The definitive guide to engaging email marketing and why it matters
blog post | marketing | news + business

The definitive guide to engaging email marketing

Email is one of the oldest marketing tools available within the digital landscape, and it still remains (by far) one of the cheapest ways to generate and nurture leads. In fact, email boasts an insane return on investment (ROI) of roughly 40:1. So if you’re not using this channel to drive revenue, you almost certainly should be.

To maximize ROI, you need to first maximize email marketing engagement. There are many factors that influence engagement that we’ll get into. But luckily, your CRM is a treasure trove packed full of rich data about your leads and customers to help guide your email engagement strategy.

Below is the definitive guide to engaging email marketing, which includes incredibly practical tips coupled with useful recipes for leveraging HubSpot (or your CRM of choice) to get the most out of email.

Set the tone for your brand

Sure, a new contact or existing customer has almost certainly seen your website and possibly some other assets to establish some familiarity with your brand. Email is generally a more personal interaction since we marketers are actively reaching out to individual people—even if we’re sending out one email to a larger group of folks. And because email is an interruptive marketing tactic, how you use this channel will tell your contacts a lot about your brand. Here are some tips for leaving a good impression:

Be valuable

Your leads and customers want to know more about what they’re actually interested in. When you’re emailing them, be educational, not overly promotional, especially about what you sell.

Be respectful

Most people are pretty busy. We’re bombarded daily with thousands of messages from marketers in the form of digital and print ads, social media posts, commercials, and, of course, emails. So don’t hit up the inbox more than you need to. Additionally, try to make sure that messages sent by your sales team aren’t overlapping with emails sent by marketing and vice versa. And don’t ever send email campaigns at odd hours. While you may be burning the midnight oil, your contacts likely won’t enjoy hearing from you when they’re trying to wind down after a long day so they can spend time with their family. You can always schedule your campaigns for a specific day and time when you know your prospects are going to pay attention to your messages.

Be consistent

Most companies have lots of people sending emails on your behalf between marketing, sales, and service teams. It’s always a good idea to have some sort of centralized process to ensure that messages are at least generally aligned with how you’d like your brand and products to be positioned. The size of your company usually dictates the amount of alignment required—the more employees and departments you have, the more effort it will take to ensure that you’re all on the same page.

Email engagement metrics that matter

Data doesn’t lie. And when it comes to gauging the engagement of your email campaigns, there are a handful of metrics to keep an eye on at the end of every send. You may know most of these already, but some carry more weight than others:

  • Open rate
  • Click-through rate
  • Click-to-open rate
  • Conversion rates
  • Unsubscribe rate

Let’s discuss each one.

Open Rate

The open rate is the ratio of the number of emails opened to the total number of emails delivered. Extreme open rates—either too high or too low—are usually tied to the subject line.

Click-Through Rate (CTR)

The click-through rate is the ratio of total clicks to the total number of emails delivered. Some platforms only consider unique clicks, where duplicate clicks are ignored when computing the ratio, or even simply as a percentage of unique users that clicked. In any case, be sure to find out how CTR is calculated by your platform.

Click-to-Open Rate (CTO)

This number is a little different from CTR—it’s the ratio of clicks to the number of opens. In many ways, it’s much more descriptive than an open rate because it tells you how well your subject line aligns with the content of your email. A key component of keeping engagement high is building trust over time with the idea that the open will be “worth it” for the user. Look at overall performance to see if this number is trending up, trending down, or remaining consistent.

Conversion Rate

This golden marketing metric is the number of users that convert by taking further action once they’re on your landing page. How you define a conversion depends on your business; it may involve the prospect buying something, upgrading, filling out a form, or otherwise raising their proverbial hand. Many email marketers overlook this number, which is odd because it’s the bedrock of determining your ROI.

