Email Open Rates Reimagined

Of the common ways email marketing success is measured, open rates may be the most misused and misunderstood.

The email "open rate" is the percent of your email list that opens an email newsletter you send.Enter your text here...

Limits of the Open Rate

Marketers often cite email open rates as a success metric for email marketing campaigns.

This is limiting at best.

An email that gets opened isn't necessarily read.

The open rate can really only measure the success of your email subject line as that is the primary factor that gets your email opened. Additional, of course, is your audience knowing who you are and wanting to read your emails regardless of subject line.

Sudden changes in open rate may also indicate email delivery issues. Maybe you are being marked as spam. Maybe your email platform is failing to deliver for other reasons. Sudden changes should be investigated.

Measuring link clicks and email replies is a much better indicator of audience interest. Both can help establish how much of your emails are getting read and that some in your audience were moved to take action beyond passive reading.

It was while pondering a gradual seeming decline in my own open rates that I started thinking about what sort of data I really wanted to see instead of open rates.

An Alternative to the Email Open Rate

Most email marketing tools focus a lot on tracking stats for specific emails that get sent.

They make it easy to see the open rate, click rate, and other metrics one email campaign at a time.

Doing so treats each email as an isolated event which isn't reality.

You are very likely sending a series of emails to an audience. Ideally you are sending emails on a regular schedule. Maybe weekly, maybe monthly.

Either way, the majority of your audience is probably the same from email to email. You may have a few new subscribers and a few unsubscribes between each email. But most of your audience will remain unchanged.

Thus I think it's important to understand your audience as a group and see how they collectively engage with your emails. This is the "Email Engagement Rate".

For example, what percent of an audience is reading 5 of your last 8 emails? What percent is reading 3 of your last 5 emails?

I have not seen any way to easily measure this in other email marketing platforms and yet it feels like a very important metric.

For example, the group of your audience that is reading 8 our of your 10 last emails, especially when emailing regularly (1 or more time a week), that is a very dedicated reading audience. One that is likely opening regardless of subject lines.

Email Opening Caveat

Do note that the open rate is not 100% accurate. Some people set up their email reader so you can't tell if they open the mails. Some email readers will also end up marking an email as read, sometimes multiple times, regardless whether a user really opens an email or not.

In spite of this, open rates are still valuable for watching changes in your audience behavior over time. So while the absolute number of opens is not accurate, comparing the open rate between emails is a valid measurement.

Measuring the Email Engagement Rate

I'm not aware of any email platform that measures audience engagement this way. So there isn't a straightforward way to measure this.

What is needed is to record the list of people who opened each newsletter you send in a database or spreadsheet.

Then if you want the collection of people who opened 3 of your last 5 emails, go back over the previous 5 emails, and search for people who opened at least 3 of those emails.

It's a programming problem. I won't solve it in this blog post but the data has to be accumulated most likely outside of your email marketing platform and analyzed yourself.

I use MailerLite and while they publish a programming interface for the platform, it doesn't provide enough control to get this data out.

I will very likely be forced to scrape the data from the website itself. That is, write software to log into my MailerLite account and then go through each email and extract the info about who opened the emails. This is more elaborate than if their programming interface did what I need.


This is a work in progress.

I wanted to write this to record what I think is needed to determine the Email Engagement Rate.

It is possible that this metric isn't useful. Until I can see what it looks like over time, I won't know. And I'll update this post with what I find in future.

Once I have more time to scrape the data.