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Email open rates – Value or Vanity?

Are open rates a truly valuable benchmark? Or is it just a vanity metric that the industry likes to shout about?

by Marc Michaels, Strategy and Creative Director
Open rates

Before you read further:

  1. The answer is YES. Open rates have a lot of value – so best read on.
  2. What you will see below is our view based on a number of sources of what is likely to happen with Apple iOS 15 privacy changes affecting open rates, but it is a bit of a moving feast and you’ll need to move quickly – so best read on.

Webinar recording – For some practical advice on what companies can do to review existing logic rules on email campaigns, how email design and content could be changed to accommodate and the need for a different approach to analytics and measurement, with a detailed ‘snapshot’ of what we know at present, watch the webinar here.

When you send out an email you want to know it’s arrived, and someone has looked at it and ideally read it. Indeed, some people may open it more than once. It’s basically the email equivalent of REACH and FREQUENCY in other advertising channels.

It’s easy to prove it’s been delivered (hard and soft bounce stats). It’s always been a bit harder to prove that it’s been opened (it’s a pixel that relies on images being on which isn’t always the case) and indeed whether the mere act of opening means it’s been looked at, at all. But now it’s going to get even harder.

Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference hailed its “latest innovations in [its] legacy of privacy leadership”. Called Mail Privacy Protection – Apple will route emails through a proxy server to pre-load message content -including tracking pixels – before serving to readers. Even if readers don’t actually open those emails. (Apple will also block forward tracking, so if your subscriber forwards an email, you will not know). The new feature in iOS 15 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 affects any email opened from the Apple Mail app on any device regardless of email service is used (Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook etc.)  Adobe and Litmus state that it shouldn’t affect other email apps used on Apple devices, like the Gmail app.

Whilst improved privacy for people is always welcome, this does present the marketing community with an issue, since in 2020, Apple iPhone, Apple Mail, and Apple iPad all accounted for nearly half of all email opens and one benchmark report noted that 38.1% of all opens and clicks come from one of the Apple Mail app clients. These are not small numbers.

So, when people update their iPhone to iOS 15 in September 2021, they’ll see a screen at launch that invites you to select this service. When Apple introduced a similar privacy feature on iOS 14.5 called Tracking Transparency, the feature requires all apps to obtain permission before tracking users, nearly 96% of users in the US declined tracking permissions. This is likely to be a similar take-up as people are hardly likely to say ‘do not protect me’.

So what? Well, here’s some maths. For example, if your open rate is currently 20% and 38% of people are opening in an Apple mail app and 96% of them enable the Privacy setting and assuming Apple reports 100% open for those people, then your new open rate will show 50.4%. Over-reporting is the most likely scenario, but it will fall to 12.7% if Apple reports 0% open. Either way, open rates will become a ‘noisier’ metric and a lot less reliable than it is.

Also, what happens when Android follow suit? A Google spokesperson confirmed that Google is indeed considering similar features for blocking IP addresses.

Let’s look at this from both sides of the fence.

Actually, there’s a lot of value to open rates, impacting on various factors:

  • Open rates are used as an indicator of engagement for an email campaign, which informs your understanding of how engaged people are, what should be sent, but also a factor used in deliverability used by the ISPs.
  • Comparison of open rates help judge the effectiveness of subject lines in A/B tests.
  • Many journeys have components and rules logic that are based on non-openers resends or bounce to print.
  • Live content for email, such as countdown timers, live sports scores, live poll results, maps populate when an email is opened, not the time sent. This change will likely impact this.
  • Open times informs Send Time Optimisation
  • Gives some relative benchmark within industry and across sectors.
  • Can help judge the overall health and quality of an email list. E.g. GDPR data retention policies may use open rates as a way of showing customers are still active.

On the flip side and playing devil’s advocate.

Open rates are all about VANITY:

  • Just because they have opened doesn’t mean they have read the email or taken out any message from the activity. Is opening really engagement? Open rates have always been partly spurious (some claiming as much as 35% out). Though this was the same for everyone.
  • A subject line might be more intriguing to drive opens, but the email may not deliver against expectations set. A supposedly ‘weaker’ subject line on opens may still drive better response and conversion. And conversion is what really matters. Great subject lines will still be important, just measured differently.
  • Delivery and response are arguably more relevant metrics to justify list health and quality.

However, on balance open rates have considerable value and this change will impact negatively on a number of fronts and we all need to take action to mitigate this change.

