We know who our email subscribers are based on what they tell us: name, company, title, location and other information collected at signup or through ongoing interaction with them. But we know what email messages they will respond to based on their actions. Of the two, the more valuable information for targeting is the latter; what links in messages your subscribers have clicked, what they have registered for or purchased, and how recently they have last engaged with your brand are all insights that can help you deliver much more targeted and relevant messages than knowing someone’s title or city.

One way to target by engagement is simply binary; either a subscriber is engaged with your brand or is not. What constitutes simple engagement varies from brand to brand, though commonly a subscriber is considered unengaged if s/he has not opened or clicked on an email in 6-12 months. The time frame varies depending on the brand, its products and the selling cycle. For example, an association with a far-reaching Annual Conference might see many of its subscribers go dark in the ten months between last year’s event and the marketing for this year’s. At the other end of the spectrum, a publisher whose principal business is the distribution of daily or weekly newsletters might consider someone unengaged after a far shorter time of non-response.

The most common approach for simple engagement targeting is to maintain the status quo for engaged subscribers, and moving unengaged subscribers into a separate group for fewer mailings or dedicated winback campaigns. A more advanced approach is to look for tiers or specific types of engagement and target based on those. Here are some examples:

Perpetually Engaged:
Most of your subscribers like you, but some positively love you. They are the ones that open and click almost every message, often within moments of receiving each one. If you think about your sending frequency as an attempt to match supply up with audience demand, you can see that with this group demand may be outstripping supply. Even with all of the attention on inbox clutter, every brand has some heavily engaged subscribers who want even more messages. Put your perpetually engaged subscribers into their own group and pump up the volume, slowly at first and monitoring engagement rates closely. You may find you can increase frequency by 50%, 100% or more, with the same lift in sales, ad revenues or whatever other business objective your emails support.

Unconverted Clickers:
With most emails, you measure the number of clicks but you are really after conversions – conference or webinar registrations, subscription purchases, membership renewals or other transactions. When marketing against these objectives, your email metrics allow you to see some progress through the sales cycle. What your subscribers click on can provide some insight into their interest in a purchase, even if they have not yet converted. Use this insight for follow-up messages. For example, subscribers who click on the “Networking opportunities” link in a conference marketing emails might find a message later with a complete list of registered companies to be just the information they need to complete a registration. Similarly, someone who clicks on the “see pricing here” link but does not convert may be particularly responsive to a targeted discount.

Social Clickers:
The people who click on the social links in your email – either the Share With Your Network links or those that direct them to your presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other channels – tell you something very important about themselves; they are very likely active on these channels themselves. You can use this information in subsequent emails a couple of different ways. First, you can include more channel-specific content for these subscribers in your next messages. For example, if someone clicks on a link to your LinkedIn page, you could include a section in a subsequent message where you mention your most recently uploaded SlideShare presentations (SlideShare is owned by LinkedIn). Second, you can take full advantage of this audience’s social propensities by asking them to share content across their networks. It could be content within the email itself, or you can use the email to point at content in your social channels that is ripe for sharing.

In all of these examples, a large enough group of subscribers with the same behavior is required to justify the extra resources needed for the deeper segmentation and targeting. How large that is depends on what kind of results the targeting drives. For this reason, start by looking for a group with similar behavior (a particularly popular link in a message, for example) and then identifying what commonality is driving that behavior, and what an appropriate follow-up may be. Even if these efforts do not drive an enormous immediate ROI, there is always intrinsic value to delivering more relevant messages to smaller groups of subscribers.