Unsubscribe Rate

One metric that can be very telling is the unsubscribe rate, or the percentage of people who opt out against the total number of emails delivered. If your unsubscribe rates are low, that’s usually an indicator that you’re doing things well enough if the metrics above are also in good health. Otherwise, if your unsubscribe rate inches up, look to see if one of those other metrics is awry—that’s the likely culprit. For example, if CTO rates are suddenly very low and unsubscribe rates are very high, there’s very likely a mismatch between your subject lines and the content of your messaging.

High unsubscribe rates—generally above about 0.5%—are simply bad news because they negatively impact your reputation as a sender. And if they remain consistently high, you’ll have an even harder time making your way into people’s inboxes. There are plenty of things that can cause unsubscribe rates to climb, so it’s usually best to focus on being proactive with regard to whom you email in the first place rather than being reactive once you’re faced with a problem.

That brings us to the next point…

Segment, segment, segment

So what’s the secret for how to write engaging emails and proactively avoid high unsubscribe rates? One thing you can do is to engage users by sending relevant content that you think recipients will genuinely find useful based on their segment. After all, marketers that segment their email campaigns realize as much as a 760% increase in revenue.

Think of segments like departments in a company. Imagine that you had an important announcement that only affected one department. No one else in the company would be any the wiser if they didn’t get the announcement. Would you tell the whole company? Probably not because it would be confusing and irrelevant. Now imagine you have an announcement that would affect the whole company but each department in different ways. You’d likely deliver the message a little differently for each department.

Of course, it’s a bit impractical to segment each contact by hand unless you don’t have many to begin with. Fortunately, your CRM is constantly collecting data points about your contacts that you can easily tease into segments to deliver the most engaging content.

The product or service your business offers most certainly appeals differently to different kinds of buyers, whether they are leads or customers. So with all that in mind, it’s easy to see the value of segmentation.

Getting started with segmentation

Use your CRM like a North Star. Here are a few quick ways to slice and dice:

  • Age: Not how old they are, but how old their record is in your CRM.
  • Activity: Number of site visits, form fills, customer engagement emails recently clicked, purchases, etc.
  • Interests: The pages that someone visits on your site say a whole lot about what that user wants—even more if they download an asset or make a purchase.
  • Company size: This is a super valuable data point in B2B marketing if you can get your hands on it. Because email is a one-to-one interaction that’s clearly tracked, using company-level data of any sort tells you everything about who’s most interested in whatever you’re selling.
  • Inactivity: I know… ironic, right? If a contact has been inactive for a reasonable period of time—anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, but no more—you can attempt to re-engage them with an offer.
  • The number of purchases: Especially for B2C marketers, this can be extremely helpful in sending the right content.
  • Geography: Contacts within different states or countries will likely engage with content differently and sometimes not at all, hurting the metrics that matter.

Along with the content you want to send, the size and age of your CRM will dictate how granular your segments should be. There’s obviously a huge difference between a thousand contacts and a million.

Bonus points

When you send segmented emails, you can get a much better understanding of what resonates best with whom. Some platforms enable you to send one email to multiple segments, too. At WebMechanix, we send out digest newsletters to a segment of folks who were either created in the last year (age) or were created any time but active in the last six months (activity). We also track service line interest and leverage that as a mini-segment, enabling us to understand the performance of our email marketing program a bit more meaningfully.

Split Test

If you’re looking to improve your email game, split testing, which is sending two variations of one campaign to see which one performs best, can be a great place to start. You can let variations of copy, segments, imagery, number of links, landing pages, and calls to action duel it out to see which is better … the possibilities are endless. If you’re just getting started with split testing, think in very broad strokes, like subject lines or even sending pure text versus something with graphics and imagery.

My general experience in sending out thousands of campaigns totaling about 150 million emails is that split testing is great but only worth it if you have enough volume. After lots and lots of statistical analysis over the years, I’ve found that the sweet spot threshold you need to get meaningful data is right around 3,000 contacts, split into two groups, or groups of at least 1,500 contacts if you want to send more variations.

