Every email program has objectives – to keep customers and members informed, to fill seats at conferences, and to sell webinars to name a few. But not all email programs have goals. They should. Setting and pursuing goals is a hallmark of a strategic email program. Goals ensure that your organization take the long view of your email program, and continually strive to improve it. The right goals can improve the email program you have today, and make it even stronger for the future (when you know you’re going to need it even more, unless for the first time in the history of business all of our jobs will somehow get a lot easier).

Which email goals are worth setting? Here are a few to consider, based on where you’d like to shore up your email program over the next few months:

1. More subscribers: The number of people who receive your emails is the lever that drives all of your other objectives. Whatever improvements you make in your content and your targeting and your deliverability are all amplified with a larger house list. With a larger list, segmenting and targeting become more effective. Additionally, more subscribers defray all the work you put into your email program, as an email crafted for an audience of 10,000 takes no more work than an email for an audience of 5,000. Notice however that the goal isn’t “more email addresses.” The objective is to earn permission from more people to maintain contact, not to find lists and import them. Quantity is part of the goal, but quantity without quality – well, that’s mass media, and not how email works.

2. More effective content: What you are sending is just as important as to whom you are sending. In fact, it might even be more important. Strong email content is necessary to drive the action you want from your email program, but ineffective content can cause your subscribers to tune out your messages, which can have ramifications not just on next month’s emails, but your entire brand. But how do you know if your content is doing its job? One of my favorite ways to track content effectiveness is a metric called click-to-open. You already track email click-rate, which is the number of recipients of a message who click on a link. Click-to-open calculates the percentage of email opens that result in a click. The theory behind this metric is that in order to determine if the content is effective, it actually has to be seen. The most scintillating copy won’t help much if nobody reads it, and you won’t even know how scintillating it is unless you measure its impact against only those who do. For example, email A  and email B are each sent to 1000 people and each has a click-rate of 2% (40 clicks). But email A has an open rate of 10%, while email B has an open rate of 20%. Even though the emails drove the same number of clicks, email A did it with only half as many readers. Its click-to-open rate was 40%, or 40 clicks out of the 100 opens. Email B’s click-to-open is 40 clicks out of 200 opens, or only 20%. Assuming the lists were equally targeted, the content in email A is twice as effective.

3. Greater relevance: Today, relevant emails are an indication of a successful email program. With inbox clutter on the rise, relevance is rapidly becoming the cost of doing business in email. Relevance is a function of sending a compelling message to a primed prospect at precisely the right time. If you’re a selfish marketer, pursue relevance because it will make your emails work better. If you’re altruistic, know that a highly relevant message is exactly what your subscriber signed up to receive in the first place, and you’re doing her a favor every time you take the extra steps to make sure the message she is getting is the one she wants. To measure relevance, select metrics to trend based on the type of email you are sending. For example, a newsletter designed to inform but not necessarily drive action will show greater relevance if open rates are increasing. This suggests the audience is interested in reading the news each installment, which would not be the case if it were irrelevant. For a promotional message like a conference or webinar email, trend click-through. For both of these types, trend unsubscribe rate as well, and benchmark it against the unsubscribe rate for your other email types. An occasionally irrelevant message is ignored; chronically irrelevant messages prompt higher unsubscribe rates. Finally, track the percentage of each messages audience that is in some way targeted. It’s rare when a single message is relevant to everybody on the house list. Targeting (or winnowing down a list to the audience of people most likely to read or respond) won’t necessarily improve the impact of this message, but the untargeted folks winnowed out of the list will be more likely to pay attention to the next message you sent them than they would be if they just got one from you that was asking to be ignored.

4. Improved anticipation: Anticipation is what you shoot for once you’ve got relevance mastered. Whereas relevance indicates your subscribers will readily read your message, anticipation has then waiting for them. You can track anticipation by trending open rate along with your engagement metrics, such as click-through and conversion if appropriate. There is no clear way to tell when you’ve crossed over, and when an email is anticipated and not just really really relevant. But as a goal, it is something to aim for with your approach to email, more than to measure with its response. With each message, think, “what can I put in here so that my subscribers will know that I know what they’re interested in, and look forward to the next one?” Note that anticipation doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re successful in building anticipation, it won’t show up in the metrics of the message you just sent. Rather, the improvements will be seen in subsequent messages and campaigns.