Monday? Friday? Probably neither of those? As with so many correct answers in academia, the answer to our question here starts with, “Well, that depends…”
During this blog post we will take a break from the relentless pursuit of what authors are facing in today’s digital publishing landscape (you’ve had enough of my usual shenanigans after my in-class presentation last week!) and explore this question that many digital marketers and brand managers face.
Indeed, this question gets asked a lot. If you run a quick search you will find many conflicting reports and opinions about the answer to this question. Check out this blog post from last year where Nathan Ellering gives us a digest of the results of 10 reports from prominent digital marketing firms, based on their own research. He presents, based on an aggregation of these reports, the “real” best times for sending emails, contrasting his conclusion against all the other blogs out there (including this one), with the conclusion that “it depends.”
But he’s wrong. While examining averages is enlightening and there are many general insights to gain from this, “it depends” is still the correct answer.
To discuss why I’ve found this to be true, I’ll be speaking from some of my experiences managing email marketing as head of Communications for the National Institutes of Health’s National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). The email marketing platform we use for our listserv (currently above 13,000 subscribers) is Constant Contact. Some of this post will feel like a bit of a commercial for that platform so I’ll just come out and say: yes, I definitely recommend Constant Contact. Their headquarters is right in Waltham, they provide free in-person and online training, and their customer service is 1st-rate. Ok, now that is out of the way!
Here are some lenses I have developed for determining best send times for our project, and I’ll also be sharing some of where I’m getting these insights through the reporting tools we implement.
Side Note for Non-Email Marketers: Our main metrics for measuring engagement with marketing emails are: Open Rate (how many opened the email?); Click Rate (how many clicked a link within the email); and Unsubscribe Rate (a negative metric that gives you a signal when you have turned audience members off, enough so that they don’t want to receive more).
1. What industry are you in?
It makes a very big difference what industry you operate in, in terms of how receptive your audience will be to communications at various times of day and days of the week.
That’s why Constant Contact has developed an Industry Chart to share their findings of what the average engagement metrics look like from one industry to the next.
Let’s be careful not to let the interesting fact of industry variation distract us from our main point of focus, though: that the industry you operate in will dictate your audience’s expectation of when to receive an email from you. Consider:
- An email from the Somerville Theater with a digest of this weekend’s special features – If you’re like me you will welcome this email at pretty much any time, but you are especially likely to take notice if you see it when you are making your weekend plans, probably in the Thursday through Saturday window and perhaps into Sunday.vs.
- An email from a coworker about a work-related project – Regardless of what your usual hours of business are at work, chances are your times for when you are most likely to open this email are pretty much going to be the exact opposite from the times when you care to open an email about this weekend’s entertainment menu.vs.
- An email from a professional networking organization – Just to make sure we don’t get too comfortable thinking the example always follows one of two modes, “work or play,” consider the hours when you would welcome an email from an organization focused on professional networking. You will probably welcome an email like this across many of the times you would welcome a work-related email (namely, during work hours), and during some of the same evening and weekend hours when you would welcome emails designed to offer you options for fun off the clock (as indeed these types of organizations often feel like a mix of both).
2. What industry(ies) are your recipients in?
It is going to matter what your audience members’ industry, or industries, may be, because this will likely affect the regular schedule of routine work- and life-related activities that are competing with your email for your audience member’s precious eyeball attention at any given moment.
And you will want to segment your audience and recognize that this could be vastly different across different types, or “profiles” of this audience.
At NRMN, we serve the entire nationwide audience of students, researchers, and faculty who are involved in, or aspire to conduct, research in the NIH-funded biomedical, behavioral, clinical, and social sciences. We segment our audience in several ways, with the below 6-group segmentation matrix clear in the structure of our website (below image from the homepage).
In practice on a day-to-day basis, and specifically from an email send time perspective, we have to ask the question about the difference in our audiences’ lifestyles. And this simplifies things somewhat, offering a more essential dichotomy of the NRMN audience between Students and Faculty. There is a long list of how these two differ, but here are four points of contrast between them:
Often have a more flexible course schedule.
Are often busy socializing on weekends.
May, on average, keep a later schedule and be less apt to wake up early every day.
May be more prone to distractions from a high volume of social, scholastic, and commercial “noise” that your message is competing with.
