In my ongoing series of email marketing conundrums, I couldn't possibly overlook this one: declining email marketing open rates, about which much has been written.

My goal isn't only to provide you with a diagnostic checklist for investigating why open rates are falling (though I do provide a checklist), or to hand you a "best-practices" list of what to do to reverse the decline. Instead, I intend to go beyond that by giving you a "reality check" on the subject; presenting a new, more constructive way to view open rates; and suggesting a new mindset on email marketing performance measurement altogether.

In short: though we do need to pay attention to declining open rates, there's too much focus on them at the expense of more meaningful email marketing performance measures.

The Obsession With Open Rates

Why the obsession with open rates?

For one, opening a message is the very first positive response or action a subscriber can take with our email; and since we both need and desire positive response for email marketing to work, we give the open a lot of weight.

Second, opens are one of the easiest email response actions to measure; they are, however, neither entirely accurate nor inclusive, mostly because they can't be tracked from plain-text (non-graphical) messages, but also because of the growing variety of and differences in email-receiving environments.

Some mobile devices, for example, don't report a message as opened even if it is. In other receiving environments, such as Outlook, messages in the inbox register as opened even if they are merely skimmed, previewed, or barely looked at... and never actually opened in a dedicated window.

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Karen Talavera is the founder of Synchronicity Marketing, a company specializing in digital marketing training, coaching, and education.