test open rates extensively before launch this fall. Create before and after benchmarks for:

  • Subject lines,
  • Pre-headers,
  • Time of day,
  • Day of week,
  • “From” lines.

“Hide My Email” will likely impact deliverability. Keep an eye on those rates and make sure your ESP removes hard bounces promptly.

Need More First-party Leads? Grow Your Email List

The elimination of third-party cookies and the removal of auto-tracking on Apple iOS devices has marketers scrambling. No longer can they rely on those tactics to communicate with targeted prospects. So-called “first party” data, where a company has a direct relationship with consumers, is now paramount.

There is no better type of first-party leads than a robust email list.

Eliminating third-party cookies and automatic iOS tracking is the latest in the evolution of digital marketing. Email went through a similar change in 2003 with the U.S. CAN-SPAM Act. The law imposed transparency on email senders, among other requirements. The ultimate effect was to clean up the industry and improve the experience for consumers. It paved the way for email to become a dominant marketing channel.

Growing a subscriber list is now a marketing priority. Here are five ways to do that.

5 Ways to Grow an Email List

Convert existing visitors. Traffic comes to your site from multiple sources. Tactics to convert those visitors into email subscribers include:

  • Place an email sign-up box on every page,
  • Use pop-ups,
  • Provide value in exchange for an email address. Examples include discounts, content, or even gifts,
  • Send subscriber-only notifications, such as product availability or holiday shipping deadlines,
  • Sweepstakes or contests.
Screenshot of the HGTV sweepstakes web page.Screenshot of the HGTV sweepstakes web page.

Sweepstakes such as the Dream Home Giveaway from HGTV can generate new email subscribers.

Use co-registration programs. Lead-generation or co-registration programs can produce qualified subscribers. Providers include Opt-Intelligence and AddShoppers. Each maintains a vast publisher network. Typically, a brand will answer clarifying questions to establish criteria for new subscribers. For example, a kitchen supply merchant could target consumers interested in cooking or new recipes.

Once qualified, a publisher presents the offer to subscribe to the brand’s newsletter. The provider then verifies the leads and sends them directly to the brand via an API.

Providers typically charge a price per email acquired. In my experience, co-registration subscribers are typically qualified and valuable.

Partner with complementary sites. Many retailers maintain relationships with complementary products or services that are not direct competitors. Partnering can expand subscribers for both companies. An automobile parts retailer could partner with a publisher of how-to repair manuals, for example.

Inserting a printed piece in the delivery package of a partner site is another way to obtain subscribers.

Reactivate old email addresses. Email lists naturally shrink due to addresses that change, bounce, or become undeliverable. Those consumers may not have changed, however, only their email addresses. Consumers could still be interested in your hearing about your products provided you could locate them and update their address.

One way to do this is via an email reactivation program. The process consists of sending bounced and undeliverable email addresses to an email data service such as FreshAddress, which would then provide new, updated addresses for some of those subscribers.

Develop a rewards program. A rewards program can grow traffic and produce recurring buyers. It can also generate email subscribers.

Successful reward programs include:

  • Notifications using a different “from” name so members can easily identify reward emails from others,
  • A method to easily track reward points, such as including the rewards number and points in each email,
  • Personalized emails with the member’s first name and relevant offers.
Screenshot from a mobile phone of an "Adventure Rewards" email from Eddie Bauer.Screenshot from a mobile phone of an "Adventure Rewards" email from Eddie Bauer.

A rewards program, such as this one by Eddie Bauer, can generate email subscribers.

Email Conversion Guide, Part 3: Retargeting

Retargeting with email can encompass several tactics. All include a follow-up to a previous message or action. Retargeting can produce among the highest conversions from email marketing.

This is the final installment of my three-part email conversion guide, following  “Part 1: Database Cleanup” and “Part 2: Creating the Template.” In this post, I’ll explore how brands can drive conversions from email retargeting.

Conversion Funnel

Email marketing funnels guide consumers from exposure to purchase. Done correctly, a conversion funnel weeds out unlikely prospects and focuses on those who have demonstrated interest.

Illustration of an email funnel: email deployment, opens, clicks, site visit, buy.

An email conversion funnel focuses on recipients who have demonstrated interest via opens, clicks, and site visits.

