Is the open rate a useful e-mail metric?

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The gloves are off
The gloves are off

Direct marketers are always searching for ways to measure the success of campaigns, but open rates may not accurately measure e-mail ROI. Our experts differ on best alternatives.

Erik Gabrielson
E-marketing strategist, Premiere Global Services
Eight years in e-mail marketing

The main flaw with open rates is that they are under-reported. Opens are recorded when a small image renders in the e-mail. When images are blocked, opens can't be recorded.

The accuracy of open rates improves by including people who clicked on a message, but didn't record an open. For example, if you send a campaign to 100 people and record 30 opens and five clicks with no opens, your open rate is at least 35%.

Open rates can be used to measure the effectiveness of subject lines. Use random samples for A/B split tests, and the under-reporting affects the test groups equally.

The rates are also helpful for evaluat­ing engagement. Calculate a click-to-open rate to see how subject lines work along with creative.

You can also use open rates to mea­sure branding efforts. E-mail still has value when people don't click — calcu­lating opens indicates branding value.

Furthermore, you can use opens to segment your audience. For example, you should reconsider the message for­mat sent to people who click but don't open. Maybe they don't like graphics or use a handheld device? Also, those who consistently record opens might respond to messaging with more graphics.

The open rate is a tool you can use to maximize your core success metrics such as clicks and conversions. At the very least, it's a directional metric that can aid your optimization efforts.

Jordan Ayan
CEO and founder of SubscriberMail
Seven years' experience in e-mail marketing

We don't measure distance in fath­oms or weight in stones — and the open rate, a traditional measure of e-mail marketing success, will soon join these antiquated standards.

In reality, nearly half of all e-mail recipients have their e-mail clients set so that images do not display. It is the default standard on many Web-based e-mail clients, and is usually set by most corporate network administrators. With­out images on, the small pixel determin­ing whether a message has been opened will not display, and the message will not register as having opened.

Many marketers have become alarmed by what they perceive as fall­ing open rates. However, because the way open rates have been measured is no longer valid, marketers shouldn't make assumptions about the success or failure of an e-mail campaign by look­ing at this number.

As a stand-alone number, the open rate simply is not relevant. E-mail service providers only continue to provide it because it is a traditionally reported statistic.

The open rate may have some valid­ity when comparing test cells, or when trying to understand relative interest levels between messages. However, it only indicates the presence of some­thing — it does not provide anything in the way of details.

Perhaps the open rate should be given a new name, because calling it an “open rate” is simply a misnomer.

DMNews' Decision

While Ayan believes that the open rate is antiquated, Gabrielson is more optimistic, suggesting that it is merely flawed and still serves a purpose when combined with other measurements. As digital channels evolve, marketers will likely always be on a mission to refine their interpretations of data they are able to collect, and cannot dismiss methods out of hand.

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