Email Open Rates: 9 Use Cases to Help You Interpret and Improve Your Data
Editor’s note: Agata Celmerowski originally wrote and published this article on April 3, 2017. It’s been updated to reflect current insights and data.
Getting customers to open your email is one of the most common issues plaguing ecommerce email marketers.
You put thought, time, and effort into creating engaging email content, so it’s devastating when you don’t see the performance you were aiming for.
While revenue per recipient (RPR) may be your bottom line metric, email open rates are an important, initial indicator of how effectively you’re getting your message in front of potential customers.
If you can determine what’s working and what’s not working for your email open rate early on, you can make more improvements that positively impact your subscribers’ actions later down the road.
Read on to discover:
- What an email open rate is
- How to calculate your email open rate
- The different between open rate, click-through rate, and click-to-open rate
- Email open rate benchmarks
- How to diagnose the trends in your email open rate and make improvements, accordingly
Email open rates are the percentage of subscribers who open one of your emails out of the total number of subscribers who received it.
Email open rates allow you to measure the performance of your email marketing campaigns or email automations, otherwise known as email flows.
They’re the first metric in your arsenal of email marketing data that can help you understand whether your emails are resonating with your customers—if few people are opening your emails, then it’s an indication that there’s room to improve.
Are you sending the right content to the right people? Are your subject lines enticing? How strong is your email deliverability or sender reputation?
These are all important questions to consider when evaluating your email open rates. I’ll dig more into how to diagnose early warning signs and the steps you can take to make improvements (if necessary) below.
All it takes to understand your email open rate is a simple calculation. Here’s the formula you can use to figure out your email open rate:
Notice the denominator of the equation specifies emails delivered, not just the total number of emails sent. This is an important distinction to make when evaluating email open rates.
Say you send 100 emails, but ten of them bounce (they don’t make it to ten subscribers’ inboxes). Your total number of delivered emails would be 90. If 20 people open your email out of the 90 who actually received it, then you would calculate your email open rate by dividing 20 by 90 (multiplying the answer by 100). This equals 22 percent.
Email open rate, click-through rate (CTR), and click-to-open rate (CTOR) are all metrics that help you gauge how your emails are resonating with your target audience.
You can think of these metrics like chapters in a book—each one expands on the last and gives you a better sense of the entire story.
Open rate is the percentage of subscribers who received and opened your email. CTR is the percentage of email recipients who clicked on a link in your email, out of the total number of people who received your email.
An email CTOR is almost identical to CTR, except that it’s the percentage of email recipients who clicked on a link in your email based only on who opened your email (not just who received it). This means your CTOR will likely be higher than your CTR.
Taking all of these unique metrics into consideration can help pinpoint where along the email journey your customers are disengaging and help you determine what (if any) adjustments you should make.
Think back to the last time you took an exam. You may remember that the teacher would provide a class average once they graded all the tests.
If you were above the average, you could take pride in the fact that your preparation process was working. If you were below the average, the ache of disappointment usually signified that you had to improve your studying skills.
Either way, the class average was a helpful tool for you to gauge your own performance and understand it within the context of your peers.
That’s exactly how industry benchmarks work. They help you measure your own performance by providing a baseline of comparison.
Do you have a good email open rate? Do you have a good CTR and CTOR? You may find it difficult to answer these questions before you determine what success looks like for other brands in your industry.
Here’s a breakdown of the average ecommerce email open rates, segmented by industry:
|Industry||Email Open Rates|
|Apparel & Accessories||18.12%|
|Food & Beverage||20.79%|
|Hardware & Home Improvement||21.62%|
|Health & Beauty||17.31%|
|Housewares, Home Furnishings, & Garden||20.11%|
|Toys & Hobbies||20.95%|
You’ll notice that the averages for open rate fluctuate across industries, which is normal.
Each industry is different and the marketing strategy, email content, and audience varies across all of them—just as you would’ve expected the exam average to vary by subject, class size, and course difficulty.
Your frame of reference makes all the difference. Benchmarking your own email open rate percentages against those in a comparable industry will provide the most valuable insights.
Want to grade your growth?
Using industry benchmarks to gauge good email open rates is a great place to start, but how do you spot and interpret trends in your own email open rates? And how do you improve them?
When you’re diagnosing your own email open rate data, there are two key points to consider: Your open rate (which, remember, is the total number of opens over the number of delivered emails) and your raw number of opens.
If you’ve been cleaning or growing your list regularly, the trend in the raw number of opens will help you figure out whether there’s something in the composition of your list that’s helping or hurting your results.
For both metrics, there are three potential trends you’ll see once you’ve aggregated your results. Generally, they’re either increasing with each send, decreasing, or flat.
Keep in mind, your results will almost always be a little irregular. The predominant trend will help you diagnose overall performance.
Once you’ve mapped out the trends for both your open rate and your total number of opens, you can interpret your findings.
Unsure how to analyze all that data? Don’t worry—I’ve already done the hard work for you. Here’s a guide to the common combinations of trends you might see between your open rate and total opens, plus what steps you can take in response to the data.
