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Marketers vs inbox providers: The philosophical nature of email marketing engagement

17th Apr 2015
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A universal measure is a very difficult thing to establish, especially when its effectiveness as a measure continues to be questioned. Consider what is considered the first of its kind, the metre. From its initial call for institution in the 17th century, it took the passing of another century before two French astronomers set off to measure the meridian arc that ran from Dunkirk, through Paris, to Barcelona in order to standardise the metre.

The revolutionary hope was that the establishment of a measure that is defined by a natural phenomenon and not sovereignty would free the trade market and the people from the oppression of monarchy. Their seven-year quest resulted in two measurements that didn’t match up and, in the end, the metre was calculated as one ten millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the equator. Even this measurement wasn’t entirely precise either, but it was good enough

In email marketing, we have been seeking a universal measure of our own. We have been searching for a way to measure email effort and identify success or failure, irrespective of who is interpreting it. Marketers send email to cause revenue and receivers accept email to consume information they value (hopefully!). It is often these different motives that create incongruity when measuring ‘good’ email. 

From a sender’s perspective, email marketing is always measured by revenue. It is the ability to deliver a return on investment, whether it be to save money or make money. Email marketing from the perspective of an inbox provider (Gmail, Yahoo!, Outlook, etc.) is measured by importance. This is determined by the user-perceived value of the information held within the content of the email. Let us not forget that inbox providers also make revenue from the ads displayed on the inbox page.

The basic assumptions are therefore:

‘As an email marketer, the more of my email content that is consumed by my subscribers, the greater the probability to cause revenue.’

‘As an inbox provider, the more important emails I deliver to my users, the more valuable the inbox experience is.’

Working on these assumptions, inbox providers and anti-spam solutions dictated content-based measures and marketers had to adapt their content to improve their efforts. This resulted in, now outmoded, strategies like avoiding the use of certain words and the infamous text-to-image ratio. Thankfully, ISPs have moved on to more democratic engagement driven delivery systems.   

Recently, at the Email Evolution Conference in the US some of the inbox provider honchos reconfirmed what factors affect their inbox placement algorithms. The fact that they needed to reconfirm what they have been trying to tell us for a while now, highlights the disparity of beliefs about how inbox providers measure engagement amongst the majority of the email marketing community. As senders we have been looking at engagement at a very granular marketing focused level. We have been using our habitualised content optimisation techniques to increase open and click-through rates, but is this improving engagement?  Is this what inbox providers look at when deciding how to deliver our emails?

Steve Henderson of Communicator Corp, in a conversation published recently, said: “Look at every annual benchmark from every email institution, expert or agency, and you’ll see measurements which have nothing to do with the improvement and long-term optimisation of an email marketing programme. Undoing those ingrained and institutional beliefs is hard work.”

He elaborated this point by explaining that if we define ‘engagement’ as a recent event in which the recipient has done something positive with one of our emails, then the rate of this ‘engagement’ across your subscriber base is a legitimate overview of the performance of your whole email marketing strategy.  So our email performance strategy should be to maximise the positive stuff and minimise the negative stuff month on month. And when we benchmark our email efforts we should be looking at the factors that are affected by this strategy:

  1. Average subscriber growth 
  2. Monthly open, click, conversion rates
  3. Monthly unique recipient open, click, conversion rates

List growth will demonstrate good acquisition, retention and list-hygiene.  And looking at engagement over a longer time period will give you a more effective understanding of the quality of your subscribers, campaigns, email content and targeting practices. Finally, looking at these positive factors from a unique recipient perspective will provide solid evidence that your email marketing strategy is driving revenue. The great thing about measuring engagement in this way and using it to improve performance, is that it will also result in a better deliverability!

For the two French astronomers, their endeavours may have appeared to be fruitless. But the scientific community made many learnings from their story. They enriched geodesy on theories that the Earth wasn’t a perfect sphere, and much smaller than what was thought. They learnt that there must be a difference between precision and accuracy, and inadvertently contributed to the understanding of error. And they learnt that it didn’t really matter that the first measurement of the metre was wrong, because they still succeeded in establishing a universal measure.

For email marketers and inbox providers, our mismatch measures in the last couple of years may have caused conflict in the interim. But I believe that adopting a universal measure for ‘engagement’ across the entire email sector that measures ‘good email’ will take us leaps and bounds towards working with, rather than against the philosophical nature of emails.

Gerry Weatherley is head of operations at Clickwork7.

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