2 New Reasons That Email Attribution Is Not A Straight Line
Email marketing is an increasingly difficult channel to track, explains columnist Chad White, which is why marketers need to rethink their approach and look toward new metrics.
Email has long had a reputation as a highly trackable channel. Marketers love it because you can see a subscriber open an email, click on links in the body content, visit their website and convert.
The problem is that for many brands, this linear A-to-B-to-C-to-D email interaction is increasingly rare — and already rare enough to reduce most email attribution to the realm of proxies. It’s meaningful, but in most cases, you’re not getting the full picture by a long shot.
Years ago, a retail client of the company I worked for did an exhaustive examination of their email marketing return on investment. Because of some unique circumstances, they were able to get visibility into email’s influence across all their channels for roughly 90 percent of their customers.
And by using only the easy-to-see attribution, they discovered that they were undervaluing email marketing by 50 percent! It was actually having twice the impact they previously gave it credit for — which, needless to say, had resulted in email getting a lower budget and priority than it deserved.
And email attribution has only become more difficult in recent years, as multichannel environments and inbox capabilities have allowed subscribers to act in ways that are very difficult to track.
Despite its reputation, email marketing is a difficult channel to track — and therefore, it is chronically under-resourced — for a number of reasons:
Alternate channels. For brands with multiple channels and conversion points, emails can lead to action in other channels where attribution is difficult to track. For instance, an email that promotes an in-store clearance in its subject line will generate store sales from subscribers who read the subject line but didn’t open the email.
A subject line with a hashtag in it could cause the subscriber to engage with the brand on social media — again without opening the email. And a subscriber could open an email, see a product they like, and then open their browser, visit your site and search for the product there — or call your call center and place an order that way.
In each case, the subscriber took a positive, desirable action. But in each case, it’s hard to casually connect the dots back to email. And some of those are surprisingly common interaction paths.
Native inbox links. These links are enabled by senders and appear as part of the email client interface.
Gmail’s Quick Action buttons are a great example of these. They allow marketers to add, for instance, a button to an email’s envelope content that lets subscribers jump to a “Track Package” page, so they can click on a primary call to action without opening the body copy, saving them a click.
Rich content. While still rare, embedded video content in emails is the best example of this, but some longer animated gifs fall into this category, as well. If a streaming embedded video service is used, then individual level tracking data is available, but if HTML5 video or a YouTube integration through Gmail is used, then it’s not.
The Latest Disruptions
Those email attribution disrupters have been in the mix for a least the past several years, but now we have a couple of new ones to consider.
The Apple Watch. The latest email-reading device has more in common with the Pine email client of the early 1990s than with contemporary email clients like Gmail.
The Watch doesn’t support images, which means you can’t track opens. It also doesn’t support links (since it doesn’t have a web browser), which means you can’t generate clicks, much less track them. Robbed of the two most basic email metrics, attribution is extremely difficult.
Thankfully, the Watch does support its own flavor of HTML, watch-HTML. Marketers using multipart MIME just need to add this third part to their plain text and HTML parts.
Marketers can use watch-HTML to not only tailor their messaging to these micro-screen viewers, but for channel tracking purposes, as well. Personalized tracking codes may be too cumbersome for subscribers to input, but channel-specific discount codes will give marketers at least a sense of the importance of this wearable channel’s impact.
Phones numbers that are specific to the Watch are another avenue for attribution.
The Apple Watch already has several competitors, and while I don’t think wrist wearables represent a major email interface, it will be a significant one over time.
Email marketers currently spend a lot of time optimizing their emails to render and function well in Outlook, and that desktop email client has less than seven percent market share and falling. Wearables like the Apple Watch will be a similar headache for email marketers in the future.
Interactive Emails. While the Apple Watch represents a minimal email experience, new interactive email elements represent a broadening of the email experience. Essentially, interactions that typically would take place on a landing page are being brought forward into the inbox.
For instance, in some email clients, marketers can create email carousels, like Lego does in this email, where the subscriber can click on tabs to bring up new content within the email.
Marketers can also create hamburger menus that drop down when clicked. And it’s likely that in the months ahead we’ll see some retailers experiment with shopping cart features like picking the size, style and quantity of an item for checkout — all without leaving the inbox.
These interactive features are exciting because they reduce friction and barriers for subscribers to act.
However, this email functionality requires marketers to track a new metric, “email interactions.” These are clicks that trigger functionality within an email, as opposed to traditional clicks that lead to landing pages.
Marketers can track some email interactions by adding additional open tracking pixels to their interactive content. For instance, you can add a tracking pixel to your hamburger menu so that you’ll know which subscribers opened that menu. And you can add tracking pixels to each tab of your email carousel so you can see which tabs a subscriber viewed.
As emails morph from quick gateways to way stations where more consideration takes place, another metric that will be telling is “duration of engagement.”
This is how long a subscriber spends reading or interacting with an email — which is not only a good measure of engagement with interactive features but also of video content (especially HTML5, which can’t be tracked to individuals) and of emails with long-form text content.
It’s Only Going To Get Messier
What’s clear from all this is that the traditional linear measurement of email interactions is dying, except as a short-term proxy. A broader, more holistic look at email marketing’s influence is needed, and that will require some new metrics, subscriber-centric thinking, creative testing and a little faith and common sense.
My fear is that the difficulty of tracking subscriber engagement in some of these new scenarios or on some of these new devices will cause marketers to avoid embracing them, even if they make good sense.
What marketers need to realize is that our metrics and attribution are already far from perfect, so there’s little to no danger in making them slightly more imperfect.