It’s Still Not Working

While email open rates aren’t a viable way to measure marketing effectiveness, we recommend some proven ways to get more from your email marketing. There’s no time like the present for us marketing professionals to stop using email open rates to measure marketing campaign effectiveness.

It’s 2019, and they’re still not helping us get where we want to go as marketers, and, at best, they’re an untrustworthy and misleading metric. Aside from being difficult to read and unreliable, they direct our attention away from metrics that really matter, like clicks, conversion, and adoption. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term, open rates purport to measure how many of your email recipients actually open the emails you send. A good overview is found here.)

What’s Behind Open Rate Tracking?

Chris Maunder, Developer Media co-founder, describes the technology behind email open rate tracking as pretty straightforward: The only practical, automated method to count open rates is to place an image within an email. Then, you count the number of times that image is accessed per unique user and divide that by the number of emails you sent.

Thus, open rate = number of opens/number of emails sent.

However, he continues, it’s not really that simple. When you send a batch of email messages, here’s what might happen:

  • Some are opened and read (That’s what we want!)
  • Some are read in preview without downloading images (Thus, we can’t track them.)
  • Some are read in mobile clients (Since each client tracks differently, that skews results.)
  • Some bounce (So you can remove them from your mailing list.)
  • Some are blocked (Or blacklisted — either way they can never be opened.)
  • Some are deleted before they are opened (so they’re never opened, let alone read)
  • Some, when opened, have images blocked by the mail client

The industry tries to get around these issues with tricky math. Not only do they have to make the image request count adjustments mentioned above, but they also have to adjust based on an estimation of how much of the audience has blocked images — and blocking images varies widely by age group and other demographics.

These estimates change from week to week and month to month because email clients change, where people read their email changes, and so on. It becomes difficult to even use a measurement we all acknowledge as inaccurate to measure trends — it’s hard to gauge if an increase in open rate is due to your amazing offer and creative — or if it’s due to some other change.

And that, Chris explains, depends on your audience. Gmail now requests all images (see below). Android blocks all images. iOS requests all images by default. MacOS blocks images. And on and on it goes. Note, also, that over 50% of emails are now read on mobile devices and that number is increasing.

What Happens To My Newsletter in Gmail?

Since 2013, Gmail has shown images by default in desktop clients and mobile apps. Now end users have to change this setting manually.

So what has this meant to marketers?

Since most marketing emails are sent in HTML to preserve formatting, emails with images sent to Gmail show properly without the need to download images or whitelist individual email senders. However, since AI has been deployed, the content of the email message might get your email newsletter marked as Promotion or Spam and out of the main Inbox. In theory, this helps email recipients better comprehend the messages and may also help response (i.e. a higher click-through rate (CTR)) because they are able to give permission to see newsletters in their Inbox.

As this post from MailChimp explains, it has not helped marketers track repeat opens, but in theory helps better track open rates via Gmail, again, as long as the image downloads.

(Litmus does excellent reporting on email client tracking and trends if you’re interested in keeping up on this.)

So, What Now?

Here’s what we at Developer Media recommend. First, realize that email open rate metrics are not a good metric of overall marketing success. Because of email client and Internet changes, one month’s metrics could differ wildly from another month’s metrics. Thus, when we try to compare apples to apples with a flawed metric like email open rates, the rapidly changing environment prevents us from focusing on variables that matter.

Nobody can accurately report on open rates (don’t believe them if they tell you they can). It’s a generally accepted metric in the email marketing world that email open rate reporting can be off by as much as 35%. That’s a significant variance and makes it impossible really to use open rates to judge the effectiveness of your content, your offer, your subject line, etc. Even if open rates were accurate, they don’t necessarily map to conversions. And that is the metric that really matters–– did the customer do what you wanted (not just read what you wanted)?.

All is not lost. According to Evans Data Corporation, most developers subscribe to newsletters to learn about what’s going on in their profession.  The data is born out in what we have learned anecdotally by interviewing developers from a variety of developer-to-developer communities and sites. Your technical audience welcomes content as part of newsletters they have invited into their inbox.

So instead of open rates, we strongly suggest marketers focus on email marketing best practices.

For example:

  • Make important content stand out in brief text and keep the images light. Image-heavy emails result in fewer clicks.
  • Keep the call to action above the fold, particularly for mobile display. No one scrolls.
  • Focus on a compelling call to action. People don’t click unless you ask them to do something.
  • Make sure the call to action leads to something trackable.
  • Make sure the content you offer is compelling for a technical audience. Avoid hyperbole or marketing-speak. You will lose credibility and clicks.

Appendix: Where can I go to learn more?

Chris Maunder still recommends this excellent piece: These are his takeaways:

  • Don’t pop the Veuve based on the open rate – an increase may not be due to killer email creatives!
  • Don’t fire your email marketing team over a decrease in the CTOR (click-to-open rate) – They probably not have not lost their touch.
  • The percent of readers on a mobile device is only getting larger (we’ve seen clients of ours at 90% on some campaigns!) – the distortion effect on the open rate is likely to increase.
  • Clicks matter – we can debate all we want about the open rate, but clicks are clicks. Either somebody clicked or they didn’t, regardless of email client and image downloading behavior.
  • Since clicks are key:
    • Try to include a call to action in all messages to properly track campaign performance.
    • A/B test on the click rate (or conversion) more than the open rate.
  • Lots of traffic is from mobile – landing pages should be mobile-responsive.
  • Use independent tracking for your landing page so you know what happens when people get there. Conversions are more important than clicks.

You may also find useful information here: