Tracking Opens in Email Marketing Campaigns

One of the metrics that every email marketing campaign management software makes available is the ability to track open rates. In theory this is a measure of how many people have opened, or read, your eblast from your email marketing campaign.

In practice, however, tracking email opens is an unfortunately vague science and is best used for tracking open trends within an email campaign. You cannot in fairness compare the open rate of one email campaign to another, and nor can you suggest what as typical open rate is for an eblast. Here’s why:

How Email Open Tracking Works

In order to attempt to track how many people have opened your email, your mass email campaign service inserts a tiny invisible graphic — just one pixel by one pixel. This is the key to email open tracking. Any time someone views that image (even though they can’t actually see it) the image must be downloaded from the web server, at which point the server can keep track of the number of downloads of that image (as well as collecting some other information on the person opening it).

Unfortunately this method leads us into two main problems: email programs displaying the image when no one is actually looking at the email, and the exact opposite: email programs refusing to download the image even when someone is reading the email.

  • False positive email opens: many email programs have some version of a “preview pane” turned on be default. When you click on an email — even if you’re only intent is to immediately delete the email — the email program shows you the email in the preview pane, or reading window. Once the email appears there, the image is downloaded and this counts as an open.
  • False negative email opens: alas, the false negatives are far more common. Today the vast majority of email programs, including Hotmail, Gmail, and Outlook, will not display images in an email by default. The user has to actively click on an option to display images, or change their default settings. As a result it’s entirely possible for someone to open your eblast, read the entire thing, but never have that eblast recorded as an open in your email campaign.

Email Open Trending

Despite the problems in measuring email opens, it’s still a valuable metric to keep track of. If you have a consistent, regular email campaign with a similar list and similar content, then the trending of the email opens is useful. Is it increasing? Is it decreasing? How sharply is it trending.

Unfortunately even if you have an email open rate of 60% for your eblast, you can’t compare that to someone else who has a 30% open rate with a different list. It’s possible one list has more people with preview panes, or companies that have images turned on by default. While it’s likely that the company with a 60% open rate is getting more email opens than the company with a 30% open rate — it’s not certain. In reality, the email campaign reporting 30% email opens could actually have more real people reading their emails.

Other Email Campaign Metrics

While email opens remains a good metric for tracking trending and measuring different tweaks to your email campaign (in particular changes to email subject lines, to attract people to look deeper) your best metric for success is still going to be link click-through.

Ultimately the most important measurement of your email campaign is your measurement of success rate — people actually following your call to action and clicking through for more information, or to make a purchase.

Other Email Marketing Posts:

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