Email open rates

Reading time: 3 minutes

“I know I have to earn your opens, and the best way to do that is by consistently providing new information with appropriate nuance.”


“A look at all the implications of Apple’s decision to stop recording accurate open rates for emails. Bottom line: if you think the open rate isn’t an important metric, then you’re in denial.”


My first use of email tracking was more manual than the solutions available today.

The software ‘back then’ was Excel. Coupled with the concatenation formula in Excel with an email program, I was able to track who opened the email (normally some derivation of: “We’re coming to Boston; Let’s meet”). A critical understanding of who my boss was going to meet on a business trip.

Back then, email open rates meant something.

Today, they don’t.

With current and coming changes to tracking communications, we need to start thinking about new measurements to better understand engagement.

Of the two quotes above, will all due respect to Simon Owens, the former is how we need to be thinking about open rates.

See, open rates don’t really tell us anything.

By the way, I’m a marketing and technology professional.  While I understand and accept the need for change, I don’t necessarily want to see the way we measure engagement overhauled. Sure, when it comes to privacy and consistency, let’s figure out what would work better for senders and receivers.

Some background on email marketing and engagement rates…

First, why is email such an important marketing and engagement tactic? It’s in the numbers, emphasis mine:

“Email marketing’s return on investment is 38:1 on average, according to a Litmus survey of 372 marketers worldwide.” source

In other words, email marketing works.

So what’s the big deal then with tracking? It starts with how we track engagement (opens, clicks, unsubs, etc.) in an email campaign.

This is where the impact of some of those new privacy measures, along with current impacts, come into play.

Before digging into these pieces, here’s the TLDR; Tracking emails is inconsistent. When reporting, there are a bunch of difference caveats that need to be included in the report. For example:

  • The open rates are a minimum
  • In the business world, engagement rates don’t tell us anything due to the heavy use of Microsoft Outlook in the workplace (that “download images?” notification)
  • The Promotions tab in Gmail or, rather, how Google defines a good email

So how are we supposed to depend on open rates as a measure of success? We’re not.

This is all due to how tracking works today.

And how it will work tomorrow (or, in a few months).

How does email tracking work, anyway?

The sender (Acme) starts by drafting some version of the following outline:

  • Audience: Who the email is targeting
  • Message: What the email says and how it says it
  • Outcome: Why this email campaign is being created

Once the outline is complete, it’s likely sent over to a designer who then builds the email (“I am a very cool email! 🙂”).

The email is then queued up in the email service provider system for delivery.

The email service provider (Acme!) adds a 1×1 transparent pixel (an image) to the email, then sends the email to the audience.

The audience either opens the email (Open!) or doesn’t open the email. For those folks who opened the email, that 1×1 pixel sends a unique code back to the email service provider: “I’ve been opened!”.

Those stats are then sent back to the email service provider every time a member of the audience, or others, opens the email.

(This gets into an entirely different discussion on unique opens, time of day, etc.)

The sender of the email then gets to report back to their peers a 50% open rate.

(By the way, a 50% open rate is great. Mailchimp, in 2019, listed Government as the industry with the highest open rate at 28.77%.)

So what’s the issue with all that?

Back to the Outcome part of the outline above. Outside of brand, visibility and awareness campaigns, what are we measuring with open rates?

That the email was opened by the individual we sent it to? Poor assumption: The recipient may have forwarded the email to one of her peers.

That the email content (back to Message, above) was relevant? That’s impossible. The recipient doesn’t know what the content is unless they open the email.

That the subject line and pre-text was worth opening? For sure, which of course leads to spammy click bait-based subject lines.

So what do open rates tell us?

Back to that quote at the open of this article:

“I know I have to earn your opens, and the best way to do that is by consistently providing new information with appropriate nuance.”

Open rates tell us that the recipient trusts the sender.

So, what do we do?

Well, we build trust with our audience(s).

And while the occasional shock-and-awe subject line may seem like a good way to goose open rates, it’s more likely to damage the trust you have built with your audience.

The problem with this trust-building approach is that it doesn’t create an instant engagement in the numbers.

So, what do we do?

We focus on building a long-term relationship with your audience by:

  • Responding to their requests
  • Asking what they want
  • Delivering on your brand (build trust!)

Instead of depending on catchy subject lines, have confidence that you’ve built (and continue to build) a strong brand, leading to your audience trusting that your content will meet their expectations.

Every single time.

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