Ironically, today’s thought was sparked by BuzzFeed’s insistence on delighting users over boosting numbers.

(Really!)

In an article at Poynter this week, Dan Oshinsky discussed a 2012 email newsletter that went out from BuzzFeed that had an extremely high open rate. Its title?

“You’re fired.”

You might see how this would’ve gotten a massive open rate. You might also see why recipients replied with a fair amount of disdain for the tactic.

Wisely, BuzzFeed listened to the feedback and actively chooses to find less hilariously awful ways (arguably) to get the numbers they want.

Better Metrics

Choosing to be a little more humane wasn’t the only thing that changed at BuzzFeed as a result of that ridiculous email: it led to a revision of how success was measured.

BuzzFeed now de-emphasizes open rate as a “silver bullet” metric: It looks instead at click rate, the number of links readers click and how long each reader spends with the email. The newsletter team also monitors growth rates for every newsletter subscriber list and compares how many people are reading them on mobile and desktop platforms.

Email open rates are a great metric for ensuring you’re not cutting yourself off at the knees with a bad subject line. It’s not that they shouldn’t be used, it’s that it doesn’t tell you nearly as much about engagement. It’s often more of a way to know you’re setting the stage well for the killer content inside your email. From there, matching metrics up with your goals for the email is the key to knowing if you’re getting where you want to go. If your newsletter is a collection of links or seeks to drive recipients to a call-to-action, clicks are certainly paramount! If it’s got readable content in it, knowing how long the reader spends will tell you whether things are getting read or opened and archived quickly.

Web analytics information presents a similar trap: big numbers look good, but they often don’t actually matter unless they show that visitors are doing the right things.

For instance, many times a high bounce rate is perfectly reasonable! Consider these examples:

  • Sometimes, a call to action on a landing page will link a user to a new domain where they can log in to your product. That’s a bounce, but they’re going right where they should.
  • Your contact page often contains everything someone needs when they’re Googling for “company x phone number”. They’ll leave immediately, because they got what they came for.
  • Blog posts often have extremely high bounce rates, even if they’re great posts! A reader can get value out of it and still not want to click around further on the website.

In each case, you need better metrics to determine success:

  • For the landing page linking to a new domain, attach an event so you can see success in your reports.
  • On your contact page, use a tool to know how customers get your phone number. If you use AdWords, consider the WordPress plugin I helped write for CallRail.
  • Design for further engagement on your blogs to see if you can increase time spent on the site, but also take a look at returning visitors over time. Offering a newsletter subscription is another great option.

Wrong Metrics in Best Practices

The wrong metrics won’t just throw off your ability to know success and improve, it can also teach you the exact wrong things to do.

After one of my talks at Dreamforce this year, an audience member asked about some sales tactics he’d heard from successful salespeople and wanted to know how he could apply them to email marketing (which is also designed to drive sales). The concepts seemed a little iffy, but the salespeople had seen success. Why not try it?

Here’s why: the audience member’s business runs off renewals, while salespeople are often only incentivized to make the sale. There’s no way to know if these tactics would actually pay off in the long run, because the salespeople didn’t know (or care) if customers stuck around. Overselling a product or feature, for instance, can benefit someone who gets paid only off of the conversion, but the business takes the hit when the customer ends up disappointed in the experience.

So, as I told the audience member: there’s no way to know if those tactics would work, because yours goals don’t align. He needs to look for tips from people who are also incentivized to keep customers happy over the course of renewal cycles.

Trusting the wrong person’s tactics is an epidemic in content. Have you seen how many blogs have co-opted the clickbait/Upworthy style of creating titles? If your sole metric of success is ad revenue off of single page views, that may very well be a useful tactic for you. If you’re hoping to build readership, you probably ought to crank back the eye roll-inducing titles and work on having great content that’s worth reading.

It all comes down to ensuring that the metrics you’re trying to affect accurately reflect your business goals.

I’m wincing as I conclude with: maybe you should learn from BuzzFeed and take a fresh look at how you define success.

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November 14, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content, Data, UX