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The figure you really need to track in emails

What counts as “read” in your email campaigns? It’s a question which was put to me by a reader after my recent post on how critical it is to write killer subject lines. Counting email views is as imprecise as working out how long people spend reading one of our web pages. I believe that what most email services do is to put an invisible image – such as a transparent pixel – into the email, and record which (and how many) readers’ email applications download that image.

The problem with this is that many email readers don’t have images switched on by default. It’s particularly prevalent, for example, with people who just skim through emails in the ‘preview pane’ of applications such as Outlook. And what most people don’t realise is that there’s a problem which skews results the other way too: built-in spam filters can follow links in emails, which will suggest to your mailing system that the email has been opened.

So the ‘open rate’ figure you get from your email campaign software is not very accurate. But does it really matter? Is an open rate of 20% good? What about 80%? Do we really know? I always think there are two useful things to remember:

1. Any errors will be consistent, so it’s fine for comparative studies. For example, if you’re sending half of your mailing list an email with one subject line, and the other half the same email with a different subject line, the comparative results should be valid.

2. Who reads the email isn’t as important as who takes action. If you’re asking 1000 people to click through to your website or download a document, it’s better to have 20% open it and 20% of them take action than 75% open it and 5% take action. That’s the figure you really need to track.