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What Are Email Open Rates?

Jennifer Post

Email open rates are a critical metric to track, as they tell you a lot about the success of your marketing campaigns.

Owning a small business takes courage. You take chances, you put yourself out there, and you risk failure pretty much every day. This is true, too, when it comes to your email campaigns. You put time and energy into the content, images, links, design, and more for your emails. So when people don't open them, it affects you professionally and personally.

What is an email open rate?

When you send an email, the percentage of people who open it out of the total number of subscribers is the email open rate. A good average to strive for with your open rate is between 20% and 25%.

Raychel Kolen, marketing principal at MUSE Marketing + Design, said the open rate is one of the most important metrics to pay attention to when implementing email marketing for your business.

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"While there is some value in people simply seeing your email hit their box, if we can get potential customers/clients to open that email, they'll be getting more of the information we want them to see, and they'll be more likely to take the desired action from that email," Kolen said.

How to calculate email open rates

Calculating your email open rate is pretty simple – as long as you have the correct data.

The key metrics you need to determine your rate are how many subscribers your email was sent to, how many bounced back and how many of your subscribers opened the email after it landed in their inbox.

According to Krystle Church, founder of KLC Copywriting, when calculating your email open rate, don't include emails that bounced back in with your delivered send counts, since they weren't actually delivered.

The formula for this is  

Number of emails read / (Number of delivered emails - Number of bounced emails) x 100 = Open rate

TipTip: The top email service providers all should have reporting baked into their platforms. Make sure you consider the needed analytics when comparing companies.

What are average and good email open rates?

Good email open rates will vary based on several factors, including the type of email sent and the industry your business is in.

For example, Kolen said very customized emails, like those with an order confirmation or a special offer for first-time customers, can get email open rates of above 70%. Email newsletters, however, have much lower email open rates that vary by industry.

Generally speaking, you want at least 20% of recipients opening your emails, according to Church.

"Anything under 20% I'd recommend looking at why and addressing the root cause to increase your email engagement," she said. "Open rates between 30% and 40% are generally considered very good, and above 40% are great.

Justin Smith, CEO of OuterBox, said that while it's good to use industry benchmarks to determine a "good open rate," often it's best to benchmark against yourself for continual improvement.

"If you're just starting out with email marketing, use your initial campaign to create a benchmark, and then work to improve from there," Smith said.

How to track email open rates

The email open rate is one of the most important email analytics you should be tracking, and there are a few different ways that small business owners can do it, but the most popular is to have your email marketing program do it for you.

"Any email marketing program should provide this kind of tracking for you in its dashboard, as this is a very important and common metric marketers like to track," said Kolen. "I also regularly input these into an 'old-school' spreadsheet so I can monitor changes over time. Keeping an eye on open rates by email/email type in each month can illuminate whether emails need tweaking or are working as is."

Smith agreed that recording open rates in a customized spreadsheet is key to analyze what's occurring as your campaigns roll out. Smith also suggested diving into tracking open rates against the time of day your emails are sent, what days of the week they are sent, etc.

The importance of email open rates

Some say email rates don't impact the overall success of a small business, while others strongly disagree. And others believe that open rates are one piece of the overall picture.

Heather Roonan, a content manager at GigSalad, said open rates are extremely useful in determining the success of your efforts, as is the click-through rate.

"There's no point in building beautiful emails if no one is opening them," said Roonan. "If the purpose of your email is to educate or inform using the content within the email, then the open rate is the most important metric to watch and improve. If you also need them to click through to read more or make a sale, then open rates are half the battle. In that case, you need to be watching your click-through rate as well."

Church said email open rates should be used as more of an indicator of how healthy your email list is. Those rates serve as a guide, informing you if your audience is interested in your company or perhaps indicating that it's time to scrub your list and delete stale subscribers.

In addition to the click-through rate, conversions from email can be indicative of a successful email campaign.

6 tips for improving email open rates

Low open rates can indicate a few things, like disengaged subscribers, less-enticing subject lines, or untargeted emails, according to Church. Here are some ways you can turn around low open rates:

  1. Start with your subject line. Your subject line is the first thing people see. Often, it is the primary driver for opening an email, so make sure you're writing the best subject line you can.

    "If your email platform allows for it (which most do), try A/B testing your subject lines with a small subset of your total audience," Smith said. "When doing an A/B test, make sure your subject line is the only aspect of your email that is different. If you're trying to test multiple variables at once, you'll never get definitive results."
  1. Think about the "from" field. Consider, too, using A/B testing for what shows up in the "from" field.

    "For example, do your email subscribers want to hear from your brand name or a specific person at the company?" Kolen said.

    Test a couple of different versions, and see which one performs better. However, keep in mind that it won't be foolproof, because different segments of your list might want different things.
  1. Identify the cause of your low open rates. You can't correct a problem if you don't know where the source of the problem lies.

    "If you're consistently getting low open rates, consider how often you've nurtured your audience, what your ratio of value to sales email is, and if they've been promoted [to] a lot," Church said.
  1. Segment your email list. If you're not seeing the open rates that you want from your marketing emails, it could be because you're sending them to too many people who aren't interested in your offer.

    "Be sure to segment your list for offers or promotions that are relevant to only specific subscribers based on tagging and behavior tracking you're able to do within your email marketing platform," Church said.
  1. Use emojis, but don't overdo it. Another trend is the use of emojis.

    "Of course, the more popular it becomes, the less your email will stand out against others, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. Just don't overuse them," advised Roonan.
  1. Implement a retargeting campaign. If you notice that certain subscribers never open your emails or open them but don't click through to anything, it might be time to try something to incentivize them back to your business.

    You can do this a few different ways, but the most common is to offer a discount or free shipping. Create a separate email list comprising your inactive subscribers, and send the retargeting emails to that list only.
Image Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images
Jennifer Post Contributing Writer
Jennifer Post is a professional writer with published works focusing on small business topics including marketing, financing, and how-to guides. She has also published articles on business formation, business software, public relations and human resources. Her work has also appeared in Fundera and The Motley Fool.