Marketers should prepare for impact to existing logic rules on email campaigns, analytics and measurement, deliverability and email design and content. Which will in turn mean remedial action to review your existing email journeys and associated content to see how this will specifically impact. Likely this will lead to a shift down the funnel in terms of engagement measurement, embracing broader and deeper engagement metrics. This may be accompanied by revising designs to accommodate and reducing content in emails to bite size pieces encouraging response and interaction (clicks) using more CTAs and return paths.

Reviewing your journey planning

People don’t always have time to react to your email and so retargeting individuals who didn’t open or opened and didn’t click with a follow up email, is often a standard part of a journey and can yield additional response (often 50% of the original click throughs). This is something we generally encourage, as it is good marketing practice. Any journeys that have this rules-based logic will need to be reviewed as it will likely look that these people have opened. You will need to consider what the next stage in their journey should now be.

Additionally, any emails that use live content will need to be reviewed as this content will likely now display at the time Apple ‘pre-opened’ the email and not when the customer actually sees it, if they really do open it.

We also encourage people to send emails at the best time using Send Time Optimisations AI features that look at previous open patterns. These will be skewed short-term, though algorithms will likely change over time base on clicks/other behaviour.

Shifting down the funnel

Open rates are a relatively minimal engagement measure, and given the existing issues around open rates and these new changes, it is worth embracing this as an opportunity to re-shift the focus away from open rates as a core metric to actual click through rates by the different segments, A/B tests etc. Clicks are obviously a measurement of more concrete action taken in a journey and greater understanding of which elements of the email have appealed.

Click to Open rates % will no longer be comparable with past figures.

The end goal is tracking that response to conversion (sales, sign ups, donations etc.) and that should also become more of a focus. After all that will show how the email is contributing to the overall objectives and OUTCOMES.

However, not all emails focus on that end outcome. With newsletter and retention pieces this will necessitate a move away from emails which dump a lot of content to make sure the customer ‘sees’ it, to more bite-size engaging content that invites click throughs on headlines, images and keywords/phrases in short body text to get to more detail on the website/portal.

Having more opportunities to click through will generate a focus on click heatmapping to see which elements are more engaging and focus more on outcomes and tracking what happens next with the journey – i.e. looking at the relationship between engagement and later conversion.

Looking at patterns of response over time across many emails rather than just a single one, would be recommended. Possibly rewarding similar to ‘Top Fan’ badges on Facebook if people click and read content.

Marketers who re-send the same email to who didn’t open or click, in future will likely resend to everyone who didn’t click. This would likely mean changing at least the subject line for the resend and/or some of the content, as a proportion of people would have opened and read the first send – we just won’t know who.

However, whilst most marketing campaign are likely to have links to external content, we need to consider that some won’t. Many service-based emails won’t have any links in the email either (i.e. pure notification emails).  This may also have implication for multi-channel comms where there may be rules that non-openers bounce to print, because of the legal need to ensure customers receive this.

It also means that the only proof of engagement with what might be considered a more ’obligatory’ type message will be the delivery information. However, this is no worse than a mail equivalent where we have proof of posting.

Perhaps we all need to consider introducing more feedback loops into service type messages where we want to know customers are taking note of them – e.g. ‘click here to confirm receipt/understanding’ type buttons, or periodic return paths to mini-surveys or the equivalent of like/heart buttons.

Impact on deliverability

As well as avoiding spam type flags other key factors that impact email deliverability include send volume, send frequency, user interaction (opens and click, complaints or unsubscribe) and quality (overall % bounces/undeliverable) and engagement has become more important over time.

Low open rates are a signal to ISPs that your recipients are not engaged. If Apple over-report this could be a positive, but likely the ISPs will need to adjust to compensate for this. It is possible that frequency of communications may also become a factor and you may need a longer period of IP warming, but this isn’t clear yet. We will all need to keep a close eye on how this could impact on deliverability.

A focus on action

It is difficult to say exactly how this is going to impact. But it will impact and action does need to be taken now to prepare:

  1. Review all of your journeys (waves and triggers) that include rules logic based on non-openers and/or bounce to print, live content or use of STO as these will likely need to be changed.
  2. Review of your existing activity over time to look at all previous learning (while it is valid), trends and engagement, including a content engagement analysis audit.
  3. Creation of a content taxonomy and redesign of email templates and testing matrices to create more action focused activity with more bite-size content inviting more CTAs, response and feedback loops.
  4. Tracking and evaluating at a more granular level and monitoring broader content trends and conversion outcomes. Isolate a non-apple audience for A/B subject line testing for read across. Start STO if you haven’t been to get a view before it is harder.

    This is coming soon. It is worth reviewing the way you create and evaluate your email output now so that you are better prepared. Needless to say – but I’ll say it anyway, Parkhouse can help.




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