In Email Marketing, Testing Is Your Secret Weapon: How to Optimize Your Outbound Sales Emails

By taking the right approach to targeted email testing, email marketers can greatly decrease risk while increasing potential reward.

Every sales team knows to prioritize email marketing. After all, it’s one of the few existing, highly influential outbound marketing tactics. But not every sales team tests their email marketing messaging effectively.

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This is a misstep because your email marketing efforts will almost surely miss the mark without proper testing. In fact, testing is the only way to find out whether what you’re doing is actually working—not to mention ways to improve your email messaging.

It’s true that testing is highly resource-intensive—that’s why so many retailers don’t do it. Others assume that the results of testing will simply reaffirm what they’ve always known. But a majority of the time, results prove extremely insightful, and quite often, they challenge ideas you may have held closely about what your customers like or don’t like.

How your sales team should set up an email marketing test

There are four critical steps that every retailer should take when setting up an email marketing test for sales.  

Step 1 – Establish a baseline.

Take a good look at your historical email marketing trends.

General questions to ask are:

  • How do you compare to others in your industry?
  • What best practices are your biggest competitors using, that you aren’t?

More specific email marketing questions to ask are:

  • Is your open rate consistent with that of industry leaders?
  • How about your conversion rate?
  • Other KPIs?

Answering these questions will help highlight both your weak areas and your competencies. Once you’ve determined exactly what parts of your process need a boost, you’ll know what exactly you should start testing.

Step 2 – Prioritize the tests you’ll run.

This is a vital step in the process because strategies that aren’t working optimally are in much greater need of testing than those that are.

For example, if your open rate is poor, subject line testing should be a priority. In this type of test, you would create two different subject lines for the same email, and send each out to a randomly chosen set of subscribers. Then you could see which subject line produced the greatest number or percentage of opens.

If your open rate is just fine but your engagement rates are poor—in other words, people aren’t clicking on anything once they open your email—you’ll need to conduct creative testing. In this test, you would create two versions of the same email, but with slightly different messaging or content. After sending out each, you could see how recipients were engaging with each version.

Step 3 – Appropriately segment your testing.

Different segments of your customer base will respond differently to your messaging. Prospects, or people who’ve never purchased anything from you, will behave differently from longtime loyal customers. People who generally make purchases under $50 will behave differently from those who spend a lot more on a typical purchase.

And segmentation can also help you see the true value and potential of different customer groups. For example, if you have a high number of prospects coming close to conversion, creating a call-to-action that serves as a final push will likely prove bountiful. But in order to see that group and its high value in the first place, you’ll need to understand your pipeline distribution

This is why effective testing must dive a level deeper than simple aggregate testing.

For example, a particular email marketing campaign may be converting loyal customers at a high rate, while being mostly ignored by one-time buyers and potential customers. But if you want your business to succeed, you can’t rely solely on loyal customers—just as you can’t rely solely on attracting new customers. You must be able to appeal to everyone on your list.

So make sure to test your customer base not as a whole, but as individual groups that are driven to engagement and conversion by different messaging strategies.

Step 4 – Validate tests by running them multiple times.

Always run a test multiple times to make sure the outcomes are consistent.

This is especially important if the results of a test will have implications for your overall marketing strategy.  There’s no tried-and-true number of tests to run for effective validation, but a minimum of three is generally a safe bet. For example, if you’re testing message A versus B, and message B performs 30% better than A three times in a row, that’s sufficient validation. You can then confidently place stock in the chances that B is the better route.

This validation step is important for two reasons.

First, if you’re testing with small sample sizes, there can be more room for error. Second, testing often challenges assumptions marketers and retailers have held for years about their customers. If a test suddenly shows that customers prefer a percentage-off coupon over free shipping when the CMO was certain that free shipping was more valuable, that CMO might be more tempted to dismiss the test as an aberration.

But if the test is run three, four, or five times and produces the same results, that data becomes much harder to ignore.

This recently happened with one of our clients at SellUp, the email marketing company I founded.

We made a perplexing discovery while testing discount rates for this retailer. Surprisingly, customers shopped the client’s clearance section more actively when a 35% discount was offered versus 40%. Of course, we never would have assumed lowering the clearance discount would have this effect. But through testing, we discovered a prime opportunity to not only increase sales but gross margin percentage at the same time.

For this reason and so many others, testing should be considered a vital component in any sales process. If you’re not taking advantage of its benefit, stop shooting in the dark. And start putting data-driven insights behind your marketing efforts.

Allan Levy is the founder and CEO of the email marketing company SellUp.

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  • Originally published December 11, 2018, updated April 26, 2023