Why open rate is the worst possible email metric

45610014 - close-up of businessman looking at new message on mobile phoneby Michael DesRochers

Measurement and analytics are “in,” and measuring digital communications is easier than ever before. Easy, however, doesn’t necessarily equate to accurate or actionable. Much like the “hit rates” of early web analytics, email open rates simply don’t provide a lot of real value. Let’s examine why.

Why your email open rate is under 25%

During a recent communications conference, I was shocked to overhear a conversation regarding the dismal state of email open rates having declined to single digits. Single digits! Internal email open rates average near 77%, so what’s the difference?

I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of messages in your inbox featuring grey boxes with red-x’s, then having to “click to download pictures” if you want to bother with viewing those images. Viewing those images is how opens are measured.

Any email marketing which somehow makes it through our increasingly effective spam and clutter filter gauntlet are subject to this click, and without it no open will be measured.

When using an email marketing tool for sending internal email, opens are limited to people who actually receive their email in the inbox and then click to download the pictures. I’ve certainly opened and read email messages without displaying the pictures, and my spam filter is now clever enough to filter out email coming from the most popular email marketing tools.

Note that Outlook to Outlook internal email often isn’t subject to the same click-to-download-pictures issue, so measurement of page views improves dramatically.

Why your email open rate is >= 100%

It’s great to be perceived as giving 110% effort, yet credible metrics would never report an open rate above 100%.

An executive communications director who was sending to just over 12,000 employees asked me why their measurement tools showed them nearly 30,000 opens. She wondered how it was possible to get so many more opens than people in her audience?

Certainly some people will open the email more than once, and some will open it on their mobile device as well as their desktop. If your measurement tool is counting total page views as opens, instead of the individual people who are opening, then your numbers will be exaggerated.

Every preview, even as people are skipping around their inbox, will be counted as yet another open. With the recent increase in proxy services being employed by email systems for privacy, opens get exaggerated even further, as every proxy ‘hit’ is counted as another open. Without individual level measurement, opens counts are misleading at best.

Is open rate good for anything?

Monitoring open rates over time is certainly a useful indication of delivery success. A noticeable change in the numbers would indicate something within your messaging environment which is preventing your email from getting through.

For example, some communicators may have noticed a significant decline in their internal email open rates beginning around June of 2015. That timeframe happens to correspond to when Microsoft turned on Outlook’s new Clutter feature. Clutter filters out messages people routinely ignore, so now those messages are no longer reaching the recipient’s inbox.

If this happened to you, try changing the From address, or perhaps you could talk to your Exchange admin about tweaking the Clutter settings to prevent internal email from getting filtered out.

What is a better email metric?

An email open only tells you that a recipient viewed your message content for at least one second, which could just be the pictures blinking by in the preview pane. A metric such as time-on-page or read-rate provides more insight, such as how much time those openers actually spent viewing your message content. Email engagement is a combination of reading and clicking (if your message had any links or actions).

Did 80% of the audience ignore or read your email message? Your open rate will never tell.

To learn more, download a copy of the 2015 Email Metrics Benchmark Data Survey Results, an anonymous aggregate data survey of corporate accounts detailing average email open and click rates.

Author Michael DesRochers is founder and managing director of PoliteMail Software, the leading Email Analytics provider for Microsoft Outlook and Exchange.

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