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How to Create an Optimal Email Testing Strategy

By July 18, 2017 January 6th, 2021 CCG Financial Services Marketing Blog

Tips on winning the resources you need and implementing a best practice-based plan.

Your financial services marketing department has goals and objectives: grow and better retain account holders, increase loan and deposit volume, build share of wallet, grow customer satisfaction. No matter what your specific aims, email marketing can help you get there. But only if you have a thoughtful email marketing testing strategy based on the premise of “test and learn.” Read on for more insights on why testing matters, tips to convince the senior powers to get on board (and grant the needed resources), and best practices for doing email testing right.

Best practices for email testing

Why Email Testing Is Essential

You know the adage, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Testing is a bit like that: If you don’t know what is and isn’t working with your email campaigns, how can you make them better? And if you don’t define success, how do you know when you’ve succeeded — or failed?

Testing can help with the first question. But before you get there, you need to address the second question and define success. Regardless of whether you’re trying to increase share of wallet, acquire accounts or build customer satisfaction, you want people to open and interact with your emails. So focus on related performance metrics, such as open rates (do people care about your emails?), click-thru rates (are readers engaged with your email message and call to action?) and unsubscribe rates (do people even want to hear from you?).

Over time and with testing, you’ll build your own benchmarks, allowing you to gauge your progress and better understand your unique audience. Meanwhile, you can start by comparing your stats to these business/financial services industry standards from IBM and MailChimp:1,2

  • Open rates: 20.97% – 23.3%
  • Click-thru rates: 2.73% – 3.2%
  • Click-to-open rates: 12.0%
  • Unsubscribe rates: 0.14% – 0.23%

Build a Case for Resources

We all know that time, money and team members are perennially in short supply. So how do you convince upper management to allocate the resources you need to create and implement an email testing strategy?

Testing Makes Creative Data-Based

One of the most important points to emphasize as you build your case is that testing makes otherwise subjective creative work measurable, trackable and data-driven. Instead of going with an educated hunch or generic, industry-wide reports on whether blue or red makes a more powerful button color, you can test it and learn what works best for your specific customers. The same for subject lines, calls to action and virtually any other component of your emails.

Testing Provides Measurable Proof

Being able to test email components and then use that information to continually improve performance also helps provide a “proof of concept” or rationale for your email marketing budget. In other words, testing can prove that your emails are working or help you make improvements when results aren’t what you think they should be.

Testing Can Yield Fast Improvement

And with many email platforms, results can be gathered relatively quickly, allowing you to implement change within a specific email send rather than waiting for the next one to come around. Most email platforms today have built-in features for A/B testing email campaigns — whether it’s used directly by your team or a third-party vendor — that can help automate the testing process and streamline the time required to run a test. You could conceivably send out tests in the morning to a sample audience, evaluate results in the afternoon, and send your winner out the next day.

Testing Should Be a Corporate Mindset

To solidify your case for email testing, don’t just present your arguments to a single manager. Instead, do your best to throw a wide net and help impress the importance of testing upon the entire organization. Keep people looped-in on the results, so you can continue to prove the value of testing over time as email performance metrics improve.

Email Testing Best Practices

Once you have your resources lined up, you’re ready to begin planning your email testing strategy. Get started with these six best practices.


Have a goal and determine “winning” criteria for each test. How will you know whether Email A or Email B is the winner? If one has, say, a higher open rate but the other has a higher click-thru rate, which metric matters most in this test? Your answers will help you identify the champion of each test.


Test one component at a time. It is possible to conduct multi-variate testing (comparing more than one element at a time), but it gets complicated. When you’re starting out, focus on single-variable testing. (Ideas on what to test coming up in the next section!)


Commit to at least one test per campaign. And build testing into your processes and schedules. This will help make testing manageable rather than overwhelming. And once it’s built in, you’ll find it easier to stay on track and not allow testing to slip through the cracks when things get busy.


Create a testing calendar. Use it to outline your overall testing strategy and to prioritize which components will be tested in what order. Doing this work upfront is another way to help streamline and simplify the overall testing process. You can also use the calendar to record results, keeping information in one tidy, user-friendly document.


Be consistent with delivery day/time. Unless you are actually testing delivery day or time, make sure your test and control emails deploy roughly simultaneously. Otherwise, you introduce day and/or time as additional variables in your test.


Use a suitable sample. Use a random sample of your audience for your tests, so you don’t introduce any unintentional bias. In general, the smaller your total audience, the larger percent of them you should use as a testing sample. For instance, if your audience is 10,000 people or more, than sending tests to 5 percent may be sufficient. For smaller audiences, consider using 10 to 20 percent. You can also use online calculators like this one to help determine your test sample sizes.


Use your results! Of course, you can quickly implement a winning strategy for one particular campaign as soon as you see whether Subject Line A yielded more opens than Subject Line B, or whether this call to action got more clicks than that call to action. But over time, you can also begin to accumulate data from multiple emails and analyze it to paint a bigger picture of what engages your customers and gets them to act. Consider looking at test results not only by total audience, but also by segment. You might find that, for instance, a younger segment (or one in Location X) reacts one way while an older segment (or one in Location Y) reacts differently.

Email Components to Test

You can test virtually any element in an email. So where do you begin? Start with your objectives. Do you want to increase open rates? Then focus on email subject line testing, from line and preheader — all the pieces a recipient will see before opening your email.

If your goal is to increase click-thrus or downstream conversions, then the choices broaden. Start with fairly simple, straightforward tests that can give you quick wins without a lot of effort — for instance, the color or placement of a call to action button. As your team gains experience with testing — and gains support for an ongoing email testing program — work toward multivariate email testing options that may require more time and resources to implement. For instance, changes in design, messaging or incentives.

Here’s a list of some specific email A/B testing ideas to consider including in your plan:

  • Personalization (in subject line, body copy, graphics; based on name, gender, geography, job title or industry, etc.)
  • List (based on audience segment, past interactions with your emails, transaction history, etc.)
  • Subject line (length, emojis, specific versus general, urgency, exclusivity, adding “you,” using numbers, etc.)
  • From line (company versus person)
  • Preheader (length, message, etc.)
  • Message (salutation, headline, main copy, closing, length)
  • Tone or voice (warm, corporate, humorous, etc.)
  • Dynamically customized content
  • Call to action (wording, number, placement)
  • Call to action buttons (color, placement, size)
  • Button versus text links
  • Responsive design
  • Font color, style, size
  • Images or not
  • Image-to-text ratio
  • Animation or video
  • Offers and incentives (having one versus not, percent versus dollars, amount, type)
  • Send time, day
  • Frequency
  • Social sharing icons, social “connect” icons

Email Testing Isn’t Once and Done

There’s one more critical component to your email testing plan: You have to keep doing it. Just because one type of layout worked best one time, for one message or one audience, doesn’t mean that same type will always be the winner. As your messages and audiences, and the culture around us, changes, you need to continue testing to stay in tune with the most effective practices — and keep pushing your email performance ever higher.

If you could use some objective help developing and implementing email testing strategies, or measuring and analyzing the results, we can help. Our financial services marketing capabilities also include content and design, coding and deployment. Email us or call 303.986.3000 today, and let’s talk about how we can help you achieve your goals.

¹ “2016 IBM Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study,” Watson Marketing,, accessed June 20, 2017

² “Email Marketing Benchmarks,” MailChimp, updated Feb. 1, 2017,, accessed May 10, 2017

Greg Sultan

Author Greg Sultan

Greg has more than 30 years of experience working with many of the country’s top 100 financial institutions on activation, acquisition, cross-sell and onboarding campaigns. His expertise also includes developing database marketing programs.

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