4 Easy Questions: Understanding Engagement to Survive and Thrive in Email and Beyond

A colleague of mine shared a great article about employee engagement based on a recent Gallup study of 1.4 million employees across 192 companies, and I couldn't help but be struck by the similarity between "checked out" employees and inactive email subscribers.

The article cited research showing that 70 percent of U.S. workers are mentally disengaged, and I immediately thought of the vast number of email marketers we see with files that are primarily populated with subscribers who are defined as inactive. Often, the bulk of the responses to a brand's email campaigns come from 10 to 20 percent of the subscriber list. (For tips about what to do - and what to avoid - when it comes to creating a reengagement strategy to win back inactive subscribers, you can read more here.) This month I'm going to focus on the opposite of inactivity: engagement.

I consider engagement to be the most important factor when it comes to measuring email program success. If you're measuring engagement accurately, this key performance indicator (KPI) should be a composite of a variety of metrics that include everything from your standard open, click-through, conversion, and unsubscribe rates; to list hygiene metrics like unknown user rates; to new metrics like read rates; and deliverability metrics like inbox placement rates and complaint rates.

Engagement should be defined to represent long-term, ongoing, and consistent interaction with your campaigns by your subscribers. It's not a one-time spike based on a seasonal contest, coupon, or other incentive. Also, engagement metrics tied to email data can go beyond just the email channel. Engagement with email can actually be a good indication that your subscribers are loyal to your brand, eager to receive information from you, and are willing to engage with your brand in other digital channels.

Mastering engagement will determine whether your email program ultimately succeeds or fails. Consider this quote in the aforementioned article by Gallup Chief Report Scientist James Harter: "In good economic times, engagement is the difference between good and great. In bad economic times, engagement is the difference between sinking and holding your own." When evaluating how engagement applies to your email program, there are four important questions to ask:

  1. How am I defining engagement? The goals of your email program need to be clearly stated and aligned with your overall business goals, and you need to understand the difference between an engaged subscriber and a disengaged subscriber. This may sound simple and obvious, but I've worked with sophisticated clients who don't know how to answer these questions.
  2. How am I measuring engagement? In addition to a combination of the metrics mentioned above, there are others to consider: social metrics (likes/shares, fans/followers), user-generated feedback metrics (product reviews, ratings, and testimonials), and feedback gathered from surveys. Ideally, in addition to sending customer satisfaction surveys that focus on Net Promoter Scores, you're also sending a survey that's focused on the email subscriber experience. This type of survey can generate valuable information that you can layer on top of other email program metrics.
  3. How do my engagement metrics compare to my competition? Engagement needs to be considered in the context of all the other messages competing for your subscribers' time and attention in the inbox, as well as the activity of those subscribers who "overlap" with your direct competitors. In other words, of the subscribers who you share with your top three to five competitors, how do your engagement metrics measure up?
  4. What is my strategy for improving engagement? Not surprisingly, affecting change starts with mapping out a strategy for what needs improving and then having a clear plan of action for how you're going to get there, along with measureable goals to track progress.

Curious how some of the top brands compare when it comes to driving engagement for their email programs? Check out our "Battle of the Brands" infographic here.