Consumers drop out at each point in the email conversion funnel, however. Recapture them with creative retargeting and messaging based on opens, clicks, and site visits.

1. For those who don’t open, create more attention-grabbing subject lines:

  • Speak in layman’s terms. Avoid industry jargon and detailed specifications that mean little to consumers. Consider, for example, the subject lines below from Samsung and Apple. Apple’s are much more engaging.

Samsung: 7,500 mAh battery
Apple: Up to 10+ hours of battery life

Samsung: 2000×1200 resolution IPS display
Apple: Amazing retina display

Samsung: 8-megapixel front-facing camera
Apple: Front-facing camera to FaceTime with your friends and family

Samsung: IP68 Certified
Apple: Stronger than ever so you don’t have to worry about drops or spills

  • Test different sending times. Try drastic deployment changes, such as Saturday at 4:00 p.m. versus Tuesday at 11:00 a.m.

2. For those who open but don’t click, try to understand why. Possible reasons include (i) the subject line does not represent the body text, (ii) poor formatting, not mobile responsive, or no obvious call to action, and (iii) missing or incorrect links.

  • Test major changes in the body copy, the offer, or overall merchandising.
  • Analyze where the clicks are happening in your email. An email heat map can show the hot spots as well as the areas that need improvement.

3. For those who click but don’t convert, create triggered emails to target visitors who abandon browses and shopping carts.

  • Abandon browses. After a visitor leaves your site, send an email highlighting the benefits of the products viewed.
  • Abandon carts. The traditional abandon cart email remains a strong converter. For the best performance, deploy these emails closely after the abandonment and then a few additional reminders in hours and days afterward.

In my experience, triggered emails are vital to re-engaging visitors who may have left a site unintentionally or remain in the research phase. Moreover, many consumers will not recall the sites they’ve visited.

Social Media

Finally, while it’s a powerful retargeting tool, email can be even more effective when combined with retargeting on Facebook and other social media. The more times a shopper sees your brand and message, the more likely she will complete a purchase.

Email Conversion Guide, Part 2: Creating the Template

An ecommerce email template consists of multiple elements that impact clicks and purchases. This is the second installment of a 3-part series on factors that influence conversions from email marketing. “Part 1: Database Cleanup,” we published last month.

In this post, I’ll address the key conversion elements of an email template.

Ecommerce Email Templates

Reflect the goal. Arrange an email template around the end action you want the recipient to take. What’s the objective? I frequently encounter email templates that do not reflect the goal. This confuses the reader, resulting in fewer conversions.

Make the intended action easy for the user. Remove barriers that hinder conversions. Consider these tips:

  • Auto-load coupon or offer codes into a shopping cart via a click on the email.
  • Ensure offers are straightforward and obvious.
  • Minimize the copy and shopping options.

Apply responsive layouts. Responsive email templates automatically adjust based on the recipient’s device or email client. Nonresponsive layouts can make an email unreadable.

There are many free, open-source responsive template design tools. Moreover, email service providers typically provide templates for their customers.

Use relevant images. Large images are tempting, but they do not materially increase conversions in my experience.

  • Use images that represent your offer.
  • Images with people tend to convert better.
  • Make all images clickable.
  • A/B test images to optimize clicks.
  • Review heat-map reports to determine which images attract the most interest.

Emphasize value. To keep new subscribers opening your emails, every layout should include a clear value proposition, such as:

  • Free shipping.
  • Fast shipping.
  • Dollar- or percentage-off discounts.
  • Bonus reward points.
  • Unique or hard-to-find products.
  • How-to webinars or articles.

This email below from Famous Footwear delivers value from the offer (“BOGO 1/2 Off”) as well as from the rewards program (“Bonus Reward Cash”).

Screenshot of a marketing email from Famous Footwear.

This email from Famous Footwear delivers value from the offer (“BOGO 1/2 Off”) as well as from the rewards program (“Bonus Reward Cash”).

Reflect the segment. The highest-converting emails are personalized to the recipients based on behavior or demographics. The template and content should reflect that segment. Common email segments include:

  • Age or gender.
  • Geography.
  • Life stage.
  • Past purchases.

For example, the email below from America’s Test Kitchen targets a segment of one-person households. It would likely be ineffective for recipients in large families.

