Email marketing metrics 101: Open rate

During one of our recent webinars, more than a few people expressed surprise about how open rates are calculated, so it’s a good time to walk through the discussion of how email marketing metrics work. Today, we’re going to start with the open rate.

When an email is sent to a subscriber, it typically includes a 1×1 pixel image (usually white or clear) that is tracked by your email service provider. When images load in the email on the subscriber’s computer or device, it’s considered an opened email. This, for example, is opened:

This email is considered opened.

This is considered not opened:

This email is considered not opened because images aren't turned on.

They’re exactly the same, but the latter email does not have images turned on. Even though we’re reading it right now, even if we read every line of text and scroll all the way to the bottom, until images are turned on, it’s not considered opened and will not be reported here:

Find out your email open rates in the campaign details section.

What percentage of subscribers to your newsletters are reading them without images turned on? There’s no way of knowing simply by looking at the metrics. In order to make this determination accurately, you’d need to survey your subscribers and ask them.

The good news is that there isn’t any email service provider that functions differently. No one has figured out how to track opens more accurately than with an image load, so if you’re switching from one email service provider to another, how they track opens should be the same as your previous vendor. That in turn means you can still do apples-to-apples comparisons of your list’s open rates.

This also means that if you force an email service provider’s software to send pure text only emails, there’s no image sent along with it, and it will always show an open rate of zero.

The logical followup question is, can you improve your open rate reporting? The answer is yes. In order to get more accurate open rates, you have to give people a reason to turn images on. In our newsletters, we make use of the alt tag for images to tell people to turn images on. Here’s an example:

Alt tags display when the images in front of them don't.

Depending on how much your subscribers trust you, you can also encourage them to whitelist you and allow images to be turned on all the time. Remind them in the text of the email to do so. Here’s what the image whitelist option looks like in GMail; other email clients will have similar options:

An example of white listing in Gmail.

If you want to get creative, you can always use creative images that encourage people to turn on images for the sake of seeing them. If you’ve got a photographer on staff or you’re willing/able to use Creative Commons licensed photos, adding photography to your newsletters is another way to get people to turn images on.

As another example, in my weekly personal newsletter, I recycle popular Internet memes as unsubscribe buttons. I’ve gotten feedback from subscribers that they turn images on each week just to see what the button looks like that week. Here are a few recent examples:

I don't always unsubscribe from newsletters but when I do I click here - I Dont Always | Meme Generator

Unsubscribe from this newsletter? Why would you ever want to do that?

Why you want to unsubscribe?

Obviously, if you want to use this concept, make it fit your professional theme and brand. While fun, these images would be out of place in our corporate newsletter.

In our subsequent posts in this series, we’ll look at click through rate, action rate, and other common email metrics so that you better understand the numbers you see every time you push the Send button. Stay tuned!

Christopher S. Penn
Director of Inbound Marketing, WhatCounts

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