Q&A: Geoff Linton, VP and cofounder, Inbox Marketer

Geoff Linton is VP and co-founder of digital marketing firm Inbox Marketer, which helps brands use email, mobile, social media and the Web to build engaged online communities of customers and prospects. Its clients include AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark and Publix. A direct marketing expert with more than 20 years in both client and agency roles, Linton’s experience spans sectors including financial services, telecommunications, consumer packaged goods, technology and manufacturing.

Direct Marketing News (DMN): Open rates, specifically their decline, continue to be a concern for email marketers. But I understand you have uncovered some interesting data in regard to click-thru.

Linton (Inbox Marketer): We looked at a cross section of our clients, and one of the things that was pretty consistent for a number of these clients was that beginning in 2009, there was a marked decrease in open rates. The trend has continued slightly downward since 2009. Some email services providers say the numbers are up, some say they’re down. We decided to go back and do a trend line over the last four years using aggregated client data across North America, actual data, not self-reported data by marketers. What we wanted to determine was are open rates, or read rates, really declining? Are people really reading less email? The answer is no; we just think they’re reading email differently.

DMN: What led you to this determination?

Linton: One of the biggest reasons for the drop in open rates, we believe, is really due to image blocking within email clients. So we went and did a more in-depth analysis of our clients, and found a fairly high percentage of Web-based email, whether Hotmail or Gmail or Yahoo. Some clients have over 50% of their email base in Web-based formats. We found images are set to default “images off,” therefore those open rates wouldn’t be recorded. The more image blocking, the more opens are not getting recognized.

DMN: What are some of the other factors email marketers should examine that may be negatively impacting their open rates?

Linton: There are overall tougher deliverability rules. Marketers have to carefully moniitor which messages are going into the junk folder, and if they aren’t diligent in watching those numbers, then those messages will never get opened by a recipient and subsequently, open rates will decline. Another industry-wide factor is, some major security breaches have been highly publicized and as result we believe some consumers have abandoned their email addresses and switched to other email addresses. Emails are still geting delivered to old inboxes, but the messages are not opened, and it’s just another factor pushing down open rates.

DMN: You also made some discoveries in regard to mobile.

Linton: The final factor, and the one we believe is the biggest, is that consumers are reading emails on mobile devices, where open rates aren’t recorded, and we’re seeing a healthy click rate on mobile. If you’re getting a good proportion of clicks on mobile, actually more email messages are being read on mobile. Subscribers increasingly are reading informational emails on mobile. We actually have a client we’ve been measuring, and with their information alerts we’ll get certain proportion of clicks. A recipient will go two pages deep on their website for an alert. But on mobile, they’re going four pages deep. There really is an appetite among certain subscribers to read and interact with email on their mobile devices. According to comScore, 32% of U.S. cell phone users are on smartphones, and that number will just go up and up.

DMN: You have said that open rates play a small part in measuring overall engagement. Why, then, do open rates continue to dominate the email marketing conversation?

Linton: Open rates are a rough indicator of success. So many factors go into measuring email, which is a retention but also a response medium, and therefore the click-thru rate is the primary metric marketers should track. I don’t like to use the word imprecise, but there are so many factors that go into open rates, it’s hard to use it as a proxy for the actual number of people who read the message. We also have seen in the industry a number of different email service providers measure open rates differently. Open rates should be measured on unique opens, not total opens.

DMN: Where is the industry at in regard to standardization of that?

Linton: The Email Experience Council and certainly a number of leaders there have embraced the idea of unique opens.

DMN: A final word of advice for email marketers?

Linton: Beware of which metrics and benchmarks you quote, and be careful you know what the sources are. Click-thru as percentage of open is relatively stable, therefore it’s not the click-thru that’s the issue.

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