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It’s time to get tough on Open Rates

When I first moved from traditional direct mail into email marketing way back in 1996 it was all terribly exciting.  Here was a shiny new medium that could do what direct mail did – and more – for less.  Nothing seemed more thrilling than “open rate tracking”…being able to spot people who had engaged with our message but for whatever reason decided not to pursue the relationship further.  This was as good as looking over people’s shoulders as they read their mail in the morning.

And yet.  Over the years the value of an “open rate” has been devalued so much that I am beginning to believe it can cause more trouble than it’s worth.   Sweet, pure, innocent email marketers regularly ask me at training courses and seminars “what’s a good average open rate?” and my heart goes out to them.  What kind of a world have we created where people truly believe that an “average open rate” is both a useful and necessary benchmark of email success? 

It’s a render rate, not an open rate.

People who do email for a living know that an “open rate” is not the same as an “engagement rate”.  As email programmes have become more suspicious it has had a direct impact on our open rate.  In 1999 pretty much everything opened by default with images enabled for the whole wide world to see.  Today, image-enabling by default is non-existent…and let’s not pretend that “safe sender list” status and authentication programmes have made but there merest dent into campaign open rates. 

We know that people who lovingly read text versions of messages or look at our email off-line will never make it into the “opened” segment.  We also know that people who have enabled images to be shown may not really be on the cusp of buying, but they did want to see a little more of what you sent them, and that could be a good or a bad thing…

The thing we have been poor at communicating is that the open rate tracking system is a technical process and not a customer engagement one.  Sit somebody down and explain how it all works and most people “get it”.  Pretend that an open rate is a critical success factor of email campaigns and we are doing our industry a disservice.

Improve your open rates – design your emails badly

Here’s a funny thing.  I have been aware recently of having to “open” a message in order to confirm that the message was NOT what I was interested in, and at least one time when I opened by accident!  Big brands who should know better (at least their agencies and brand teams should know better) have sent me emails with so little chance of being effective with images disabled that I had to do all that double-clicking lark just to prove that it was an irrelevant offer/message.  Yet on the other side of town there is some poor email marketer who has just noticed that David Hughes has opened their latest promotion and is probably a couple of clicks away from being a purchaser.

So shouldn’t we be helping these clients understand the rendering challenge and tell them that it may mean your open rate suffers, but that’s not a bad thing.  Here’s some advice from Campaign Monitor:

“From a designer’s perspective, an email is successful when it meets the following goals:

  • Retains visual integrity in the most commonly used email clients with images enabled.
  • Retains readability in the most commonly used email clients with images disabled.”

So, the concept of “graceful degradation” is still ignored by many email marketers.  Brands are often the worst offenders (“we need our logo as an image to take over the top of the email”), closely followed by publishers (change “logo” for “masthead”).  They’re getting a few people to “open” just to see whether the message is relevant.  So, bad design can help your open rate, but probably not your “engagement rate”.

So where can an open rate be vaguely useful?

It’s not all doom and gloom in the 1×1 gif/HTML sniffer/web beacon world.  Sometimes open rate scan be really useful:

  • Tracking if a segment of key individuals are still opening messages
  • Finding out who has opened an email for the first time in a re-activation programme
  • Anybody who has opened, but not clicked in a particular recency window (assuming I know the difference between “rendered” and “engaged”

 Maybe a few others – but it’s a depressingly short list.  So here are some scenarios where I couldn’t care tuppence about an open rate:

  • Anybody who has requested to receive text versions of messages
  • Anybody who has clicked on anything in a time period – I may be interested in channel engagement more than campaign engagement

 So there we have it.  In my opinion open rates are a blunt tool for measuring anything but the most basic email success.  There are a range of tests we could take an un-engaged segment of recipients through to improve open rates and that would include:

  • From field
  • Subject line
  • Preview Pane
  • Day and time of send
  • Long v short copy

I dare say that I could bump up the average open rate a bit along the way.  But, if a client asked me “how do I improve my open rate” I’d probably have to say:

Option 1.  Send an HTML only email to everybody and make sure they can’t understand it with images disabled.  That should do the trick.

Option 2.  Ask “how do I improve my email success rates” and we’ll have a chat about the limitations of tracking technology and the need to track “outcomes” by segment, not averages.

So there.

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