Is it Time to Retire the Open Rate?

Once upon a time, in a far away land, there lived a method of communication called email. Marketers liked email because it drove revenue, strengthened their customer relationships and provided branding opportunities. It was determined that the success of email should be measured using a few key metrics. And so marketers created the open rate (the number of opened emails divided by the number of sent emails).


The open rate was an indication of how many people "opened" or viewed an email message. In order to track this, an invisible image tag was embedded in the HTML email message. When the subscriber's email client used to display the marketer's email message requested that image, an "open" was recorded by the image's host server. And thus, the number of times a message was opened could be tracked. And marketers were very happy.


Alas, those were simpler times and the open rate is no longer the most popular metric on the block. In fact, some industry experts are on a quest to make the open rate all but extinct, as MediaPost's Loren McDonald suggests in his article, "Why the Open Rate Must Die."


Today, many email marketers know that open rates are, at best, a fuzzy indication of whether or not an email message was viewed, but not necessarily read; and at worst, an unreliable metric that is no longer useful for providing valuable information about subscriber engagement. With image suppression being the default setting for most email clients, the prevalence of the preview pane and many subscribers preferring to receive text only emails (where open rates can't be tracked), the open rate's ability to indicate program success is virtually obsolete.


Yet, many marketers still cling to it like a security blanket, sheltering their email programs from the harsh light of day. Why? For one thing, email marketers don't have a lot to work with when it comes to measuring the success of their programs: inbox delivery rates, click-through rates and conversions. Sure, there may be a few other metrics that matter, but at the end of the day many marketers are resistant to shortening the list even further, regardless of whether or not they're getting any real insight into their programs.


Here in Strategic Services, the topic of officially retiring the open rate as a meaningful metric is often debated. Our clients no longer give it the weight that they used to, but most still use it to track the performance of their programs. We'd like to "open" this topic up for debate and get your thoughts. Do you, smart marketer, still use open rates to track success? What qualifies as a "good" open rate? Which metrics are most important to you? If you could replace the open rate with a more reliable metric indicative of program success, which one would you choose?


Send me your feedback and we'll post your comments in a follow up blog on this topic. We look forward to hearing from you!