3 Reasons Why Open Rate is a Poor Email Marketing Benchmark

It can feel exciting to see a good open rate on a marketing email. It could mean a few things:

  • The email has an effective subject line
  • Your audience is engaged and interested
  • Or, perhaps you delivered your email at the perfect time

Time to celebrate, right?

Well, maybe not. Just because an email was “opened” doesn’t mean it was read. This can throw off how you gauge the success of your email campaigns and you will miss out on some deeper insights.

In this post, I cover the three biggest reasons using open rate as the main indicator of email marketing success is a mistake, and I’ll suggest additional measurement strategies.

1. An email is only opened when the graphics are downloaded

An email is only considered open when the Internet Service Provider (ISP) sees that the graphic/HTML elements of an email were downloaded. If the graphics aren’t downloaded, this can mean that the email wasn’t opened or that the user read the text version of your email instead of the HTML version. This can happen due to the email host or a user’s preference settings.

Because you can’t be 100 percent sure whether a user will read the HTML or text version of an email, it’s a good idea to double-check that both versions are readable and look how you want the user to view it.

2. Spam filters “open” the emails, not users

A spam filter bot scans emails to make sure they’re safe. In some instances, the spam filter will open it multiple times, while the receiver never actually opens the email. This skews the total open rate, as well as the unique click-through-rate (CTR).

Did this contact really open this email six times in two hours? Possibly, but not likely.

3. Open isn’t the same as “read”

Just because a contact opens an email, doesn’t mean the email was actually read. Some users open emails as a means to clean up an inbox and reduce the amount of unread emails, or they may open an email to unsubscribe from a drip campaign. There are many reasons an email could be opened that have nothing to do with interest in the content.

Clicks can’t be tampered with

Although it’s more difficult to optimize for, a click is the best indicator of an email’s success. Your CTR indicates how well your message resonated with your audience and the overall strength of your call-to-action (CTA).

For instance, if you send an invitation for a webinar, a great open rate doesn’t mean much if your registration count is low. What it means is that the subject line may have been interesting to the audience (if they really did open it), but the email content did not meet expectations or garner as much interest.

Or, if you send a regular email with links to your blog content, clicks to the posts will show who’s really interested in reading your content and it’ll also show what kinds of topics and posts your audience wants to read.

[Ready to improve your email marketing metrics? Learn more.]

Granted, an opt-out or unsubscribe also counts as a click, so to be truly accurate, you can subtract those from your unique clicks and recalculate your CTR. However, in my opinion, an unsubscribe is a blessing because it allows you to stop wasting time engaging an uninterested prospect. Your contact list will improve and so will your metrics.

The “open rate” silver lining

As with all marketing activities, email marketing is all about process and content optimization. Regardless of where you stand compared to industry benchmarks, your goal should always be continuous improvement.

A good metric to use is the unique click-to-open rate ratio: Unique CTR % / Unique Open Rate %. This metric indicates the portion of your email list that found your subject line valuable and found the content inside the email valuable as well.

If your audience is relatively static (meaning you don’t add many new contacts to a particular audience segment), the factors affecting your open rate should remain constant every time you email that group. Thus, if one email has a 15 percent open rate and the next has 18 percent, the takeaway shouldn’t be that 18 percent is below your industry’s standard, but rather that your trend over time is positive.

By continuing to monitor the engagement of your marketing emails in the way described above, as opposed to relying on the open rate, you’ll get a much deeper understanding of how to connect with your audience and send better emails.

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