Marketing

Dozens of Proven Email Segmentation Tips for Improving Your Open Rates

Personalizing a marketing email is more than just inserting a subscriber’s name. Here’s how 42 marketers use segmentation to send relevant and targeted emails.

Jessica Greene Jessica Greene on March 26, 2019 (last modified on April 1, 2019) • 18 minute read

The wrong approach to email segmentation can send you spiraling down a rabbit hole.

There are a nearly endless number of ways to segment your email list—by demographics, funnel position, actions (and inaction), interests, psychographics, behaviors, and many more.

And while the respondents to our latest survey report that email segmentation is absolutely an effective way to boost subscriber engagement…

…over-segmentation can lead to a system that’s so complex and intertwined that it becomes difficult to manage, meaningless, and useless.

To help you approach email segmentation in the right way, we spoke to 42 marketers who’ve developed streamlined and effective systems.

89% of our respondents send personalized content, product, and service recommendations via email.

And their approaches to email segmentation and personalization drive results. While more than a third report average click-through rates between 2.1% and 3% for general, non-segmented emails, half report significantly higher average click-through rates—between 5.1% and 25%—for personalized, segmented emails.

To find out how our respondents drive such impressive click-through rates with personalized emails, we asked for their best tips for email segmentation.

Here’s what we learned.

*Editor’s note: HubSpot users–want an easier way to track the email engagement (opens, clicks, new subscribers) by campaign? Download this free template to visualize your email performance in seconds.

Not a HubSpot user? No worries. You can download templates to track your email performance from ActiveCampaign, Campaign MonitorGoogle AnalyticsKlaviyo, MailChimp, Marketo, SendGrid, and Seventh Sense, too.

Email Segmentation Basics

“Email segmentation is the art of thinking in groups,” says Techtic Solutions’ Rajat Chauhan.

“The emails we gather from our website on a regular basis are for different kinds of people with different behaviors, profiles, and interests. If our subscribers are so different, why should we treat them all the same? Thus, we split our list into groups or segments that are alike.”

Nili Zaharony of Penguin Strategies agrees: “In our experience, segmentation works best when you work to identify what makes a specific segment different from the rest.”

Alexander Kesler of inSegment calls this “strategic segmentation: the art of understanding your subscribers and communicating with them in a way that clearly signals that you are serving their unique needs.”

“The caliber of any list is—in large part—determined by how well you implement your segmentation strategy. By allowing you to send out more personalized and tailored email campaigns, strategic segmentation will increase your long-term subscriber retention rate.”

“And while there are many criteria by which you can segment your list,” Kesler says, “the five critical dimensions are demographics, preferences and interests, behavior, psychographics, and subscriber email data.”

Our respondents offered tips for four of Kesler’s five dimensions.

Segmenting Your Email List by Demographics

“Understanding the demographics of your target audience is the foundation for a great segmentation strategy,” says RKD’s Bryan Coles.

Linkilaw’s Esther Sauri agrees: “The first segmentation we usually apply is demographics. We use information like age, gender, job role, and income level. In a B2B company, job role tends to be the most important, but it really depends on what type of business you are.”

Solid Marketing’s Ruba Aramouny provides an example of location as a key segment for a client: “I recently helped a large European fitness company improve its newsletters by using location personalization.”

“The company sends out a weekly newsletter that includes blog posts and a list of new venues, workshops, and events. The issue was that people in Berlin would see information about events in Amsterdam. Needless to say, the content wasn’t relevant, and their click-through rates showed it.”

“Once I helped their newsletter team personalize their content based on subscribers’ locations, their open rates went from an average of 18% to 36%,” Aramouny says.

And Big Splash Social’s Anneline Breetzke has seen impressive returns from segmenting by industry group: “When we segmented our audience into industry groups and then started sending helpful tips related specifically to groups’ interests, we saw a dramatic increase in click-through rates.”

“We’re now consistently achieving a click-through rate of 8-9%, which is a big jump up from the 2-3% we were getting for our general email blasts.”

“And not only did our click-through rates jump up: our emails are also being shared, more people are subscribing, and our email list is becoming healthier by the day with active, engaged subscribers.”

“With email open rates increasing, our emails are landing more frequently in people’s inboxes instead of their spam folders. And when we do send the odd general email, those open rates have increased as well,” Breetzke says.

Related: Proven Strategies for Improving Your Email Click-Through Rate

Segmenting by Preferences and Interests

“To create highly personalized messages, segment based on the interests of your recipients,” says Tom Berry of Autus Consulting.

