Why Email Open Rates are Unreliable


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It is a well-known fact that email is a powerful weapon in every Internet marketer’s arsenal. However, it is also a fact that email open rates have been steadily declining over the past few years. Does that mean email marketing, as we know it, is dead?

Not exactly. Most marketing gurus will tell you to write clever, benefits-laden subject lines to boost your open rates. After all, you can’t expect to sell anything to your list if very few people are opening your emails. This singular focus on open rates may be partly to blame for the bad rap email marketing has been getting lately.

Let me explain; the open rate metric is unreliable because it relies solely on a piece of code that requests a tiny, transparent image from the web server. So when a reader opens the email, the image is downloaded, and an “open” is recorded for that specific email. This is the only way all email marketing systems know how to track and measure open rates. So, what’s wrong with that?

Several issues can negatively affect your open rates, namely:

1. Email clients block images by default: Outlook, Outlook express and now Windows Mail are or have been the most popular email clients used by many but they block images by default. That means you have no way of knowing if they actually read your email if all you do is look at the open rate. Don’t expect too many people to suddenly change their default settings to accommodate you.

2. Web-based Email: More and more people are using Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, especially when they sign up for your list. More and more web based email systems blocking images by default. Again, this will provide a false reading about your open rates.

3. Text messages: One of the methods suggested under email marketing best practices is to create a text only version. Obviously, text emails can’t contain any HTML code or images. Thus, there is no way to measure the open rate of such emails.

4. Smart Phones and Mobile Devices: Most mobile devices like the Blackberry, read email in text format by default. As explained in number 3 above, you can’t measure the open rate of such emails.

Is the open rate good for anything?

You can get two good measurements out of your open rate statistics. They are:

1. Measuring trends over a short period – declining open rates over 3 to 6 months could be a good indication of slow disconnect with your subscribers. Don’t forget to factor in the fact that people do lose interest over time so there is a natural decline. Therefore, comparing open rates over a longer period may not hold much value.

2. A/B split testing: If you send out two emails at the same time as a test, you can compare factors like the subject line, time delivered and the offer by measuring open rates of the two emails. However, it is useless to compare two emails with different subject lines if they are sent out one year apart.

What email statistics should you measure?

The two things that you should be tracking are:

1. Click through rates (CTR) – measuring this activity is a much better indication of the success of your email campaign and it overcomes all of the limitations of the open rate.

2. Call to action (C2A): Measure how many clicks actually took action. Did they buy your offer or an affiliate product? Did they download your report? This is a much better statistic to measure because you can now calculate the cost per lead or action, which in turn will allow you to take more informed business decisions.

You can learn more about email marketing by downloading my FREE DiY Marketing Coach’s Guide to Email Marketing.

Need help making your emails more effective? Sign up for my one-on-one coaching and I’ll guide you through the entire process without the costly trial and error.


  1. Hi!

    fyi, the link to download your free email marketing guide takes me to just a blank page on aweber.



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