The Surprising Link Between Major League Baseball and Email Marketing Metrics

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For the new year, Webbula is launching a series of blog posts about email marketing metrics. We have a variety of esteemed authors from the email industry lined up to participate. Articles you missed:

  • Understanding and Leveraging the Power of Open and Click Reach Rates in Email Marketing by Jeanne Jennings. View that here.
  • Email as a Conversion Tool: 5 Metrics You Should Be Tracking by Tejas Pitkar. Read now.
  • Inactive Email Subscribers: Measure and Minimize Instead of Reactivating by Loren McDonald. Read it here. 
  • Click-to-Open Rates: The Best Measurement of Email Engagement by Betsy Grondy. Read it. 
  • 6 Ways Customer lifetime Value Can Drive Email Marketing Strategy by Emma Warrillow and Tammi Miller. Read it. 
  • Email Deliverability Guide: How to Interpret Delivery, Clicks, and Opens by Tom Blijleven. Read it now.

Sign up for the discussion! 

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Major league baseball and email marketing don’t have much in common. How could they, after all? Yet surprisingly, there’s one thing they do have very much in common, and that’s an abundance of metrics that are relied upon for making key, everyday decisions.  Metrics in baseball are used to measure pitcher performance, hitter performance, and fielding performance. General Managers and coaches use metrics and analytics to determine the value of players they are looking to sign, to figure out the best pitcher match-up against other teams, and a host of other player and game decisions. Every single game, the manager of a team uses batting stats to determine the batting order for that game. Here’s a list of the most important metrics used to evaluate batters:

  1. Batting average (BA)
  2. On-base percentage (OBP)
  3. Slugging (SLG)
  4. On-base plus slugging (OPS)
  5. Total bases (TB)
  6. Runs batted in (RBIs)

For the true number nerds, there is also OPS+, which takes a player’s OPS and adjusts for external factors, like which parks were played in (some are more hitter-friendly than others). OPS+ is then converted onto a scale, where 100 is considered the league average, and the number following it indicates by what percentage the player is better than average. Confusing? You bet!

In the same way that baseball teams use metrics to measure the performance of each player, email marketers use metrics to determine how a particular campaign has performed. With every email send, there’s a lot of data (a LOT!) and number-crunching going on in the background. So let’s take a look at email marketing metrics historically used to evaluate an email campaign:

  1. Spam percentage
  2. Open rate
  3. Clickthrough rate
  4. Click-to-open rate
  5. Bounce rate
  6. Unsubscribe rate

Email marketers use these metrics to evaluate subject lines, content relevancy, offers, email design, etc. More importantly, they often use them to measure the overall health of their email lists. It’s safe to say that analytics play as big of a role in email marketing as they do in Major League Baseball.

The reliance on metrics and analytics in baseball and email marketing ties directly into another thing that both have in common: Decision-makers in both baseball and email marketing often focus on the wrong metrics! And in doing so, it may actually hurt their case rather than help it. To understand what I’m talking about, let’s look at this recent example from the MLB. 

Misleading metrics mean mistakes.

In May of this year, Chicago White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal led the entire American League in on-base percentage with a whopping .467 OBP, trailing only Nick Castellanos (.476) from the National League’s Cincinnati Reds. He achieved this despite also ranking second to last in the American League in batting average, recording just six hits in 44 at-bats, for a lousy .136 average.

Wait, what?

Aren’t hits the key factor in how high one’s on-base percentage is? They sure are, and every other batter in the league's top-40 on-base percentages from May was batting at least .200, with the majority of the top-25 batting well over .300.  But you know what, walks also count towards the calculation of OBP. And when you walk 29 times in a single month—as Grandal did—then you can still post a league-leading OBP number.

Batting average has traditionally been one of the top metrics used by fans and teams to rank the quality of a player’s hitting. But isn’t the real goal of a batter to get on base (and not make an out)? And if that is the real goal, does it matter if he gets on base by a hit vs. a walk? In reality, it doesn’t! Now that’s not to say that hits and batting average aren’t “sexier” metrics—they are. But in focusing only on those numbers, one risks not being able to see the whole story. And that might lead a manager to put the wrong batter in his line-up. 

