How to think critically about email marketing data

The following is a guest post from Tom Webster. Tom is the Vice President of Strategy for Edison Research, sole provider of U.S. National Election exit polling data for all major news networks. He’s also a renowned writer on his website, Brand Savant.


Today while browsing my blogs, I came across this provocative headline:

Email Usage Drops 28% in Past 12 Months!

As someone who makes their living interpreting data like this, I was struck by what I read to be a counter-intuitively steep decline (and, of course, by the exclamation point!) and decided to hunt down the source of this stat to see if it was a) credible and b) interpreted correctly (more on how I do that here, if you’re interested.)

It turns out that this 28% decline was reported by a recent Nielsen NetView report that delineated “Share Of Time” for online activities.

Sure enough, there it is, from a very credible panel-based tracking study. Taken at face value, the headline I led with would appear to be true – and both that article and some of the comments to the original Nielsen study seemed to draw the same conclusion: email is being usurped by social media. The only trouble with that conclusion is that it’s actually not true, and data from the same Nielsen article goes on to prove it.

What the Nielsen NetView data measures is not “online” activity, as many have reported, but Internet use from computers (desktops and laptops.) I don’t know about you, but ever since I got my first smartphone back in 2002, most of my email interactions have not been at my desk. That’s anecdotal evidence, of course, but luckily it is confirmed by data provided in the same Nielsen article.

A separate study of mobile Internet usage by Nielsen actually showed mobile email usage increasing over the same one-year period, from 37.4% of U.S. mobile Internet time to 41.6%. In fact, though email usage is in third place for “tethered” usage, it remains number one with a bullet for mobile users.

So, what we have are two data points from two very credible sources: an apples-to-apples trend of desktop/laptop email usage, and an apples-to-apples trend of mobile email usage. What’s missing is the orange. It’s one thing to show that one pie slice is shrinking while another is growing – but the statistic that has fallen through the cracks here is this: which pie is growing?

For that, I present the orange to these apples-to-apples comparisons, recent Pew data on the growth in smartphone adoption (which I can tell you is confirmed by both the publicly-available data and private client data we’ve collected at my day job at Edison Research.) What this data shows is that over roughly the same time period as the Nielsen studies, smartphone usage has surged from 32% of adults to 40% of adults. In other words, not only has email’s slice of the mobile pie grown, the pie has gotten much larger.

So what do you do with this information? Well, I can tell you what we are going to do with it. Certainly, my next call to our WhatCounts account manager is going to be to help us build a mobile template for our email marketing efforts. I’m going to think twice about graphs or images we include in our emails (which may mean using more data tables, and fewer screenshots). I’m also going to try and be more diligent about third-party links in our messaging – do they go to a big, honkin’ flash-heavy site somewhere, or do they link directly to the mobile version? Finally, will our mobile “call to action” differ from our desktop call to action?

All good questions. For me, deciphering data like this is a process that I like to describe as hunting for information vs. hunting for “evidence.” For you, the message is pretty clear – if you take your time and get to the bottom of all of the data you see about email, you’ll be left with two inescapable conclusions: email remains a critical channel for business, and email usage is changing. Adapt, improvise and overcome.

– Tom Webster
Edison Research


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