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Email marketing - gauging open rates

If you run a email newsletter or send other regular mass communications to your subscribers and clients, do you know how many of those people actually take a look at what you are sending them? 

An important part of marketing isn't just getting the message out there, but determining the effectiveness of that message. You could be wasting valuable time and money by heading in the wrong direction.

When it comes to email marketing, the good news is that you don't need to spend thousands of dollars on fancy tools to ascertain if your message is getting through, and at least being looked at. Please note that the following can only be used with HTML email; there's no way to gauge open rates of plain text email.

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Gauging HTML email open rates

If your email marketing is delivered via HTML email, gauging open rates is quite simple. Within each email, you most probably have images referencing back to your server - but if you *embed* the images in your email marketing, just a suggestion - don't. The reason for this is that it greatly increase the size of the email and can be particularly irritating to those people in a hurry to download their mail, or who are on dialup.

When someone opens your email, text and other non-image elements load immediately, but images need to be requested from the server. Each request to the server is recorded in its logs. If you have access to your server logs, or a stats application that processes your logs, you can then see how many times that image was loaded.

To make gauging open rates easier to discern and more accurate, consider the following:

Create a unique image for each mailout

Don't base your counts on a common image used in all your communications. Create a new image for each mailout. It can be something as simple as a 1 pixel x 1 pixel gif that is the same color as your html newsletter background. Remember that the smaller the file size, the better. You don't want your tracking image to slow down the rest of the newsletter images loading - a 1x1 pixel gif should be well under 50 bytes.

Name the file appropriately

Name the file so that you can easily recognize it as being a part of a particular mailout. I suggest using the date of the mailout as the file name,  e.g 25feb05.gif

Image insertion point

The image should be referenced at the very bottom of the email. The reason for this is that some people still use preview windows in their email software. If the tracking image is placed at the top, you'll get some false readings - people who haven't really taken a decent look at the email, but have had it displaying in their preview window for a few seconds.

Ensure your stats application is configured

Many traffic reporting applications are only configured to show page views. Check the documentation to find out how to get it to display .gif requests. 

No stats application? Try your server logs

Even if your stats application can't display .gif requests, or you use a remotely hosted tracking service (see below for more detail); most web hosts provide access to raw server logs. This is basically just a text file that contains every request that has been made to your server. You can use a text editor to open these logs and then count instances of the image file name. Studying your logs can also reveal other very interesting information about your visitors. Learn more about reading raw server logs.

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Tracking time

Depending on the industry you are marketing to, you should track the results of your mailout for a week, although most of the opens will occur within the first 72 hours.

Calculating open rate

Nice and easy - divide the number of instances where the tracking image has been requested by the number of emails you sent out e.g.

200 image requests divided by 1000 emails sent = .2
Open rate = 20%

Other issues to consider

While this method will give you a good idea of your email marketing open rates, bear in mind it's not totally accurate. There are a number of issues that will affect your statistics, including:

  • Multiple opens by the same person

  • People who read their mail offline; therefore the images won't load

  • Firewalls can prevent images from loading

  • Email software/services incompatible with remote image loading.

While these issues will have some impact on your statistics; it's not enough to be a major concern - it basically balances out.

Inserting stats counter code

Many remotely hosted stats reporting applications provide you with a snippet of code to insert in your web pages as a means of tracking activity. I don't recommend using these snippets in your emails; mainly because they usually contain JavaScript which is seen by many email services and software to be a security threat and are consequently stripped off. Worse still, the entire email may be trashed or redirected to a bulk folder.

More in-depth statistics

If you don't have the time to mess around with all this, then there are many fine autoresponder software and list manager applications that can track real-time stats on sent messages, unique and total clicks, opens, bounces, forwards and delivery rates - at a very reasonable price. Learn more about list managers and autoresponder software and try out some free trials. You can also pick up some related advice in my article: click tracking - software and tips.

What's a good open rate?

A "good" open rate greatly depends on the industry sector you're marketing to, the way that you acquired your subscribers and the type of relationship you have with them. 

According to a study carried out by OptInNews a couple of years ago, business-to-business (B2B) email marketing has a higher overall open rate (71%) than business-to-consumer (B2C) email newsletters (41%). Note that these figures are based on scenarios where there is a legitimate and strong relationship with a subscriber base. 

Once you have determined your open rate, no doubt you'll want to improve it - the subject of my next article; stay tuned :).

Further learning resources

Learn more about mailing list manager applications and autoresponder software

Click tracking - software and tips

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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