Are email open rates misleading your internal communications team?

“Did they even open the email?” is an all too common communications management question. Email is a conundrum. It’s the most valuable internal communications tool, and usually a mysterious black hole. So it’s not surprising that communicators resort to any number of methods to track if email gets opened or not.

What does the open rate tell you?

But what, exactly, does an email open rate tell you?

Let’s consider one customer’s experience.  They were using an online email marketing platform to measure internal email broadcasts, and over a period of six months the average open rate was just shy of 20%.

Because the vast majority of the company was never bothering to open any of these emails, they were obviously junk – extraneous communications contributing to employee email overload. Persuaded by IT’s analysis of the available email metrics, the Comms team made the decision to shut those email programs down, and diverted content to the intranet instead.

Within two months, traffic to their intranet fell by nearly half, and people were directly emailing their managers asking for news and information.

So what happened?

Why the open rates are misleading

That 20% email open metric wasn’t accurate.  When the IT team learned how email opens are actually tracked, lightbulbs went on.

Polite mail 1Measuring email opens is dependent upon that ‘click to download pictures’ bar you sometimes see at the top of your inbox – most often for incoming external communications – which would be the case when internal email is being sent via an online email marketing service.

Technically, it is the request to the tracking server for the tracking image contained in the email which gets counted as an open.  In web analytics, this tiny transparent image is called a ‘beacon’.

Because people can read the text of an email without downloading the pictures, that 20% open rate only represented the people who actually clicked to download the pictures.  It did not represent the people actually opening and reading the email.

For internal Outlook and Exchange communications, and assuming any measurement server is part of your company network, the pictures and content will automatically display – there is no click to download pictures – which means any preview will be measured as an open.  Most internal communications will have open rates near 70%.

Despite the Outlook envelope icon, a preview is counted as an open in exactly the same way adouble-click is counted as an open.

Likewise, someone who reads the entire email in their Outlook preview is counted exactly the same as someone who previews the message quickly and moves on down their inbox, completely ignoring it.  Both count as opens, but are very different interactions.

  • All open rate tells you is the percentage of recipient who received it and looked at it for at least a second.
  • An email open does not tell you if your recipient actually read your message.
  • That’s why open rate, even an accurate open rate, is often a misleading metric.
  • If you are taking the time to write, edit and layout valuable or mission critical content, you need to know if people are reading it.

How many executive and HR emails are being ignored, and at what cost to operations?  Should email design and layout decisions be made based on opinions, or on readability data?

The most valuable email metric

The most valuable email metric is how long people have the message open, which is the best indicator of reading.  Web analysts often refer to this as time-on-page or session duration, and for email we call it read-time – which is how long the recipient has the message open in Outlook.

Of course, a small percentage of people will leave the email open while grabbing a coffee or working on another project, but a good analytics tool will take that into account.

Polite mail 2Knowing your read-rate gives you the ability to make better communications decisions.

Want to know if your email communications are improving or declining?  A key performance metric is the ratio of your distribution list size to the number of people who didn’t open the email plus the number of people who ignored it.  Simply track this metric over time, and if the graph is moving up, you’re doing better.

Wondering if you are sending too much content?  Monitor the ratio of your average read-time to your total content length – the closer to 100% the better.

Want to know if a mobile responsive layout would improve readership?  Simply compare the mobile read-time before and after the change.

Wondering if readers are engaging with your corporate newsletter?  Email engagement is a combination of read-time and click-through, so monitoring a combined metric over time will tell you how well your communications program is performing, as well as highlight any out-of-norm issues.

The objective of measuring communications is to make better, more informed business decisions, which means knowing your numbers and avoiding inaccurate, misleading metrics.

Author Michael DesRochers is Managing Director of PoliteMail Software. PoliteMail is the sponsor of the IABC World Conference app.

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