Gross over-simplification: In the realm of non-profits and campaigns, the world revolves around one thing: email marketing. It isn't blogging, it isn't "my.barackobama.com" or anything of the like-- basically, what people do as "campaign strategists" in the online world is come up with new and elaborate ways to ask you for your email address so that they can do one thing: ask you for money.
Email marketeers measure the effectiveness of this by tracking four key statistics:
Open Rates: The measure of how many people opened the email. An "open" is measured by hiding an image in the email called a "bug" that registers with a server when it is viewed, thereby telling "central command" when you opened your mail. This statistic is kind of bogus these days as it only tells you what percentage of people both opened your email and opted to "display images" in your email. But what strategists do is measure the relativity between emails, so that they can at least say "This email was not opened as much as that one." Typically a good open rate is around 20%, some see higher, most see far lower. I'd say the average sits around 15%.
Click rates: The measure of how many click on any individual link in the email. Some platforms spit out a percentage of people that opened the email that clicked a link, others spit out a percentage people that the email was sent to that clicked the link. Typically a good click through rate is about 6% though typically they're around 3%.
"Action" rates: Because fundraising is what strategists are actually asking people to do, it is probably more honest to call this measurement a "donation rate" but in actuality, what's measured here is what percentage of people that were sent the email committed the intended action. That percentage is generally less than 1%.
Unsubscribe rate The last measurement is what percentage of people unsubscribed from your list as a result of receiving the email? How many people did you lose as a result of this email being sent?
To read more about this stuff, take a look at this data released by M&R Strategic Services. Granted there are a lot more statistics, and different names for these, but roughly at the core, this is what you're looking at measuring.
Now that you have a primer into email marketing as done by non-profits and campaigns, you're probably asking yourself "what does this have to do with Twitter?"
We've been measuring the effectiveness of our tweets at Sunlight through bit.ly for quite some time, and we're getting tremendous results that seem to be on the upswing, while according to the aforementioned "e-benchmark study" email seems to be on the decline. See:
While there's no open rate, there is a subscribe rate. I for instance, have approximately 2,000 followers on twitter. By using bit.ly to track my click through rate for each link I send out directing people to SunlightLabs.com, I'm getting approximately an 18% click through rate (note that I include retweets in this).
Now, there's another side to this coin: we're not comparing apples to apples. Comparing me with 2,000 followers to the "average list" or something like 200,000 subscribers doesn't seem statistically reasonable.
But look-- here's The White House with currently 356,119 followers-- an average comparable to any list size. Judging from looking at the bit.ly statistics, the White House is seeing an average of a 14% click through rate.
At the top of the heap, we have Ashton Kutcher. And admittedly, his click through rate is lower-- we're looking at about 4.5% from his last 6 tweets that had bit.ly links in them. at that level (here's what's remarkable), Mr. Kutcher has been able to drive nearly 100,000 clicks in the last 24 hours.
I also suspect, though I have no data to back myself up on this, but unsubscribe rates are likely lower in twitter than they are in email. It is more "ok" culturally, to tweet 10 things a day than it is to send your list 10 emails in a day. If, for instance, you received 10 emails from your favorite non-profit in a single day I predict you would immediately unsubscribe. But if that same organization sent out 10 tweets in a single day, it wouldn't bother you all that much.
Finally, there's lots of holes in my data. It is largely unscientific (especially the part about click through rates at the end), and haphazard, but even if the response rates end up being the same or even half of what emails are doesn't that make twitter still a more cost-effective medium to email for mass communications?
Look at it this way-- if Ashton Kutcher used an email delivery service to send out his messages, he'd be paying anywhere from $5,000-$10,000/mo to deliver those emails. With twitter, that's free. Gone are the days of paying email vendors thousands of dollars to deliver mail and manage white lists, and paying writers that take hours crafting the perfectly tested email. Instead, you've got 140 characters, and delivery is completely free of charge.
To summarize: I think as the masses make it to Twitter, we're going to see mass marketing change. I made the prediction last week that Twitter will out-raise email in 2012 in the presidential candidate circuit. While I've not cited any form of "action rate" statistics, you can see what leads me in that direction: email's declining rapidly and Twitter is creating not only new opportunity, but also a better ability for conversation and authenticity. I welcome it.