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.

Diagnostic Checklist

Despite the imperfections of email opens as a response measure, falling open rates should not be ignored. They are, after all, a potent clue that something is happening. (But what exactly?) Consider them as a signal (or a wake-up call) for investigating what's really causing a decline.

Here's a brief diagnostic checklist for getting to the root of the problem.

1. First, be sure you're not having a deliverability problem instead of an engagement problem

Are your messages actually reaching the inbox in the first place? If they're not, obviously open rates will drop, so be sure to measure deliverability with every campaign. If it turns out you are having a deliverability issue, then that—not lack of engagement—is the problem you need to get to the bottom of.

2. Second, if deliverability is not the problem, it's time to look at your list, especially in the area of permission

Have there been changes in whom you're emailing? For example:

  • Have new subscribers increased considerably?
  • If so, where did they come from? What are the sources of new email addresses on your list?
  • Is a significant percentage of your list now opening your email on mobile devices?
  • What type of opt-in/permission process was used to acquire new subscribers?
  • What is the first message sent to new subscribers?
  • Are new subscribers/list segments being mailed in blended campaigns with existing subscribers, or segmented from your general population and mailed separately?
  • Have you recently mailed a segment of subscribers you haven't mailed in a long time?

Asking and answering all of those questions will yield additional insights into why your open rates are falling.

Especially if you're mailing new or inactive audiences, it's not unusual to see a dip in opens because new subscribers aren't sufficiently warmed up or because inactive subscribers have become chronically nonresponsive.

Also, weak permission can be an engagement killer: If permission is questionable, you have bigger problems.

3. Third, if you're not having a deliverability problem and you're not mailing to new segments or lists, you might be having a message rendering problem

Can people see your messages? Are they showing up in the inbox as you intended, or are they getting mangled on arrival?

Using a tool like Litmus can give you the answers and allow you to actually see how your message appears in different email receiving environments. That way, you can determine whether people are trying to open but seeing nothing worth opening, or whether images (necessary for measuring opens) simply aren't rendering enough to track an open.

4. Finally, if you can rule out all of the above, it's time to examine your messaging strategy and engagement drivers

Those are common focus in my coaching programs—specifically, any deviations from the norm, such as drastic changes in frequency, message design, subject line conventions, and offer types.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you sending new and varied communications that offer value, or are you just repeating what you've done before? If you're in repetitive mode and your open rates are declining, you're experiencing the law of diminishing returns. It's time for a refresh.
  • Have you recently increased email frequency? Perhaps you've introduced new messaging types, such as reminders/alerts or an additional newsletter? Declining open rates often go hand in hand with increased frequency. Nonetheless, more email provides more opportunities for an open to occur, even if on the per-campaign-average those rates decline; more of your list overall will eventually open (I'll explain more below).
  • Is click-through rate also declining? What about conversion rate? If click-through and conversion rates are holding steady but open rates are dropping, it's likely due to the imperfections of measuring opens, and so it's time to refocus on measuring what matters. On the other hand, if click-through and conversion are also declining, you're running up against a relevancy issue.

Beyond Open Rate, Toward True Engagement

Although variances in open rates are always an indicator that something is changing, they're far from providing definitive information as to what exactly is changing. Moreover, they do not reliably correlate to response actions (click-through and conversion) that occur further downstream. My colleague Dela Quist, founder of Alchemy Worx, advises, "Forget open rates. Instead focus on open reach," and I couldn't agree more.

What is "open reach"? It is the measure of the number of email list subscribers who opened any of your emails over a specific period of time, like a month or quarter, rather than a measure of specific opens per campaign. Because the reality is that not every subscriber on your list opens every email you send, but many subscribers do eventually open a message. By focusing on open reach vs. open rate, you're aiming for at least one interaction per subscriber over a defined time period vs. the highest number of actions per campaign—a big difference.

Focusing on open reach vs. open rate also provides a clear picture of who your repeat vs. one-time openers are during a specific period. Depending on your messaging and offers during the measurement period, understanding who your one-time vs. repeat engagers are can provided insight about which offers and types of messaging effectively drive action.

Beyond opens, the majority of your focus should be on actions that do directly correlate to conversion—such as click-throughs and, of course, sales (or "completed calls to action" if buying is not the goal but, for example, downloading content or signing up for a webinar is). But don't stop at simply measuring click-through-rate or conversion-rate per campaign. Take a longer-term, wider perspective of these actions as well by measuring click-through reach and conversion reach, too.

Just because your open rates are falling doesn't mean the sky is falling on your email campaigns. Careful diagnosis will reveal what's really going on, and therefore yield insights in many areas, especially actual subscriber engagement. In summary: running the diagnostic checklist on declining open rates will reveal whether you're truly experiencing a decline in engagement or simply a decline in part of the engagement process, and it will also reveal whether and how it's affecting your bottom line.

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

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image of Karen Talavera

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