This blog post is a guest contribution from Dan Oshinsky, Director of Newsletters at BuzzFeed and expert email marketer. Dan and his team manage dozens of email newsletters and series each day around the world and have millions of thriving, actively engaged subscribers.

The following article is Dan’s response to a piece on Medium that brings up two critical issues that email marketers face: email clipping in Gmail (which happens when you have a message size larger than 102kb and requires readers to click a “View entire message link” to see the full content) and declining open rates — in part a result of email clipping and in part a result of aging lists and general engagement strategy.

Dan shares his insights on what email is for, how they measure success at BuzzFeed, and the steps they’ve taken to ensure optimal engagement of their newsletters. (Read more about/by Dan on his blog and learn about BuzzFeed’s partnership with Campaign Monitor here.)

BuzzFeed - Dan Oshinsky

Last week, friends in the email community shared a blog post on Medium called “The Problem With Email Newsletters,” by the founders of Clover, a cool new daily email newsletter, and app for young women that launched earlier this year. In the post, the Clover team talked about how they were struggling to track the success of their newsletter, and they weren’t quite sure what to do about it.

And every time someone shared that post with me, they also asked the big questions:

Is there a problem with email? Are you worried about this?

Worried? Actually, no.

I was excited.

Email continues to be one of the most powerful tools for any publisher or marketer. But it’s about time we had a conversation about email, and how we can use it best. That post has provided the impetus to have that conversation.

So let’s start talking.

Two big questions about email marketing

I’ll come back to what happened with Clover — and how we avoid issues like theirs — in a minute. But let’s start instead with a bigger conversation. Because when my team talks about email marketing, we always start with two big questions:

1) What is email actually for?

2) How can we measure it best?

What is email marketing for?

In my four years running the newsletter team at BuzzFeed, we’ve launched more than 50 different newsletters and sent nearly 500 million emails. We’ve tried and tested every format we can think of. We’ve used dozens of different templates. We’ve launched newsletters that worked, and many that just didn’t. (We still miss you, “An Occasional Bunny” newsletter.)

The point is: We’ve spent a LOT of time thinking about email, and what it should actually be used for. And we’ve gotten it down to three big things:

1. Email marketing is for distribution, and it’s one of the best distribution channels that exists today. All these years later, email is still an incredible 1-to-1 channel, a direct line into people’s inboxes — and when you think about where we open emails, that means it’s a direct line into every part of our lives. You check email in bed when you wake up, and at work, and in front of the TV at night. When someone subscribes to your email list, they’re letting you into their inbox, and that’s a space reserved for family, friends, and maybe a handful of trusted newsletters or brands. Those subscribers are asking for your best ideas and your best content, and it’s on all of us to reward that trust by sending great emails every time.

2. Email marketing is for action, and there may not be a better social tool for getting people to actually do something. Whether you’re trying to get people to buy a product, to join a cause, or — like my team at BuzzFeed — asking someone to read, view, or share a piece of content, email is an incredible way to get people to act.

3. Email marketing is for unique voices. It’s a place where you — the writer, the marketer, the brand — can actually have a relationship with someone else. I’ll share a secret with you: When we first started sending newsletters at BuzzFeed, each new product had a very specific recipient in mind. Even when we were sending an email to tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers, we wrote the newsletter with that single person in mind, because we wanted every email to have the personality of an email you’d get from a friend. And today, some of our fastest growing newsletters are ones that come from a specific BuzzFeed personality — not the brand at large.

So what’s email marketing for? That part’s easy: Distribution, action, and unique voice.

But here’s a harder question: How do you measure it correctly?

How do you measure email marketing?

That’s an obstacle that the team at Clover ran into when they realized that their open rates weren’t being calculated correctly, and that’s an awful feeling. When it comes to issues with data, we’ve all been there!

So here’s what we’ve learned about the intersection of data and newsletters: In order to measure the success of our email program correctly, we need to look at a lot of different metrics, not just one. Open rates are often used as a silver bullet metric — but they’re not everything.

We look really closely at a half-dozen different metrics. Yes, we look at open rates and click-through rates to see how users are engaging with our content in the inbox. But we also look at our weekly subscription rates to see if we’re promoting our newsletters correctly, and at our mobile open rates to make sure our emails are reaching all types of inboxes. And we’ve worked with Campaign Monitor to create a series of custom metrics to measure how subscriber engagement changes over time.

At BuzzFeed, email is a huge (and growing!) part of our social strategy — but a big part of our success is that we’ve figured out benchmarks that allow us to fully track our success. I can’t stress this enough: Everyone should use at least 2-3 metrics to make sure your email program is working the way you want it to.

Tracking success

Back to what happened with the team at Clover. Some email marketers have had issues with tracking email success — although I can tell you that at BuzzFeed, we haven’t seen issues with our emails being clipped or missing the inbox entirely, and a few strategies are to credit for that. (Either that or the Gmail team is willing to bend the rules for our weekly This Week In Cats newsletter.) Here’s how we do it:

1. We keep image sizes small
We do use a lot of GIFs in our newsletters, but we always try to keep our GIFs small (a file size of 2 MB or less). And as a bonus: The smaller the file, the faster your email loads on mobile!

2. We keep our emails brief
Our newsletters rarely exceed 1,000 words. We know that subscribers get distracted with other emails or push notifications. Our goal is to get the content you need and then let you get on with your day. If we’ve got a lot to say, we’ll direct you to our site or our app, where we can bring you a better experience when you’re ready to read or watch our content.

3. We run lots of reactivation campaigns
If you haven’t opened a newsletter from us in a while, that’s okay! We’ll send you a reactivation email to see if you still want our emails, and if you don’t, we’ll unsubscribe you from that list. That keeps our open rates high and helps us maintain a strong sender reputation with email clients like Gmail. The better the reputation, the more often our emails and newsletters land in your inbox.

4. We run a lot of tests
Before we launch new formats, we always test them across several email clients! You never know how your emails will look until you actually see them in the inbox — so test, test, and re-test!

Wrap up

To the team at Clover and anyone else struggling with email marketing, I’ll say: Don’t get discouraged! Yes, email marketing can be challenging sometimes. But it is also such a powerful tool — and if you’re using it as a core piece of your business, it means you’re already doing something right.

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