Screenshot of a marketing email from America's Test Kitchen

This email from America’s Test Kitchen targets one-person households.

Write a strong call-to-action. A call-to-action is the main button a recipient will click to respond to your offer. Sometimes an email conversion comes down to the CTA language. Minor tweaks in the text can have a big impact on response.

  • Keep the text short.
  • Action words tend to increase clicks. “Get the Discount” is better than “Buy Now.”
  • Entice curiosity.
  • Avoid words that require a commitment, such as “download” or “register.”
  • Use buttons large enough to tap with a finger on a phone.
  • Keep call-to-action buttons near the top.
  • Offer multiple calls-to-action.
  • A/B test calls-to-action for the most clicks.

Close the Loop

Shoppers tend to procrastinate. Reminder and last-chance notifications can greatly increase conversions. Also, send automated, triggered emails to shoppers who clicked on an email but abandoned the checkout process.

A Human Approach to Marketing Automation

Marketing automation can seem daunting. It may require segmenting customers, understanding behavioral triggers, writing dozens or even hundreds of messages, and developing complex if-then workflows.

Fortunately, like any large task, developing a successful marketing automation campaign can be done in small, simple steps. That’s the suggestion of Jason VandeBoom, CEO of ActiveCampaign, who said that the path toward marketing automation might start by engaging individual customers.

Customer Experience

The goal of marketing automation — also called “customer experience automation” and “digital experience automation” — is about creating meaningful shopping experiences at scale.

These experiences lead to loyal, repeat customers who have a higher lifetime purchase value and, likely, a relatively larger average order value than first-time buyers.

“Just the other day I was purchasing plants online,” said VandeBoom. “That’s something I can get anywhere. I received a purchase confirmation with the order, but then I also received a short email, ‘I saw you purchased this; we sometimes suggest this with it.’ It was not pushy, [rather] it felt like a person sent it.”

“I realize the message may be automated, but…I replied to it. It went to a human. We had a quick back-and-forth conversation. If you can find moments of adding that human touch to an experience,” you develop advocates for your company, VandeBoom said, adding that he spent an extra $5 to add the recommend product and would return to the site for more purchases.

If VandeBoom recommended this online store, marketing automation (along with human interaction) would have transformed him into a loyal advocate, which is much more valuable than paid customer acquisition.

When Automation Is Daunting

How did the plant company know which plant to recommend? How was it able to craft a short message that felt authentically human while trying to make an additional sale?

Think about this for your business. What automation triggers would you pick? Do you treat a shopper coming from Instagram differently than one coming from Google search? Would you start an automation workflow the moment someone consummated a purchase? Would you aim at particular products? What would you say? How would that message read? What would your subject line be?

This is when marketing automation seems hard — answering all of these questions and understanding the potentially complex relationships. “A lot of brands fall down here,” VandeBoom said.

Managers “start thinking about all of these things and they’re like ‘this is a lot, I’m just going to sell more product’” to new customers, VandeBoom explained.

But giving up on marketing automation is giving up on creating shopping experiences that lead to repeat customers.

Stock photo of two digital workers in front of computer screens.

How would you set up your first marketing automation workflow? What data would you need? How many other departments would you need to interact with? Photo: Tim van der Kuip.

Start Manually

Just start. Don’t try to devise the perfect marketing automation workflow from the outset. You might not even need list segmentation or bulk messaging capabilities.

Start as if you were the shopkeeper in a small brick-and-mortar store. If someone came to the register with a flashlight, you would probably ask if he needed batteries, too.

As a marketer who wants to replicate the automation VandeBoom described, you could start by reviewing new orders and thinking like a good brick-and-mortar clerk.

If an order comes in for a flashlight, send a personal email message to that customer asking her if she would like batteries. Then see what happens.

Note whether the customer responds. As you ask more customers about batteries, identify which subject lines worked best. Record how customers responded to the battery question.

Before you know it, you would have identified an automation trigger. Based on your experience with real customers, you would have discovered how soon to send the follow-up email message and how to write it.

Replicate this approach to create many successful marketing automation workflows. The daunting task just got a lot easier.

Many businesses “try to get [marketing automation that is] very polished, very complete. They’re trying to do something similar to Amazon or Walmart,” VandeBoom said. “But I’m seeing more people wanting a connection to the brand and to the personality of the team or the business.”

