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The Evolution of Email: Step Away from Open Rates

Steve Henderson
Steve Henderson , Head of Deliverability

Step Away from Open Rates

Email marketing remains the #1 digital channel for ROI, yet the changes taking place with email are dynamic and challenging to keep up with. Still, e-commerce marketing teams need to stay in the loop to remain competitive across this channel.

The evolution of email marketing

Email marketing today is a very different beast from the e-newsletters which were sent once or twice a month to subscribers, back when open rates and click rates were the key measurement of success for marketing teams.

Email marketing now drives more web traffic than paid and social combined, delivers the highest ROI of any marketing channel, and is the preferred communication channel of consumers for pre-purchase, post-purchase and transactional messaging.

Email continues to evolve with content, cadence, and frequency curated and optimized to the needs and preferences of each individual. Inbox filtering and security protocol has changed too, in response to increasingly sophisticated threats in increasingly sophisticated ways.

The digital marketing industry is more complex than it has ever been, yet the core method of tracking, reporting and segmenting seems like it hasn’t changed much. Marketing has changed but metrics are lagging behind.

“#Marketing has changed, but metrics are lagging behind,” says @ePrivacyProf       CLICK TO TWEET

The open rate dilemma

I first spoke about the problems of open rate tracking lagging behind industry change at the Internet World conference in 2013.

Working in the technology and data side of email and deliverability, I have access to the big picture, and I saw even then a disconnect between what marketers were trying to achieve and how that success was being measured. This disconnect often resulted in failing strategies and deliverability issues.

Related Content: The Ultimate Guide to Measuring Email Marketing Success: 12 Key Metrics

Fast forward six years to the present day — and, in my view, very little has changed. We still track opens the same way, report on opens the same way, still perform industry benchmarks on opens and still use opens to segment, target and personalize.

Related Content:  The Keys to Customer-Centricity in Email Marketing: Return Path [Video]

The dilemma is that despite the fact that metrics haven’t evolved with the industry, opens still work. Kind of. They’re high when things are good, low when things aren’t, and change depending on whether things are improving or otherwise. And they’re the biggest number in the conversion chain. It’s much nicer talking about a 42% open rate than a 7% click rate.

Specializing in deliverability, I work with companies when their marketing programs aren’t working well, and a phone call with me probably means you’re having a bad week. It’s in these cases — where accurate data for measuring, targeting, and reputation-building are necessary — that the flaws with identifying active email recipients using “open” data becomes clear.

“When tackling deliverability issues, the flaws with open tracking become clear,” says @ePrivacyProf      CLICK TO TWEET

Email Issues to Understand

Before we get into when and where open rates matter, we have to understand a couple of problems with modern day deliverability.

Image pre-fetching

In an email, images are often “pre-fetched.” This means they’re downloaded without any human interaction.

While you consider that for a moment, and think about what this means for how you talk about opens, how you report on them, how you use “openers” for targeting, reputation-building and even content choice, let me explain why this happens.

There are three main reasons why email images are pre-fetched:

► User experience. Mobile devices move in and out of signal areas. Many people read emails on multiple devices impacting how devices are requested and rendered. Pre-fetching creates a better user experience.

► Anti-abuse. To keep mailboxes free of spam, viruses, and malware, images are checked as part of the inbox filtering process. Also, some mailboxes are “non-human” and maintained to monitor email senders and activity.

 Email forwarding and mailbox consolidation. Using POP/IMAP to forward email and to collect it in one mailbox may result in images being pre‑fetched to ensure the email is delivered correctly and intact.

Gmail’s approach is subject to a “word to the wise” technical discussion, here.

There’s also a degree of human influence with some pre-fetching, including:

  • If a mailbox is active or not
  • If emails from that sender are typically opened — this sort of fuzzy logic only applies to more advanced mailboxes
  • If the recipient has marked that sender as “always download” — but think of this as a “request, not an order,” helping to inform the pre-fetching logic
  • User settings

It’s also worth noting that pre-fetching varies by email provider (the domain), email client (the app used to read emails), the device (desktop, tablet, mobile) and operating system (iOS, Android).

A great way to see this in action is the Litmus Market Share report. The report currently shows that there are 3x as many opens in Gmail than Microsoft domains and an astonishing 10x as many opens on Apple than Android.

Doing Better Email Measurement

Opens aren’t meaningless or worthless. I said earlier that open rates do go up and down. And you can identify a great campaign by high open rates. Open rates are an indicator of:

► List quality. Junked emails and inactive mailboxes will rarely trigger pre-fetching. Emails sent to highly active mailboxes will be more likely to pre-fetch than emails sent to an email account which is rarely logged into.

► Recipient’s previous activity.  User device settings (the “always download images from this sender” option), and the “fuzzy logic” around recipient behavior and preferences.

► Campaign success. If an actual human opens the email, if the images are not pre-fetched for caching, anti-abuse monitoring, user experience, or IMAP forwarding, that open will fetch the image and be recorded as an open.

 Related Content: Email Marketing Expert Kath Pay on Personalization, Deliverability, and Key Metrics

Takeaways for marketers

Here are my top takeaways for doing better email marketing measurement:

  1. High open rates are better than low open rates (obviously!).
  2. “Openers” are a good target audience for most email campaigns because the majority of “recent opens” are active mailboxes.
  3. “Openers” are not a good target audience when trying to build a reputation or overcome delivery issues. An active mailbox doesn’t mean they’re reading your emails.
  4. For reputation-building, combine together recipients who are clicking links, visiting the website, logging into your app, and who have recently signed up for your list (instead of targeting openers) — all these behaviors indicate interest and are typically more accurate than opens.
  5. For campaign success, instead of using opens, consider website traffic (link clicks and website analytics) and revenue KPIs.
“Instead of defining ‘active’ as recent #email openers, define them as a combination of those recipients who have recently signed up, clicked links, or visited your website,” says @ePrivacyProf     CLICK TO TWEET

Ongoing industry studies

Much of what I’ve said here is based on observations with limited industry-wide confirmation.

To help overcome this limitation and provide more concrete guidance for marketers, service providers, and inbox providers, there is a project underway at M3AAWG looking at the data around pixel-based open rate tracking between senders and receivers. Early studies show that pixel-based open rates are highly variable and overstated. Data exploration is ongoing and will hopefully lead to a future publication.

In the meantime, you can join M3AAWG to get more insight and to get involved in industry studies such as this.

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About the Author


Steve Henderson is Head of Deliverability at Emarsys. He is an email marketing, data protection, GDPR, e-Privacy, email deliverability, and information security expert. Steve specializes in email marketing compliance (how to collect data and deliver marketing campaigns which comply with international legislation, ISP best practice, and consumer expectation), and email delivery optimization (how to get the most out of your email delivery platform and make sure your campaigns reach the inbox). Steve has worked with the DMA Email Council since 2012 producing practical compliance and deliverability guidance for the email marketing industry.

Connect with Steve: LinkedIn@ePrivacyProf

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