The One True Metric

“I don’t know how many sales they made, but the open rate was up 13%.”

–Email marketer on a webinar about subject lines

About six or seven years ago, my nonprofit created a strategy where event participants could check a box on a registration form when they were interested in increasing their volunteer engagement with us. Once the forms were processed an email would go out to the participant inviting them to click through to a landing page where they could indicate one of four broad areas of interest. This would, in turn, open a ticket and trigger a process where our local offices would follow up to recruit the participant.

Every month we reviewed email metrics showing positive click through rates. But ultimately we canceled the strategy because we couldn’t prove that we had recruited a single volunteer.

The problem was that participants were either misunderstanding what the box on the form meant or they had been “in the moment” at the event and were no longer as interested once they were pinned down. The process itself was also cumbersome and the delay in time no doubt lost us volunteers.

Even those that were interested were hard to contact. The tickets were frequently closed with the comment, “Called three times with no response, then mailed invitation to volunteer orientation.”

We got caught up in the click-through rates and other email metrics. But the goal wasn’t to get high open rates. It was to recruit volunteers.

The number of volunteers recruited was the one true metric. Every other metric pales next to it. And by “volunteers recruited,” I don’t just mean those who sign up. They shouldn’t be counted until they have attended any orientation or training and cleared any background checks. Or, if they don’t need to attend an orientation, then they shouldn’t be counted until they accept a commitment to volunteer for a specific position or task.

Many of you are thinking, “Well, isn’t this the response rate?” In the business sector, usually. Their clicking through takes them to a cart where they purchase the product, or perhaps they download a white paper depending upon the call to action. But in the nonprofit sector, when volunteering is the call to action, the response rate doesn’t necessarily equal the number of people who wind up volunteering.

Now, if your campaign fails to achieve its goal (in this case, volunteer recruitment) then go back and analyze your email metrics. Perhaps your list contained too many uninterested people. Or your subject line didn’t offer value.Or, as in our case, your process might be too cumbersome.

It’s not the click through rate, it’s the number of people who show up to volunteer after they’ve cleared any other background checks or training criteria.