Email Round Table Discussion: Is it time to shift our focus from email open rates


Jenna Tiffany I’m excited to hear everyone’s thoughts on this week’s discussion topic: Is it time to shift our focus from email open rates? 

Interested to hear everyone’s experience and the challenge in moving away from relying heavily on email open rates when defining email marketing success. 

If you missed my blog post, it’s available here

What other metrics do you currently use to measure email performance and do you currently rely heavily on email open rates? 

Over to you all to share your experience, insight and experience.

Mark TalleyI’ve been focused on email for the last ten years  - to be honest neither myself nor my teams have used open rate as a success metric (certainly not a singular success metric). We either use unique CTOR (click-to-open rate) or a conversion metric.

We may use unique open rate, unique click rate and unsubscribe as overall channel benchmarks but not a success metric.

Jenna Tiffany: Thanks for your input Mark, great to hear that and the metrics you do focus on. 

From my experience working with a variety of clients is the over reliance on focusing on measuring open rate as success, especially when targets and goals are set outside of the email team.

What’s everyone else’s experience? 

Brian.Gruidl: I wish I could remember who to attribute this to, but at EIS this year, someone was talking about how open and click rates are health metrics, meant for discussion and monitoring within the email team.  We all know that we can adjust these metrics by changing how we select audiences. 

In a previous role, my CMO asked me what my open rate would be during the holiday season.  I replied by asking him what he wanted it to be.  He got it and laughed. 

I don’t believe there is a singular metric to look at, as each metric tells a different story.  Open rates don’t tell enough of the story in my opinion.  Even if the customer doesn’t open the email, there’s a halo effect from seeing the brand or subject line when scrolling through an inbox…I believe Dela related the inbox to a twitter feed in a presentation he gave circa 2009 or so. 

Loren McDonaldOpen rates will never go away. They are a bit like checking how many points your favorite sports team scored ... somewhat meaningless without the context of whether your team won the game or not.

That said, publishers will always use the open rate as a valuable metric ...everyone else, less so.

Also, from April 24, 2008: Why the Open Rate Must Die

Kath Pay: In general, yes - however, as oren says, it all depends upon what your objective is for the campaign. For publishers who sell adspace based on open rates, it's a valuable metric and for others such as a Football Club who simply send content to keep their members engaged and loyal - it can be a valuable metric.

For many others - it's simply a top of funnel metric which can actually be manipulated quite easily e.g, stop sending to your inactives and you'll see the open rate increase.

Many of us (Dela, Tim Watson, Skip, Loren and myself plus many others) have been talking and writing about this for over 10 years, and how we as email marketers need to start including more subscriber-based metrics in addition to the campaign-based metrics. A few of us even authored a whitepaper on this:

In many/most of my blogs and presentations (including this year's Keynote at EIS) I talk about ensuring that your success metric maps back to your objective - this is the key factor that many of us miss out....and because of this wrong focus, so many campaigns are optimised for the wrong metric. Just because they opened doesn't mean they will click and buy., and to be optimising for this top of funnel metric, when your objective is downloads/event registrations/a sale etc can be quite harmful to your revenue.

If you test campaigns, then go and add your conversions to these tests if you haven't already. Then review and see of the same campaign which won on opens would have also won on conversions. there's a very high probability that it didn't. If your objective is conversions, you've then optimized for the wrong result.. I've proven this through hundreds of tests. In fact Mailchimp proved it as well,  as did Tim Watson

Or if you aren't currently testing, try doing this. For say, a 6 month period, pull out the top 10 campaigns based on opens, then do the same for the top 10 campaigns based on clicks and finally do the same for the top 10 campaigns based on conversions (whatever your definition is). You will very clearly see that they are not the same 10 campaigns. This is a good exercise that I do with my clients to show the C-Suite that open rates aren't the bees knees that they think they are.

Tim Watson: That’s fun Kath, the litmus test of check, look at your top ten campaigns by open, click and conversion and see how well they don’t overlap. So true. So shocking.

The brands that come to me for help are typically looking at revenue or some other solid business success metric. So unlike Jenna I don’t find so many people relying on open rate as the measure of success.

What I do find is that the request for better business success is translated to “we need higher open rates – we think we can do better revenue, how do we increase open rates?”. Rather than, how do we increase click rate, post click conversion or revenue?

I’d be happy to have all my client campaigns hitting 100% open rate. High open rates aren’t bad by definition. What’s bad is aiming to improve business success by over focus on open rate.

Perhaps I should go further. Many of the ways of increasing open rates actually reduces business success.

As has been mentioned, open rate and open rate trends warrant a quick look for signs of deliverability concern and possible performance issue. That’s about it.

Dela Quist: As some of my fellow influencers have hinted at, this is a topic I have spoken and written about a lot over the years.

Is it time to shift our focus from email open rates?

The simple answer I would give would be yes, for the simple reason too many people confuse open rates with engagement - high open rates do not necessarily mean high engagement. Even worse there is a tendency to forget that open rates are a campaign metric which means they tell you nothing about your subscribers.  

I addressed these 2 issues in great detail in a white paper for the Journal of Digital & Social entitled

Beyond open rate: Why it is time for e-mail marketers to think reach, frequency, impact” which you can download here for free and in an essay “Deliverability, Engagement, and the Theory of Email Marketing” I wrote for the Only Influencers blog. 

That does not mean you can/should not use Open rates at all.

However if you do want to use them, you should not set a flat benchmark for all your campaigns, if you do you are likely to end up with fewer total opens and that is a bad thing.

This is because the two things that drive total opens - segment size and send frequency have a depressing effect on open rates.

Unless you take those factors into account the desire to improve open rates will lead you to the conclusion that to drive engagement you have to send email less frequently to smaller segments, so I have come up with 2 new open rate benchmarks that take into account send frequency and segment size utilizing data within Touchstone. It shows open rates for a send frequency of one a week to be 33% higher than for daily emails. The data also shows open rates for segment sizes of less than 1% of the total list achieve open rates 60% higher than emails sent to the entire list. However in both cases the lower open rate will generate significantly more opens. So, if you do want to utilize open rates to benchmark your campaigns you have to take this into account, a point I make in the advice I gave here in this article on LinkedIn which you can also find here. I would definitely read this the next time your stakeholders ask you to send more email, or you pat yourself on the back for your high abandoned cart open rates. 

Jenna Tiffany: A huge thank you to everyone who provided their thoughts and experience on this week’s topic. The overall consensus is that open rates can have a place but can be dangerous when using OR to measure subscriber engagement. There are more valuable metrics in measuring email performance such as customer lifetime value and conversion rates.