Why Email Open Rates Tell You Nothing

Before we dive into this, what’s an open rate? It’s simply the rate at which your email is opened when you send it to your email list. With 100 people on your email list and an open rate of 20%, 20 people clicked and opened your email. Email services like Constant Contact, MailChimp, and AWeber will track your open rates automatically.

Tracking open rates sounds like a great idea. Knowing what percentage of your email list opens your emails would be a great way to measure how well you’re doing. If everyone is opening your emails, your audience loves you. If no one is, something probably needs to change.

There’s just one problem, open rates are incredibly inaccurate.

To track open rates, email services embed an invisible image into the email. If the image displays, tracking information is sent back and recorded as a open. This sounds great in theory but the vast majority of emails will never display the image even if the email is opened.

Since people also figured out how to spread viruses through images, most email clients like Gmail turn images off by default. Now a person has to open the email AND click the “show images” button for the tracking to work. Granted, images show automatically for senders in a person’s contact list. But you’ll have to convince people to manually add you to their contacts for this to happen. People rarely do this so I wouldn’t count on it.

What does this mean? Your open rates are worthless. They’re not even worth the time thinking about.

There is one exception: running headline split tests.

What’s a split test? It’s where you send two versions of an email with a single difference and see which version is most effective. In this case, each email would have different headlines.

Judging effectiveness though open rates still isn’t ideal and you’ll also want to use click through rates and conversion data to choose the best headline.

Keep in mind that split testing headlines is a fairly advanced technique in internet marketing and isn’t nearly as important as other tasks. Don’t worry about it unless you’re email marketing is already driving a significant portion of your revenue.

I’ll show you how to build an unstoppable growth machine. Don’t miss any of my new essays.

I don’t share emails. Ever. And your trust means a great deal to me.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Andrew March 7, 2012, 4:31 pm

    So please elaborate on headline split tests… maybe with another post. Is this two blasts sent at the exact same time? Sent to two different groups or the same group? For our purposes, the open rate is more important than the clickthrough rate, so this is something we need to master. If you can write more about the headline split test, I will be the first to read it! Thank you!

  • Lars Lofgren March 7, 2012, 6:23 pm

    Your goal is to run a split test on a small portion of your overall list so you can figure out what version works the best. Determine the winner and send that version to everybody else on your list.

    Ideally, you have an email list with at least several thousand people. You’ll take 200-400 random people, then send version A to one half of that random selection and version B to the other half. Once you’ve determined the winner, you send out a mailing to the rest of your list.

    This does require a sizable list though. When running a test, you’ll want to get enough data so that it’s statistically significant. This means hitting a 95% confidence level with your numbers. In other words, there’s only a 1 in 20 chance that the results of your split test are due to random chance. This is why you need to test your email on hundreds of people. If you only send your email to a few dozen, the results don’t mean anything.

    You can find an Excel spreadsheet that will calculate this for you at http://visualwebsiteoptimizer.com/split-testing-blog/ab-testing-significance-calculator-spreadsheet-in-excel/

    • Andrew March 7, 2012, 6:42 pm

      Thank you so much for the additional insight!


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