Sunday, January 11, 2009

Are Email Open Rates Still Relevant?

I launched my first-ever email marketing campaign in 2004 (just call me a late bloomer - the industry I was working in wasn't an early adopter to say the least). At the time, the most common metrics, and the ones I used to measure the success of my email campaigns, were click-throughs and ... yes, it's true... open rates.

Today open rates are viewed by many of my esteemed colleagues as passe and irrelevant. Afterall, it's not practical to assume they are anywhere near accurate due to factors such as the "preview" option that many email clients allow and the option to open an email without downloading images. (For the uninitiated, an email "open" is recorded when a server requests the download of a hidden image.) Open rates, though, used to be all the rage. Well, really, they were pretty much the only metric marketers had in their arsenal at the time.

Another major issue with using an open rate as a key metric is that it does not show any sort of "engagement", and therefore many pros dismiss the idea that open rates can tell us anything about the success of a campaign, since engagement is really what we're after.

There may be hope for open rates, yet, however. Although they may not be the be-all and end-all of email marketing metrics, they are still good for something. In a guide on email open rates written by Mark Bronlow in August 2006, Bronlow suggests that although benchmarking is perhaps not very useful because of a lack of standardization in the way open rates are calculated, that open rates may still be used effectively for comparison of different email campaigns launched for the same product at the same time. For example, it may be used to determine the best subject line for an email if the subject line is the only variable between two otherwise indistinct email creatives. Falling open rates of a regular newsletter, are also a good metric to watch, as this can indicate reader fatigue, and suggests that you may need to refresh your content.

Bronlow also suggests that open rates may be examined by market segment, and that this can yield some useful information. For example, Bronlow's advice is to monitor the open rates of groups from different sign-up sources. If they are low from a particular group, then this should be investigated.

Taking this one step further, I suggest that open rates might be looked at in relation to the different segments of your list divided by seniority, industry, geography, etc. If any of these groups show a low or high open rate, it may be time to gear a piece specifically to serve this segment.

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