The Demotion of the Open Rate
For years, marketers have been tracking open rates and using this stat for everything from choosing the best time to send to validating the deliverability of a particular email-automation vendor; and well, everything in between. With more and more email being opened on mobile devices, Gmail caching images, and fewer recipients choosing to download images (perhaps accounting for as much as 40 percent of your audience), the open rate simply isn't what it used to be—not that it was ever all that accurate.
Charting a high open rate does not necessarily equate to clicks or conversions, but this has always been true. You might have written the most fabulous or enticing subject line and enjoyed a very high open rate, only to have failed to deliver the message and lost in the long run.
The Mobile Effect
Mobile devices are lowering the dependability of the open rate for some analysis, too. Most people scan emails on their devices and save only those they wish to read or act upon later. Emails that don't answer an immediate need, or that are not relevant, may be deleted prematurely and without much recipient consideration. Even with responsive designs, the recipient is less likely to take advantage of an offer on a smartphone than on a tablet or desktop device, it's simply easier to engage on a bigger screen.
Open Rate Increases
Gmail's new image caching system automatically downloads images, and, for those recipients using Gmail or Google Apps, this can further affect your open rate tracking—your open rate will likely increase. The first open will be tracked correctly by most ESPs, but subsequent (repeat) opens by the same recipient will likely decrease. Unique opens, like opens, will become more accurate.
As with Gmail and Google Apps, iPhone and iPad devices download images by default. If you're tracking your stats year over year, this increase in open rates by Gmail and iOS users will affect your ability to accurately assess your campaigns.
You may find that your open rates increase, but click-through rates do not, resulting in lower click-to-open rates.
Best Time to Send
Some email automation systems, such as Variant4, are able to send messages at the same time as the last open from the recipient, and this can be useful, but determining the right time to send based upon open rates alone will be misleading for the reasons stated earlier. When possible, opt for the previous engagement time, since if the open occurred on a mobile device, the click or conversion may have taken place later from a desktop device and that actually represents the better time for future sends.
Ensuring your content is on the mark is more important than ever as this is the driving force behind clicks and conversions (and not opens). Getting your audience to engage will gain you future priority placement in the inbox rather than a continued relegation to the promotion tab of Gmail.
Still Some Value
As undependable as the open rate has become, it does still represent some value—especially for segmentation and A/B testing of subject lines, for instance. Show caution when basing your conclusions on open rate alone and take the necessary steps to validate your finding through other supporting metrics.
As more email providers download images by default, we as marketers make a major win in the design arena. No longer will we have to design text formats and forfeit brand recognition. Our emails will be displayed in the manner in which we had intended all along.
Email marketing is the most effective way to increase sales, improve service, and keep your customers engaged. Email campaigns are best bolstered through an integrated strategy that crosses channels and meets your constituents where they congregate and in the media they prefer. “The Integrated Email” provides best practices and ideas for developing strategies and deploying email campaigns and initiatives while keeping an eye on revenue attributable to marketing.
Cyndie Shaffstall, founder, Spider Trainers, is a successful entrepreneur and prolific author, with many books, dozens of eBooks, and hundreds of articles to her credit. She is the former founder of ThePowerXChange, editor and publisher of X-Ray Magazine, and the current founder and managing member of Spider Trainers, a managed automated email services provider for companies around the world. Connect with Cyndie on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, or join her LinkedIn Group, the Marketing Resource Library for daily links to marketing-critical resources.