What we learned from 12 billion emails

Ian Truscott, CMO of marketing technology vendor Spotler, on his hardest won insights on email marketing
Ian Truscott
Ian Truscott

As the CMO of a SaaS marketing technology group, I am in the fortunate position to have access to data, or at least access to a bright team of folks that not only have access to data but understand it.

Like any decent-sized SaaS vendor, the communications and campaigns for tens of thousands of marketers pass through our systems and if there is one thing we know about data, it’s bigger is better. And vendors like us are in the privileged position to be able to pull insights from a much bigger dataset than any individual customer might get from their own data.

At Spotler, we share that data with various tools and reports, consistent with our mission to help marketers succeed and grow their businesses. An excellent example of this is our annual Email Benchmarking Report.

If you are unfamiliar with the Spotler Group, we are an acquisitive company that has been particularly active in the Netherlands and the UK. We provide four primary email marketing automation products, Spotler Mail+, WebPower, GatorMail and Pure360.

The significant bit for the purposes of this article is that across these platforms, we can dive into the data from over 3,500 companies, sending 12 billion emails from over half a million email campaigns.

So what did we find?

Email marketing refuses to die

My Dutch colleagues have been producing this report for years, and it may not be an exciting headline, but broadly we are seeing no reduction in the effectiveness of email marketing in terms of open rates and engagement metrics, like click-through rates.

The interesting thing about our research is that we exclude all the transactional type emails, order confirmations and the sort of email we all open because we want to or have to. This data set is solely based on marketing campaigns with more than 500 recipients, all the stuff that drops into our inbox that we don’t need to open. Basically, just marketing communications.

Across our other products, we are seeing an uplift in consumer engagement and a willingness to transact across new tools like WhatsApp, chatbots and social. Still, email shows no signs of losing its position at the centre of our increasingly omnichannel connection with brands, commerce and services.

An explanation for this could be that while marketers leverage these new channels, they increasingly value email as an owned channel. With the increased consumer awareness around privacy and 3rd party cookies, changes to the social media algorithms and business models that make organic growth on this rented land more difficult and paying for attention more expensive, having a direct connection with our audience via an email address continues to be valuable.

Benchmark against your industry

As a marketer in an increasingly data-obsessed corporate environment, it’s essential to set and meet realistic objectives and communicate your performance against them to budget holders and, ultimately, the C-suite.

When setting these objectives, especially if you’re new in a marketing leadership role, you should look around at available benchmarks and set your goals against those.

What struck me from the data was that when setting those objectives around email marketing, it’s important to benchmark your performance with as specific a comparison as possible, as performance across industries and geographies varies wildly.

For example, we found that in the Netherlands, the Click Through Rate (CTR), a key measure of email engagement, is just shy of 8% across all industries, is almost 10% for travel companies, but for business services, it’s closer to 6%. So, if you’re a Dutch marketer in a business services company trying to hit an average CTR of 8%, it’ll be a stretch goal in an industry that typically sees 6%.

Turn this lens to the UK, and you see much lower engagement across the board, even in the same industry. Using travel as an example, as shared above the CTR is 10% in NL, but it’s way lower at less than 3% in the UK. So again, picking the wrong metric could severely skew how a business feels about its marketing performance.

The detail of the numbers aside, it’s a lesson that we can apply to any marketing benchmark data. Not picking the right level of specificity could not only be demotivating for the marketer with that goal but could lead to the wrong decisions about marketing effort and investment.

People open what they care about

We have email experts and technology that use our dataset to dive into the detail of what email people open and can suggest things like optimal subject lines. However, looking more broadly across industries, the campaigns that perform really well are for charities, leisure and travel, the kinds of things we are personally very vested in.

But, over the last couple of years we’ve seen this change. As you can imagine, there was a significant spike in engagement with healthcare and energy companies in light of world events. So, in a similar vein to the previous point, if we’re benchmarking our performance against our industry, we need to stay close to these trends.

We also noticed that smaller campaigns perform better than larger ones. An average email campaign of 500-1000 recipients had an open rate of over 40%, whereas campaigns with over 250,000 dipped to less than 30%. One can easily assume that these smaller campaigns were better targeted to a niche audience.

As a marketer, this underlines that relevancy is a crucial driver to email engagement. Today, as I write this, we are all concerned about energy bills, inflation and the cost of living, but what macro trends are happening in your industry that your audience cares about? It’s almost certainly not your products or services but their problem or something disrupting their day.

They probably didn’t read your last email

This may be a controversial statement and in no way denigrates the effectiveness of email compared to other channels, but the truth is that even the people who are most engaged in your content, company, product or service will not read all of your emails.

I’ve already referred to the campaigns in the Netherlands, the travel industry and smaller campaigns performing well, but the best open rate in our study is 46% (smaller campaigns in the Dutch hospitality industry) and the lowest is less than 10%.

Three lessons I think from this. The first relates to the previous two points when we measure our marketing efforts; we shouldn’t be discouraged by our results but ensure we are benchmarking like for like with peers in our industry.

And the second lesson is for nurture emails. This is when we send a series of emails to lead prospective buyers to us by (in theory) warming them gently to the idea of getting in touch. Based on this data, these email campaigns need to be structured in a way that we can’t assume that the previous email was read – so maybe let's not be too scared about repeating ourselves.

The third is anecdotal. Our email inboxes are our personal repositories of knowledge and content. How often do you use email search to find something? By sending an email you have filed something in that repository, it may not be relevant for the receiver today but for retrieval later when they realise they have that business need.

I say it’s anecdotal… just the other day I had a sudden need for a video editing company. Remembering some marketing emails I’d received from agencies, I started with an email search before I turned to Google.

Finally, timing

This might be one of those marketing lessons to zig when everyone else is zagging, especially in B2B.

Our data shows that most companies send their campaigns on a Tuesday or a Thursday, normally in the morning, with barely any activity over the weekend.

And yet, open rates in B2B across all industries and geographies in our data are steady at 30% across all days of the week, with a tiny dip at weekends. Shockingly, B2B audiences are reading their emails at the weekend! In fact, our data showed that in the UK more B2B emails are opened on Saturday than any other day of the week.

So, in the age of marketing automation, it’s not like we need to be in the office to press send, perhaps we should zig with an email sent on a Saturday and get our email top of the weekend reading list.

Written by
Ian Truscott
CMO of Spotler
May 22, 2023
Written by
May 22, 2023