The Value of Observed Behavior

Lately, I’ve been working on some projects that have me pondering more reported-versus-observed visitor behavior.

Reported behavior is what we tell people we do; observed behavior is what we actually do. I may tell you I exercise and try to maintain a low-carbohydrate diet (reported behavior). But if you observed me on Super Bowl Sunday, you would have seen me skip my workout and enjoy a second helping of my friend’s pasta salad, completely the opposite of the behavior you were led to believe I’d exhibit. This is a silly, short-term example (I was back to the gym and low carbs on Monday), but I’m seeing similar long-term scenarios in regard to e-mail.

I recently surveyed a subset of a client’s opt-in list that hadn’t opened or clicked on a message from my client in nine months or more. My client had sent each person in this group at least one e-mail per month. The vast majority received HTML e-mail (allowing us to track opens). The observed data tells us this group hadn’t read an e-mail from my client in at least nine months.

Instead of telling people this up front, we asked some survey questions to see if their perceptions matched what we had observed. We found:

  • Only 63 percent remembered signing up to receive e-mail. In reality, 100 percent of these people had opted in.

  • Just over 40 percent said they remembered seeing the most recent e-mail from my client in their inboxes. This may or may not be true. We can’t know for certain if the message wasn’t caught by spam filters.
  • Of those who remembered seeing it, 25 percent said they’d opened and looked at it. In reality, none of these people had registered an open for this e-mail, none had opened it.
  • Of those who saw it in their inboxes but didn’t open and look at it, over 65 percent said they usually read this monthly e-mail but were just too busy to read the latest issue. In reality, none of these people had a reported open for any e-mail from my client in the past nine months. Further, only 9 percent told us they never read it, which matches with their observed behavior.

Why the disconnect?

Some people are truly forgetful; others may not want to hurt of the e-mail sender’s the feelings (in this case, it’s a membership organization, so there’s a larger relationship here).

It reminds me of “Rashomon.” The Kurosawa film is a classic. It illustrates how the truth is difficult to discern when eye witness accounts differ. But in this case, the truth is easily discernable. We have the observed behavior, which is the truth. Yet this doesn’t make the reported behavior any less important.

Most likely, the disconnect between observed and reported behavior is because people are bombarded with marketing messages. In e-mail (and elsewhere), they all blend together, especially over time. An e-mail you received a year ago from an organization seems recent; you have trouble remembering whether the information you received from an organization arrived via e-mail or postal mail, or whether you read it on the Web site or heard it at a conference.

Both types of research are valuable. The observed behavior is what’s actually happening, we just don’t know why. The reported behavior is the recipient’s perception of what’s happening, which helps us understand what may (and may not) be causing the observed behavior.

In this instance, the disconnect between reported and observed behavior is a double-edged sword. It’s good to know people in this group didn’t actively decide to stop reading my client’s e-mail. We included our best guesses of why people stopped reading the e-mail in the survey, but we had very few takers:

  • 1.5 percent said they didn’t read it because the e-mail wasn’t sent to their primary e-mail address.

  • 4.6 percent said they weren’t sure they were eligible for the offerings presented in the messages.
  • 6.2 percent said they just weren’t interested in this type of information.

Still, it’s troublesome that they didn’t realize they hadn’t been reading the e-mail messages. They don’t miss them at all. They think they’ve been reading them.

What to do?

It all comes back to relevancy, value, and timeliness in readers’ eyes.

What makes information relevant to your readers, their jobs/hobbies/interests, or their world? What valuable information can you provide that would get them to feel the loss if they didn’t see the e-mail? What can you do to improve your e-mail’s timeliness? Can you scoop your competitors to make the content more compelling?

For years, I’ve declared content is king. It’s the one element — more than design, marketing, or just about anything other than list — that can make or break an e-mail program. People get more e-mail than they can read, so make yours something they want to read, something they’ll miss if it doesn’t arrive on schedule. Is it easy? No. But it’s the best insurance against becoming irrelevant to customers, members, prospects, or other folks you want to reach.

Until next time,


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