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Delivering Episode 24: How to Know What to Focus on in Email

There’s so much to think about in email marketing—from strategy to tactics and everything in between. It can be hard to know where to put your effort. In this episode of Delivering, host Jason Rodriguez goes through four areas to look at when figuring out how to focus your email marketing efforts.

Episode Transcription

Welcome to Delivering, a podcast about the email industry, from strategy to design, code to leadership, and everything in between. I’m your host, Jason Rodriguez.

Delivering is brought to you by Litmus—the only platform trusted by professionals to help you send email with confidence, every time. Over 600,000 marketing professionals use Litmus’ tools to build, test, and analyze better email campaigns faster.
Head over to to start your free 7-day trial of Litmus, and start sending better emails today.

Be sure to subscribe to Delivering on iTunes or Spotify to listen to future episodes and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #DeliveringPodcast.

Earlier this week, we hosted our third Litmus Live Day for 2020. For those not following along, Litmus Live Day is our monthly online event for email marketers, covering topics for both marketing leaders and the practitioners in the weeds of email every day. Over the past few months, we’ve discussed a bunch of different topics. But July was focused on the technology and tactics underpinning our email marketing programs.

One of the speakers was Moni Oloyede, who is the senior marketing operations manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity. During her session, Moni went into her five ways to systematically fix your tech stack. While Moni was largely focused on marketing operations, one point she made stuck with me.

Towards the end of her talk, Moni mentioned that one of the problems marketers have is that they often confuse marketing goals and problems with business goals and problems and make decisions accordingly. When looking at marketing tech, they’ll choose tools to address a business need instead of a specific need of the marketing program itself. While that makes sense to some extent, since we’re driving a business with our marketing, it can lead to technology that hinders us instead of enabling us.

During the session for email practitioners, our own principal email engineer, Alice Li, gave a masterclass in implementing dark mode in email campaigns. We had a bunch of questions from attendees, some about the technical aspects of dark mode, but most focused on dark mode’s market share and whether or not they should invest the time into optimizing for dark mode.

Both Moni and Alice’s sessions, especially the Q&A portions, made me think about how marketers make decisions. Especially when it comes to where to focus their attention in email marketing. There are so many tools, strategies, and techniques available to email marketers, it can be intimidating and frustrating figuring out which ones to pay attention to.

So, I wanted to spend some time in today’s episode laying out how I think about making decisions in email marketing, not only to drive business goals—which is vital if we want to keep our jobs—but to provide real value for our subscribers and grow those all-important relationships, too.

Any discussion about decision making in marketing will necessarily start with business goals.

Marketing is inherently about growing a business, organization, or campaign. Marketing is an exchange of value, in our case, between our companies and our customers. The company provides some value—a service, product, tool, etc.—and our customers return that value by giving us money and (if we’re doing things right) loyalty to our service or product.

Although some companies can get by with a fixed, core group of customers over time, for better or worse most companies are dedicated to growing their customer base as much as possible. Marketing—along with sales—is the vehicle through which that growth happens, and email plays a key role in that growth.

Step one in making decisions in email is understanding your business’s goals and how they influence your email program. An example can help illustrate how that happens…

Most growth is the result of two things: getting more customers paying for something or retaining existing customers and getting them to pay more. Hopefully you’re paying attention to both, but let’s say your leadership team wants to focus on getting more customers in the door during the first half of the year.

As an email marketer, you’re then going to focus your attention on largely top-of-funnel email initiatives—things like newsletters and onboarding series. You should be experimenting with what grows your subscriber list and then optimizing the first few emails people receive to get them to create an account or buy a product. It’s all about providing immediate value, showing them why they should return that value, and giving them a clear opportunity for doing so.

But let’s say that the following year, leadership sees that a lot of your customers are churning. They’re not sticking around, growing into more expensive plans, or buying as much product. It’s time to focus on longer term engagement and retention.

Your decisions will need to change. You’ll need to focus on what kinds of campaigns you can create that will keep customers interested in your product. You’ll need to expose them to value that might be hidden in your service, features that will get them excited about sticking around and spending more money with you. It’s a very different challenge than the top-of-funnel stuff, and requires you to focus on different things.

You might need to invest in new tools to better understand your existing customers. You might need to focus more on your transactional emails, or working with your product or sales team to figure out what customers actually care about.

Either way, what you focus on is dictated by what your business needs are at that point in time.

One thing that was made clear in Alice’s Q&A session was that a lot of people are curious about industry trends—especially when it comes to more tactical aspects of email marketing. Every blog post is about dark mode! I just watched thirteen webinars in a row about interactive email! AMP4Email is eating the world!

It’s easy to fall into the trap of letting industry trends—or what appear to be industry trends—dictate your focus. When everyone is talking about X new technique, it’s easy to think that your emails need to implement that technique to be successful. Far too often, that means focusing on the trend over focusing on what your business needs or what your customers actually need.