Diaz & Cooper’s Omi Diaz-Cooper agrees: “Segmenting by interests is more powerful than using demographics.”

But to segment by preferences and interests, you first have to know what your subscribers’ interests are.

Our respondents offered three tips for soliciting that information.

Conduct a Survey

Diaz-Cooper suggests “running a one-click survey asking your audience what topics are most compelling to them.”

According to Daniel Ndukwu of KyLeads, this is a strategy his company uses as well: “We have an understanding of the type of people that visit our website, and they’re divided into two distinct groups. Inside of our email automation workflows, we ask what they’d like to accomplish and present two options that can be clicked.”

“Then, we’re able to segment our subscribers based on the outcomes they want to achieve. While we’ve just started to really throw our weight behind this strategy, our early results are promising,” Ndukwu says.

Have Subscribers Self-Segment

DevBev Co.’s Devin Beverage suggests letting your subscribers self-segment. “Self-segmentation is allowing subscribers to choose what email campaigns they get put on, what content they contain, and even the frequency in which they’ll receive them.”

“Self-segmentation is empowering for subscribers because it gives them the explicit choice of what to receive. It also builds trust for your brand, because we aren’t slipping subscribers onto additional lists without asking,” Beverage says.

Tamas Torok recommends using your newsletter opt-in form to gauge subscribers’ interests: “We have a radio button field on our signup forms asking users to pick their biggest challenge. Based on their selection, they’re segmented into different lists that only receive emails that are relevant to the selected challenge.”

Beverage says you can ask for the information at opt-in or any other time: “It can actually double as a re-engagement campaign targeting unengaged subscribers. Just send an email with a subject like ‘We miss you, John. Too many emails?’ or ‘Sarah, we’re interested in your interests.’

“When you give unengaged users the choice of what they want to receive, your engagement rates should go up significantly,” Beverage says.

Determine What Spurred the Subscription

“In the past, I’ve segmented lists by looking at the article a subscriber was reading when he/she subscribed,” says MyCorporation’s Garret Bever. “For example, a user that converts in our travel category will receive emails with links to articles in the travel category.”

And if you get subscriber emails from multiple places, Noticed’s E.M. Ricchini says it’s important to segment by source: “Knowing where you got someone’s email is really helpful, especially in a trade show conference. The more granular the information, the better.”

Johnny Santiago of Social Catfish says knowing the source of the subscription is also helpful for determining where a subscriber is in the buying journey:

“For example, when people subscribe through our blog, they’re in the awareness stage. So we segment our subscribers based on that insight and send them emails to move them deeper into the funnel.”

“By doing this, we improved our open rates by 7.48% and significantly increased our revenue from our email marketing efforts by 10,000%,” Santiago says.

Segmenting by Behavior

“In my work as a marketer, I find myself continually coming back to relevance as a significant driver of all engagement,” says LyntonWeb’s Jennifer Lux.

“While you can give subscribers the option to opt-in to the communication types they want, segmenting further by behaviors like page visits, form fills, or email opens creates more relevance in future sends and boosts engagement overall,” Lux says.

“To understand what topics your subscribers are interested in and get as granular as possible, you have to monitor what content subscribers engage with the most, then use that data to automatically add them to the right list,” says Rupert Morris of The Munro Agency.

Our respondents offered several tips for the types of behaviors that justify segmentation.

Taking Specific Actions

“One of the advantages of e-commerce and SaaS companies is that all of their interactions happen online,” Solid Marketing’s Ruba Aramouny says. “That means you can track your users’ behaviors and send them helpful information at every stage of their journeys.”

“For an e-commerce company, that might mean creating email sequences when visitors trigger critical events, like adding items to their shopping carts or viewing product pages.”

“For a SaaS company, it might mean sending emails based on how a customer uses your software. For example, when users enable a new feature, you can trigger an email that sends them a tutorial on how to customize and best use the feature.”

Reaching a Certain Lead Score

Red Olive’s Ryan Butters recommends monitoring user actions to calculate a lead score, then segmenting subscribers based on that score.

“Look at activities taken on a website, social platform, or some other measurable channel of engagement, and assign those activities a point value (or negative point value). As visitors accumulate points, you send emails based on groupings of those points.”

“Point scoring allows you to send the right information at the right time to potential clients or customers. There are several tools that include lead scoring features, so I recommend finding the one that best integrates with your current marketing stack,” Butters says.

