One painful lesson of 2020 was learning how fast marketing plans could go obsolete thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic and social changes.

Now, as 2021 rolls out, you might be wondering whether it’s realistic to try to plan beyond the next few campaigns in case something else – either good news or another disruption – is waiting around the next corner.

The short answer: Yes, you can and must plan.

A coordinated plan for email marketing strategy is always better than lurching from one campaign to the next, even if it’s quarter by quarter instead of a year-long coordinated effort.

But you need to plan differently this year. Instead of just changing the dates on your campaigns, you need to factor in the unexpected. And before you do that, you need to assess what you know and understand what you don’t know.

Learning What You Know and Don’t Know:

One of the best-known frameworks for self-assessment is the Johari Window model of personal awareness. In business settings it’s often used in:

    • Teambuilding,
    • Improving group dynamics and inter-group cooperation, and
    • Employer-employee communication.

A modified version of the model can guide you in the essential background work for strategic planning and email marketing strategy because it can reveal hidden opportunities than you can build into your yearly planning. It’s similar to SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) but it focuses on your metrics to help you find the answers.

How the Model Works

It assesses knowledge in these four areas:

    1. What you know you know
    2. What you don’t know you know
    3. What you know you don’t know
    4. What you don’t know you don’t know

Sound familiar? If you’ve ever worked with a strategic planner or employee communications, you’ve probably used a Johari Window or a model based on it.

The Four Stages of Assessment

1. What you know you know

Why it’s important: You know all those numbers you track every time you send a campaign or measure the health of your email program? Here’s where you put them to work.

  • These metrics help you measure campaign performance.
  • Activity metrics measure actions on your emails, while output metrics measure the actions your emails inspired.

You know these numbers because they’re in your campaign reports. Be able to recite them off the top of your head if your boss DMs you in Slack to ask how the last campaign went.

This is the easiest place to begin. It’s also the most necessary because you’ll use the results in other assessments. The list below is a starting point. Customize it to work with your own program and planning efforts.

How to use it: The metrics below are just a sample; choose the ones that mean the most to you. Benchmark against general industry stats and message types.


    • Number of subscribers
    • Open rate
    • Click rate
    • Unsubscribe rate
    • Bounce rate
    • Spam complaints
    • Click-to-open rate
    • Read rate (if your ESP provides it)
    • Open times
    • Inbox providers
    • Opens on desktop
    • Opens on mobile
    • How many subscribers signed up on
    • Reach of your acquisition channels
    • Revenue per email/campaign/subscriber

2. What you don’t know you know

Why it’s important: To borrow baby doctor Benjamin Spock’s famous words, you know more than you think you do. You know plenty about your subscribers and what works. You just need to find out what they mean. In this step, you’ll analyze the absolute numbers you pulled together in Step 1 for those meanings.

Look at basic trends or compare percentages. You have 500,000 email subscribers, and 10% of them opened your last email message.

  • Is that number going up or down?
  • How does it compare to a year ago?
  • Are you steadily gaining or losing subscribers, or are they spiking throughout the year?

How to use it: The answers to these questions will help you tease out more meaning from your numbers in Step 1. You might have to dig deeper into your database or scrutinize spreadsheets to find the answers, but they’re in there somewhere.


    1. Did we end 2020 with a net gain or loss of subscribers?
    2. Which campaigns generated the highest opens and/or clicks, and which ones tanked?
    3. What’s our unsubscribe rate compared with 2020 and 2019?
    4. Which acquisition channels deliver the highest percentage of new subscribers?
    5. What percentage of our new opt-in addresses turn out to be invalid when we send to them?
    6. Which acquisition sources delivered the most addresses?

This is just a sample of the questions that can help you find meanings from the metrics you should know already. You likely have your own questions.

3. What you know you don’t know

Why it’s important: Look at your numbers and write down all the questions they inspire. You’ll probably have to crunch numbers to get answers, but that’s usually how you force meaning out into the open.

How to use it: You might need to combine metrics to get your answers, or break your database down by variables like acquisition source, customer persona, lifecycle stage, or email campaign. This deeper analysis will give you a more accurate picture of your email performance than just plotting open rates on a chart.

It’s also where your 2020 results can show where to update your 2021 planning to reflect changes in your subscriber or customer behavior and preferences – or, indeed, to learn whether they remain relatively unchanged.


    1. Are our segments or personas still relevant?
    2. How did our content performance change over the year?
    3. How did Holiday 2020 behavior and results compare with 2019?
    4. Which acquisition sources deliver the highest- and lowest-quality subscribers?
    5. Are more addresses going inactive this year?

Again, these questions are just suggestions. You’ll come up with others as you review the metrics you knew from Step 1 and the findings from your Step 2 questions.

4. What you don’t know you don’t know

Why it’s important: This will be the most difficult area to figure out because you’re investigating the unknowable. Look at external factors that could affect your business in general or your email program specifically.

Take what you learned in the three previous steps and combine it with news or thought leadership from outside your company to anticipate unknowns that could affect your company in general or your email program in particular.

How to use it: Let the awareness and context you gained from a deeper dive into your numbers guide your thinking. You should discover your unknowns as you work through the process.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still a major unknown. Even as vaccination programs gain traction and operations that shut down or cut back (stores, recreation, sporting events, travel, concerts, classrooms, restaurants) reopen or expand, there are concerns about more virulent strains or unsafe consumer behavior that could keep the pandemic on the front burner.


    1. Will we go back to the way things were once vaccinations become more widespread, and state and local governments lift mask mandates?
    2. Which consumer behaviors or expectations have changed permanently?
    3. What factors beyond my control can degrade the quality of my email list?
    4. What is the best-case scenario?
    5. What’s the worst that could happen, and how do I plan against it?

The 2020 holiday shopping season should provide some insight into consumer behavior changes that you can leverage for 2021 planning. Shortening your planning time frames from a year out to a half year or even just a quarter can help you change course if an unknown becomes a reality.

Next Steps

Work on this exercise, on your own or with your team before you start planning for 2021. You might find that your subscribers and their habits, outlooks or experiences have not changed materially. On the other hand, your digging might reveal major shifts you now need to accommodate.

It can also alert you to vulnerabilities in your database you were not aware of before, such as an increase in the number of invalid, inactive or toxic addresses on your list. Not every problem will have a concrete solution like list hygiene, real-time address validation or continued protection that keeps bad addresses off your list. But you should be able to see farther down the road as the year goes on and the unknowns become known.