I’ll admit it, I’m a policy wonk. I have a bachelors degree in Government. And, I read the Dipnote, the US State Department’s blog. It’s in my non-work blog feeds in Thunderbird. So, sue me.
Today, John Matel writes a post titled: “Hidden Prosperity and the Banana Index in Iraq.” In it he mentions “the Spock Trap”:
I think we often demand more from information than it has to teach us and much of our precision is unjustified. I remember in the old Star Trek when Spock would say something like “impact in 10.5 seconds.” How stupid is that? By the time he says 10.5, the number has changed. It is unjustified precision, but it is easy to fall into the Spock trap. It makes you seem intelligent. BTW – my own experience in using deceptive numbers is that you are much better off using precise odd numbers. For instance, 97 is a more credible number than 100 or 90. (Remember that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, not 100 %.)
I immediately started thinking about email and this same problem. Everybody looks at statistics. So much so that you start to think that you live and die by them.
The danger here is if you start thinking that merely improving statistics will improve your delivery. I know that some people look at their stats and start thinking “If I could only adjust something so that I get 3.2% fewer complaints, then everything will start coming up roses!” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Statistics in email are broad standards. My goal for Informz is to consistently see delivery rates between 98 and 99%. We get close to that a lot of days, but you have to ask what that really means. Does that mean that mail will be delivered at that same rate tomorrow? How about next week? Next month? Next year?
Of course not. ISPs are constantly tweaking things. What does the trick today may not even be in the equation tomorrow. Plus, your competitors are also constantly tweaking things. So, the things you think you have done today to achieve a 95% delivery rate may be the things that your competitors are also doing. You may be on the same square tomorrow then.
The truth is that there is only one statistic that really matters for purposes of determining how well your mail will be delivered, overall, and it’s the one statistic that you can only passively measure: engagement. It is not block or bounce rates. It is the number of your recipients with whom you are engaged.
The only ways to measure this are by looking at click-through rates, sales (or conversions, if you wish), and unsubscription rates. You can also get a rough idea of things by looking at feedback loop responses, and block rates. For instance, AOL will place a dynamic block on an IP in response to user complaints. If you are getting blocked by AOL and didn’t buy your list from some guy selling CDs on the street corner, it probably means that you’ve got engagement problems more than that your list is bad and your list needs tweaking.
If people don’t look forward to getting your email, then purging your list of hard bounces to tweak your bounce rate isn’t going to help; you will eventually find yourself in trouble with ISPs. The deeply disturbing problem that the Spock Trap creates is a view of the use of email as an end unto itself. It is not. It is a method of communication. Thus the use of email is a means to the end of communication. If you are not more concerned with the communication than the statistics then you have very deep problems.
Why? Because your recipients don’t care about the statistics at all. They’re looking for the communication.