Sell to Win

A farewell to the open rate

Andy Fowler
CEO & Co-Founder, Nutshell
Andy Fowler
CEO & Co-Founder, Nutshell

This fall, when we all unwrap our batch of new emojis with iOS 15, we’ll also say goodbye to something that’s been in the marketer’s toolbox for 20 years: the open rate.

Apple’s new Mail Privacy Protection feature eliminates the ability for email marketers to measure opens. iOS Mail currently makes up 40% of email client market share. Add MacOS Mail to that, and half of email clients will soon be hiding open data.

But here’s the dirty secret: the accuracy of the open rate has been shaky and in decline for a few years now. Many corporate email security products block this information, as do privacy-centric email apps like HEY. Gmail’s image proxying has led marketers to create imprecise workarounds for measurement.

There's even an entire mini-site devoted to tracking the death of the open rate.

So this fall, when half of email clients make open tracking impossible, it’s the nail in the coffin for this metric. 

And you know what? The retirement of the open rate is a good thing for marketers, small businesses, and privacy advocates alike.

I’m the co-founder of an email marketing company, and I’ll confess: we offer reporting on campaign open rates. At the top of the page. In bold text. 28 pixels tall! We all want to know if our audiences read what we have to say.

So what’s wrong with the open rate?

Let’s start with the word “open.” Sounds like you’re walking to the mailbox and tearing open an envelope. But think about how you read email: one swipe of your phone and you’re glancing at them in line at Chipotle or during all-hands Zoom calls. Or maybe you tear through your inbox with the Outlook preview pane.

If an email graces your screen—even momentarily—the marketer who emailed it declares victory and marks you down as an open.

"Opening" a bunch of mail

Faux accuracy

Open rates sound so darned precise! Ask a sales pro about next month’s pipeline and they’ll say “about $100,000, give or take.” That’s not because they lost their brain cells on TikTok—but because they know those figures contain a lot of uncertainty.

Open rates are percentages of large numbers, so we tack on a bunch of decimal places which suggest accuracy as well as precision. Take a look at these open rate benchmarks from Mailchimp. If you’re a food truck with a 22.87% open rate, are you really 0.44% behind the pack? 

The precision of open rates obscures all of the things we don’t know.

Open rate is a distraction

But the real problem with open rate is this: It’s a distraction from outcomes that really matter. Email campaigns aren’t advertising. We don’t measure them by the impression.

The McNamara fallacy warns against only measuring the easily-measured things, and the story goes like this:

  1. Measure the things that are easy to measure (that’s open rate: it’s the big number at the top of your email marketing software!)
  2. Disregard the things which aren’t easily measured (How many leads did this campaign generate? How did it help sales bring leads to a webcast? How much revenue did it support?)
  3. Spend all your time fiddling with #1, eking out a higher open rate with sneaky subject lines and maybe some emojis.
  4. Nothing else happens.
  5. Marketing earns an arts-and-crafts reputation, with no connection to sales.

If we are to be marketers who truly care about sales and growth outcomes, then open rates no longer deserve a place in a marketer’s toolbox: not when more than half of your readers are ignored.

So…

So how do we measure our email marketing efforts? I’ll start with one that seems to often be forgotten:

Measure replies

Email isn’t advertising: it’s communication. So why not ask your audience what they’re thinking? What problem are they trying to solve this week? I bet they’ll tell you!

Your audience has something to say, and it might be more valuable to your business than a 1.127% increase in open rate.

My favorite part of being the sender on the occasional Nutshell campaign is the dose of questions, feedback, rants, and praise that appears in my inbox. Your audience has something to say, and it might be more valuable to your business than a 1.127% increase in open rate.

Even better: when people reply to your emails, it sends signals to email providers about the quality of your messages, which improves your future deliverability.

Measure clicks and actions

Did your campaign generate RSVPs to next week’s webcast? Did it bring attendees to that webcast? Those metrics don’t show up at the top of MailChimp or Constant Contact, but they’re surely much more important to your business.

Measure revenue

How many of your new customers engaged with your marketing content? How many of your clicks turned into paying customers? Those outcomes are what we should be using as our north star.

And the best part is that keeping marketers focused on sales outcomes actually encourages marketing and sales teams to work together to achieve those outcomes.

So, look for email marketing software to sunset the open rate this fall. Our own product team is working on how Nutshell Marketing does this: stay tuned for that.

And consider this an opportunity to start measuring the real outcomes of email marketing—the ones that actually bring people and revenue to your business.