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Email Open Rates: Truth, Lies, and What to Do About Them

by Karen Talavera  |  
November 12, 2013

In this article, you'll learn...

  • What to look for when troubleshooting your email open rates
  • What to avoid when considering your email reach
  • How to examine a diagnostic of your email marketing open rates

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 heads Synchronicity Marketing and writes about how to successfully use email, social, and content marketing on the Enlightened Emarketing blog. You can also follow Karen on Twitter (@SyncMarketing) and Facebook for daily tips and links to emerging email and social media marketing trends, facts, and research.

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  • by Alicia Tue Nov 12, 2013 via web

    Thanks for the article, Karen! I am using Mailchimp for my email marketing campaigns, and according to the open rates, some recipients have opened the email 38 times. However, I don't think that is true. Do you know what Mailchimp considers as an open email?
    Kind regards,

  • by Elaine V. Marquis Wed Nov 13, 2013 via web

    Karen, this is a great overview and checklist. As for open rates, I agree there can be too much importance placed on them.

  • by Paul Broni Thu Nov 14, 2013 via web

    Alicia, one possibility is that your email was forwarded to other people. I'm not familiar with your content to know if it lends itself to that, but is that probable?

    As for open rates, I always love a good discussion on the topic. I am also one of those who believes that the trend is often more important than the number itself. Having said that (and this applies more to B2C emailers), it's important to have insight as to whether you're enjoying comparable open rates across various email systems such as AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc. If one system generates a much lower open rate, you might want to find out why.

    There are a couple good ideas to improve email deliverabillity here, too:

    Nice article, Karen!

  • by Alicia Thu Nov 14, 2013 via web

    Hi Paul,
    That was exactly one of my suspicions. Usually we have one recipient for each of the companies included in the list, so they may well share the content with team members.
    I think that when you reply to the email it also counts as open, even if you actually do not open it and just see it from the AutoPreview view, e.g. in MS Outlook. I am making some tests with internal campaigns to be sure.
    Kind regards,

  • by Gracious Store Fri Nov 15, 2013 via web

    The best way to increase the open rate of your email is to send emails only to those who signed up for it. Sending emails to random people is not helpful in any way, because if people do not sign up for your email, they will most likely not open them.

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