Email Conversion Guide, Part 1: Database Cleanup

Email marketing is crucial for most ecommerce companies. Critical email performance metrics include percentages for opens, clicks, and unsubscribes. But the ultimate metric is conversions: How many recipients purchased products?

This post is the first in a 3-part series on improving conversions from an email marketing program. Parts 2 and 3 will address templates and retargeting, respectively.

In this part 1 installment, I’ll review the importance of a clean subscriber database, including tips for ongoing maintenance.

Email Database Cleanup

Verify current data. Email data degrades every day. But timely subscriber info is essential. Emailing infrequently to your list — in 30-day intervals or longer — is risky as it likely includes inactive email addresses that bounce, which would harm your sending reputation.

To protect your sender score and deliverability, routinely purge bad data. This can be done with quick email verifications. Providers include BriteVerify and Fresh Address, among others. Verification options include batch (for your entire list or a segment) and real-time (via API) for ongoing monitoring.

Verifying email addresses before deployment will ensure a solid sending reputation.

Process address changes. Subscribers change jobs and delete and create email accounts and then sometimes forget to inform publishers and other providers. A deleted email address will bounce, but that doesn’t mean the subscriber is uninterested. It means he failed to report his new address.

Periodically collect your bounced email addresses and process a lookup for change of address or reactivation with, again, providers such as BriteVerify or FreshAddress. This process will check for an alternate email address or confirm the current one is now active. The match rates on a change-of-address pass are typically low — 10 to 15 percent. Still, it can provide immense value to reengage with customers.

Screenshot of a bounced email lookup process from FreshAddress

Periodically collect your bounced email addresses and process a lookup for change of address or reactivation. Shown here is the process for FreshAddress.

Review subscription sources. The source of new subscribers often determines data accuracy. Potential sources include:

  • Affiliate partners,
  • Content offers,
  • Customers,
  • Organic search traffic to your website,
  • Pop-up subscription forms on your site.

Subscriber data should be consistent for all sources. And confirming that the email address is valid at the point of collection is an easy way to check typos or data entry errors. This is doable with (i) a double opt-in subscription, (ii) requiring new subscribers to enter their address twice, or (iii) by an automated backend process.

Check demographic, behavioral info. Beyond email address accuracy, info on subscribers’ demographics and behavior can enable segmentation, which greatly improves conversions.

People evolve from one life stage to another. Their interests and needs for products and services change. The more you know about a subscriber, the better you can deliver relevant offers.

Say you track subscribers who are dog owners. Sending dog-related offers to the group would generate a much higher conversion than a non-segmented list. But failure to keep the data up to date could backfire if a pet is deceased or no longer living with the subscriber.

Screenshot of a dog-owner-related email from Merrell

Knowing if a subscriber is a dog owner can facilitate high-performing segments, such as this example from Merrell, the footwear company.

Maintain date stamps on children and pets, as examples. As they age, the content of your emails should evolve accordingly.

A subscriber’s purchase data is among the best sources of segmentation and personalization. From purchase history, a merchant can know or infer subscribers’ gender, interests, location, budget, and much more.

Remove unengaged subscribers. Finally, it’s important to purge unresponsive email addresses. Internet service providers often look at email engagement behaviors at the point of delivery in determining sender score. Cutting unresponsive addresses will increase overall open and click rates — i.e., engagement.

When determining which addresses to cut, consider:

  • Opt-in date,
  • Last purchase date,
  • Last open and click dates.

It’s safe to cut a subscriber who has never opened or clicked an email. Lapsed subscribers with a purchase history are more complicated. For those, evaluate the types of purchases. Some products don’t require frequent replacing. If a subscriber is still opening and clicking your emails, I’d be hesitant to delete her, even if she hasn’t purchased in a year or more.

Quick Refresher of U.S. CAN-SPAM Requirements

New consumer privacy laws in the U.S. and elsewhere apply to many forms of digital promotion, including email marketing. Thus it’s worth reviewing the requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which sets rules for the use of commercial email to U.S.-based recipients.

I’ll do that in this post.

Commercial Email

President George W. Bush signed CAN-SPAM into law to help protect U.S. consumers from malicious, unsolicited email. The acronym stands for “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing.”

