Email Marketing: Open Rates Just Part of a bigger Picture

By Betsy Weaver, Ed.D.

Most businesses are getting on the email marketing bandwagon.  Cost containment, green business practices and the public’s growing comfort with electronic communications has caused a proliferation of e-marketing service companies.

Lots of us have used these services to send out announcements, or news about our companies. We choose attractive templates. Carefully construct our messages.  Upload our mailing lists, craft clever subject lines, hit send and keep our fingers crossed.  Did they get it? Did they open it? Did they read it?

One of the key metrics that marketers look for to gauge the success of an email marketing campaign is open rates: the number of emails actually opened by the recipient. But open rates are just part of the story. A better metric is engagement, or how many people are touched by a communication over time. So, open rates look at a single point in time and engagement looks at a bigger picture – an important distinction for marketers who want messages to be long –lived, have a big reach and provide a guarantee return on investment.

Open Rate in Context

TPR Media recently conducted a study of its email newsletter that looked at unique opens in a four-week period.  Calculated on a weekly basis, our open rate did not show much fluctuation. Thirty-five thousand opens were registered one week, and 35,000 opens were registered the next, indicting that the open rate is consistent. On closer examination, however, those 35,000 unique opens may not be the same people. Some people may open the email one week; other people may open the email the next week. And so on. The point here is that the unique open rate over a four-week period can be up to 25% higher than the rate for any one week.

There may be any number of reasons why recipients choose to read an email from one week to the next. The important point is that looking at engagement as opposed to open rate will often tell a better and more accurate story about the success of an email communications program – and in many cases, show a higher rate of success.

So, how do you measure engagement? Marketers need to know what a recipient does with an email after opening it. Click throughs (clicking on the links in a given email, quantified as the click through rate or CTR) is one measure of engagement. What’s a good CTR rate?  TPR Media’s CTR is 10 percent, considered to be in the 85th percentile for business to consumer, permission based newsletters. We think that’s pretty good.

Another measure of engagement – and maybe the most important – is whether the recipient forwards the email to another person – or shares it in some other way. In a 2008 study of its email recipients, TPR Media found that 67 percent of respondents said that they had forwarded email to, or shared them with at least one other person, dramatically increasing the reach of those communications and improving ROI.

What does a good open rate look like?  Most e-marketers agree that reliable content from a credible source yields higher open rates.  In the healthcare sector, for example, open rates for permission based, requested services averages around 9 percent. A good open rate is considered to be in the 20 percent range. According to Ed Bennet, Director of Web Strategy at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a respected author and blogger, emails for a targeted market segments with customized content can yield an even higher rate, between 20 and 30 percent. Combine that with a high-interest subject line and the numbers can even be higher.

So, how can savvy marketers improve their open rates and get the best return on investment?  Hear are a few ideas:

• Keep your subject lines short and relevant to the content. Avoid all caps, multiple exclamations points and branding.

• Practice good list hygiene: make sure your email lists are updated and accurate. Delete duplicates and bounced back addresses.

•  Customize your content: Don’t send generic messages. If your audience is interested in a particular topic, make sure the content focuses on that.

• Know your market: Not all content appeals to all people. Make sure you’re sending relevant information to people who are invested receiving it.

Betsy Weaver, Ed. D., is president and CEO of TPR Media ( TPR media is a leading provider of fully customizable email and social media communications solutions that improve health outcomes and help healthcare professionals build strong relationships with their patients. TPR Media clients enjoy open rates of more than four times that of the health care industry average – 40.13 percent compared to 9 percent – and in July, 50 percent of TPR clients had open rates of over 50 percent.