Email Opens or Reads: Which is Right?
When measuring the success of email campaigns and overall performance health of email programs, opens and its various related metrics (open rate, click to open rate, etc.) are a common benchmark used by marketers. This metric is accepted as an accurate capture of views, as it tracks images rendered per message, counting the rate at which recipients are seeing the content that was sent. Recent research from the DMA found the average open rate to be 25.1 percent.
When managing messages in the inbox, bolded sender name/subject line and new message count are common indicators used by mailbox providers and subscribers to identify unread messages. Once the email has been previewed, skimmed or similarly consumed, it becomes unbolded within the inbox, considered read, and removed from the new message count. Recent research from Return Path found the average read rate to be 21.5 percent.
Despite the similarities in the goal of these metrics (measuring views), there are inherent differences. Which is more accurate? Let’s explore this further:
Tracked by: pixel, embedded in the HTML by the email sending platform
Captures: The number of times the pixel is fired, tracking each time the images from the message are downloaded and displayed
- Inflated numbers: Opens, often shown as “total opens” in reports, may be overstating actual views if a message is seen more than once or accessed on different devices by the same user. Some reporting systems offer “unique opens” as another way to view the metric, which counts only one open per email address. For example, Cheetah Digital reported benchmarks in last year's third quarter to be 25.8 percent total open rate and 17.2 percent unique open rate, so the variance can be quite large.
- Inaccurate results: Because images must be rendered for an open to be counted, text-only, some mobile environments and inboxes that don’t automatically download images (due to high security settings, for example) would be left out of the calculation. With the prevalence of mobile, this can cause performance reporting to be misleading.
Tracked by: recipient’s inbox activity, dwell time
Captures: A message being marked as "read" in the inbox, email goes from bold to unbold in the inbox
- Margin of error: Because the read metric is based on inbox activity, there's a potential for error if subscribers are manually marketing a message read instead of actually spending time in the preview pane or consuming message content.
- Limited availability: Not all email reports include reads, as the marketer view of engagement and mailbox provider view of engagement have yet to be reconciled into a common set of success measures.
The truth is that neither of these metrics are perfect and neither tells a complete story. Opens and reads are helpful directional indicators of how much and often subscribers are viewing message content. Together they can fill in the questionable areas to give a more complete picture of engagement. However, opens or reads aren't reliable enough on their own to stand alone as a single key marker of success.
Bonnie Malone leads the consulting, client training, and knowledge and editorial organization of Return Path, an email data solutions provider.
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Bonnie is passionate about excellent customer experience. With a background in marketing, merchandise buying and retail management, she helps companies stay relevant amid the changing digital landscape. Bonnie leads the knowledge and consulting teams at Return Path, the global leader in email deliverability. She is an active Email Experience Council committee member, featured speaker for events, and writes monthly for the Return Path blog and Total Retail.