Amlot notes

Your email open rates are wrong

Email marketing is a core part of the Amlot business. We enjoy designing, planning, writing and executing complex automated campaigns for our clients. 

An email list is the only online list you’ll ever really own. Forget your Facebook “fans” and your Twitter “followers” – with them, you’re always at the whim of the social media giants.

If you want to build an ongoing, personal relationship with an audience that is interested in what you do, get their email address, nurture them, inform them, and respect them. 

Now, having said that, there’s a gorilla in the room that needs to be addressed: open rates. 

For too long, email marketing companies (you know who you are) have sold services to their users based on metrics that are illogical and bad for your business. In this Amlot Note, we’ll explore why. 

This is a longer note than usual, but there’s a lot to discuss. We’re going to talk about: 

  1. Why email marketing companies sell you bad open rates. 
  2. Why your open rate is actually better than you think. 
  3. Why a smaller email list is a better email list.
  4. How Apple, Hey, and Covid-19 broke the open rate. 
  5. Open rates are dead. Engagement is your only goal. 

Let’s get started. 

1. Why email marketing companies sell you bad open rates

Off the top of your head: what’s a good open rate? 20%, 30%? These seem to be the figures we hear again and again. Why not 70% or 80%? 

Email companies frame their figures as “benchmarks”, and some of them are refreshingly open about how their customers are doing. But, and this is a massive “but”, they have no incentive to help you increase your open rate.

If you think about it, you’re probably paying per email sent or the size of your audience. You’re not paying per email opened. So the email companies are happy to keep telling you that 20%–30% is “normal” because they’re billing you for 100% of your addresses. 

Let’s just think about this for a second. Email marketing companies bill you for the emails that are sent but not opened, and they tell you this is normal. 

This is why you find a lot of information about how to segment your lists, how to personalise your messages, but very little about how to reduce the size of your list. 

We spoke to a client recently about deleting the 50% of their users who never open their emails. This would logically lead to a much higher open rate. She asked whether this wouldn’t artificially increase the open rate. No! Sending emails to people who literally never open them is artificially decreasing your open rate. Not the other way around. 

MailChimp reports their average open rate across all industries as 21.33%. Wow. They’re billing you to send messages to 78% of your users who aren’t opening your emails. That’s quite a business model. 

Warning: There are a couple of caveats here, which we’ll look at below. 


2. Why your open rate is actually better than you think

If you send 12 campaigns in a year, you might have an average open rate per campaign of 25%. But that’s not the number you should be looking at. The simple reality is this: It’s not the same 25% each time.

In our experience, if you look at the number of people who open any campaign in the last 3, 4 or 5 months, you’ll find a much higher number, sometimes up to twice as large. 

The question you need to ask yourself is this: How many people on my list have read any of my recent messages? 


3. Why a smaller email list is a better email list

Remember when the GDPR was introduced and we all received those “We want to stay in touch” emails? Most of them were pointless and unnecessary (either they had permission and didn’t need to ask, or they didn’t have permission and shouldn’t have been contacting you), but in general, they led to smaller email lists. 

What bliss. The EU did what all good email marketers should have been doing: cleaning up your lists and reaffirming recipients’ permission. 

Why would you want to send emails to people who don’t read them? There’s so much mythology around having a big list and a small open rate, and it’s all a big lie. We’ve been conditioned to accept this as normal. There’s simply no logical reason to send a large number of messages to people who don’t read them. 

If you’re running email campaigns and you don’t have a process in place to regularly clean your lists and confirm permission, you’re not doing it properly. 

There’s a very simple way to find out who wants to stay on your mailing list: ask them. Don’t just rely on the open rates (see below), but ask a simple question. Formulate the question so that the user has to click a link or a button. As we’ll see below, the click is the only true metric that you can rely on. 

A smaller, cleaner list is by definition better quality. It will consist of people who want to hear from you. How amazing is that! 


4. How Apple, Hey, and Covid-19 broke the open rate

Most open rates depend on your email provider sending a tiny image with the email and counting every time that image is loaded from the server. This in itself is a rather clumsy hack, but the email protocol doesn’t provide for a reliable read receipt and it’s currently the only way to see if a particular person has opened an email. 

The fact that the tracking is done via an image is also its main weakness, as blocking these images is becoming more and more widespread. We all remember Outlook with the images turned off, but today Apple, Hey and others are offering tracker blocking as standard. 

The simple reality is that however accurate open rates might have been (and they were never very accurate), they’re now worse than they used to be and they’re only going to continue to get worse. 

The Covid-19 pandemic also threw a spanner into the works of everything we knew about when people opened emails. “Don’t send on a Friday or a Monday”, “Never send at the weekend”, “Don’t send at 9am”. All this wisdom was broken by a population working from home and using their computer or phone at different times. 

The open rate has suffered and will continue to. We need to look elsewhere for valuable insights into our mailing list. Which brings us to our last point: 


5. Open rates are dead. Engagement is your only goal

The only, single trustworthy indicator that you can actually rely on is if someone has actually engaged with your email in a way that you can see. The simplest version of this is when they click a link. 

Clicking on a link will either lead to a redirect that counts the click, or to a landing page where you can count the views (even if the user’s browser blocks tracking scripts, you can still see how often the page was loaded). 

But engagement should be more than just a click. A profitable relationship with an interested audience should welcome information being sent in both directions, i.e. you should be interested in your audience. If you ask questions, invite to surveys (no, “How did we do?” is not a survey), run a quiz, a giveaway or competition, you’ll be generating engagement. 

And here’s the thing: Engagement should always have been the goal of your email campaign. Open rates and click rates were only surrogates for real engagement. Sure, you got cute dashboards with pretty charts, but engagement isn’t a metric, it’s a real relationship with real people. 

It’s 2021. No one should be sending emails to “raise awareness”. If you’re not sending emails to generate engagement, orders, feedback, questions, answers and interest, then why are you doing it? 


Bonus:

You know those nice world maps in your dashboard showing where your recipients are? They’re wrong. They are notoriously inaccurate, and the worse thing is that the email companies know this, and yet they still use them. If you’re not sure if this is true, see how many of your recent opens were in a place called Mountain View. Mountain View is a very nice city in California. It’s also home to the Google Headquarters and where some of the IP addresses for Gmail are registered. 

Again, the email companies know this. MailChimp recently changed their map to only show the state, thereby hiding the conspicuous places. In a recent campaign for a client in the USA, a full 34% of all opens were in California, which is where Mountain View is, which is where some of the Gmail IP addresses are registered.