Redefining success: 3 dangers of email conversion inflation

Don’t label everything and anything a conversion. Columnist Chad White says you need to focus on the right metrics to get a better understanding of your campaign performance over time.



“If you can’t win the game, change the rules.” It’s the mantra of scrappy upstarts, but it’s also the mantra of the underhanded.

During the Internet Era, we’ve changed the rules of marketing a lot — and it hasn’t all been in the scrappy upstart way. A huge part of that change has involved the metrics that we use to measure success.

For instance, we replaced readership in the world of magazine and newspaper ads with impressions in the world of display ads. And we replaced viewership in the world of television with views in the world of online video. In both of those cases, the false equivalency we created overwhelmingly favored the digital format over the traditional to help in our battle for budget.

Beyond the apples-to-oranges comparisons, the digital formats have suffered from click fraud, bot activity and extremely low standards. All of this has been well covered by the media, and yet it still continues to be a problem. It seems that even in 2016, there’s little will to truly fix the issues that undermine the credibility of impressions, views and other metrics.

I was personally reminded of this last week when I went into my YouTube watch history to track down a video I’d watched and found it full of videos that I’d never seen. My history was full of the new “Insider” videos that LinkedIn recently started auto-playing with audio off. I have LinkedIn open in a browser tab all day, so apparently — unless I pause the video — it continuously plays video after video all day long in that inactive tab, massively inflating the views of those videos.

Email metrics are softening too

Email, the original digital marketing channel, is unfortunately not immune to this breed of grade inflation, and it’s most evident in how we’re defining conversions.

Depending on who you talk to and what tools you’re using, you’ll see conversions defined as:

  • Opens
  • Clicks
  • Website browsing
  • Purchasing
  • Downloading a mobile app
  • Tweeting a hashtag
  • Video views
  • Getting an email opt-in
  • Registering for a webinar
  • And on and on

It’s such a wide range of behaviors that it begs the question: Is everything and anything a conversion?

Well, yes… and absolutely not.

The waters are muddy here because there are two kinds of conversions: campaign conversions and sales conversions. The latter tend to be bottom-of-the-funnel actions such purchases, while the former can be a wide spectrum of actions.

In my book, “Email Marketing Rules,” I define a conversion as: “When a subscriber clicks through an email and then makes a purchase, registers for an event, or takes another action requested by the email.” That definition shows my bias toward bottom-of-the-funnel actions, but the key phrase is “action requested by the email.”

So if you’re using a double opt-in permission process and send an opt-in confirmation request email that asks people to click to confirm their opt-in, then those clicks are campaign conversions.

If the goal of your email campaign is to get people to tweet a hashtag — as was the case with our launch emails for The Email Design Conference — then those tweets are campaign conversions. And if your email’s goal is to get subscribers to view your latest YouTube video and your email’s call to action is “Watch the video,” then those views are campaign conversions.

There are 3 big problems with all of that…

1. If those actions weren’t the goals of your email campaigns, if they weren’t the ones that your messaging and calls to action were asking for, then none of those were conversions. Those actions were just engagement. And there seems to be either the temptation or confusion by some to treat all engagement as conversions.

Doing that clouds your performance picture. Not only does it make you look like you’re accomplishing more than you are, but it obscures your goals and makes it hard to focus on points of improvement. Ultimately, that hurts your email program.

2. Campaign-focused metrics are fine… for judging campaigns. But for judging the health of your email program and the health of your subscriber base, you need program- and subscriber-based metrics that look at campaign performance over time.

To get to that level, you need to translate your campaign success into higher-order success metrics. And often that entails converting campaign conversions into engagement.

Email Metrics Matrix

3. Focusing too much on campaign conversions — and genericizing conversions, especially — puts email marketers out of step with the business. Generally speaking, your CEO isn’t going to be very excited about how many clicks, video views or browsing sessions your emails drove.

Those middle-of-the-funnel activities are mostly valuable because they increase the chances of bottom-of-the-funnel actions, which is what CEOs really care about because those get tracked on profit and loss statements.

So beware of fuzzy metrics, definition creep and false equivalencies that bend the rules. They can make it look like you’re winning when you’re actually losing.



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