Lies, Damn Lies and Open Rates – Part 1

Open RatesEvery major marketing channel has statistics that used to judge (rightly or wrongly) the success of a particular campaign. In some cases, like more traditional marketing channels such as television, print or radio, measuring the success of a campaign can be a real guessing game. Unless you have an immediate call to action, such as a number to contact, coupon or the like, the overall effectiveness of those types of campaigns can be hard to determine.

The rise of online marketing has led to much more granular analysis of campaigns since the technology allows itself to be easily tracked and quantified. This is especially true when it comes to email marketing. However, all of the data that can be obtained from email campaigns doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valuable or even accurate. Nowhere is this more the case that with the old saw horse of the email marketer – the open rate.

Let’s take a quick step back and see how open rates came to be so popular and how they are determined today. Email marketing, essentially, is electronic direct marketing. In both cases, the marketer is sending a message directly to a consumer that may or may not be personalized. There is, of course, much more to it but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s keep it at that. So, this means that in both cases, the ultimate goal is to gauge the overall effectiveness of the campaign by determining how many people actually saw the message and then their subsequent actions with it.

With direct mail, it’s all about the response rate because it’s not possible for a marketer to know exactly how many people actually opened their campaign. Email, on the other hand, can do this and more because again the technology is embedded directly within the medium itself.

Yet, for such a seemingly advanced feature, how it actually works is fairly primitive. A small 1 pixel by 1 pixel image is embedded into the email campaign. Each time the image is ”hit” (meaning the message is being accessed), it records that as an open. That’s really all there is to it and almost every major email marketing service/application uses this as the method to collect open rates.

As you might guess, this system has some serious flaws with it that weakens the case for using open rates as your main performance benchmark. For starters, there are the people who receive the campaign as plain text. With these subscribers, there is no open because there is no image associated with the message. The same is true with subscribers who have their images turned off (either by choice or by default, like Outlook 2007 and AOL do)

We can thank the huge influx of image-based spam for this roadblock. Finally, if your subscribers use a preview window/panel ala Outlook, then every time they scroll past the message in their inbox, it will record another open. This helps explains why sometimes you’ll see particular addresses with 20, 30 even 40+ opens. No, they aren’t that bored or interested in your content, this is just the preview window wreaking havoc on your open rate stats.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there are also various ways that open rates and unique opens are calculated. Some companies use the formula of total emails sent divided by the total number of opens. This can lead to some flawed data because it does not take into account bounced addresses or those that never reached their intended recipients. Also, the total number of opens is wrong too because, as noted above, an open can be triggered even when the subscriber isn’t really reading the message.

At mobileStorm, we believe the most accurate way to record the open rate is the total number of successful deliveries divided by the unique opens. While this still is far from ideal, at the very least it gives you a bit more specificity in terms of trying to figure exactly how many people really opened your email.

Nevertheless, the crucial point that open rates do not tell you is how many people read your campaigns. As illustrated, opens can be counted even without the person never reading a word of your campaign. Is that really then what you want to consider as a successful subscriber capture?

As you can now clearly see, open rates are hardly the end-all be-all solution for measuring your email campaign effectiveness. Click throughs (the number of people who clicked on selected links in your campaign), conversion rates (tracking how many subscribers actually converted into a sale) and other strategies are much better sources for obtaining your true success/fail rates of email campaigns.

We’ll talk about these and more in detail in Part 2 of this series. For now, feel free to share your thoughts about open rates. Do you use them as your main yardstick? Why or why not?

Steve Chipman
COO
mobileStorm

 

3 Responses

  1. Noel says:

    This is a great article, opens are not the only indicator of a successful email campaign.

  2. Shawn Tuttle says:

    Forget open rates, its all about conversions these days. I don't give a damn about who opens my email, I care about who clicks on a link and purchases a product from me. Good article Steve.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I've seen open rates that say a subscriber has opened the email 75 times and wondered if they were really that bored. Now I know why… I bet that's what companies see when I open their email in Outlook through my preview screen!
    Thanks for the info!

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