Systems Check: Looking at Email Health


In light of my last post for the Influencers blog, I thought it good karma to write a systems check post in order to show a fundamental, systematic process for improving the customer experience from hard data - in turn, making email marketing more fun, and definitely more rewarding. Email marketing is a craft; an art form, melding technical precision and emotively-artistic talents. The reward for appreciating this craft is a profitable, interactive email channel. The customer experience is ultimately relational, data or no data, trigger or no trigger - every email needs to relate to the recipient.

The health of an email marketing department relies on delivering messages routinely to the inbox with continual recipient interaction. Before email creative can make an impact certain technical, systematic items need attention. Today, delivering an email to the inbox is just as important as getting it opened.

Checking Your Systems

Like anything mechanically-oriented, email service providers require maintenance and check-ups for proper functionality. There are some big challenges for emailers in 2018 outside of routine systems health says Litmus (We won’t discuss the organizational systems in this post, we will review system health on the ESP level.). Fundamental, multi-point ESP reviews can help formulate paths of action to improve bottom line results for any company.

Items to review for basic system health:

  • Email/IP Deliverability
  • List Growth/Unsubscribe Rates (list growth vs. churn)
  • Bounce rates (hard & soft bounces)
  • Open/Click Rates

From a glance, the above will show where issues in the campaigns exist. Deliverability is a big deal, so start there. If no deliverability issues arise, campaign-level metrics will tell the rest of the story. Industry-specific email performance metrics are usually available for reality checks, although, I recommend always looking for improvement. Use historical data to create baselines and KPI’s going forward.

Popping the Hood

Just like maintaining a car, there are basic approaches to keeping the mechanisms and systems working in harmony for the long haul. As always, different approaches can deliver success - it’s what works for a specific setup. Maintenance should always scale in tandem with usage, the same way oil changes should increase as vehicle miles pile up. Tire pressure, fluid levels, light bulbs, belts, hoses, plugs, etc are all additional maintenance items for a car - email marketing has similar needs for keeping a maintenance schedule.

Looking first at deliverability, there are a few ways to get a pulse from expensive to cheap, you can try third-party deliverability vendors like 250ok or Return Path, use your ESP deliverability tool, or send test emails to addresses like Gmail manually to identify spam issues. I would advise for deliverability tools if email marketing needs to be a primary revenue driver for the organization. Monitoring blacklists, avoiding spam traps, getting your email authenticated properly, checking feedback loops, are just a few things these vendors offer before campaign level activity reporting.

If deliverability issues are identified; possibly look at moving IP’s (dedicated IP’s are pretty much a no-brainer), folks like Red Pill Email can help with email vendor evaluation if a deeper dive is necessary. If deliverability is high and everything looks good it’s time to look at the list and campaign-level metrics.  

List Growth vs. Churn

If any analogy I’m going to attempt here works, I think this one’s on the better side. The list activity of an email program is equivalent to fuel in a car. If the motor burns up all the gas and it isn’t refilled, everything stops. List health is everything; adding loads of new addresses doesn’t equate to a better program, but it’s essential to keeping everything moving. List attrition will happen if those addresses are sent to or not - focus on list growth always.

Churn is the ugly side of this coin. It’s the gas we all don’t want to pay for to get to the movies. People are going to unsubscribe, emails are going to go dormant, companies will change domains, email address formatting may change for an entire organization, people move jobs, etc. The uglier part of this - the list will go completely defunct over time, used or not. Just like gas in an old car’s tank.

“Learn to love the churn, it will bring you to the truth.”
- Some dude with email wisdom

Biggity-Bounce Rates and Stuff

Ugh, bounce rates, am-I-right?

Not all bounces are people lazily letting their inboxes fill to the brink of overflow. Some bounces we can understand as email marketers. Hard bounces happen to everyone. Clean those emails out from all lists. (Most ESP’s do this for you to help with deliverability)

Many times high bounce rates come from list lying dormant for a long time and being reengaged or a list purchase from external sources. Lists from vendors are almost always rife with bad emails or the lists have been oversold. Harmful bounce rate levels are commonly connected to bad list practices. Biggity-bounce rates.


Killin’ me, Smalls.

Open and Click Rates

This is the creative check-up part of the list. If the IP’s are good, and list health is checked, it’s up to the message and design to draw in all the attention. Inbox placement, time of send, subject line, message, call-to-action, creative will all affect how these rates perform. Shifting to a customer-centric campaign focus is a great way to increase engagement naturally.


  • When do they open emails most often? (Optimize send times)
  • What subject lines address the customer best? (Implement customer journey)
  • Which call-to-action resonates the loudest? (Create customer need)
  • Where can email content be realigned with customer needs? (Improve relevance)
  • Who can benefit from increased email personalization? (Heighten response time)

Click rates also improve with better-designed emails. Responsive emails help reach a broader amount of recipients regardless of the device used to view the email. In 2018, we shouldn’t be sending HTML emails that aren’t responsive - it’s just not nice. Not to mention, it’s lazy. Responsive email templates can be created for a few hundred dollars. Google, “Email Uplers” and click the link. If there is a concern about email rendering, a service like Litmus or Email on Acid can help make sure each email renders correctly.

So, now the email timing, the subject lines, CTA, and design are all optimized for maximum response. Add great deliverability and high-level list health - we’re making a difference. Nothing feels better than sending out a great email as a marketer. It’s an accomplishment.

Maintenance is easier than rebuilding

Email marketing can become deeply complex with the analytics available to emailers. I find that too much data can take away from the purpose of a campaign. The most effective email campaigns usually contain simple creative, poignant messaging and device-responsive HTML coding. Adding known data to the email is a bonus when the basics are already in place - to enhance the customer experience further, not add clutter or noise.

Plus, even with simplicity, maintaining an email marketing system is easier than building one up from Doomsday. Automation, personalization, and constant refinement through data will pay dividends long-term in keeping a healthy list and ROI. Rebuilding isn’t the end of the world, but it takes time and resources that should have already been spent and paying back, not continually costing the business.

Thanks for reading, viva la email : )