Gretchen Scheiman: 5 Steps to Fix Bad Open Rates
Open rates across industries average somewhere between 20% and 25%, depending on which benchmark you look at. Not everyone is lucky enough to meet or exceed the benchmark though. Every once in a while, I meet a good marketer who has really bad open rates: between 1% and 5%. No, they aren’t spammers, but they’re stuck with the results of years of poor email marketing practices. What do you do if you’re stuck with bad open rates? Here are some ideas to revive your list:
- Segment by channel engagement. Bad open rates (unlike zero open rates) mean that there is still a part of your audience that is responding. It’s just a really tiny part. Put these responders in their own segment and treat them like gold for putting up with your brand for so long. Find out what they respond to and use that information to help formulate best practices for your brand. Speaking of which…
- Create a best practices bible for your brand. Nothing you do to fix bad open rates will work long-term unless you fix the issue that caused the bad open rates to begin with. The biggest culprit I’ve seen from legitimate big-brand marketers is generally bad content combined with a transient audience. Solving for bad content is only a piece of the puzzle, but it will help. You can raise awareness within your organization by creating standards for relevance, and potentially get support for setting standards for testing as well.
- Stop emailing non-responders. For a while. Resting email addresses for 6-12 weeks before sending another email can help draw attention to your brand when it appears in the inbox again. Make sure the first message you send is as relevant as you can make it. Test this audience for a few weeks with 3-4 touches to see who responds and then put the remainder back into “rest” mode. After a few cycles of rest and relevance, you will have revived some non-responders that you otherwise thought you’d never talk to again.
- Review your email address capture methods. Not all bad open rates are caused by poor email capture, but it’s definitely a leading culprit. If your brand is still renting or buying lists, you need to clean up your list rental or purchase practices before you bring newly bought recipients into the main list. Segment each list buy into a separate list until recipients have proven interest by responding at least once. After a year, instead of deleting the non-responding remnants of the list, keep it as a suppression list to avoid buying these names over and over again. If you are not renting or buying lists, look at the sources with the highest rates of non-responders and consider factors such as aging and business changes. It may be worthwhile to surgically remove non-responders who came from a source that was shut down more than a couple of years ago – they are so old, it’s unlikely they’ll ever come back. If there are more recent sources with high non-responder populations, doublecheck to make sure they were all set up properly.
- Scrub your records more diligently. If you do have a transient audience, it is difficult to tell when a recipient is not responding because they aren’t interested in your content, or because they aren’t “there” anymore. This is especially true in B2B marketing where employees may find other jobs and leave a corporate email address behind. The best defense is to set up regular maintenance cycles that include ECOA (email change of address services, to identify new email addresses from old ones) and other cleansing services. A regular quarterly or monthly maintenance cycle can help eliminate bad email addresses that cause bad open rates.
There are other steps you can take to improve bad open rates, but these five steps are a good starting point. Taking the time to clean up a list can be very rewarding. The alternatives – to leave the list as-is and risk more severe deliverability issues or to simply chop the list off immediately – may be quicker but won’t get your brand the same return on its investment.
One quick note about deliverability: low open rates means you’re probably already experiencing deliverability issues since many of your emails are likely going straight to the junk mail folder. If that’s your only concern, then these steps can help. If you are also seeing blacklisting and abuse complaints, then you have bigger issues than just open rates and you will need to work with an experienced deliverability consultant to get back on track.