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What Do Vanity Metrics Have to Do with Marketing Automation Goals?

Associations, Communications Strategy // "Vanity metrics," or open and click rates, in your marketing automation campaigns may reflect that you need to improve on the basics of email marketing.

Shayna McGroggan
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When we released our 2018 State of Marketing Automation: Association Benchmark Report, I got a chance to pore over the results, and I saw a lot of fascinating responses from the survey portion of the report. We asked about all sorts of things, like how respondents used marketing automation and what their goals and successes were. We also asked about any challenges they were facing.

Those who answered this last question gave some answers we’d expected, like lack of understanding about their software, or the difficulty of finding a platform that fit their needs or skill level perfectly.

But an answer I didn’t expect to see was that they were struggling with their open rates and engagement with the emails in automated campaigns. This was the third most common response for the question – that really made me start to think.

Open and click rates can be categorized as vanity metrics, because ultimately, having the highest open rate in the world might inspire some personal pride, but it’s not going to win you a prize or necessarily accomplish your ultimate goals. However, they shouldn’t be ignored – these metrics reflect important things about your email marketing habits and are worth paying attention to. 

Do your low vanity metrics mean marketing automation isn’t working for you?

How well do these respondents really understand email marketing fundamentals? Generally, when you have low open rates, the problem isn’t necessarily that an organization has poor subscriber engagement rates or their marketing automation system is failing them, but rather they are engaging poorly with their subscribers.

What does a poor open rate really mean? It could mean you just need to do some A/B testing with your subject lines and sender name, but it can also reflect a deeper problem. Did someone stop opening your emails because the content wasn’t relevant to them when they opened your email the first time? Have they become desensitized to your mailings because you were sending too many?

When we reviewed the client data for anyone using one of the Higher Logic marketing automation platforms, we saw that their automated email campaigns consistently hit their open, click, unsubscribe, and delivery benchmarks, just as they did with the one-off, batch-and-blast style mailings. We weren’t able to compare these metrics for the survey takers (since they used a variety of platforms), but I’m guessing they were seeing low engagement rates in both their automated and one-off emails.

Marketing automation can certainly help optimize mailings for better performance by helping you adhere to email marketing best practices, and it helps you get the right content to the right people at the right time. However, it’s not a magic fix if you’re already struggling with things like your open rate.

Low open rates and low engagement probably reflect that you don’t have a good handle on the basics of email marketing. That’s where you should improve. It’s not the fault of your marketing automation platform, and automation isn’t going to fix your problems.

You might be tempted to place blame on the subscribers or on your marketing automation platform. You can claim subscribers just aren’t opening your emails and look for ways to improve that, but you won’t be able to fully solve the problem until you’ve done your research. And from there, you’ll need to refine your campaigns to continue engaging subscribers.

Do research to understand what engages your audience.

Marketing automation can help determine the optimal delivery of the content, but you need to support the software by practicing the basic habits that compel your audience in the first place.

  • Write compelling copy. The things that typically have the most effect on an open rate are the subject line and “friendly from” displaying in your subscribers’ inbox. If the subject line is weak, or the friendly from does not prompt your subscriber to open your email, then you won’t see much of a difference whether the mailing was triggered automatically or sent manually. A bad subject line is just a bad subject line, end of story.
  • Test your content. If your click or engagement rate is low, that’s a red flag you should investigate, but again, don’t chalk it up to your platform or the audience just refusing to click. Your call to action may not be strong enough, your links might be buried, you may have a mobile usability problem. All of this requires deeper research and usually merits A/B testing. Once you understand the subject line styles and sender names that will maximize your open rates, try testing the content to find the design, content placement, and styles that will improve your click rates and decrease your unsubscribe rates.

Marketing automation is more than just email, but it’s shortsighted to say email isn’t a big part of your overall strategy. Focus on improving email fundamentals as part of your automated campaign strategy.

Refine your automated campaigns as you go.

Obviously, a poor open rate can be a huge problem for any type of campaign, automated or not. If your audience isn’t even looking at your content, it’s hard to take advantage of all the bells and whistles that marketing automation can provide.

If your one-off emails have never been very successful, don’t expect your first automated campaigns to be wildly more successful, but rather look at them as an experiment that will ultimately point you in the right direction of your real goals.

Learn from each attempt and investigate your results as deeply as possible. Then, take what you learn and keep applying that to future campaigns. When you run a campaign for the first time, look at the reporting to see what worked and what didn’t. If subscribers didn’t open the email, figure out why and address it.

If you’re going into automation with a poor email track record, this journey will take work. All is not lost, but it’s going to take some time and effort to get you to where you want to be. The good news is that marketing automation can help you get there with marginally less hair pulling.

Remember to focus on your strategic goals, not your vanity metrics.

Remember: In the long run, amazing open rates aren’t your overall goal – those are just vanity metrics, after all. Your vanity metrics help you track how well you are meeting your goals, so use these metrics in service of your overall strategy. Your strategic goals for your campaigns will probably range from increasing member retention or renewals, annual event attendance, to website engagement. Your goal should be to improve your vanity metrics to get closer to your strategic goals, not to get a 100% open rate for its own sake.

Focus on improving your fundamental email marketing skills and refining your campaigns and you will make your marketing automation campaigns more successful.

Download the Engagement Trends Report 2020

Shayna McGroggan

Marketing Automation Manager

Shayna is a former Marketing Automation Manager at Higher Logic. In her role, she provided automation strategy for clients, while developing campaigns and assisting with persona development. She delivered quality coaching in marketing automation strategy to a growing list of at least 7 individual organizations, acting as a subject matter expert by providing guidance on the creative design of client emails/landing pages and the integration of email, web tracking, community, and CRM data for campaigns.

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