Today I want to talk about something which I alluded to (okay, banged on about) way back in my very first blog post. Obscurity and obsolescence. How difficult it is when you create the perfect email packed full of news and offers and enticing anecdotes and only a small percentage read it and only a tiny number of people buy as a result. Or when you’ve crafted the perfect blog post with everything in it and still you only get a trickle of readers and not even all you regular readers download it.
Whatever it is you are creating whether it is as a marketing effort or simply to amuse your friends, the ability of the internet to measure pretty much anything means we all obsess over numbers. How many followers do I have now on twitter? How many friends do I have on facebook? How many people opened the last email I sent out. Businesses in particular tend to carefully monitor their KPIs. As they should. But when the very name of a particular key performance indicator or even the units it is measured in give you a false sense of what you’re aiming for then you don’t really stand a chance.
Let’s start with email open rates. They aren’t. The figure doesn’t tell you how many people opened or looked at your email. It certainly doesn’t tell you how many people read it. The ‘open’ rate actually tells you how many people have downloaded the images in your email. Actually it doesn’t. It tells you how many devices have downloaded the images in your email. Well, actually, thanks to the various proxy servers in use at ISPs and companies it just gives you an approximation somewhere in between all these things. But, the name has to fit nicely on reports and ‘Open Rate’ is nice and concise. As most email clients (web based and desktop software) will not download images in emails by default lots of people could be reading your emails and you would never know. First, make sure that you are looking at the unique open rate and not the total open rate (if someone reloads your email it will show as 2 ‘opens’ but only 1 ‘unique open’. Then remember that the open rate is only loosely related to the number of people who open you email. If all the text in your email is within images then this will be closer to the number of people who have opened it but, of course, for a number of reasons (which I’ll cover in another post) you should have as much ‘real’ HTML text in your emails as possible. And the more readable your email is without downloading the images the fewer people will download them. You need to make your email as readable as possible whilst giving people a reason do download the images (cute pictures of kittens or children perhaps?). So we now have the number of ‘opens’ for our email.
So what about the open rate. Easy, it’s the percentage of people who ‘open’ your email. Right, so which people? The ones you sent it to or the ones who received it? If you opt for those you sent it too then anything from 1% to 5% (on average) upwards (depending on the list/segment you have emailed) absolutely cant have opened it because they won’t have received it. Fine you say, it won’t make much difference. But what about when it comes to Click Through Rate or Click Thru Rate or CTR. (Forgetting for a moment any inadequacies in measuring clicks.) Do you measure CTR as a % of sent, delivered or opens? If someone hasn’t received your email then they can’t have clicked on it. LIkewise if someone hasn’t opened your email it is extremely unlikely for them to have clicked – taking into account the difficulties of measuring clicks. Plus, if you measure clicks against opens the % will be higher and everyone likes higher % (unless they are talking about shopping cart abandonment). The fact is that % rates are always going to blur the issue by allowing us to think that 100% is achievable. Take conversion rate for example, is it ever going to be possible that every visitor to your site makes a purchase on every visit?
Then there is time. What time period are you going to measure your results for. Well, maybe you have a monthly reporting pack so you produce a report each month which shows how well your emails have performed over the month. If you measure everything from 1st May to 31st May I guarantee that the emails you sent in the first week of May will have outperformed those sent in the last week of May (Flash Promotions and Sales excepted). Why? Because you’re measuring them for a far greater period of time. In the online world, we often talk about the long tail and slow burn. And let me tell you that the tail on an email is incredible long. Sure you may get a large percentage of your email response in the first 24 or 48 hours (but that implies you’ve measured to the end of an email response which, if you believe it’s only a few days, you haven’t). I’ve seen significant response to emails days, weeks and months after sending – and on emails with incredibly time limited offers (Easter Special for example). Why? Maybe it was so good an email it got filed away for later. Maybe your email has been going into their spam folder ever since so this is the last email they had from you. Maybe they flicked through all the emails they had from you until they came across the particular product they wanted because it’s easier than finding it on your site. You may never know why but this isn’t about individual emails, it’s about every email. Make sure you measure them in the same way.
What about your blog? If it’s a success then more people will read your early posts years later than ever did at the time you wrote them. One of the highlights of a blog is that people can read your posts at the time they want in the way they want (RSS anyone?). You are tracking all the different ways people can consume your blog, right? Another key feature of a blog is that it’s around forever like everything else on the internet. Sure, you can delete it but it will live on in Google and archive.org and in the hundreds of spam sites which have scraped your content.
So, lets take something we can really measure: Instant Messaging. Either someone answers your message or they don’t. Except if you were just letting them know something and they read it but didn’t have time to reply. Yes, if someone doesn’t reply to your ping that is bad, but don’t fret unduly. Maybe they were in a meeting, perhaps giving a powerpoint presentation and your message (starting with that cute nickname you use) just popped up in front of their boss. Maybe you sent the message to the wrong person. Just because a technology has ‘instant’ in it’s name doesn’t always mean we can expect an instant response.
Waiting for people to follow you, open your emails, reply to your messages and just read your blog can lead to an awful lot of navel gazing and philosophising. The ancient Greek philosophers encouraged people to ‘know thyself’. For those of us working and communicating online, the important thing is to ‘Know thy KPIs’. Really know them. Know what they mean and what they don’t and what we can do about it. And don’t worry about obscurity until you can properly measure it.