Take interactivity, for example. It’s been a hot topic for years now. Years! A lot of companies are sending really interesting, impressive interactive emails. Some of them see success with those campaigns, but I’d wager that a lot of them spent a ton of time and resources on interactive campaigns that didn’t result in more business from new or existing customers.

They saw the shiny new thing and chased after it without understanding what—if anything—it would do for their business.

This is a double-edged sword, though. It’s a great idea to always be experimenting with new techniques and keeping an eye on industry trends. By testing them out, we can see if any of them are actually valuable and worth keeping around. We can see if they provide value for our subscribers and turn them into customers. We can see if they drive those business goals.

But a lot of the time, it’s just that shiny object syndrome and we spend more time focusing on those industry trends when we should be focusing on better understanding our customers’ needs and figuring out how to address them with our email campaigns. When it comes to figuring out what to focus on in email marketing, industry trends should be looked at, but the overall business goals and the following two steps tend to outweigh even the coolest trends.

There are a bunch of ways to keep up-to-date on industry trends. The first is knowing what industries you’re actually in. While Litmus is in the “email marketing” industry since we service email marketers, we’re also in the software industry since we build software. And we’re part of the B2B community since we’re selling to other businesses. It would be a disservice to our company and our customers if we limited our awareness to just email-focused companies.

By looking at what other software and B2B companies are doing with their marketing, we can identify trends that could be beneficial in our own marketing program.

Beyond knowing which industries to pay attention to, start following the thought leaders and most valuable companies in those industries. Check out their blogs on a regular basis, sign up for their newsletters, and at least skim through their white papers and ebooks if you don’t read them all the way through.

The next step is looking at your competitors. They’re the ones that are working their asses off trying to take your customers, so it’s important to research what they’re doing so that you can (hopefully) stay a few steps ahead.

There are a lot of ways to see what they’re up to in email and their overall marketing. Follow their blog, sign up for their newsletters, look to services like Really Good Emails to see what kinds of emails they’re sending, test out their product and see what their lifecycle campaigns look like. It can be wildly educational and can give you specific talking points and content ideas that allow you to differentiate yourself from the rest of the competition.

Beyond the purely competitive aspect, your competitors are trying to provide value to the same audience but usually doing so in a slightly different way. Even when your competitor is more or less a direct clone of your own service, they can talk about problems in a different light and, regardless of what you think of their service, they’re addressing real customer needs. They wouldn’t be in business otherwise.

So it’s important to understand the differences between your services and your approaches to marketing and email. Sign up for their emails, see what they’re doing differently, and try to figure out how subscribers are responding. Even if it simply validates your own approach without leading to changes in your tools, process, or output, it’s a great way to learn about where you should focus.

Finally—and most importantly—you should look to your subscribers to figure out what to focus on. They’re the end users and the ultimate arbiter of what works and what doesn’t, so knowing them should be paramount in your decision making process.

Even if achieving your business goals are what you’re graded on internally, knowing your subscribers is what will allow you to achieve those goals. If you don’t understand what your subscribers need from you in your onboarding emails, you won’t be able to convert them into paying customers. And if you don’t know what your existing customers need longer term, then you’ll see increased churn.

There are a ton of ways to figure out what your subscribers want and need. The first step is to use your email analytics from your ESP to track the usual suspects like opens, unsubscribes, clicks, click-to-open rate, etc. Combined with something like Email Analytics from Litmus, which gives you more in-depth engagement and device information, these metrics will allow you to see overarching trends in what your subscribers value as well as what’s important to them on a campaign-by-campaign basis.

That should be the baseline, though. Beyond that, try to use email-based surveys to get feedback or direct requests for feedback to figure out what subscribers want. The most valuable insights will come from actual conversations with your customers and subscribers. Open up lines of communication by having an actual, monitored inbox for direct email feedback, engage with customers on social media, and invite them to participate in user interviews as much as possible.

Not everyone will give you the time of day, but the ones that do are people that actually care about your products and services and are invested as much in your success as you are in theirs. Pay attention to what they say and use their feedback to guide your focus, whether it’s related to strategy, design and development, or anything else on your plate.

Those are my tips for figuring out what to focus on in email marketing. Again, there is just so damned much out there. New tools crop up every month, new design and development techniques are introduced and refined all the time. It can be very, very intimidating.

But by regularly reviewing your business’s goals, industry trends, what your competitors are doing, and—most importantly—what your customers and subscribers actually need, you can limit your focus more effectively to what’s actually important.

It takes a lot of practice, but will give you a massive edge compared to marketers that ignore all four.

Have your own criteria for figuring out what to focus on in email marketing? I’d love to hear about it. Email me at Until next time, cheers.

Delivering is brought to you by Litmus—the only platform trusted by professionals to help you send email with confidence, every time. Over 600,000 marketing professionals use Litmus’ tools to build, test, and analyze better email campaigns faster.
Head over to to start your free 7-day trial of Litmus, and start sending better emails today.

Be sure to subscribe to Delivering on iTunes or Spotify to listen to future episodes and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #DeliveringPodcast.