Ending our Love Affair with the Open Rate?

BY Suzanna Chaplin

Email has been a staple part of marketing for more than 50 years now. Since its early days, people have used a few key metrics (namely but not exclusively delivery rate, open rate and clickthrough rate CTR) to understand the performance, with little innovation in reporting.

Meanwhile, technology and privacy rights have matured, which has meant the faithful open rate is quickly becoming an outdated and meaningless metric.


Final thoughts, Email has been cited year on year as the preferred channel to receive marketing via (DMA). Google has recognised this by creating a promotional tab. So why are they making a marketer’s life so difficult to deliver more engaging content to active consumers? Maybe the mailbox providers should consider how they can provide more feedback to email marketers to ultimately deliver the recipient a relevant inbox experience.
- By Suzanna Chaplin, CEO, esbconnect

So why is the open rate such a staple stat?

The mailbox providers provide little transparency on the performance of your email, once delivered. There is no feedback loop, saying ‘Yes, your email landed in the individual’s inbox, promotional tab or spam’ or ‘Consumer A read your email for 5 seconds today’. Marketers rely on ‘adding tracking’ like inserting image pixels to track opens or creating hundreds of seed accounts to track inbox placement.

The open rate has therefore continued to provide some level of transparency on whether you are inboxing. It provides marketers with a quick way to assess subject line performance, allowing them to optimise engagement with a campaign and hopefully increase inbox delivery.

Most importantly, it is a tool to ensure that your data hygiene is good, meaning you can set up an automation to remove anyone not opening or clicking on your emails, after a set number of days.

So if the open rate helps marketers deliver more engaging emails, only to people who want them, why are we are suggesting you stop using it?

Firstly, let me define what an open is:

An open is when a 1×1 image pixel in an email is downloaded.

This is the first issue in ‘open tracking’, not all mailboxes (e.g. Outlook) automatically download images, a user has to actively choose to. If your creative is text-heavy or doesn’t require images, it is likely your open rate will be low, even if everyone you deliver to reads your emails.

On the flip side of this, some devices and mailboxes automatically download all images and cache them. For instance, Gmail will cache the image/pixel in your tracking code along with all the other images in your email, and serve the same tracking image for all recipients of your email. This means that only the first open using that tracking code will be recorded and you’ll see very few opens for Gmail.

In June last year, Apple announced “Mail Privacy Protection” which stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. The new feature helps users prevent senders from knowing when they open an email and masks their IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location.

This is not a default setting but something that a user will see when they first open an Apple Mail app, in which they’ll get a message prompting them to either “Protect Mail activity” or “Don’t protect Mail activity.”

This has now been seen to have the effect of showing an increased open rate on Apple users and it is suggested that if you have desktop and mobile background images in the HTML that load using media queries, only the mobile background images are loaded. This is consistent with how the client would behave if an email is opened by a user. Unfortunately, this makes it harder to tell if an email is read by a recipient or not.

Finally, the ICO has inferred that open tracking in an email would require active consent, similar to cookie tracking on websites. This may mean that open pixels cannot be inserted as a blanket approach but rather based on the individual’s opt-in status.

What the alternatives to open pixel tracking?

  1. Website tracking: Link the emails you send, with the user’s onsite activity, can you see an uplift in their website engagement post an email being sent to them. This will allow you to track if someone simply reads your email and travels to your site, without clicking through. This can also be used to help maintain data hygiene, by combining the clicks on your emails with onsite engagement, removing those not engaging after a set number of days.
  2. Net CTR – % of clicks to the site from delivered.
  3. Conversion rate – what action do you want an individual to make from the emails you send, if it is signing up or purchasing, a good open rate may not lead to an increased conversion rate. We know that deceptive subject lines can lead to high open rates but sometimes negative engagements (e.g. unsubscribes).
  4. The lifetime value of a customer and the frequency of purchase. Does your email program benchmark higher than customers not on your CRM database?

Finally, there are ways you can solve the open pixel caching issue. This can be done by creating a unique pixel link per user. But if ultimately the open pixel is not compliant with privacy, this is a short-term solution.


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