Nine Questions to Ask When the Numbers Don’t Add Up

My last column addressed the types of questions that were shared during an online chat hosted by the Email Experience Council. A number of people wrote after that column to ask questions about what the industry benchmark for email open rates is and should be. In one message I received, the writer used a great subject line: “Help! My numbers don’t add up.”

Upon reading this email, I learned this person’s company uses three different email deployment vendors. And all three vendors use a different methodology for tracking open rates. Using the same creative and sending to the same opt-in list, this person receives open rates ranging from 15 to 55 percent.

Determining the optimal open rate seems an impossible task.

I was intrigued by this situation and wanted to see how many other people are in a similar dilemma. After checking around (in a very unscientific way), I was surprised to find out how many companies are in a similar situation because they either use multiple vendors (many use a combination of in-house technology and an external vendor) or changed vendors in the past and haven’t been able to determine if the reporting is different or the technology switch affected response.

From all the feedback and comments I received, I designed a checklist to help determine what type of open rate benchmark your company should strive to achieve. Here are the nine questions that can help you determine what your benchmark should be:

  • What type of list are you sending to?

    • Product or purpose-based opt-in (e.g., XXX news)

    • Company or enterprise opt-in (e.g.,, news and updates from ABC corporation)
    • Opt-out lists

  • What type of message do you send?

    • Newsletter

    • Product/service offer
    • Event notification
  • Who is your target?
    • Business-to-business

    • Business-to-consumer

  • How often do you send to your database?

    • Less than once a week.

    • Once a week like clockwork.
    • Who knows? Our organization has so much email going out.

  • How long has the average email address been in your database?

    • Less than 90 days

    • 90 days to 6 months
    • 6 months or longer

  • When email is sent, where is your open rate calculated from?

    • Total number of email messages sent

    • Total number of email messages delivered
    • Total number of HTML email messages delivered
    • Total number of multipart email messages delivered, plus clicks on any text versions

  • When your open rate is calculated, what is it based on?

    • Numbers of times any person reads the email (even if it’s the same person reading it multiple times or using a preview pane)

    • Number of unique reads by an individual person
    • Number of reads by person or IP address (e.g., if I read the email at home, then reopen it at work, that counts as two reads)

  • How soon after a campaign launches do you consider your open rate to be final?

    • 48-72 hours

    • 1 week
    • 2 weeks or longer

  • Do you host an archived version of your email on your Web site?

    • Yes

    • No

Based on how you answer these questions, your open rate benchmark may be as low as 15 percent or as high as 65 percent. How do you determine what your optimal rate should be? First, look for the answer internally. Use these questions to determine your true marketing environment and technical tracking abilities. Search for competitors or industry leaders whose campaigns fit in the same scenarios.

Generally, I recommend setting a benchmark based on historical results, with a goal of 25-40 percent improvement in open rates over a six-month period, through development of a multifaceted testing strategy.

Due to the many answer variations, publishing a key to determine your company’s benchmark open rate would be difficult. But if you just can’t live without knowing what your optimal open rate benchmark rate should be, you can email me with the answers to your questions.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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