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.

It’s time for us as Marketing Professionals to stop using email open rates as a viable way to measure marketing effectiveness. It’s 2014, and they’re just 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 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 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 (and each client tracks differently, skewing results)
  • Some bounce (so you can remove them your mailing list)
  • Some are blocked (or blacklisted) (so 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
  • Some, like Gmail, download a single image for everyone skewing the results tremendously

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 age group and other demographics.

And these estimates change from week to week, 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 it goes. Note, also, that over 50% of emails are now read on mobile devices and this is increasing.

Wait, What’s Gmail Doing Now?

Google announced at the end of last year that Gmail will show images by default in desktop clients as of December 12, 2013, and mobile apps thereafter.

So what does this mean to marketers? How will this affect you?

Since most marketing emails are sent in HTML to preserve formatting, these emails with images sent to Gmail should now show properly without the need to download images or whitelist individual email senders. This should help email recipients better comprehend the messages and may also help response (i.e. a higher click-through rate (CTR)).

As this post from MailChimp explains, it will not help marketers track repeat opens, but in theory should help better track open rates via Gmail, again, for what they’re worth.

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

So What Can We Do?

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.

So instead we strongly suggest marketers focus on email marketing best practices.

For example:

  • Make an email’s important content in text and keep the images light. Image-heavy emails result in fewer clicks.
  • Focus on a call to action. People don’t click unless you ask them to do something. Thus, forget the calls to action and you’ll get less clicks.
  • Particularly with the developer audience, focus on facts and encourage them to try your product/services. Language that sounds like hyperbole or marketing-speak can torpedo your results.

Appendix: Where can I go to learn more?

Chris Maunder recommends this excellent piece: http://blog.mailup.com/2013/12/email-open-rate-complexity/. His “takeaways” from this piece:

  1. Don’t pop the Dom Perignon based on the Open Rate: an increase may not be due to killer email creatives!
  2. Don’t fire your email marketing guy over a decrease in the CTOR (click-to-open rate): he’s probably not lost his touch.
  3. The % 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Since clicks are key:
    1. Try to include a call to action in all messages to properly track campaign performance.
    2. A/B test on the Click Rate (or conversion) more than the Open Rate.
  6. Lots of traffic is from mobile: landing pages should be mobile-ready.

You may also find useful information here: