[Case Study PART 2] From 0 to 4,000 … How We Grew Our Email List – Everything From Open Rates to CTRs

This is PART 2 of our email marketing case study. In PART 1, we discussed our general list building and email marketing strategy, our growth rate, the subscription forms we use, the tools we use to run those forms, what’s our email service provider and why, and how we go about convincing people to subscribe. Make sure to check it out prior to getting through this part.

Since we have already discussed everything related to email marketing that’s happening on the blog itself, today let’s focus on what’s going on inside the inboxes of our subscribers.

In other words, here’s everything about the emails we send, the results we get, the campaigns we run, etc. And most importantly, what works and what doesn’t.

An overview of the kinds of emails we send

Basically, there are two kinds of emails that we usually send:

  • “New post notifications” – where we tell people about something new being published on the blog.
  • “Exclusive content” – guides, tutorials, other info that doesn’t get published elsewhere – things that are created exclusively for the newsletter.

I should also add that none of our emails are 100% automated. This means that new post notifications aren’t generated straight from the RSS feed, or aren’t copy-and-pasted from the post content. We write them one by one every time. Doing so, we can explain in detail what’s in every post and why someone would want to read it.

“But what about promotion?”

I hear you. We don’t usually separate our emails into “content” vs “promotion.” You might argue that there’s always something being promoted in every email in one way or the other. After all, when we mention a blog post, or a new theme of ours, it’s still promotion. Basically, whenever there’s any live link in the body of an email – which is always – you can say that it’s a promotional email to an extent.

That being said, we never send pure sale-centered emails. There’s always a unique and useful piece of info in every message.

“What about affiliate links?”

Yes, we use those, but we don’t take part in any ongoing product launches. The affiliate links we include are always single mentions of software/tools/services related to the topic of the email, and aren’t part of any bigger scheme of some kind.

The structure of a standard email message

No matter if it’s a post notification or exclusive content, the structure is very similar.

Here’s an example email from just a couple of weeks ago:

email-example

From the top:

  1. (Not visible) The subject line, which doesn’t always have to be 100% related to the content of the email (in this case it was: “In need of WordPress statistics”).
  2. The overall very simple design. It’s still an HTML structure, but just a minimal one. The main benefit here is that it’s not overly shouty, and it renders nicely on mobile. Basically, the only branding there is the logo.
  3. The intro. The intros we use are different on an email-to-email basis. Sometimes they’re shorter, sometimes longer. Sometimes more factual, sometimes more story-driven. Personally, I never believed that you need to keep your messages either long or short, but instead go with what’s good for the story (more on the data backing this up in a minute). In the end, the intro is meant to transition the reader toward the content/link, and also let them know why this content/link is interesting to them.
  4. The main links. We use two of them: an image and a button. I’d say that the main link is the button, and that the image link is there to catch whoever just clicks the image on impulse.
  5. The image itself. Apart from being a link, the image is also meant to make the email more attractive to look at, and make it stand out from our previous emails. It’s a simple visual cue.
  6. Additional links block. More on this in a minute.
  7. The fine-print. At this point, the body of the email is done, and the only thing left is some side info that should still find its place in every commercial email – which a newsletter always is by definition. The things we have here are: info on why someone is receiving this email, the unsubscribe link, our business address, affiliate disclosure (we have it in the template by default, even though only small portion of our emails contain affiliate links).

The frequency

Right now, we send emails whenever a new post gets published, which is usually every other Monday and Friday, and every other Wednesday.

Apart from that, we send those exclusive content emails whenever … well, whenever we feel like it. This is probably something we could be doing better, and introduce a calendar of some kind.

In summary, we send around two emails every week to our main blog list.

The links we use – the what, why, and how

As I mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, we usually feature a handful of different links in our emails.

First, there are the two main links: the image link and the button link:

image-and-button

Those two main links are pretty straightforward. We simply want to give the main post as much exposure as it needs, and make sure that everybody gets to know what it’s about.

Then, there’s the block containing some additional links. Like so:

links-block-copy

The reasoning for using it is the following:

At that point, when someone has gone through the two main links and hasn’t clicked, then they’re either not interested at all, or the message hasn’t been compelling enough for them so far.

This additional block of links is meant to fix that and possibly get a handful more clicks. In it, we link to specific parts of the article (separated with HTML <a> tags). The anchors used are a combination of the actual sub-head from the article and some copywriting creativity on our part.

We’ve found that this block of links generates 21% additional clicks. (Another way to say it: it raises our CTR by 21%.)

One more thing you get by using such a method is a great study on the power of your copywriting. For example, here’s one of our reports (for an email mentioning a recent tutorial of ours):

links-block-copy

As you can see, the first phrase stands out and has managed to get most of the additional clicks. This sort of data can be explored for various purposes, like when coming up with new content ideas, for example.

“But what about text links, or even plain text emails altogether?”

Well, we’ve tested those. At some point, we split our list in half, and sent out the same email as plain text and using the standard design.

Comparison:

split-email-1a
split-email-1b

The exact results:

Design:

split-email-1a-r

Plain text:

split-email-1b-r

Why the difference in open rates? Probably due to a standard A/A test fallacy. In general, please don’t pay attention to the raw numbers, but more to the percentages – the CTRs.

I’m sure there’s still an argument to be made for plain text emails and plain text links. But in our case, there just isn’t any noticeable difference. And it’s not statistically significant either:

Tested with http://getdatadriven.com/ab-significance-test

Tested with http://getdatadriven.com/ab-significance-test

One more type of link that we’ve experimented with (and continue to use it whenever it makes sense) is a shortcut link.