But hold on a second! Aren’t there situations where the batting average might be more important to consider than the OBP? For sure. If it’s the bottom of the 9th, tie score, with a runner on third, it probably makes more sense to send a batter to the plate who has a high batting average rather than the guy with a lot of walks and a high OBP. Why? A walk isn’t going to bring the runner home, but a hit will.

Aren’t metrics fun? So now let’s look at the metrics used in email marketing. Putting aside the email marketing metrics we listed earlier, let’s start with three possible goals, one of which the majority of email campaigns is designed to accomplish:

  1. Generate a sale at the brand’s website
  2. Drive traffic to a publisher’s website
  3. Engage the subscriber with compelling newsletter content

Now let’s think about how we would go about measuring the success of each type of these campaigns. What metrics should we use? Spoiler alert: In most cases, it won’t be ANY of the metrics we listed earlier. Keep reading to learn why.

Generate a sale at a brand’s website

If a campaign is trying to drive revenue for the brand, the only true way of measuring whether or not it worked is the revenue generated by the campaign. Campaign A might have higher open and click rates, but if Campaign B generates more sales, which campaign was more successful?  The answer is obvious, yet our obsession with open and click rates have driven a lot of our campaign evaluation over the years. But with the open rate becoming progressively more meaningless (and in a short time, worthless), there must be a better metric to use in evaluating campaigns in this category. For me, the best metric would be RPE, or Revenue per Email. If you are tracking the revenue generated by your campaigns—which, of course you are—then this is an easy metric to calculate. It’s simply the revenue generated divided by the number of emails sent. It’s a much better way to measure the performance of these kinds of email campaigns, and it’s a metric your CFO will LOVE!

Drive traffic to a publisher’s website

A lot of publishing/media sites are ad-supported. They aren’t necessarily trying to sell you something. Instead, they want your eyeballs for as long as possible! The more eyeballs and time spent on site, the more money they can generate from advertising. When this is your objective, then opens are once again a meaningless metric. It's the clicks you are looking for. But even more important than clicks is the time your subscribers spend on the site after they click through the email.  

So if I were a publisher measuring the success of my email campaigns, I would look at bounce rate (which refers to the percentage of visitors that leave your website after viewing only one page on your site) and session duration (the time spent on your site per user before exiting). Both of these stats are a reflection of how well your emails set the expectation for the content to be found after clicking through. Low bounce rate + high session duration = good expectation setting by your emails. Granted, these are not the terms or metrics that most email marketing people use. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t! After all, they’re not very difficult to measure.

Engage the subscriber with compelling newsletter content

OK, so now we come to an email objective where the open rate is a metric that is really important. Because in this scenario, the primary objective is to get the subscriber to engage with your brand via the content in the email. Sure, there’s always the possibility of a click, but you can only measure how compelling your email content is by the number of people who open it. So what can you do in a future world where open measurements are no longer valid? In that case, the best alternative metric to track is inbox delivery.  

It’s a well-known fact of email marketing that if your subscribers aren’t engaging with your email, the likelihood that you will end up in the spam folder increases over time. That’s why so many email experts recommend that you periodically purge inactive (don’t open) subscribers from your list. So it goes to figure that if your inbox placement is holding steady or increasing, you’re doing a good job of getting your emails opened. It isn’t perfect, but in the case of this example, it’s all you are going to have in the future.

Metrics matter.

The lesson in all of this is simple: When using metrics and analytics to measure the performance of anything, start with the end-goal and work backwards from there. Measuring something simply because you can (or because it’s easy) gives you a lot of data. But data that you don’t use, or worse, that you misuse, is nothing more than overhead. If you want to have the best chance that your lead-off batter will get on first base, look at OBP, not at batting average. And if you want to really know which of your subject lines work better on an email campaign, use RPE, not click or open rate.

 

About the Author

ChrisMarriott

Chris Marriott is the President & Founder of Email Connect, a consultancy focused exclusively on the ESP vendor selection process. He is a recognized expert in the process of connecting leading brands with the right marketing technology partners and platforms.  

Prior to founding Email Connect, Chris served as a tenured executive at Acxiom, leading and building its Global Digital and Email Agency Services team into one of the industry’s top services providers.

He is a regular columnist on email marketing and the RFP process, and is an adviser to several emerging marketing technology companies including AudiencePoint and Shotzr. 

 

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