This post was written in collaboration with Bryan Snyder, Senior Marketing Analyst for Blackbaud.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I can’t help to think we share the blame. The conversation around email performance is wrong: open and click-through rates alone do not show constituent engagement.

In a couple of weeks, the 2013 Blackbaud Online Marketing Benchmark Study will be released (previously the Convio Online Marketing Benchmark Study). To say this is a highly anticipated, monumental report would be an understatement. The annual report informs how organizations measure impact relative to their peers. To the strategic services team, it’s our bible.

However, the benchmark study is a tool, and like any tool, it depends on how it’s used. The industry report identifies the trends (see the Blackbaud Index) which are used to inform the health of your online program, not overall constituent engagement. Used properly, you’ll know if your email metrics are at industry levels; used poorly, you’ll only scratch the surface of email performance.

The benchmark trends are important because they help us ensure our approach is on the path toward success, but a more accurate measurement is the number of constituents engaged. And that’s what the conversation should be around: constituent engagement, not open and click-through rates.

For example, if I send one email to 10,000 people and 2,000 opens the email, I have an open rate of 20 percent. However, if I send three emails to 5,000 people in each group and 1,000 opens each email, I still have an email open rate of 20 percent, but additional 1,000 constituents were engaged.

You may ask, does that mean my organization should be sending more email?

Well, yes, if that means more targeted emails to constituents based on interest, behavior, and inception. Today’s email marketing environment is highly competitive and requires the message frequency to correspond to message relevancy. Meaning, I’m less likely to be annoyed with the frequency of communication than I am with the failure of the content connecting to my interests.

The San Diego Zoo’s recent email performance analysis supports this position. As the number of total monthly messages grew more than 4 times over the course of three years due to increased segmentation and adoption of audience pathways, an internal question arose:

Does an increase in the number of email messages or the increase in the number of people identified in email messages lead to lower email message performance?

To answer this question, we reviewed the performance of the unique constituents on the email file over the past year to identify the trends in total number of message opens, clicks, and unsubscribes. This included the unique number of people per month who have opened, clicked, unsubscribed, or donated to an email message to determine (1) the overall effectiveness of the multiple messages being sent and (2) if more messages allows you to communicate with more people. Findings are below.

Figure 1: Opens and open rate.

Opens

Figure 2: Clicks and click rates.

Clicks

Figure 3: Unsubscribes and unsubscribe rates.

Unsubcribes

These findings revealed that increased messaging has not compromised email performance as the number of opens and click-throughs increased in 2012. This was important to the San Diego Zoo as it validated the organization’s continued internal collaboration to create an email strategy that focuses on an audience-centric, not organization-centric approach to communication.

In summary, don’t be fooled by the face value of open and click-through rates (the same could be said for fundraising, but more on that a little later). There is always more than what meets the eye at first glance. Email performance should not only be measured by opens and click-throughs, as these metrics inform the health of our online program relative to industry trends, but by constituent engagement.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chas  Offutt is a senior fundraising and marketing professional with more than 10 years experience in the nonprofit sector. He joined Convio, now Blackbaud, in 2008 and has worked with more than 75 clients across all verticals to develop and implement acquisition campaigns, fundraising strategies, and integrated marketing programs. Prior to his current position, Chas was the Director of Internet Strategy at American Rivers where he was responsible for the management and execution of all online programs.

Chas has spoken at the Association for Fundraising Professionals (Greater Atlanta Chapter), Convio Customer Summit, NTEN, Blackbaud Conference, Forum One Communication’s Web Executive Seminar, and other public speaking engagements on a variety of topics including mobile fundraising, generational giving, and online marketing strategies.

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