The Truth About Engagement Metrics and What They Mean to ISPs

Posted by Tom Sather 

There is a lot of confusion in the marketing media as to what “engagement” means. Engagement is centrally important to email marketing success and many marketers use it to refer to subscriber response and loyalty. Engagement data – by which marketers’ mean opens, clicks and conversion – are vital to marketing success.

But these are not the metrics that ISPs mean when they talk about engagement. And, even when they do use the same or similar terms, how they think about those metrics is dramatically different from how marketers think about them.

At the ISP level, engagement means that subscribers are active in their inbox – they log in, they respond to messages, etc. They are, in a manner of speaking, a real person and the account is a real account, not a throwaway address for avoiding marketing messages. This type of engagement can’t be measured by the marketer, but is vital to making anti-spam systems successful.

The ISP doesn’t actually care if your marketing “works,” which is how marketers think about engagement and activity. What the ISP does care about is, whether or not they can trust their reputation metrics on your mail.

ISPs have started referring to users as active, to try to avoid using the word engagement in a way that confuses things. And they mean activity as viewed from their side of the inbox. To an ISP an “active” subscriber is one who logs in regularly, reads email regularly, sends mail regularly, reports messages as spam and report legitimate messages as “not spam.” This is considered normal, active behavior and it means the ISP can trust the reputation metrics associated with that account, including both complaints and this-is-not-spam votes. In inactive account is one where the user hasn’t logged in for months and months, they rarely or never open or send email, they rarely or never vote identify as spam or not-spam. In short, they don’t act like a normal person with a normal account. ISPs can’t trust the reputation metrics coming from this account.

You don’t have access to most of these metrics, which might feel frustrating. Don’t give up. First, you know that these metrics are now important. Second, there is a lot you can do with the metrics you do have access to. You know if your recipients open your messages. You know if they click. You know if they respond. You certainly know if they interact with some other part of your organization (i.e., they download a whitepaper, they buy, they email customer service). Your customers and prospects give you a lot of data to indicate whether or not they are real and engaged.

Your job, of course, is to use that data to make sophisticated and intelligent decisions about what to send, to who and when. Isn’t that the fun of marketing?

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About Tom Sather

Email data and deliverability expert Tom Sather has worked with top-tier brands to diagnose and solve inbox placement and sender reputation issues as a strategic consultant with Return Path. As the company’s senior director of research, Tom is a frequent speaker and writer on email marketing trends and technology. His most recent analysis of new inbox applications’ effects on consumer behavior was widely cited across leading business media outlets including the Financial Times, Ad Age, and Media Post.

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