Why your email open rates might be lying to you

Since the beginning of email marketing, you have been told to keep a keen eye on your email open rates. That it’s the indicator of whether your audience likes your content and is on the path to conversion.

Well, as many things have happened since then, the question comes up naturally:

How reliable are those open rate figures at all today?
And should you trust your email open rates?

First, let’s look at how email open rates are calculated.

Email open rate is the percentage of total recipients who opened your email. It’s calculated based on the “opened” signal the recipient’s email server sends back to your email marketing provider’s server. You can learn more about it here.

Now, let’s see a few examples of what can trigger this signal.

Your subscriber

This signal can be triggered by your reader. They received your email in their inbox. They know and trust you and are eager to read your messages. They actively click on the email subject line and open it to read it.

Email previews

Some email clients preload a preview of the email, enabling the user to access it immediately upon opening. This feature lets them manage their messages while offline, or they can glance at a preview to determine its worth before taking the time to read it in its entirety. But this also means that this preloaded preview interferes with email open tracking.

Email clients with privacy and protection settings

Your subscribers can make a conscious decision to block any attempts of real-time data tracking by turning on privacy settings that are available nowadays on many email clients.

For example, when toggled on, MPP prevents email senders from seeing a user’s tracking details, including:

  • IP address
  • Email opens and forwards
  • Time stamps (including those for open times)
  • Geolocation
  • Device type
  • Browser or platform [Source]

Email forwards

When you send an email to your subscribers, your email marketing provider adds a unique tracking pixel to every email that is tied to your subscribers. If a subscriber forwards the email to their friends and they open the email, the original recipient’s tracking pixel is loaded each time. And the email open will be picked up in your email analytics under the original subscriber.

In light of this, reported (and reportable) open rates today are often higher than in reality.

What now? Where do we go from here?

Here are the key takeaways

1) Even if anti-virus apps, email privacy settings, email forwards etc. skew your open rates making these figures less reliable, the good news is that your email made it to your reader’s inbox. 

It got delivered. That’s the first step to getting in front of your subscribers.

2) Consequently, if you see low open rates (in general, compared to industry averages or on a particular email, compared to the rest of your emails), it can mean that email was caught by spam filters and may have been blocked. Or that Gmail has clipped it.

You’ll want to carefully investigate those emails—both their content and design.

3) Instead of open rates (unless they’re alarmingly low, see the previous point), focus on click rates and conversion rates.

Link click tracking uses different technology, giving you valuable insights on what content and content types make your readers click and take the next step in your marketing funnel.

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