Volume 2

Understanding Open Rates in Email Marketing

Having access to statistics showing who opens your email campaigns can be both exciting and confusing. Email marketers should keep an eye on these statistics, but should be more concerned with the big picture.

I will be the first to admit that I find it exciting to watch live statistics about my email newsletters. Before my eyes I can see the proof that people are opening my newsletter.

Why do I get so excited about numbers on a screen? How should these statistics be interpreted? Most importantly, how can these statistics be used to improve my bottom line?

'Average' Open Rates

Two of the most common questions that I am asked by my clients are:

  • What is a normal Open Rate?
  • How do I compare?

    Allow me to first explain how an "Open Rate" is determined. Any graphical email newsletter can send a signal back to the sending server when that email newsletter is opened. This allows the sending server to count “opens”.

    However, some people can’t receive graphical emails, and receive a “text-only” version of email newsletters. It is impossible to tell whether they have opened their copy.

    Some people check their email behind firewalls or other security measures that prevent the signal from being sent back to the sending server.

    Experts agree that a good, measurable open rate is between 35-40%. This will vary depending on the quality of your subscriber list and the content of your emails.

    Improving your Open Rate

    Usually the next question I am asked is:

  • How do I improve my Open Rate?

    In my opinion, in email marketing, a statistic is not a goal. A statistic is a measurement of your progress towards your goals. Setting a particular Open Rate as a goal is a mistake.

    For example, you might set a goal of 100% opens. The answer is simple. Remove everyone from your list who doesn’t open your email every week, who can only receive text-emails, or is behind a corporate firewall. Sounds a little ridiculous doesn’t it?

    For too many businesses, sending an email campaign is the beginning and the end of the process. Many people mistakenly believe that since email is cheap and easy, that they should just send as much information as they can to as many people as they can. This sort of behaviour will come back to haunt you in the form of complaints, excessive delivery costs, and a high unsubscribe rate.

    An email campaign should be preceded by at least one goal setting session. Your goals should relate to your business as a whole. For example:

  • “In the two week period after we send our email newsletter, 100 people will purchase Gadget A”
  • “We will have 40 people at the auction of Property Z on Saturday”

    It is important to remember that your goals should span all of your marketing efforts. Do not see your email marketing as an effort in isolation.

    After your campaign has finished, evaluate your success using all available information, including your email marketing statistics. If your goal was to sell 100 Gadgets, and only 50 people even opened your newsletter, you either need to re-evaluate your goal, or take a serious look at the quality of your subscriber list.

    Quality vs. Quantity, or, the 80:20 Rule

    A common mistake is to see the Open Rate as indicative of the success of the campaign, and to try to use gimmicks to increase it.

    Be very careful about the tactics you use to increase your open rate.

    For example, I have one client who sends a weekly newsletter with a motivational and inspirational theme. If this client were to attempt to increase open rates with competitions and prizes, she may lose more in “face” with clients who appreciate the non-commercial aspect of her message, than she would gain in new subscribers who only joined to win a prize. In the long term, her Open Rate would probably decrease.

    You should be aiming for QUALITY subscribers with a genuine interest in your products or services. Sending every email campaign to large, unqualified lists of subscribers will cost you more for delivery costs, and will result in a large number of bounces and complaints.

    In marketing there is a concept known as the Pareto Principle, or the 80:20 rule. 20% of your contact list is likely to yield 80% of your sales. These are the QUALITY subscribers that you should be focusing on.

    Divide and Conquer, or, Segment and Target

    This leads me to my final point, which is that targeting your email campaigns makes a whole lot of sense. Open Rates have their place, but what you need to worry about is demographics. Focus your efforts on learning about your subscribers and delivering the most appropriate information to each one.

    This creates a win-win situation for you and your subscribers.

    Once you are doing this, open rates may then become more meaningful. You will be able to compare open rates across demographic groups, allowing you to target your marketing even further.


    In summary, don't get caught up in the statistics merely because they are there. Figure out how they relate specifically to your business and your marketing goals. The following steps will help you to do this:

  • Set tangible goals for your campaigns.
  • Make sure your goals relate to your overall marketing efforts.
  • Continually evaluate your success.
  • Most importantly, aim for QUALITY subscribers and send them QUALITY, targeted information.