Don’t have that much volume? That’s okay! Consistently testing one basic quality (like time of day) over a few sends can still produce meaningful results if you take several campaigns and aggregate the emails from each test group. Where there’s a will, there’s a way 🙂

And finally…

Avoid temptation

Most of this article has covered advice around moving the metrics that matter most. Reputation is everything when it comes to email. If you aren’t acting responsibly as an email sender, it will hurt you (and you may not even know it). I won’t get too far down the technical rabbit hole, but there are a surprising number of checks and balances in place to weed out spammers. Even something as seemingly harmless as using a URL shortener for your links can be a spam trigger. There are some broad strokes to keep an eye out for.

Don’t batch and blast

In fact, many reputable email marketers consider “blast” to have a negative connotation ill-suited for describing what you should be doing as a marketer. I’m firmly in that camp. The point is to nurture your relationship with contacts, not to torture them with irrelevancy. We’re much smarter marketers now than we were a decade ago when email “blasts” were a more standard practice. So leave your blasts in the past. Onward.

When you’re just starting out or starting back up, it’s always tempting to email more people than you should—either you’ll want to do so yourself or someone else will ask you to. This is especially true in the B2B world if you have a sizeable database or one that’s more than a year or two old. Resist the temptation to “blast” everyone you can and bravely whittle your list down to the folks who are actually engaged with your brand. Look, no one likes only being able to email 10–20% of your contacts. That stings even worse when you have content that’s likely to be highly relevant and engaging. The downside is that the longer you wait, the less likely an email account is to be still valid and used regularly by the owner, and the more likely you are to be seen as a spammer.

I’ve had to fight this battle many a time in my career. Eventually, I did some informal research using data from about 7,700 customers for whom I had permission to email. I first used a tool to verify each email—it costs about a penny per record. Once I got the information about the validity of each address, I compared it to the date when each contact was created.

It turned out that the sweet spot between contact age and email validity was about 13 months. After that point, there was a steep dropoff where contacts were far likelier to have addresses that were either invalid or unable to be verified. So if you’re looking for a good benchmark, that’s the one I use.

Consent is non-negotiable

Having permission to email people matters a lot. This alone could spawn its own post, but here’s the short version: You need to be a law-abiding marketer. There are lots of laws around the world that require consent before you can email individuals (the GDPR is neither the first nor the last). But even with the legalities aside, it’s just good practice. Besides, the terms of use for the platform you use for sending email undoubtedly forbid the practice—don’t force them to take away your hall pass. Generally speaking, if a contact hasn’t actively expressed interest in your product through filling out a form or otherwise raising their hand, don’t email them.


We’ve learned that driving engagement is critical to a successful email program. With so many levers to pull, email can seem a little overwhelming. But one of the many great things about email, besides its exceptional ROI, is its immediacy. Results start to come in almost as soon as you hit the “send” button. And unlike other marketing channels, you get the luxury of choosing exactly what you want to send and to whom you want to send it.

So fear not! Armed with all these tips and advice, you’ll be sending highly engaging content and reaping the rewards before you know it.

About the writer
Clare French
Clare French
Clare is Director of Marketing and has been a SaaS marketer for over a decade at a diverse array of software companies. She [finally] joined WebMechanix as a transplant from the client side, having hired the agency time and again. In her spare time, she goes to lots of concerts, seeks to make the world a better place and adores her darling dog, Sunshine.

Most newsletters suck...

So while we technically have to call this a daily newsletter so people know what it is, it's anything but.

You won't find any 'industry standards' or 'guru best practices' here - only the real stuff that actually moves the needle.

You may be interested in:

How to scale performance by using your baseline with Josh Harris

How to scale performance by using your baseline with Josh Harris

It’s too easy to get disconnected from the core processes of a company as it grows, but it’s imperative that you stay in contact with that baseline and the people carrying out the processes. Today’s guest is a master performance marketer and entrepreneur who had built and sold multiple companies by the age of 33....
Read this