I'm constantly touting cartoons as a way to double open rates. The way they engage an audience truly is magical, which produces an unfair advantage for marketers bold enough to use them (and use them properly).
Still, a discussion of open rates requires a proper frame of reference, which is what this article is about; what open rates are, why they're important and what you can do to improve them. After all, the people on your list are critical to your success. They're the ones who sought you out, responded to your offers, signed up for your e-mails. They know you and trust your brand. In many ways, they are the ones who are most likely to buy from you. You should think of your open rates as a barometer of how effectively you're engaging your audience with your message.
Open rates aren't as simple to understand as they might seem, as I discovered when discussing the topic recently with a client. He was upset that only 25% of his audience was opening his e-mails when sent through his Constant Contact account, but when he sends e-mails from his private account, all of his e-mails were being received and read. In his mind, open rates should always be 100%. Anything less must mean there must be something wrong with the delivery platform.
So what's the truth about open rates and what can you do to improve yours?
1. Know What You Don't Know: From time to time, my teenaged sons provide a vivid example of not having a clue about how much they don't know about the world around them. But when you're a teenager, you have an excuse. We don't. So with our own open rates, it's important to acknowledge what we don't actually know. My client thought he knew his personal e-mails were being opened 100% of the time, but that can't possibly be true. Okay, it might be true if he is corresponding with the same twenty or so people, because they're likely to have a direct relationship and some level of on-going conversation. But if he broadened the scope of his personal correspondence to, say, a thousand people, his expected 100% open rate would quickly disappear -- that is, if he could physically manage to pump that many e-mails out by hand. Which he can't possibly do. Platforms like Constant Contact extend our reach exponentially and provide an unprecedented window to allow us to see how our campaigns are performing. What my client hadn't realized is that he has no idea how many of his personal e-mails are read, how many fall into spam filters or the like. More importantly, he's not recognizing what he doesn't know, which is a lot if he's guessing at metrics from his personal account and mapping the resulting expectation onto his Constant Contact account.
2. Delivery Rate vs. Open Rate: Another mistaken assumption is that, if an e-mail doesn't bounce, it counts as a read message. Not so. But certainly, if an e-mail doesn't bounce we can assume it was delivered, can't we? Not quite. Non-bounced e-mails might find their way into in-boxes, but they can also find their way into spam folders or a holding queue, or simply deleted by internal spam filters, without notice to the sender. Even open rates, as displayed within your dashboard reports don't represent the entire picture. Open rates are calculated by counting the number of times a tracking pixel is displayed. But several e-mail clients have settings and defaults that don't allow any graphics to be displayed. Outlook is a good example; if the preference isn't set to allow image display, the user may open an e-mail and not register as part of the open rate metric.
3. The Evolving Meaning of "White Listed": Constant Contact is a white-listed e-mail delivery platform. But what does that mean? The simplest explanation is that the major ISPs around the world recognize the standards Constant Contact demands of its members. They know spammers are not tolerated within the platform, so they put Constant Contact on a "white list" of approved e-mail sources. Still, even that is subject to an evolving standard, thanks to more and more sophisticated spam filtering at end destinations for the e-mails. It helps that your e-mail is coming from Constant Contact servers, but now other factors are becoming important, including content, recent history and your "IP reputation."
4. How to Repair Your IP Reputation: Your IP reputation is essentially a score, computed by each spam filter, based on whether it is listed on any black lists and its direct experience with the e-mails you've been sending. If your IP is on a black list, you've got a problem. Some black lists are operated by reputable folks, while others are compiled with no concern for due process or facts. Let's say, for instance, a spammer spoofed your domain in one of their spams, resulting in thousands of complaints to black list operators. Some will talk to you and allow you to explain why your IP doesn't belong on their list. Others ignore any attempts to reach them and should themselves be dropped into a black hole. But there are steps you can take to bolster your IP reputation. Start by checking to see if your domain is listed on any black lists by visiting mxtoolbox.com or blacklistalert.org. If you find your domain has been listed, these sites give you links to request removal. It's a good place to start. Next, take a good, hard look at your e-mail list. Constant Contact allows you to view a list of contacts that have repeatedly bounced as undeliverable addresses. The spam filters track these repeated attempts to send e-mail to nonexistent addresses, which eventually results in damage to your IP reputation. Constant Contact recommends removal any addresses that bounce more than six times as undeliverable. Put those on another list if you must, but taking them out of your active mail list will improve deliverability to the valid addresses on your list.
5. The Secret to High Open Rates: There's only one way to get open rates to increase and to remain high -- which is to consistently provide content your audience feels is worthy of their time. In other words, it needs to be fascinating, or at least useful. Anything less and you will see open rates fall off a cliff. The magazine industry defines this trait as "wantedness," the degree to which readers find the magazine worth their time to read and their money to subscribe. We're not asking people to pay money to receive our e-mails, but we are asking them to engage with our message. So it makes sense to hold ourselves to the highest possible standard when it comes to our content. It needs to be wanted, every time its delivered, or it's not going to produce the results we want as marketers. Consistently compelling and usable content is the secret to high open rates. Your e-mails must be wanted to succeed as part of your marketing mission.
Fortunately, we don't have to hold our e-mail campaigns to the same standard magazine publishers do, but there is still a lot we can do to push our open rates higher and higher. Even though open-rate metrics aren't entirely precise, they tell us everything we need to know about how engaged our list members are with our message.
Would you like to double your open rates immediately? Put my "cartoon device" to the test in your campaign for free.
About Stu Heinecke
Stu Heinecke is a DMA Hall of Fame-nominated marketer, a The Wall Street Journal cartoonist, author of Drawing Attention and Big Fat Beautiful Head, and Founder and President of CartoonLink, a marketing service dedicated to bringing an unfair advantage to marketers through the magic of cartoons.