Your house email list is your greatest asset…but how great?
After sending a periodical newsletter or one-off alert, almost every marketer turns to the open rate and click-through rate stats that email service providers (ESPs) like Constant Contact track. But most ESPs are blind to what email recipients do after clicking through. One could assume that arguably the most loyal audience segment averages typical rates of purchases and other website conversions. But this almost certainly underestimates the impact of email marketing.
What’s more, out of the box, Google Analytics lumps together visitors who clicked on an email link in Gmail or Hotmail (or another web-based email system) with those from true Referring Sites. It also dumps visitors who clicked on an email link in Outlook (or another email client) into Direct Traffic, a catch-all that is often attributed to people who bookmark or type in a URL.
The solution lies in tracking email visitors as a distinct segment, then attributing conversions back to particular messages and even items and links. One approach is building a unique landing page for each message or offer, but this requires additional page creation and risks SEO-deflating content duplication. Nor does it allow easy study of results for all email efforts over time, or help Google Analytics assign the right Traffic Sources.
Empirical Path’s recommendation is to apply “campaign tags” as URL parameters to the links sent in every email so that, at the least, web analytics systems know that those visitors came from email. Ideally, the tags also convey that a visitor clicked on a particular link in a particular item in a particular message.
As we’ve written, Google Analytics supports a campaign tagging system that requires planning and staff buy-in to be effective across every outreach channel. The hurdle is a little lower when tracking just one medium, such as email. The key is to provide an easy, shared tool for creating tagged links to every relevant employee, agency, and contractor, so that everyone can use previous campaign tags as precedents for new URLs. Tagging is also helped by guidelines for how the organization names — down to capitalization and spacing — each of the up to five link characteristics that Google Analytics can collect.
Realistically, some organizations (like our entertainment client) are moving too fast to manually add a bunch of ungainly “&utm_” expressions to each and every email link. Luckily, another client, Business Insider, turned us on to an email service provider that automates the creation of Google Analytics campaign tags: TriggerMail from SailThru. (According to the Google Analytics blog, but un-verified by us, a few other ESPs offer this feature: Campaign Monitor, MailChimp, VerticalResponse, and AWeber.)
The resulting details allow a full view of the conversion funnel — and create new metrics — when Google Analytics data is combined with the ESP’s standard email stats. So Constant Contact will report that x% of emails sent were opened, that y% of those opened were clicked upon, and the share of click-throughs for each link in the creative. (It will also track un-subscribes and spam complaints, two gauges of list quality that deserve attention.) Then, powered by campaign tagging, web analytics takes over. Depending on the level of detail in campaign tags, Google Analytics will show visits and conversions for the email channel as a whole, or for last Monday’s weekly newsletter, or for the top link in the 50%-off offer in that message, or for that link sent to a list of the newest subscribers.
Often, visits to an email landing page measured by site analytics will exceed click-throughs to that page measured by the ESP; how can this be? It’s not due to paid search or browsing visitors viewing the page, since these views would not include the URL parameters added by campaign tagging. We’ve assumed most additional pageviews are attributable to email recipients copying the link, tags and all, and sharing it with friends leading to our “virality” metric – web analytics pageviews divided by ESP click-throughs. Our entertainment client has learned which landing pages generate the most sharing among email visitors (almost never the most popular links within the email message itself) and doubled down on promoting these as a way to engage their community as ambassadors. Thus, a channel aimed at activating loyal audience members becomes a way to recruit new viewers.
More important, our client knows which levers to pull when the metrics change for any stage of the entire funnel. So, as reported by their ESP, low open rates drive changes in subject lines and sending times. High opt-out rates and spam complaints spur changes in list scrubbing and registration processes. Low click-through rates inspire tests to improve content and calls to action. Then, switching to the web analytics tool, high bounce rates prompt tests to improve landing pages and their calls to action. High drop-offs further down the sales funnel yield tests to improve those pages and forms. It all adds up to our client knowing the value of an incremental email subscriber to justify subscriber acquisition efforts online and at events.
All in all, the benefits of tracking email campaigns with web analytics are worth the work. Seeing deeper into the conversion funnel than ESP metrics allow, assigning email traffic to the proper traffic source, and measuring the viral after-effect of email promotion give email marketers much better understanding of how great their email lists really are, and how much return an investment in subscribers, messaging, and landing pages will yield.
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