Ascesis Media’s Luke Conrad offers another approach: “Segment groups into cold, warm, hot, and retained lists. Use automation and dynamic content to personalize content for leads that are warm, hot, or retained, and approach cold lists with less frequency to remind them of your brand.”

Exhibiting Different Purchasing Behaviors

“Segmenting our subscribers based on purchasing behaviors has been quite an effective tactic for improving subscriber engagement,” says Storage Vault’s Christopher Fear.

“It’s basically a tactic where you examine how a customer has bought a product that you’re offering, analyzing the specific behavior that led to them choosing to commit to that product in the first place.”

“No detail about a person’s specific behavior is too small. Every little piece of information you glean from the process can be used to make your overall email marketing campaign more effective.”

“From adding this extra segmentation step into our process, we’ve seen an 80% increase in quantity and quality of leads,” Fear says.

CertaHosting’s Jeremy Rose recommends segmenting by frequency of purchases: “Making a category for one-time buyers and a second category for those who are becoming or are already frequent buyers is useful for improving your number of subscriptions.

And Brand Less Ordinary’s Ian Rhodes agrees: “Make entrance into your subscriber list feel like a club, and monitor your VIPs to make absolutely sure that they are recognized and rewarded.”

Showing Preference for a Specific Device Type

The Slumber Yard’s Jeff Rizzo recommends segmenting by device preferences: “We segment our subscribers based on device. For instance, we’ve noticed that about 68% of our subscribers open emails on their mobile device, but we have certain products that are less likely to convert on mobile.”

“As such, for products that are more likely to be purchased on desktop, we only target subscribers that typically open emails on their computers and not their smartphones or tablets.”

“Conversely, for lower-priced items that require less research on the part of the consumer, we are inclined to send emails to subscribers that open via their smartphones or tablets first.”

Segmenting by Subscriber Email Data

“To easily segment subscribers, you can use email open and click data,” says Kirsten Haberer of The James Agency. “This helps you find your subscribers that are most and least engaged, which allows you to create different strategies for each group.”

Here are the different pieces of subscriber email data that our respondents say are helpful for segmentation.

Buying Momentum

“When a subscriber first joins our list, we know they have received value from us and that there will likely never be another time when they are more receptive to compelling offers,” says ClydeBank Media’s John Donnachie. “Correctly identifying and leveraging this segment has yielded the best results for us.”

“But it’s not a standalone metric; we have to get a lot of pieces right in order to capitalize on customer buying momentum. This means getting the offer right, getting the subject line right, and not waiting too long or missing out on the opportunity.”

“One of the best ways we have found to create this segment fairly effectively is through the use of tripwire sales. These are small purchases (less than $10) that offer an overwhelming amount of value versus the price. This puts customers on our list and makes a sale, even though it has a narrow margin.”

“The best way to capitalize on this segment is to have a well-defined value ladder. That way, once a customer has taken the tripwire sale, we are in a position to offer an instant upsell that has an increased value—and a higher price to match.”

Click-Through Rates

“I put a lot of stock in our click-through rates, so I like to play with incorporating multiple CTAs in each email,” says Nextiva’s Yaniv Masjedi.

“Having multiple CTAs helps me identify who’s reading further down into our newsletters; they’re clicking the lower CTAs. If you have the bandwidth/budget, this helps you segment your audience into those who are truly engaged with the content versus those who simply want to get to the action.”

Open Rates

“The most effective way to segment a list is by open rates,” says Growth Hackers’ Jonathan Aufray.

“If subscribers open more than 50% of your emails, it means they’re interested in your content. And if they click the links in your email more than 10% of the time, they are very interested in your content. Send these subscribers more content and show them how your services or products can help them.”

“If you have subscribers who open less than 15% of your emails, try to send these subscribers other types of content to see if you can re-engage them with your emails.”

Email Fatigue

“The most effective email segmentation we’ve deployed is based on the email fatigue of each subscriber,” says Mike Donnelly of Seventh Sense. “Email fatigue occurs when the number of emails delivered is greater than the desire to engage.”

“Additionally, every time you send an email to someone who has a high or very high level of fatigue, you hurt your ability to reach the subscribers that actually want to hear from you. So focusing on how much each subscriber is willing to engage with you can have a huge impact,” Donnelly says.

The Digital Freelancer’s Steve Florey agrees: “It’s perfectly normal for a portion of your mailing list to be unengaged for long periods of time, but it’s also important that these contacts are handled differently. Continually sending to unresponsive subscribers can have damaging consequences for your overall email deliverability.”

“If large swathes of your mailing list are completely ignoring your communications, this sends a negative signal to mail providers and could see your communications marked as spam.”

