Predictive Marketing

Email: What’s Your Real Open Rate?

Many email service providers admit that there has been a gradual decline in open rates over the past few years. While the open rate doesn’t tell the whole story on on email success, it is still vital to measure. After all, if your audience doesn’t open up your email, they have no chance to read it and respond to it.

One of the primary reasons cited for the decline is inbox clutter. According to Forrester Research, 60% of consumers believe they receive too much email. In another study, Customer Knowledge is Marketer Power, Forrester found that the chief reason that marketers who believe email will be less effective in 2 years  is “too much clutter in consumer inboxes.” A belief that “SPAM” will drive the decline was cited by only 59%.

Clearly, we are all becoming increasingly numb to the steady stream of email arriving in our inboxes. A second, related reason often given for the decline in open rates is the increasing effectiveness of spam filters that help manage this flood of email.

A third reason, and a significant one, is technological. The way that opens are measured is by including a tiny image (usually a 1 pixel by 1 pixel gif or jpeg) within the email. Once the images that are embedded in the email are served, the email is recorded as opened. The problem is that there are a lot of email readers don’t automatically serve the images in an email. In fact, ExactTarget estimates that 50% of all email is now delivered to email readers that either don’t automatically render images or are unable to render images, such as Outlook, Gmail, AOL, and handheld devices such as Blackberries. Thus, there is an inherent bias in not detecting all of the opens.

If you’re running an email campaign, it’s important to know the true open rate, so you can gauge the true reach of your email message. There’s an easy way to do this. It’s based on the insight that click-throughs are always measured, even if opens aren’t. Even though the email reader may not be indicating  an open, because it hasn’t rendered the images, the recipient of the email can still click on the links. That means that some recipients will be tracked as clicking through, but not opening an email. Let’s walk through an example.

Here’s the initial tracking information for an email:

Here’s how to estimate the true open rate:

  1. Download the list of the email addresses that have opened the email from your email service provider.
  2. Download the list of the email addresses that have clicked on a link in the email. Now match up the list of those who have clicked through, to see if they were tracked as opening the email. In the case above, it turns out that 105 recipients clicked a link in the email, but only 75 of them were tracked as having opened the email.
  3. Multiply the open rate above by the ratio 105/75. This gives an estimate of the true open rate, assuming the same click through to open ratio for the group that clicked on a link in the email, but was not tracked as having opened the email. The revised tracking information is as follows:

As you can see, because not all of the email reader render images, the estimated open rate in this case was actually 40% higher than reported. Here’s how you can use this information:

  • In order to maximize your click through rates, make sure that message in your emails does not rely on images. That way, if the recipient of your email doesn’t see the images, they can still respond to your message. As demonstrated above, this can help increase your open rates by 40% – or more.
  • It’s vital to know what the real underlying trends are for your email campaigns, so you can make adjustments as necessary. You’re in a better position to know that if you monitor the estimated open rate, as described above, because it eliminates quirks in the tracking system. You need to make adjustments in your strategy based on real changes in customer behavior, rather than changes in the way email readers render images.
  • With the estimated open rate, you now have a better estimate of the cumulative penetration of your message to your target audience. For example, if the reported rate shows a cumulative penetration of 33% after several emails, and you actually have a 40% higher open rate, a better estimate of your penetration is 1.4 x 33% or roughly 46%. You can then make better decisions about how to most effectively reach the rest of your target audience.

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