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Asking the right question

My job as a consultant does involve answering questions and solving problems. Often the most important, and most overlooked, thing that I do is change the question that clients are asking. It is not that this changes the problem or even, really, changes the solution. It does change how people think of the problem, and changing how they think of the problem drives better solutions.
This can be applied to the current Email Experience Council (EEC) discussion on metrics and defining what a render rate was. Loren has a post up today detailing a number of common email situations and explaining in which cases an email is counted as open and in which cases an email is counted as unopened.
Right now an open in email terms is actually quite simple: a tagged image on a remote webserver was loaded. That’s all an open is. It used to be that no one was blocking images by default, so this was actually quite an accurate way to measure how many people were opening and presumably reading an email (at least for people using mail clients that display HTML and images).
But, as spammers started including more and more explicit images in email, recipients started asking for images to be blocked. In response to recipient requests, ISPs started blocking images by default. No longer was open rate a measure of which recipients opened and read an email, it became a measure of something completely different.
The EEC has recognized this is a problem and have decided that standardization would be a solution. As the first step to standardization they have identified two problems: open rate isn’t calculated in any standard way and the resulting ratio doesn’t describe what most people think it describes. Their recent publication The Email Render Rate defines standard calculations for render rates. This way render rates as reported by different ESPs can be directly compared. Changing the name from open rate to render rate changes what most people expect that the term means. No longer is this a measure of how many recipients opened the mail, but rather it is a measure of how many email clients rendered the images in the mail.
Maybe a better solution could be arrived at by changing the question? Instead of “how can we standardize render rate?” perhaps they should ask the question: “What do people think they’re measuring when they talk about open rates?”
Once the “what?” question is answered, perhaps a good solution to the “how?” question will become more obvious.

3 comments

  1. Stefano Bagnara says

    I don’t agree about image blocking being added as a counter measure for explicit content. Instead I think it was added as a privacy measure.
    From Thunderbird changelog (2004): “Remote images are now blocked by default in Thunderbird to protect your privacy”
    IMO It’s more about blocking the tracking pixel than the obscenity. Most provider already do a good job blocking spam, even image only spam, now that we have IP/domain reputation, authentication and much more.
    My answer to your “What” question is: “They guess” and most times they are wrong. What’s your “How” for this What answer?

  2. Measuring open rate at Word to the Wise says

    […] There has been an lot written about open rates recently, but there are two posts that stand out to me. One was the EEC’s post on renaming open rate to render rate and Mark Brownlow’s excellent post on what open rate does and does not measure. I’ve also weighed in on the subject. […]

  3. What does open rate tell you – Word to the Wise says

    […] Mark Brownlow’s excellent post on what open rate does and does not measure. I’ve also weighed in on the subject. The issue is still very […]

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