A comprehensive guide to open rates

Better open rates usually translate to better click-through rates, but now you see your open rates are declining. What do you do? This article will unpack the science behind email open rates and help you beat that downward curve.

What is an email open rate?

It’s important that we look at what your email open rate is to start with. An open rate is a figure that shows you the number of people who opened your email divided by the number of subscribers who got the email.

How open rates are calculated

How are open rates tracked?

Tracking open rates is not an exact science as many factors can affect the open rate metric. Email open rates are tracked by tracking pixels. A tracking pixel is a one-pixel transparent graphic that’s invisible and in all your campaigns. When your email is open, the pixel will only fire once all the images in your email are loaded. Since this is the method by which opens are tracked, multiple issues can occur that would lead to skewed open rates.

  • Some internet service providers (ISPs) and email users NEVER load the graphics in an email. If graphics aren’t loaded, the tracking pixel will not load and therefore an opened email will not be tracked.

  • Some email users prefer to set their email clients to only show them text formatted emails only. Therefore no open event will be tracked.

  • On mobile and tablet devices graphics never get loaded into an email, causing the email open not to be tracked.

  • Email users can set their email preferences to not share tracking information, as well as text-only emails not having tracking as graphics are not loaded in text-only mails.

Looking at the above reasons why your email opens might not be tracking may give you a sense of relief as a marketer as your open rates are likely slightly underreported. However, this is not the only thing that could affect your open rate metric.

Reasons for low open rates and how to improve

If we put aside any tracking discrepancies that may occur due to a tracking pixel not firing, there are many other reasons why you might be seeing low open rates.

Give your subscribers a reason to open your email in your subject line

Subject lines are one of the most important parts of your email campaign. It is the absolute first thing your subscriber will see and what will help them decide whether or not to open your email. Your subject line needs to draw the subscriber in - give them a reason to actually click open and read the content in your email.

Additional resources for improving your subject lines:

  • All our resources relating to subject lines can be found under the subject line category of our thinking page.
  • Keep your subject line short.
  • Don’t be afraid to personalise your subject line.
  • Be creative, but remain clear.

Frequency is crucial

When you don’t send your campaigns on a frequent schedule you will see that your open rates decrease. This is because people can’t get into a frequent habit of opening your emails. Subscribers then don’t expect to receive emails from you because your emails are being sent sporadically. Some subscribers might also forget when they’ve signed up to receive emails from you. You need to find the ideal frequency to send and ensure that your subscriber is aware that you will be contacting them weekly, monthly etc.

On the other hand, if you email your subscribers too frequently you might see surging unsubscribe rates and plummeting open rates. When people receive too many emails they often don’t open their emails and just delete the campaigns they receive.

Content is your secret sauce

Unfortunately what sometimes makes your open rates plummet is bland or irrelevant content. This could be due to subscribers' needs and preferences changing over time or subscribers really not finding value in what you send. A great way to overcome this is to send to smaller segments to see what resonates with your audience. Try to ask yourself what you would want to receive from your brand if you were one of the subscribers on your list. What would make you open your emails every time?

Words you use

Research shows that the words you use can definitely affect your open rates. Certain words can trigger spam filters in your email, which means your email will land in your subscriber's spam folder (never to be seen again). Buzzwords can also taint your credibility and lead to a decrease in the number of opens you see.

Lack of personalisation

Are you sending emails to an individual with personalised content that that person would find valuable? If not - you need to start. Treating your email list like a group is one of the most common mistakes people make when they start their email marketing journey. Even though you know that you are speaking to a group of people, your subscriber should feel like you sent them personalised content that meets their needs and expectations.

You haven’t tested your content

Test, test and then run more tests. That’s what you need to do to find out what your audience enjoys and what they want to receive from you. As much as you read, try new things and implement best practices, every audience is unique and therefore you need to find what works best for your audience. You can run tests to see which subject lines perform better, which design layouts receive better results, etc.

It’s a big no - Negativity

You open your inbox and you see a subject line with a negative connotation in it. You've already had a rough day, you're swamped at work and your boss is on your case. What do you do? You just delete the email without opening it. Be mindful about negative connotations in your subject lines as they might not resonate with your audience. Try to rather answer questions your subscribers might have that entice them to engage with your content.

No segmentation

As mentioned already, treating all your subscribers the same or as a group can heavily influence your open rates. Subscribers want to feel special and feel like you are talking to them directly. Make sure you segment your list to ensure you are targeting your content in an efficient way.