The Act applies to any commercial electronic message to U.S. recipients — B2C and B2B. It includes transactional and marketing messages. Both fall under the CAN-SPAM rules, although transactional emails are subject only to truthful information, while marketing messages must meet all requirements, as summarized below.

For example, the transactional email message that follows is from Roto-Rooter, the plumbing company. The email confirms the details of a service appointment. CAN-SPAM requirements for this type of message are that the information must be truthful.

Screenshot of a Roto-Rooter service appointment confirmation.

The CAN-SPAM Act requires this transactional message from Rotor-Rooter to be accurate and not misleading.

CAN-SPAM and Ecommerce

CAN-SPAM does not require explicit permission from email recipients, unlike the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation, which does.

Key CAN-SPAM requirements include:

  • Not misleading to the recipient. All emails must contain an accurate representation of the sender — individual, brand, or company — and a clear, non-deceptive subject line. For example, an ecommerce company cannot insert “Amazon” as the “From” name unless it is Amazon. The subject line must accurately describe the content, and marketing messages must also convey the purpose, such as an advertisement or promotion.
  • Includes a physical mailing address in the body of the email. An address where unsubscribe requests can be physically mailed is also a requirement.
  • Provides an unsubscribe link. The Act requires an obvious link for recipients to unsubscribe from all of the sender’s emails.
Screenshot of a financial services email with an unsubscribe link and a physical address.

Commercial email messages to U.S. recipients must contain an unsubscribe link and a physical mailing address.

  • Opt-out requests honored within 10 days. Commercial email senders have 10 business days to process unsubscribe requests. Email service providers typically do this automatically, requiring no additional action from the sender. However, a sender must maintain this global suppression list indefinitely, even when changing service providers.
  • Senders and their agencies are responsible. Agencies and consultants that send on behalf of clients are responsible for the email, as are the client-senders.


CAN-SPAM calls for fines up to $43,792 for each violation. Fortunately, most email service providers have built-in enforcement mechanisms to help senders avoid honest mistakes. For example, most providers will not send an email without an unsubscribe link and a physical mailing address.

For more, see the CAN-SPAM Act compliance guide from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Attributing Sales to Email Marketing Is Not Always Easy

Attributing sales to email marketing can be difficult. A typical customer journey involves multiple touchpoints, such as email, organic search, and social media. But the better we understand the impact of each channel on conversions, the better we can optimize that channel for growth.

In this post, I’ll address common mistakes in tracking sales from email.

4 Common Email Attribution Errors

Mistake 1: Relying on offer codes. Many retailers include offer codes in marketing emails. Customers then enter that code at checkout to receive a discount. After the campaign, merchants tally the transactions from the code to gauge performance.

But there are several reasons why this method of attribution is inaccurate.

  • Few recipients use offer codes. In my experience, offer code redemptions represent no more than 20 percent of conversions. Consumers forget, or their products do not qualify for the offer.
  • Competing offers. Consumers inclined to use discount codes often search for a more attractive offer, such as an affiliate site.
  • User error. Long or complicated codes produce typos and confusion. Shoppers give up after a few attempts.
  • Easily shared. If it is not unique to a subscriber for single-use, the offer code is often shared or posted on other sites. This artificially increases revenue associated with email.

A better use of offer codes is in understanding the demand for a product and its price elasticity. To improve their accuracy, consider:

  • Keep codes short and easy to remember.
  • Use the codes only for a specific email.
  • Create unique codes for each subscriber to prevent sharing.
  • Program the links in the email so that clicks will auto-load a code into your shopping cart. This will ensure the code is correct.

Mistake 2: Using only Google Analytics for sales attribution. Google Analytics has multiple faults for tracking traffic and revenue from email.

First, Google Analytics classifies traffic from email as “Referral” unless every email link includes a UTM parameter. Creating those parameters is easy in Google’s Campaign URL Builder. Here’s an example (in italics) for “source,” “medium,” and “campaign” parameters: /?utm_source=december&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=emailtracking

But even with UTM parameters, Google Analytics could still under-attribute traffic and revenue from email. This is because email marketing platforms often redirect email links to facilitate the platforms’ own analytics. When a recipient clicks on a link, the platform redirects to an internal URL and then back to the original. Occasionally the process breaks, especially on mobile devices, creating errors in the parameters and preventing accurate tracking.

