Retiring the Open Rate: Your Thoughts

Posted by Margaret Farmakis on

A few weeks ago I wrote a posting titled, “Is It Time to Retire the Open Rate” and asked you to respond with your comments and feedback on this often debated and somewhat controversial topic. I included a few specific questions to get you inspired, such as whether or not you track open rates, what makes a “good” open rate and what metrics are most important to you. I received a number of interesting and insightful comments.

A handful of readers felt that the open rate continues to serve an important function in tracking program success. Trevor Hunter wrote that the open rate was the easiest metric to use when gauging the overall effectiveness of a list over time, while Karl Kleinbach still found the open rate useful for testing subject lines and commented that “accuracy is less important than relative performance,” especially in the context of A/B split testing results.

Speaking of accuracy, our own Neil Schwartzman, director of standards and security for Sender Score Certified, questioned whether or not the factors that can skew email open rates (e.g., the preview pane, email clients defaulting to “images off” for message viewing) are as prevalent as marketers suspect, stating: “It has long been a suggestion from us security types that preview panes (and any other form of automatic graphic rendering) be disabled to avoid downloading pernicious payloads. How much of an adoption incursion into the user base that notion has garnered is undetermined, but some email clients do come with such a facility disabled by default; that surely does have to have an impact on the measurement of open rates.”

Regardless of these external factors, Neil perhaps put it best when he called the open rate a “crude attempt at measuring success” and likened high open rates to “saying that competitors in the 100-yard dash in the Olympics are successful merely because they got out of the blocks.”

Eytan Abrahams of Source Media agreed that there is no such thing as a “good” open rate. He wrote: “It really all depends on your market, how good your emails are and, of course, the quality of your list.” He cited knowing what your subscriber/customer base wants and email segmentation as steps that will move marketers closer toward getting the desired response and performance results they want.

Wendy Croissant, email marketing manager at online retailer Sierra Trading Post, wrote that she primarily uses open rates to indicate whether or not a certain campaign will generate the revenue she needs, and that this is generally reflected by open rates of 15% or higher; however the most important metrics to her are click-through rates, conversion rates, dollar per email and unsubscribe rates.

Eytan Abrahams came closest to echoing what we as strategy experts say to our clients when asked whether or not open rates truly measure subscriber engagement: “It depends.” It can be frustrating, but there isn’t an easy, one-size-fits-all answer in marketing. The best advice that works for everyone: Learn as much as you can, then test like crazy. We all know that relevancy resonates, but what’s relevant depends entirely on the preferences of your subscribers. And while open rates may provide a small piece of that puzzle, they can never give the whole answer. Marketers need to track the metrics that matter most to them: measurements that are tied to their business goals for the channel and will provide them with the most detailed picture of what their subscribers really want.

Do you need help figuring out how to move the needle on the metrics that matter most to your program? Let me know, I’d love to help.


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