Your email has a high spam score

If you’re sending emails that have a high spam score, your email will not reach your subscriber’s inbox and will land in their spam folder. This will dramatically affect your open rates as spam folders are rarely checked by email users.

We recommend using isnotspam.com to check what your spam score is.

A high spam score means your email is likely to trigger spam filters. Before you send out your campaign you can optimise and adapt your email to reduce the spam rating.

Email rendering

Email rendering is really important when it comes to your email campaigns. It’s important to understand and review how your email renders in different email clients to ensure that you create the best possible email experience for your subscribers. If you don’t look into how your emails render in different email clients (as well as devices for that matter) you could see your open rates plummet, because your emails don’t look nice and aren’t easy to read.

Image vs Text Ratio

Everyone wants to send out beautiful email campaigns but you need to get your image to text ratio right. Adding too many images to your email and not enough text will definitely trigger spam filters. Certain email clients also block images in emails which means that your email might not make sense if you’ve put all your content in images. Your ideal image to text ratio should be 60% text vs 40% imagery/graphics.

Links for days

You want to share all the new exciting things you're doing with your audience - so you stuff your email campaign with tons and tons of links. Using too many links can trigger spam filters and also leave your subscriber completely overwhelmed in terms of what you want them to do next.

Try to stick to between 3 - 5 links in the main body of your email.

Spelling errors

Spelling errors can dramatically reduce your open rates, especially when they are present in your subject lines.

Spelling errors are bad for your open rates because:

  • They make your subscriber think that you aren’t who you say you are
  • They make you seem unprofessional
  • People don’t take you seriously

Using a bought list

Firstly, we don’t allow people to send using the Mail Blaze platform if they have bought their email list. If you see really bad email open rates from sending a campaign to a bought list - you should expect this. These subscribers did not ask to receive information from your brand. You can find out more about why we don’t believe people should buy email lists.

Changing your From name all the time

It’s really important that you have a consistent email marketing strategy. If you are changing your From name that you use all the time, you don’t give your subscribers an opportunity to get familiar with you. If subscribers aren’t familiar with who the email is from, they are less likely to open your email.

Asking to have your emails marked as safe

Have you ever included some form of messaging in your campaigns to ask your subscribers to mark your campaigns as safe? This can go a long way to help you improve your email campaign open rate and help the pixel tracker automatically fire in the future.

Not using double opt in for subscription

When setting up your subscription workflow a lot of email marketers decide to set their email opt-in preferences to single opt-in instead of double opt. This does make it easier to get a subscriber onto your list, but doesn’t add the benefit of a subscriber having to verify the email address they provide. Studies show that single opt in subscription workflows often lead to lower open rates as people provide bad email addresses or use other people’s email addresses to subscribe. Consider changing your opt in settings to double opt in instead of single opt in.

Verifying your domain via SPF

Not having a verified domain can decrease your open rates as SPF or Sender Policy Framework is a standard for email authentication. It basically compares the sender’s actual IP address against a list of IP addresses that have the authorisation to send emails from a certain domain. This helps to ensure that people don’t impersonate your company and send campaigns as your business to others. This also helps you avoid the dreaded spam folder, which increases your open rates.

You don’t actively focus on getting more subscribers

Not actively focusing on getting more subscribers means your list will become stale over time. This will definitely impact your open rates as subscribers' needs change and they may not be interested in your products or services any more. Make sure that you are actively focusing on growing your list.

Your send time is off

Open rates are influenced by the time and day you send your campaigns. If you send your email at the wrong time, you won’t see as much engagement from your audience and your open rates will decrease. You need to find the sweet spot of when to email so you can reach your audience when they are most likely to open your campaigns.

Other frequently asked questions related to your open rates

Why do my stats show a user opening my email multiple times?

Opens in our platform are recorded correctly but there can be a large number of opens attributed to other reasons such as:

  • Some email clients have an inbox preview pane. For subscribers who have this feature enabled, the email client will record multiple opens when the email is scrolled or clicked in the preview pane as well as when the email is opened.

  • Emails that are manually forwarded emails (not forwarded using the forward to a friend feature) will record against a certain subscriber in your list.

  • If your emails are shared using the view in browser links, opens will be recorded for anyone that clicks on the shared link.

Should I delete subscribers who are not opening my emails?

We don’t recommend it. Instead of deleting subscribers who aren’t opening your emails, it is better to try and re-engage these subscribers by sending them reactivation campaigns. Doing this will help you segment your subscribers better and send more relevant content. Segmenting out these subscribers also help you boost your sender reputation.

Which of these actions are you going to implement to help improve your open rates? Tell us in the comments below.


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