Often busy during regular business hours either with class, work for class, research and/or work with students outside of class.
Surprisingly responsive over weekends and evenings; for some, this is the best time to focus on catching up on emails as time can be fleeting on campus.
Generally keep an earlier schedule and can be reached early in the morning.
Still will be facing many distractions, but not as many as an average student who is on average making many more new social connections each day, is more tech-savvy and has less of a defined sense of what will be relevant to them in their day-to-day vocation.
Ok, confession time: The next three items are not so much directly related to the best time of day to send your email specifically. Rather, these will describe some best practices to ensure your decision-making process while designing your emails, and how they will be sent, is done with sensitivity to your audience.
3. How does the email look and feel?
Ok, this seems obvious. Pretty, well-designed emails beat sloppy emails, right? You know what my answer is going to be… wait for it…
Sometimes making a pretty email through Constant Contact or a similar marketing tool will actually increase the chances a new recipient won’t receive it because their email server filters out “marketing” emails of that kind. In this case, a plain old email directly from your GMail or Outlook (for your sake I hope it’s GMail) account will be more effective.
Sometimes, a plain email will be more welcome because your audience is turned off by a “marketing email” and will respond better to a more personal approach.
Sometimes, you should do a “split test,” sending one option for the email to one group, and a slightly different version to another, to see if there’s a noticeable difference in response (by the way, the groups should be randomized to avoid a scenario where e.g. group A is all male and group B is all female, and hence the differing responses could be a result of differences in the makeup of the groups rather than those of the stimuli). The split test can be used to test the very same email sent at different times of day.
We attempted to do a split test at NRMN for our November newsletter last year, seeing if the audience had a noticeable reaction to a change of color in the banner on our newsletter, from our traditional brown to a more neutral black tone.
The result? Slightly higher click rate with group A (classic brown) vs. group B, with the same open rate. This difference, though modest, was enough (8% click rate is a step up from 7% when you are over 1,000 subscribers) for us to conclude that we would be fine sticking with the classic option. At this point we have switched to red for 2017, but that’s neither here nor there…
And sometimes, many times, your reader won’t even get as far as to look at the amazing job you did with the design and layout of the email. What am I talking about? Read on, my friends.
4. What does your subject line look like?
To be fair, this is coming directly from the lesson I learned in Constant Contact training. The first thing your recipient will notice, that is, the first barrier to them reading and engaging with your email, is the subject line. Consider:
“hi, will you please open this email? ok, have a greatday :) :) :) ;) “
“Register for the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting by Tuesday 3/14, get a FREE Annual Society Membership!”
I know, I know, the Biophysical Society’s meeting was earlier this month. But you get the example! The differentiating factors were:
- Looks legitimate and worth opening – If there’s gibberish in the subject line, you’re probably thinking this is something your Spam blocker should have caught. DELETE!
- Has a clear sense of urgency – You won’t delete an email if its subject line doesn’t feature this, but you might choose not to open it, telling yourself you’ll read it later. And then later becomes later. And later. Until one day you see the email again and decide to just mark it unread because it must be irrelevant by now. You didn’t even read it.
- Has a clear value proposition – The reader wants to know what they will get out of the time spent opening your email. Let them know what treasures await them within!
5. What does your data say?
Tools like Constant Contact’s reporting features allow for insight into your basic metrics for each of your email campaigns, and you can also gain a lot of insight about reader behavior from Google Analytics on your web page. For our NRMN newsletters, a majority of the links are to posts housed on our web page, so GA can grant interesting insights that show us when our website is getting the most traffic, and we can roughly correlate this with email readership because of this connection.
As with most marketing questions, the answer is to know your audience as intimately as possible, and to customize messaging such that the audience is as receptive to it as possible.
Piece of cake, right? Yeah, most of the time it will be a tremendous and never-ending effort to keep your finger to the pulse of your audience, and to continue to build an increasing body of market research that helps you continually hone your marketing craft over time. Don’t let the Nathan Ellerings of the world lead you to believe you can simply follow the average trends and do really well. You must play to win, and playing means experimenting to learn what works and what does not with the community you are trying to resonate with.
For those of you getting into professional marketing, my hats off to you, and I would be thrilled to learn if you found this post helpful in how you approach this question of email marketing timing.