Thoughts on Life Without Email Open Rates

Life without open rates? If the new email service Hey.com has their way, this will be the new normal for email marketers. Even if Hey isn’t successful, the pendulum is swinging toward more online privacy, which may make open rates and other tracking email marketers rely on today extinct.

Here’s the thing… I’ve been in the email marketing game long enough to remember BEFORE we were able to track open rates. And here are my thoughts on them going away…

Really? Before Open Rates?

Yes. I started my career in digital marketing with CompuServe; I was right out of school, it was my first full-time job. That was… let’s just say that was before the year 2000. It was before most people had heard of the internet; my friends all thought I sold computers. But I didn’t. I helped large companies and non-profits communicate online with ‘private networks.’

We created bulletin boards where information could be posted for all to retrieve, we developed discussion boards that allowed groups of people to exchange ideas, and we made sure everyone had a CompuServe email address for one-to-one (or one-to-many) communication.

The American College of Physicians, Marriott and NovaCare were some of the clients we supported from the CompuServe office just outside of Washington, DC, where I worked.

All of this was text-based; you could upload and download image files, but you couldn’t view images online. And there wasn’t much tracking; you might know how many times a file was downloaded, but not much else.

So when did Open Rates Appear?

The first significant tracking of email behavior was the click-through rate. it was a few years ahead of open rate tracking, which became available around the year 2000.

I remember when open rates came on the scene because I had moved from CompuServe into the publishing industry. I read everything I could about how to track opens, and then tried my best to explain it to the internal IT team that was managing my email send solution. They thought me a bit crazy until I was able to get a techie friend on the phone to explain it to them.

This was also around the time I started attending email marketing conferences. Late night there was usually a friendly gathering of conference attendees at the hotel bar. But bring up open rates and people would almost be driven to fisticuffs.

You see, there were email industry thought-leaders who didn’t like that open rates were relative metrics, dependent on whether or not images were enabled. They preferred to rely on absolute metrics, like click-through rates, which were 100% accurate.

But open rates prevailed. They even spawned new metrics, like click-to-open rate. And email service providers made open rates more accurate by making sure that every email that garnered a click also ticked an open. And I hadn’t seen a fight almost break out about open rates in many years, until last week.

Last week?

Yes, last week. It was pretty much a virtual fisticuffs (actually maybe more of a virtual steel cage wrestling match, unscripted) between Hey.com and a member of the Only Influencers (OI) community of email marketing professionals.

Hey is blocking tracking pixels, this member of the OI community is working on a way to get around Hey’s blocking of tracking pixels. You get the idea.

So it got me to thinking….

What if Open Rates went away?

As an email marketer, I like knowing what percentage of my list opened an email. It gives you good feedback on how effective your email ‘prime real estate’ was, this includes:

  • Friendly From Line
  • Subject Line
  • Preheader Text or Snippet
  • Preview Pane View

So I’d hate to lose that. If you have a super low open rate then you know that the problem probably lies with one of the elements above, assuming it’s a proven list and you don’t have a deliverability problem.

I am also a fan of the Click-to-Open rate (CTOR), which we would not be able to calculate without data on the number of opens.

CTOR can help you compare how the content in the body of one email message performs against the body content of another, even if their open rates are very different. Again, I’d hate to lose that.

What about Click-through Rates?

Interestingly, Hey doesn’t really talk about blocking click tracking. Maybe that’s because it would be much more difficult than blocking open tracking.

Click tracking utilizes a ‘jump page,’ which ticks a click and then sends you to the landing page, all in the blink of an eye. The email doesn’t know the URL of the landing page, only the jump page knows that.

So it seems like click tracking is safe… at least for now.

And if Open Rates did go away?

Maybe it’s because I was married to a lawyer for a long time, my first instinct is to negotiate. Let’s say we all agree that today’s open rate tracking is too invasive, could we remove the personally identifiable information (PII) and get aggregate data on opens?

In other words, don’t tell me who opened, just tell me what percentage of the list opened. Don’t tell me where each individual person was, just tell me what percentage were in Florida as opposed to Massachusetts, or on the West Coast of the U.S. as opposed to the East Coast.

And if we couldn’t get that, if open rate went completely away and we had no idea whether or not any of the email we send was opened…

Email marketing would still survive. It would make it more difficult to optimize performance, since we’d have a ‘black box’ in place of open rate, but we’d figure it out.

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