“It’s therefore advisable to isolate long-term unengaged contacts and put them into a reactivation series that attempts to re-engage them with your brand. If this fails, it may be time to write them off altogether and concentrate on acquiring new, more receptive subscribers,” Florey says.

“Identifying inactive subscribers who are not engaging with your email program is vital in determining how you filter your email,” says Ollie Smith of ExpertSure. “Filtering out subscribers who have been inactive for a prolonged period of time will enable you to build a more effective and valuable list.”

Lead vs. Subscriber

Empathy First Media’s Daniel Lynch recommends using subscriber email data to segment your lists into leads and subscribers.

“I send a few emails out at first. If I notice that there is no engagement with those emails, I send a freebie or secondary lead magnet. If they don’t engage with that, it’s usually time to move that lead to a subscriber segment.”

Clicks

“The number one way we’ve increased engagement is by tracking clicks and sending additional emails to subscribers who made those clicks,” says Team Building Hero’s Alex Robonsin.

“For example, we sent out an email about three new types of team-building activities with a CTR of about 11.5%. Of these, 63% clicked option three, so we sent a follow-up email about that activity to this subset of users.”

“The follow-up email had an open rate of 65% and a CTR of 43%—a success! We’ve seen a substantial increase in total business volume as a result of this and similar tactics,” Robonsin says.

Uku Inbound’s Nathan van Zyl says clicks can also be used to let subscribers pick their preferred journeys:

“Our first email will either ask a question or provide links to related content that speaks to different needs. Once a user responds to the question or clicks a link, they receive an email sequence that is tailored for that specific need or response.”

“We also like to include content from various stages of the buyer’s journey so that users can move through the journey at their own pace. From a reporting point of view, it gives us a lot of information about what sort of content to create based on where users are in their journeys.”

Track Subscriber Email Data with Tags

“The most effective email segmentation tip is to properly use tags,” says Andrew Morrison of Dotcom Gains. “With the right email software, you can easily add tags to your subscribers, so that you always know what’s the most relevant content for them.”

So what’s the right email software? Our respondents’ top recommendations include Klaviyo, SharpSpring, Mailchimp, HubSpot, and ActiveCampaign:

“My favorite way to segment subscribers is to apply tags when they click on links,” says Marc Andre of Vital Dollar. “If a subscriber has enough interest to click on a specific link in an email, that’s a pretty good indication that they would like to see more content that is closely related to that topic.”

“I generally include one link in each email that I send, and it applies a tag if the subscriber clicks (I use ConvertKit). Then, I use those tags to determine what emails they receive or don’t receive in the future.”

“If you send an email that contains links about Instagram, influencer marketing, and Facebook, says Christian Karasiewicz of Social Chefs, “you can have a tag automatically applied to that user in your email marketing tool to move them from a generic email list to a more specific one—such as one for Facebook content.”

“Overall, this can help you continuously improve your email segmentation and deliver better, more optimized content to your email subscribers.”

Email Segmentation Best Practices

If you’re just getting started with email segmentation, keep these best practices in mind as you start building your segments.

“For optimal data hygiene, we suggest having just one master list and multiple segments within that list,” says Manzar Mashhood of Satisphaction.com. “This helps you avoid sending people the same email multiple times.

“If you have two lists and you want to send an email to both lists, any subscriber who’s on both lists will get the email twice. But if you have just one master list with multiple segments, you can send an email to multiple segments, and each subscriber only gets the email once—even if they’re in multiple segments,” Mashhood says.

When building your segments, ETI-NET’s Diana Andrasi recommends “trying different segmentations, then fine-tuning them based on the time users spend on certain pages after opening the email and clicking a link.”

“The more you refine your segmentation, the better response you will get,” says My IT’s Perryn Olson. “Most marketers only do one segmentation like industry or job title. Adding two segments together and incorporating a lead score can significantly improve results.”

“We’ve learned over time that segmentation can be a very powerful and profitable way to reward loyal customers,” says The James Agency’s Kirsten Haberer. “It also provides an avenue to test ways to win back inactive customers.”

“Every segmentation attempt might not produce profitable results, so it’s something that needs to be tested often,” Haberer says. “However, every attempt will provide valuable data for enhancing future campaigns.”

About the author
Jessica Greene
Jessica Greene writes about marketing, business, and technology for B2B SaaS companies. A former writing instructor and corporate marketer, she uses her subject-matter expertise and desire to educate others as motivation for developing actionable, in-depth, user-focused content.
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