Email’s No. 1 Misunderstood Metric

So you’re sitting around a conference table discussing your company’s email marketing and someone starts talking about the program’s open rate. To the uninitiated, common sense says “open rate” refers to the average percentage of emails that get opened. … But that’s not what it means all.

So you’re sitting around a conference table discussing your company’s email marketing and someone starts talking about the program’s open rate. To the uninitiated, common sense says “open rate” refers to the average percentage of emails that get opened.

But that’s not what it means all.

An “open” is recorded when the receiving machine calls for graphics from the sender.

With most email inbox providers blocking images by default these days, a lot of email is getting opened and not registering as such.

At the same time, email landing in boxes using so-called preview panes—those small windows that allow users a glimpse into their email’s content—will register as having been opened whether the receiver read it or not.

So the open rate is useless, right?

Well, not really. While the open rate has been widely criticized—including, at some points, by me—it can be useful as long as it’s used correctly.

While it can’t be measured with even close to 100 percent accuracy, the open rate can serve as a barometric measure.

For example, it can indicate how engaged recipients are with a marketer’s brand. A high open rate means people are making the effort to turn on the graphics in the company’s messages, indicating they’re highly engaged.

Not surprisingly, though, open rates can be misleading. A newsletter I once edited, Magilla Marketing, had a low open rate, but at least one advertiser determined I had a highly engaged readership based on its ad activity.

The issue? Our designers had designed the newsletter so well it was highly readable without the graphics turned on.

In any case, what’s an average open rate? According to email service provider Epsilon, the average open rate across all the industries it tracks for the first quarter of 2011 was 23.3 percent.

However, open rates in the report varied widely from industry to industry, from a low of 14.1 percent for retail apparel to a high of 37.4 percent for financial services.

And like response rates in direct mail, open rates will vary widely from marketer to marketer even within the same industries based on many variables, such as how the list was built, how much email the firm sends, the types of messages it sends and the types of offers.

Nonetheless industry benchmarks can serve to manage expectations.

Where an email program’s open rate can really be useful, though, is when it changes.

If it’s going up, it means the sender is doing something right and recipients are getting more engaged with the brand.

If it’s plummeting, it means the marketer has probably begun doing something wrong. For example, maybe the marketer just added purchased names to the file-a big no-no-and email inbox providers have begun treating the marketer’s messages as spam.

Also, if opens begin plummeting in addresses managed by a specific ISP, say, Gmail, it means something has happened on Gmail’s end that needs to be investigated.

The open rate can be quite useful. But it needs to be understood, first.

Four Email Marketers, My Gmail Account, and Why They Matter to You

Let me tell you the story of four marketers’ emails and their placement in my Gmail account. Trust me. Their story matters to you. I gave none of the four marketers permission to send me email. Yet, two are making it into my inbox. Two are being shunted off into my spam folder.

Let me tell you the story of four marketers’ emails and their placement in my Gmail account. Trust me. Their story matters to you.

I gave none of the four marketers permission to send me email. Yet, two are making it into my inbox. Two are being shunted off into my spam folder.

The four merchants are Walmart’s PictureMe Portrait Studios, Kmart, Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens Products.

The two marketers getting shunted off to my spam folder are PictureMe Portrait Studios and Kmart.

PictureMe Portrait Studios began sending me email after I had a mug shot taken for my website at MagillReport.com.

Somehow, Gmail recognized PictureMe Portrait Studios’ messages immediately as spam. I can only guess, but PictureMe Portrait Studios’ emails were probably being delivered to people’s spam folders long before they started spamming me.

Regular offers on having portraits taken sent without permission is probably prompting people to hit the spam button. How often does the average person want their portrait taken, after all?

Kmart started sending me email after I gave my address during a big-dollar purchase to Sears, its sister company under the Sears Holdings Corp. umbrella

Astoundingly, while Kmart’s email is being delivered into my spam folder, Sears’s email is being delivered to my inbox.

Why is that astounding? Because I gave permission to one of Sears Holdings’ brands and not the other to send email. Gmail has apparently somehow discerned this and is treating their email accordingly and they are the same company.

Meanwhile, Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens are getting delivered into my inbox. Weber-Stephens began sending me email after I bought a grill refurbishing kit from its online store. Cigar Auctioneer began sending me email after I did business with its parent, Famous Smoke Shop.

Neither had permission to send me email. Yet both their messages are marked as priority emails in my inbox.

Why? Because I open every single message I get from them. Weber-Stephens sends a recipe-of-the-week email every Friday. I look forward to them. I open them and I cook about half the recipes in them.

And because of Cigar Auctioneer, I haven’t paid retail prices for my hand-rolled smokes in months. I don’t always get my favorite brands, but boy do I save money.

And here is why my inbox experience matters to you: Email inbox providers are reportedly increasingly eying how individuals interact with their email to determine whether or not it’s spam. As a result, email is increasingly becoming more about engagement.

Translation: You can get a little fast and loose with your permission practices with customers as long as you send email they want and interact with.

Conversely, you can exercise the gold standard in permission practices-fully confirmed opt in where people must respond to a confirmation message in order to be added to your file-but if you send a bunch of unwanted crap, your messages will be treated as such.

Email inbox providers’ spam filters are designed to deliver email people want and filter out email people don’t want.

Send messages people want and you’ll be fine. It’s really that simple. Or not, depending upon what it is you’re selling.

Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens have fairly obvious advantages over other marketers. Their messages invoke thoughts of highly self-indulgent experiences. As a result, they stand a better chance of being welcomed than email from marketers whose products and services don’t invoke similar pleasurable thoughts.

So Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens can afford to be a little loosey goosey with their permission practices while Kmart and PictureMe Portrait Studios apparently cannot.

The lesson: Make an honest assessment of your product or service and what it represents to customers and prospects. Then make an honest assessment of the email program you’ve set up around it.

Can you honestly say people are likely to want your messages? If not, go back at it. Something needs to be changed.