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Good riddance, open rate – how Apple’s change will make you a better email marketer

By Kath Pay

The immediate casualty of Apple’s move to allow its Mail app users to disable pixel tracking in its mobile, desktop and iWatch devices will be the open rate as a measure of subscriber engagement.

To that prospect, I say “It’s about time!” Because the open rate should never have become a proxy for campaign success.

The conversion rate is the most reliable and meaningful success metric. Apple’s change might finally compel marketers to adopt it and to do the back-end work to make it happen.

The move away from open-rate dependence will have some consequences. The loss of data linked to opens will affect programs that do have a direct effect on engagement and revenue, such as real-time content.

What you need to change first

How you understand and use the open rate is your first task. I agree with my colleague, Ryan Phelan of RPE Origin, who said in his recent MarTech column, “This is our chance to find better ways to measure customer intent.”

The open rate has always been an unreliable measurement of engagement because it is easily undercounted and overcounted. (Can’t say that about other indicators!)  It’s also easy to manipulate: “Send to only your active customers or subscribers, and watch your open rate jump by 50%” Clicks, however, would tell a different story.

Marketers got hooked on it when HTML email, and its easy-to-insert trackers, became the standard over text email, which did not have the same capability. The open rate was easy to track – it’s right there in your ESP’s campaign report! – and as a raw number, it was higher than the click rate (and thus made a campaign look better). This is why it’s sometimes referred to as a ‘vanity’ metric. It makes the marketer feels good, but doesn’t have a whole lot of substance (or accuracy) behind it.

I’ve heard marketers justify using the open rate to measure success because the traditional success metric is eyeballs on the ad, such as a print ad or TV commercial. But we’re talking about email – a highly trackable channel! Being limited to tracking other channels by eyeball count doesn’t mean it’s the best way for email.

In email, the open rate is most useful as a trend indicator – is it going up or down? Does it correlate to content or frequency? Moving away from the open rate won’t affect conversions or revenue.

The impact on your customers or subscribers will be minimal. We know that subscribers don’t even have to open or click an email to have it drive value, whether it just keeps a brand top of mind until it’s time to buy, or spurs the customer to go right to a website.

The DMA UK’s 2021 Consumer Email Tracker found 33% of highly motivated consumers say they go to a comparison-shopping site when they see a product they want to buy mentioned in an email, compared with 21% who say they click through from the email.

Review resend automations based on opens. It’s probably happening right now. You send a campaign to your list, or to a segment, and then send the campaign again to anyone who didn’t open the email the first time around. No doubt a good percentage of that resend is going to people who did open it, but that open didn’t get recorded.

This will be an easy program to revise, and the change will make your reporting more accurate.

Instead of sending to anyone who doesn’t have an open recorded, revise the subject line and perhaps your introductory copy, and send it to people who didn’t click. This is what my email agency, Holistic Email Marketing, does for our clients’ campaigns.

For win-back or reactivation campaigns, basing them solely on open dates means you could end up removing active customers who are just not opening your emails. See the next section, where I discuss the need to call in a wider range of data, such as web activity, to know whether these customers are truly inactive or just operating beyond the range of your metrics.

Next: 4 steps to update your analysis and optimization

1. Audit your email marketing program.

Measure everything that’s happening with your email program now – opens, clicks, traffic to site, AOV, conversions, number of products ordered, revenue (per email, per order, per action, etc.). As well as open-reach, click-reach, and CLTV.

This gives you a set of before-and-after benchmarks you can use to measure changes. You can compare your open and click rates to look for correlations. Do click rates move in tandem with open rates? You might find you have a trending-higher open rate but an inconsistent click rate. This can mean your subject line leads readers to expect something that they don’t find in the message.

Or you might find no patterns – and that’s why we need to rely on actual activity, like click and conversion rates and website activity.

Do Apple Mail customers differ from others? Try to determine what percentage of your readers are using Apple Mail and on which devices. Apple’s new policy applies to email messages being read in the native Mail email client on Apple devices, but it might not apply if someone reads a Mail message in another client – say, if they forward their Mail messages to a third-party client like Gmail or Yahoo.

This can help you anticipate the change in metrics should a large percentage of users opt out of tracking. If you continue to use the open rate to measure success, you’ll be basing your decisions on only a subset of your customers. This is the time to try to discover how your Apple Mail customers compare with Gmail, Outlook and other users.

2. Revise the success metrics for your email testing program.

If you’re like many email marketers, you do basic A/B testing to see which subject lines are more likely to drive opens. However, increased opens don’t necessarily correlate to increased conversions. Revise your testing to measure which subject lines correlate to more clicks or conversions – whatever your success metric will be.

You might think, as many marketers do, that generic, appealing or vague words will increase opens, and thus increase conversions. This might get a wide audience to open – but perhaps not the audience that will click and convert. You might even end up disappointing or annoying your subscribers. Now you have created a poor customer experience, which can lead to unsubscribing or inactivity.

Your best move is to create a hypothesis across multiple campaigns to guide your subject line terms to see which ones drive the success you’re looking for. This method doesn’t give you the instant gratitude you might have come to expect, but it is more reliable in the long run.

See it for yourself with my “litmus test.” Create three lists:

  • Top 10 campaigns based on opens
  • Top 10 campaigns based on clicks
  • Top 10 campaigns based on conversions

Assuming your conversion calculation isn’t tied to your open rate but based on emails delivered or clicks registered, you should see little overlap among the three sets of campaigns.

3. Create a more robust report.

Ensure your analytics software is set up correctly to track and attribute email and begin to add clicks, web traffic/site visits, orders, conversions, AOV (if applicable), RPE etc to your weekly/monthly reports, as well as the negative metrics such as bounces, unsubscribes and complaints. These metrics will measure not only the health of your campaigns, but also your list.

4. Re-evaluate your use of other tools that use open data.

These include send-time optimization, which uses open data to calculate the best times to send email, and real-time content that relies on open data such as time, location and device to automatically personalize or update email content.

Also, update all segmentation and automated programs that use open rate as a deciding factor. Instead of the open rate, which can overlook activity in other channels, use these to detect activity accurately in programs like win-back and reactivation:

  • Clicks
  • Conversions
  • Average order value
  • Website login/visit and other website data
  • Revenue per email/revenue per subscriber

The last word

As you can guess from my comments, I’m not terribly upset that the open rate will become even less reliable as a measure of anything other than historic trends. Nor do I believe this will kill email.

Instead, it will have the power to make email marketing even better. Marketers who do the work now to audit their programs, adopt more accurate and objective-focused success metrics and improve their reporting will reap the benefits of knowing exactly how well their programs are performing and how to keep improving them.

Originally published in on June 2021. Updated December 2021.

Interested in finding out more about the open rate, email metrics and reporting? Check out how the awesome team at Holistic Email Marketing can help take your email programme to the next level.