Furthermore, Google Analytics uses cookies and JavaScript. Worldwide privacy laws, such as the E.U.’s  General Data Protection Regulation, increasingly require websites to notify and obtain consent on cookie-use from visitors, who do not always agree. The result is a loss of accurate tracking.

The fix is a closed-loop matching process to determine which sales are associated with the email campaign.

Screenshot of with a privacy pop-up disclosure.

Worldwide privacy laws require websites to notify and obtain consent for cookie-use from visitors, such as this example from

Mistake 3: Relying solely on opens or clicks. Merchants often determine the performance of an email campaign by comparing sales against opens or clicks. This, too, produces inaccuracies.

Email platforms track opens via a 1×1 image pixel. But not all recipients download images, especially on mobile. This prevents the pixel from firing, resulting in the under-reporting of opens and clicks.

Moreover, an email drives conversions even if recipients do not open it. A subject line and preheader in an email inbox are similar to a display ad, which can influence recipients elsewhere, beyond the email.

To correct, track overall sales from subscribers, not just sales resulting from opens or clicks.

Mistake 4: Matching sales to email addresses. Another popular attribution method is to compare the email address of a sale against the address of subscribers. This can create inaccuracies.

First, most consumers have more than one email address and will often switch from one to another. An individual could subscribe to a list with a work address and then purchase goods using a personal one. Or another household member could complete the purchase, not the subscriber. This is common with complex or larger items, such as a vacation package.

To correct, attribute sales at the household level by comparing physical addresses.

Analyzing Unsubscribes Can Save an Email Marketing Program

Email marketers do not typically monitor why recipients unsubscribe. But the more we understand the reasons, the better we can reduce the number. In this post, I’ll explore how to analyze unsubscribes to improve email performance.

Unsubscribe directives — i.e., when a recipient clicks the “unsubscribe” link — are processed within 10 business days to comply with the U.S. CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. The sender must add unsubscribed email addresses to its overall suppression file to prevent future mailings.

There are two ways to unsubscribe, typically: with one-click (which immediately processes the request) or a 2-click process (which requires confirmation, usually on a web page).


In my experience, commercial email marketing programs have unsubscribe rates of less than 1 percent — for every 1,000 emails, fewer than 10 recipients will unsubscribe. However, rates vary dramatically by brand, industry, and email type. For example, marketing emails usually have a higher unsubscribe rate than a transactional message, such as a shipping notice.

Marketers should track and benchmark unsubscribe rates as a key performance indicator, similar to open and click percentages.

To analyze, gather info about the person and the circumstances surrounding the unsubscribe. Common data points include:

  • Source of the subscription, such as from organic search, affiliates, or contests.
  • Number of emails received by the recipient before opting out.
  • How long the recipient was subscribed.
  • The recipient’s opens and clicks.
  • Website visits and views.
  • Purchase history, if any.
  • The last email received before unsubscribing.

Next, try to identify trends and patterns associated with unsubscribes. Typical reasons include:

  • Frequency. Receiving too many emails from your brand and, likely, others.
  • Contest or offer. The recipient signed up only for an incentive, such as a contest or offer.
  • No longer relevant. The brand’s products or services are no longer needed. An example is maternity clothes.
  • Outside factors, such as a job loss.


Legitimate email subscribers are extremely valuable. They drive significant revenue for most ecommerce companies. Apply your findings from above to lower unsubscribes and create a more positive experience in general.

For example, consider deleting or adjusting specific opt-in sources (such as affiliate sites) that generate a disproportionate number of unsubscribes. Likewise, immediate unsubscribes could indicate that folks are responding only to an incentive, not your content.

Unsubscribes from long-term customers could indicate too-high product pricing, shipping delays, or better offers from competitors. I’ve seen poor creative content and confusing templates drive unsubscribes, too.

For additional insights, offer unsubscribe options, such as pausing emails, reducing the frequency, or selecting the types of emails to receive.

Screenshot of a Yankee Candle unsubscribe page

Yankee Candle offers options to receive fewer emails and to “snooze” a subscription for 30 days.

Similarly, surveys on the opt-out page can help, such as the example below from Barneys, the department store.

Screenshot of Barney's survey on email opt-out page

Barneys displays a survey after each email unsubscribe.