Tiffany: Marketing metrics – is it time to shift our focus from open rates?


Performance analysis is an absolutely vital aspect of any strategy. I may even go so far as to say that it’s the most important aspect. It’s what keeps you attuned to the pulse of your market, tells you what’s going down well and what’s less appealing. It’s how you weed out your mistakes and hone your MO for subsequent campaigns. Without insights drawn from campaign analysis, we are operating blind.

So why, then, are we still relying on the same old metrics by which to measure our successes? Everything else in the world of email marketing is altering, adapting and advancing at a lightning pace. Why not the metrics we use? Why are we still relying on opens to gauge our successes when the world of marketing has changed so much? Is the good old-fashioned open rate still a reliable KPI?

I’d argue that, while there is still a place for open rates in our campaign analyses, we need to shake up the way we think about measuring campaign success. In my opinion, hanging your hat completely on open rates is a bad idea. Not only are opens no longer a particularly reliable (or relevant) metric, in this era of increased personalization we really need to be tailoring our KPIs and metrics more closely to the specific circumstances of our brands and segments.

What’s wrong with open rates?

There’s nothing wrong with using open rates as a broad metric for performance analysis. After all, getting people to open your emails is pretty much essential for the rest of your campaign to function. In general, opens are a good temperature-test for your campaign – if open rates are high, things are going well. If they’re low, not so well.

But there’s a lot more to it than this. Just because people are opening your emails doesn’t mean that they’re reading them, are engaged by them, or are responding to them in the manner that you wish.

Admittedly, those kinds of things are difficult to track. This is why we have always relied so heavily upon opens. But, as the world of email has changed, opens have become far less reliable as a measure of success. Here’s how:

  • Tracking technology is no longer well aligned to email technology. For example, some mailboxes will ‘prefetch’ embedded images from emails (depending on certain conditions being met). Sometimes, this will result in the email being erroneously logged as ‘opened’.
  • Email innovations are making opens less and less relevant. The way that we use and experience email is changing rapidly, in a diverse number of ways. For example, Alexa and Siri can now ‘read’ emails out to people. This change and diversification of email UX makes the open rate overall a far less relevant metric.
  • ISPs are juggling with inboxes. Big name ISPs like Gmail and Yahoo are focusing their efforts on prioritizing the messages subscribers see. They are increasingly basing this less on opens and more on the demonstrated personal preferences of their users. Over time, this shift in focus is likely to render opens pretty much redundant as a metric.
  • ‘Open’ does not equal ‘read’. This has always been the problem with open rates. While they give a broad and general idea of how well your campaign is going, they don’t drill down into important KPIs like engagement, conversion, and so on. Just because someone has opened your email doesn’t mean that they liked (or even that they read) its content. And the same can be said about an email that hasn’t been opened. This doesn’t mean it hasn’t had any impact and driven a response.

So, while not entirely useless, I do believe that opens are increasingly unreliable and relatively irrelevant as a metric.

What’s the solution?

I’d be lying if I said I had a hard and fast solution to these issues. Unfortunately, the fact is that opens remain one of the best at-a-glance metrics we currently have for quickly checking how a campaign is landing with subscribers.

However, to get to the meat of how our customers are experiencing our campaigns, I believe we need to get a bit innovative. For a long time, we’ve blindly relied upon opens as our chief metric simply because it’s always been done like that, it’s what everyone else is doing and yes it can be a very easy metric to measure. But I suggest that it’s time to step away from the herd and to start aligning our KPIs to our objectives in any way possible and I’m not alone in this thinking either, the esteemed email marketing Deliverability expert Steve Henderson wrote an excellent piece recently about this very topic.

Historically, this has been difficult to do. The analytical technology needed to drill down into metrics like Customer Lifetime Value simply did not exist – and marketers did not have the time to comb through all the data for insights. However, things are changing. The modern email marketer has access to a growing array of tools and automations designed to gather and analyse data across a wide array of customizable metrics. Inability is no longer a good excuse for relying solely upon opens in campaign analysis.

How can we diversify our marketing metrics?

To establish measurable KPIs, you need to go back to your campaign strategy. The key questions to ask yourself are:

  • What are your brand’s goals and objectives?
  • What are the goals of your emails?
  • How often are you going to measure your metrics?
  • Who is going to do the measuring?
  • Which key stakeholder is going to be interested in each particular metric?

When setting goals and objectives in general, I strongly recommend that you focus on utilizing the SMART methodology. Ensure that your goals are Specific, Measurable (this one being key to metrical analysis!), Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. If they aren’t then it’ll be difficult to determine metrics that truly reflect the value email is providing your organization.

SMART objectives are a lot less fuzzy and a lot easier to gather performance data upon than vaguer objectives. For example, the SMART goal of ‘Achieve a 10% increase in sales between May and September from segment X’ is far easier to assess than the more general objective of ‘Drive sales’. Most pertinently for the purposes of this discussion, data-gathering and analysis bots need the specificity and clear parameters of SMART objectives if they are to do their job properly.

Where do we start?

The goals and objectives you choose to measure, and the manner in which you measure them are not for me to determine. A large part of the point I am trying to make here is that we must start crafting bespoke metrics, based upon our individual brand goals and the behaviours of our specific subscriber segments.

The important thing is that we step away from the more general picture provided by open rates, and turn towards metrics which paint a more detailed, nuanced picture of the ways in which our subscribers and campaigns are interacting. Not only will this enable us to hone our campaigns more specifically towards our goals, it will also help us to build relationships with our customers. And building relationships is, surely, what modern email marketing is all about.