If your email open rate is flat, and your total opens are flat…
This could indicate that, although your list isn’t growing much, you’re sending emails to a core group of engaged subscribers.
Or it could also show that your list is growing, but you’re adding new people who are engaged with your content just as fast as you’re losing engagement from previous subscribers.
To improve your results, consider segmenting your list based on subscribe date to see if the engagement of your older subscribers is declining rapidly.
If it is, you could try dazzling this group with winback emails offering access to limited products, free shipping offers, or discounts.
If your email open rate is flat, but your total opens are increasing…
This means you’re adding more engaged recipients to your list.
You’re doing well! If you’re not already doing so, you could A/B test your subject line copy to see whether some messaging resonates better than others.
If your email open rate is flat, but your total opens are decreasing…
If you’re seeing this trend, it means your list is getting smaller. You’ve recently either cleaned it up and started segmenting it, or you’re losing people to unsubscribes and bounces.
If you’ve recently segmented and/or cleaned your list, you’re already making necessary improvements, so don’t worry about the decline in email opens.
But If you’ve noticed that your rate of unsubscribes has gone up, then there are a few remedies to consider.
Since your open rate is consistent, it’s safe to say that your content probably isn’t the cause. The issue could have to do with how you’re growing your list.
If you’re not explicitly collecting permission or consent from email subscribers, you may see a high unsubscribe rate because your audience doesn’t recognize you as a legitimate sender.
How can you resolve this? Make your opt-in process clear and simple.
Also, get in the habit of sending a follow up email to new subscribers asking them to confirm their subscription. This will allow you to build a healthy list right from the get-go.
If your email open rate is increasing, but your total opens are flat…
You’ve most likely started sending to a more engaged segment of your email list at some point during your evaluation period. Nice work!
If your email open rate is increasing, and your total opens are increasing…
If this is how your data is currently trending, then you’re firing on all cylinders. You’re conducting A/B tests that are resonating with your audience and contributing to great list growth.
Keep on keeping on!
If your email open rate is increasing, but your total opens are decreasing…
You may be in the same or similar boat as someone who’s open rates are increasing while total opens stay flat, especially if the downward trend is slight.
But if the total open trend is more significant, then you may have accidentally removed some engaged subscribers from your list.
In this case, take a close look at how you recently segmented your list and check your filters. You may discover that you removed subscribers who were regularly opening your emails, in addition to people who weren’t engaged.
But if you’ve segmented your list because you’ve created a separate email campaign and you’re seeing outstanding performance from the subscribers you sectioned off, this advice may not apply.
Your extra opens are there, they’re just not showing up in your old list.
If your email open rate is decreasing, but your total opens are flat…
Your list is probably growing steadily, but you’re likely adding unengaged subscribers. This can harm your individual sender reputation over time.
Double check how you’re adding people to your email list. Have you made it clear what they’re signing up for?
Also, start taking steps to clean your list, so you can segment out recipients that aren’t engaged with your content.
Leaving unengaged subscribers on your email list might seem harmless, but long term, it’ll affect your email deliverability, which means your emails won’t get through even to the people who want to receive them.
If your email open rate is decreasing, but your total opens are increasing…
This is an unlikely scenario, but if you did notice this trend, it could indicate that you’re growing your list rapidly with a mix of subscribers who are engaged and who aren’t.
First, segment out the people who are regularly opening your emails. This way you can keep sending to them while you troubleshoot what’s happening with the rest of your list.
Then, double check how you’re adding people to your list and what process you’re using for opt-in.
If your email open rate is decreasing, and your total opens are decreasing…
There are several reasons you might be in this situation.
Your existing subscribers could be disengaged with your content, and your list growth may be stunted. You may have fatigued your list by emailing too frequently with content that isn’t appealing to your audience.
Your emails may get caught in spam traps or your subscribers may be flagging your content as spam.
This is what I call the depths of despair. First, check your bounce rates and spam complaint rates to see if they’re increasing, just so you can better diagnose the issue.
Next, evaluate your own behavior as a sender. Are you frequently sending the same content? Are you sending the same content to all your subscribers? Are you over sending?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then there are small improvements you can make in order to improve performance.
Where can you start? Segment your audience and cater to the specific attributes of each group with personalized, captivating content.
High email open rates correlate to high subscriber engagement
If your subscribers are opening your emails, then they’re likely interested in the content you’re sharing. If not, it could be an early warning sign of a gap in your email marketing strategy.
Look at your email open rate performance over time and diagnose where you need to patch the holes.
Resolving your open rate issues and figuring out where you can make the most impactful improvements doesn’t have to be complicated. Use industry benchmarks to help you gauge average performance and listen to the story your data is sharing with you.
And as with all marketing objectives, the most important thing you can do is test, test, and then test some more.
Interested in reading through more email open rate benchmarks? Check out our 2020 Industry Benchmarks report!
See the email marketing metrics that matter most to you, all in one place.