Measuring open rate
In this part of my series on Campaign Stats and Measurements I will be examining open rates, how they are used, where they fail and how the can be effectively used.
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.
Overall, I find open rates to be a very frustrating metric. Some senders, particularly those relatively new to email marketing, are so sure they know what open rate is and what it means, that they don’t take any time to actually understand the number. While the name “open rate” seems self explanatory, it’s actually not. Open rate is actually not a measure of how many recipients open an email. However, there are times where open rate is a useful metric for measuring a marketing program over time.
What is an open?
If asked, most people will tell you that open rate is the number of emails that were opened by the recipients. The problem is that this isn’t actually true. An open is counted when a tagged image in an email is rendered by the recipient’s email client. Not all mail clients render images by default, but the emails are still available for the recipient to read. If a user clicks on a link in an email that has not had an image rendered, some ESPs count that as an open as well as a click. In other cases, visiting a link in an email with no image rendered is just a click, no open is recorded.
What is the open rate?
Open rate is generally the percentage of email opens divided by some number representing the number of emails sent. Many senders use the number of emails sent minus the number of bounced emails, others use just the number of emails sent without factoring in the number of emails bounced.
Open rate is a secondary metric. While it does not measure the success, or failure, of a campaign directly, it can be used as a indicator for campaigns. Many people use open rate as a metric because it’s easy to measure. Direct metrics, such as clicks or average purchase or total purchase, may take days or even weeks to collect and analyze. Open rates can be calculated quickly and easily.
What the open rate isn’t
Open rate is not a measure of how many people opened a mail. It is not a measure of how many people read a mail. It really only records that an image in a particular email is loaded and, sometimes, that a link was clicked on. Open rates can be wildly different depending on how the sender measures opens and how the sender measures sends.
What senders use open rates for
To compare their open rates with industry averages
As I talked about above, this use of open rates is problematic at best. You cannot compare numbers, even when they have the same name, if the numbers were arrived at using different calculations. Open rate is not open rate and unless you know the underlying algorithm used you cannot compare two open rates. This is a poor use of open rate.
As a metric for advertising rates
Since a sender can manipulate the open rate by using different calculation methods, this is a good metric for the advertiser to use. It is not so great for the purchaser though, who is at the mercy of the sender’s metrics. There are contractual ways a purchaser can protect herself from an unscrupulous marketer, but only if she understands how open rate can be manipulated and takes steps to define what open rate is in use.
To judge the success of campaigns over time
A single open data point doesn’t mean very much, however, using consistently measured open rates a sender can measure trends. Open trends over time are one area that open rates can help senders judge the success, or failure, of a marketing campaign.
As one metric in A/B testing
Comparing open rates in A/B testing gives some indication of which campaigns recipients may be more interested in. As with trends over time, the lone measurement isn’t useful, but as a comparative metric, it may provide senders with insight into a particular mailing.
To judge the engagement of recipients
Over the long term, recipients who do not interact with a mailing become dead weight on the list. Too many non responders can hurt a sender’s reputation at an ISP. List hygiene, in the form of removing people who never open or click on an email, is an important part of reputation management.
As metrics for email campaigns go, open rate is limited in what it measures about an email campaign. However, as a quick way to measure trending or do head to head comparisons it is a useful metric.