Deliverability: It is all about the open rates

I recently hosted my first Deliverability webinar for my employer – if you missed it, you can catch the recorded version any time. We spent about 40 minutes looking at a few key concepts that senders should understand to begin to actively manage and improve deliverability. We received a number of compliments from attendees after the session, but we also received many more questions – far more than could be answered in the time allotted for Q&A after the session.

Today’s post is the first in a series that will attempt to answer some questions we received during (and after) the webinar that we just didn’t have time to address, or answer more completely.

We’ll focus on a pair of questions about open rates.

What’s a good open rate for e-mail marketing? What kind of open rates can I reasonably expect?

This is a question we hear often from senders who are just getting started on their e-mail strategy. A quick check of the search engines will show that some of that data has been available from time to time, but it’s not a good idea to use these as a gauge for the success of your own program.

There are so many variables in the way senders approach e-mail – even within the same industry (non-profits, insurance, accounting services, etc.) – that the data is not terribly useful as a benchmark. This type of data rarely addresses some of the qualities of the mail it’s reporting on – information that’s far more important than the category of industry:

  • Are they sending newsletters or more promotional mail, or some mix of these (and in what proportion)?
  • What is the quality of their lists, and what “flavor” of permission have the recipients given to the sender?
  • How much effort does the sender devote to list hygiene, and to subject line and content testing?
  • And how does all that compare with what you are actually doing or planning to do?

Without a way to qualify these and many other variables, it’s very hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison. But if I had to produce an average open rate number upon pain of death (or unemployment), I’d say that a sender in any industry who strictly adheres to best practices, including confirmed opt-in acquisition methods, should reasonably expect to see between 15% and 25% of their mail opened.

What kind of technologies do ESPs use to track when e-mail is opened? How reliable are they?

My employer inserts a transparent image file into each message as it is built immediately prior to the send. The image is only a single pixel in size, and each image file is uniquely named so that it is associated with a specific message and individual recipient. The images are stored on our server, so that when the recipient opens the mail and their e-mail software displays it, we record the call to our server to download the image file. We make a note of the time and date of the download, and add it to your tally of opens. Just about every ESP of any size uses a nearly identical process to record and track opens.

When a recipient reads mail with images turned off, the image file isn’t downloaded and the open is not recorded. However, when the recipient clicks on a link in your mail, we report both the click and an open.

It’s difficult to know when a recipient opens or previews a message with images turned off. Some e-mail software or recipient domains always turn images off by default. Many of the older models of Blackberry smart phones don’t render images at all. Most ISPs and e-mail clients give the recipient the option of changing the display settings to turn them on by default or on a sender-by-sender basis.

Many of the most popular e-mail packages and free inbox providers will display images in mail from senders who appear in the recipient’s Contacts folder or address book. That’s why it’s always a good idea to ask your recipients to add your From: address of your e-mail to their address book.

In the next installment, we’ll answer a question from a sender about what to do about recipients for whom mail always seems to bounce, and what to do with recipients who seem to have stopped opening or clicking through on your e-mail. Until then, keep engaging!