As marketers are held to higher and higher standards of accountability, it seems logical for all forms of marketing to be held to higher standards as well. This means many email marketers are going to face tough questions about how their programs are performing.
Nicole Delma, Chief Data Officer for RCRD LBL,* which serves free music downloads, recently expressed her interest in seeing a service that would audit open rates, "We are an advertiser-supported business and those advertisers deserve to know how audiences respond to the programs they are sponsoring. I have no issue with taking a screenshot of our program and showing them that we regularly see 33% open rates."
When I asked how an audit of open rates would help her business, she replied, "Because I know some of the companies we are competing with for ad dollars are juicing their numbers."
True, it is not uncommon to see companies juicing the numbers in the following ways:
The Whole List: Despite the constant cry of "quality over quantity," marketing is still a game of reach. It's great to have a quality list, but if that quality list is only 100,000, then advertisers aren't likely to care. In order to give the illusion of size, some companies will quote the size of their list based on the total number of email addresses on file, not the number of mailable email addresses or the number of engaged subscribers. With somewhere between 25% and 30% of the average email list turning over in a year, this can lead to a huge discrepancy for some long-established programs. A company may have 10 million email addresses on file, but if 8 million of these can't be used, then who cares?
Holding on to Dead Weight: Properly culling consistent non-responders from an email list provide email marketers with deliverability benefits now that ISPs have started taking email engagement into consideration. It also allows companies sending large amounts of email to save the cost of sending to non-profitable segments of the list. While culling these subscribers should be done methodically, there are numerous companies that won't even consider taking this step. Why? Because it would cut down the size of their email list.
The Ideal ________ Rate: Surveys that ask about "average open rates" are eye-opening. The averages yielded from surveys are always higher than reality. Why? Because people seem to remember the best-performing campaigns. They tend to forget the average ones -- and then answer based on memory. In my experience, the same principle holds true for click-through rates, conversion rates, and opt-out rates.
Unfortunately, these self-delusions have real implications when advertising is sold in accordance with these metrics, which is why Delma's desire to see open rates audited makes sense. The point is not to unveil bad guys, per se, it's just to hold ourselves and our industry to a higher standard of accountability. More importantly, I'm hopeful that there are solutions on the horizon.
Industry veteran Josh Baer has been slowly building a business that may be able to help. His company, OtherInbox,* developed Organizer, a tool that allows users to organize their email inboxes through plugins at Gmail and Yahoo Mail. In providing this tool to consumers, OtherInbox has also built an online panel of over a half million inboxes that can be used to audit things like inbox placement, open rates, and spam complaints among other things.
While this panel only covers Gmail and Yahoo at the moment, it still provides an unprecedented view into subscribers inboxes that can be used to get a good read on what is happening in the real world. I see the day coming soon where marketers will be able to get a peek into the performance of their competitors as well as the performance of email programs they are sponsoring.
Which means this is not the time to bury your head in the sand! The day is coming where the performance of our email programs will be as public as the performance of our blogs and Facebook pages. Companies that embrace this reality and make the changes necessary to improve performance will prosper. Those that don't will struggle more than ever before.
I believe this type of accountability is a positive step for the industry. It will force companies tempted to juice the numbers to come clean. Ultimately, it will push the entire industry to do an even better job building programs that deliver real value to subscribers. And when the focus is on delivering value to subscribers, the entire industry benefits.
*For the record, neither of these companies is a client of mine.