Metrics, And When to Ignore Them

With that title I either have everybody's attention, or nobody's. "Ignore" and "metrics" rarely figure into the same sentence for email marketers. "Metrics" and "ROI," or "deliverability" or "optimize" -- sure. Even "honey-soy salmon fillets" shows up in conversation with email marketers alongside "metrics" more often than "ignore" does.

Yet there are circumstances under which email marketers should ignore -- or at least evaluate with the utmost skepticism -- the very metrics on which they base their craft. With email marketing, metrics don't just evaluate past performance; they shape future activity. If you've learned, for example, that "3" in the subject line pulls better than "three," you'll continue to use numerals instead of their spelled-out counterparts. That's just smart marketing.

But what if the metrics take you down a direction that isn't a strategic fit with your organization? What if someone marketing for a luxury brand learns that "20% off" drives open rates through the roof, and then has to weigh that success against the slippery slope of a discount-based positioning?

Of course, that's a simplistic example because the pricing strategy is merely executed by the email marketer, not determined. But there can also be tactics selected by the email marketer that cut against an organization's strategic grain. We saw one last week in Kara Trivunovic's column, where she reported on a consumer who would immediately unsubscribe from any company's email if they used his first name in the subject line: "You are not my friends and I don't want you to be my friends."

The example Kara refers to wasn't a personal email, but was designed specifically to look like one from the outside. Auto-populating a subject line is just a parlor trick to inflate the open rate. And once subscribers see that it's not actually a personal email, they'll know (on some level) that they've been duped. Is a high open rate a success in this case? Or does it just mean that you've demonstrated to more people who peeked inside that you were trying to trick them?

Metrics notwithstanding, do you want to be the kind of organization that uses an electronic sleight-of-hand to achieve a business objective? Or that reaches out to customers almost daily with a new irresistible offer? What if your metrics don't reveal the lift you were hoping for? If your graphics-heavy emails don't pull any better than your image-light ones, despite the exponential increase in design and production time, might they be worth continuing for the brand impact value alone? Each company should respond to questions like these differently, and build its email programs to reflect the answers.

For many companies, email is one of the principal communication channels with customers. It not only drives action and transactions -- it sets the tone of the entire relationship. Your emails reach your customers in their homes, at their desks and wherever they are clutching their BlackBerries and iPhones -- far more frequently than their visits to your Web site, store or trade show booth.

Emails are your sales force, your customer service department, your PR team -- and the loudest and most familiar part of your brand. That's a lot to try to measure using open rate, click-throughs, transactions and unsubscribes. There is nuance in all of these actions that the data alone can't capture. "Unsubscribe" because someone is no longer in the market for your product is very different from "You are not my friends and I don't want you to be my friends." Ouch. Since the metrics don't show the difference between the two, email marketers should make sure their email strategy reflects the same attributes, positioning and vision as the rest of the brand.

Over the past few years, we've witnessed -- and contributed to -- the growth in two-way communication between marketers and consumers through blogs and social media. Those channels only remain vibrant when they are candid and take a long view of the customer relationship. Those same customers are also on your email list. Shouldn't the relationship in the inbox be as candid and strategic?

Tags: email, metrics
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2 comments about "Metrics, And When to Ignore Them".
  1. Jeff Pugel from Vladimir Jones , December 16, 2009 at 12:16 p.m.

    This is the perfect example of the art and science of marketing. The science part will always be 2-dimensional as far as I'm concerned. You need a person, the "art" side of the equation, to put the science into perspective and know when not to trust the numbers.

  2. Mike May from Huge , December 17, 2009 at 8:59 a.m.

    Thanks for the comment, Jeff. There's art and science in all marketing disciplines (or should be anyway). But the more metrics-driven a program is, the easier it is to overlook the art. I'm grateful to Kara for highlighting an example that pointed out so clearly the pitfalls of all science, no art.