Example:

shortcut

Basically, a shortcut link is meant for our avid fans – people who don’t necessarily want to spend time reading the email, but prefer to go straight to the blog instead.

Looking at our stats, I can say that if a shortcut link is in an email, it accounts for around 36% of the clicks from that email.

How to use it? Well, there’s only one requirement, I think, and it’s that your email needs to be long enough, so that you actually have the space to include the shortcut link. And that’s exactly how we do it – whenever there’s enough copy, we include the link somewhere at the beginning.

The takeaway. Always try to get additional clicks by simply including more links within your email. This can be something as simple as just linking to the same URL a couple of times (via normal links and shortcut links). However, if you want to go deeper, create custom <a> anchors within your content, and then link to those specific parts of the article multiple times.

The open rates and CTRs we get

So I’ve taken the last 20 campaigns of ours and averaged out the numbers. Our typical open rate is 26%.

The average CTR is 5.8%. But I don’t believe it to be a very informative number. I mean, it’s highly influenced by the split tests that we do and by the number of links we have in each email.

drawn-stats

In other words, there are multiple factors that come into the picture when calculating the CTR, whereas looking at the open rates is much simpler – each email has just one subject line, which is the main decision point for the recipient.

Here are some more in-depth stats. On the average, for each email we send:

5,3

5.3% of the clicks we get come from the main image link.

17,9

17.9% of the clicks come from the additional links block.

37,2

37.2% of the clicks come from the shortcut link (for the emails that have it).

 
59,1

59.1% of the clicks come from the main button link.

 

Furthermore. Not surprisingly, most of the clicks and opens happen within the first 24 hours after the email is sent out.

But a more interesting piece of statistics is that 60.3% of total clicks happen within the first 5 hours.

Here’s an example distribution of clicks (green) and open rates (blue) on a timeline for one of our campaigns; every dot is an hour:

timeline

Being able to see this kind of numbers and stats is precisely why we’ve decided to use a quality third-party tool (in our case – SendinBlue) to send our emails. Even though working with one of Amazon’s servers or handling everything in-house would be cheaper, it wouldn’t give us such insights.

I encourage you to take a similar path as well … just choose your email service provider and let them do the heavy lifting, so you don’t have to worry about things like deliverability, complaints, spam filters, and so on.

Long email copy vs. short email copy – which is best?

Ah, yes … one of the most evergreen questions in email marketing:

“Should I send short emails or long emails?”

Warning. The most useful answer in the whole wide world coming your way:

It depends.

Sorry.

But the main thing it depends on is this: Do you have a lot to say?

Apart from that, we don’t see any reliable data that would put any of the approaches at an advantage.

Here’s one of our tests:

Long email – opens and CTR:

split-email-2a-r

Short email – opens and CTR:

split-email-2b-r

Again, the difference in opens … no one knows why it’s there.

Let’s look at the statistical significance numbers. This is a result of a split test where version A was the long email, and version B was the short one. The big numbers represent the opens, and the small numbers the clicks:

split-email-2

As you can see, those differences aren’t statistically significant.

… Or maybe they are, but we just have to dig deeper?

Here’s what I mean. The long email was a content email. In other words, instead of linking to a post on the blog, it shared unique info in itself and then linked to a number of tools/solutions right from the body of the email. Some of those links were affiliate links. In total, we got 134 product clicks from that email.

However, the short email took a different approach. Instead of linking to products, it linked to a resource on the blog, which then linked to those same products. The people who landed on that page, clicked on those links a total of 46 times.

Conclusion? The long email performed much better (click-wise). It actually gave us 191% more clicks.

To be honest, I expected the short email to outperform the long one when I first set up that test. Seeing it the other way around was a surprise.

The takeaway. There’s no one-size-fits-all guideline. Experiment with both long and short emails. See what works better for your specific situation.

What’s next?

The main two things that we’re going to be doing in the near future is: (a) experimenting with the frequency, and (b) introducing better list segmentation.

About (b). Even though everything we send out is related to WordPress, there are still many sub-niches that can be tackled individually.

For instance, if we send a newsletter about a new post about WordPress freelancing, and we see that X percent of people click through, this gives us some insight about those people. We know that they’re into freelancing and that they could possibly be interested in other similar topics. Same thing goes for WordPress development, design, or anything else.

At the end of the day, gathering data on clicks vs. topics gives us a nice profile of our subscribers, and a better understanding of how to speak to them about what they want to hear.

This should be a lot better setup than just blasting broadcast emails to everyone every single time.

However, even though it sounds complicated, (b) is actually the easier thing to test and build over time.

About (a). Experimenting with sending frequency and drawing reliable conclusions can be even more difficult to do.

There’s just way more factors at play. For example, if we send 2 emails one week and then 4 emails the next week, and get more clicks that second week, does that tell us anything?

The conditions are just vastly different. It’s another time, another week, another volume of other info circulating around the web, another quality of the emails themselves, and on and on … virtually everything is different.

In other words, how do we really conclude such a test and decide that one sending frequency is better than the other? Feel free to share in the comments if you have any ideas on this.

Okay, that’s it for this two-part case study on our email marketing experience. I hope it’s been informative.

Oh, and feel free to share it please with anyone who could benefit from the info. Much appreciated! 🙂

Karol K

Creates content, manages CodeinWP's team of writers and makes sure that every piece of content you see on this blog looks great! / Author of "WordPress Complete" / Professional yerba mate drinker / @carlosinho