How important are email open rates?

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By: Neil Edwards on 20th July 2013, 6 minute read

As a business that uses email in its own marketing strategy as well as the strategies of its clients, we are very focused on the statistics that our campaigns generate.

Intense effort goes into every campaign that we create: the content, the design, the subject line and send time are all subject to scrutiny to get the three core metrics of opening rate, click through rate and conversion rate as high as possible.

But what results should we expect and is a low scoring campaign really a failure?

Conventional wisdom would say that if an email hasn't been opened or clicked then it hasn't engaged the recipient.

Our direct experience shows this not to be true.

Understanding the numbers

In the first place, great though they are, it is important to understand the limitations of email marketing statistics.

Email marketing systems rely on the images in a campaign being downloaded to trigger the email being recorded as 'opened'.  Outlook has images turned off as a default setting and if a recipient reads the email without downloading the images, or just absorbs it in the viewing pane, the system will record it as unopened.  About 65% of emails are read in Outlook so the impact this can have on suppressing the apparent results is significant.

On the other side of the coin, mobile and tablet browsers have the images turned on by default and an email that is only selected with the intention of deleting it is likely to be recorded as 'opened'.

So where does that leave us?  Surely it must mean that a click through to the website is the only true indicator of a campaign's effectiveness?

Apparently not.

The main problem with open rates and click through rates is that they focus on the performance of a single campaign, but we know that B2B email marketing is a marathon not a sprint - relationships are built and exist over time. This means our prospects won't see a single campaign, they we will see a series of communications - and it is the engagement with the series that is important.

The engagement journey

We know that engagement happens in sequence:

  1. Awareness - opening an email to explore the brand offer and the message
  2. Attention - clicking at least one email within a period of time.  The message was timely and relevant and increased the understanding of the offer
  3. Action - completing an action on the website (downloading/registering/making contact) to volunteer an interest in finding out more.

The journey could be completed in one email, but it is more likely to happen over an extended period of time and possibly as an indirect response to the email itself.

Open reach vs. open rate

A recent research study introduces the concept of open reach - namely the number of opens and interactions over time.

Fundamentally, open reach says that the achievement of opens or clicks by new people is more important than repeated opens and clicks by the same people.

If our goal is to maximise the open rate, we would only send emails to clients and prospects with the greatest propensity to open them.  This would leave those who are less likely to take action, prospects who are further back in the buying cycle or clients with untapped potential, left on the sideline.

Take, for example, an accountancy practice. Most clients and prospects aren't going to be interested in accounting or finance related issues every week, or even every month.  That doesn't necessarily mean they are disengaged with the firm sending the emails, it just means they don't have a curiosity about the chosen subject of the email at that particular point in time.  A single campaign's click rate, or even an average click rate for a series of campaigns, won't tell us how our audience is increasing as a whole.  A new open or click means one more person is on the journey from brand awareness to understanding.

The hidden power of email

Evidence from a number of campaigns in the study shows that open reach is strongly correlated with deeper engagement and conversion.

The fact that email can stimulate another form of engagement activity is generally accepted.  We have seen this ourselves in client campaigns where disappointing open rates and click through rates have led to the efficacy of email marketing being called into question and ultimately suspended.

On several occasions, these clients have experienced a drop in the number of enquiries and website downloads - even though the email campaigns didn't seem to be contributing to the volumes in the first place.  This is clearly the hidden power of email in action - people choosing to visit the website outside of the email, perhaps at a later point, or sharing the content with contacts in their network.

There is an evident correlation between increased open reach and the amount of unattributed value.  In other words, an integrated marketing programme that includes email marketing is likely to generate significantly higher revenue than a programme that does not use email.

How to increase the number of engaged customers

However engagement is measured, the quest remains to increase the number of prospects that are attracted to the brand.  The identified steps are to:

  • increase the size of the database
  • increase the frequency of distribution
  • make sure the content is relevant and easy to read (i.e. short and focused on a single issue)
  • incorporate several opportunities within the email to click through to the website
  • include a good ratio of text to images so that people can still read your content even if they don't download the images (you've then achieved your objective, even if you don't know about it)
  • use targeted trigger emails to send the next contact in the sequence.

If you have read this blog in response to one of our email campaigns, you have contributed to our click reach statistics. Thank you.  How can we help?!

Based on, and with content extracts from, 'Email engagement - often talked about, never defined' - a discussion paper by Tim Watson and Dela Quist.

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Neil Edwards


Neil Edwards

Neil is a Chartered Marketer and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing with many years' experience in marketing, brand and communications.

CEO / The Marketing Eye

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