Why Email Open Rates Are Wrong, and Why We Keep Bragging About Them

I love bragging about my sky-high email open rates like I did in this Tweet:

I posted this even though I know:

So let’s talk about why email open rates are inaccurate, and why they’re not as important as you think.

You’ll even learn why people like me brag about email open rates (it’s kind of obvious…)

Why Email Open Rates Are Inaccurate

An email open is registered by a tiny 1-pixel sized image embedded in an email.

You can’t see it, but it’s there. And when it’s downloaded, it’s counted as an open.

But there’s a problem:

  1. When someone sets their email to not download images, the pixel is blocked. So some opens do not get registered. Remember, many email clients like Outlook disable images by default. And in certain apps, you can read an email in a preview window without opening it – so someone read your email, but did not officially ‘open’ it.
  2. Bot activity is increasing across the email marketing landscape. Spam bots roam the internet and fill in forms to join email lists. Then these bots open and even click on your emails, screwing up your metrics. This is mostly a problem for large lists, but it is real.
  3. Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection features automatically downloads the pixel on iPhones, iPads, and Macs – even if the email was not opened. This is why many people’s email open rates skyrocketed when Apple rolled out MPP.

MPP is turned on by default in new Apple devices. Open your mail settings on your iPhone and you’ll see this:

So think about this:

  • Email opens are UNDERSTATED because of people blocking image downloads
  • Email opens are OVERSTATED because of Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection and spam bots

You’re probably asking now “so are email open rates more understated or overstated?”

I’m guessing open rates are more overstated.

Because when Apple rolled out MPP in September 2021, I saw individual email list open rates go from 30% to 50% overnight.

Inaccurate email rates are a nightmare if you use opens for things like resending content and offers to non-openers. Because you don’t really know who opened what!

This was a nightmare for Facebook ad buyers and even case a huge drop in Facebook’s (not known as Meta) stock price.

And I predict this confusion over open rates will get worse over time, not better.

Because consumers are becoming more privacy conscious and will keep turning on privacy protection features in email clients like Gmail, Yahoo!, Protonmail, etc.

Why Email Open Rates Are Overrated

I’ll never say a high open rate is a BAD thing.

But a high open rate does not guarantee success for a simple reason:

The sexy message that gets maximum opens may not attract maximum buyers.

Also, using sensationalist subject lines over and over again to jack up your open rates wears on your audience.

Unless your email content is off the charts amazing every time (and it’s probably not), readers will start rolling their eyes after a while. They’ll stop trusting you.

That’s what I mix up my subject lines – some are plain vanilla, and some are over the top. This keeps people on their toes and maximized curiosity.

An info products business I worked with once generated $400K+ a month… with 10% open rates.

Yes, 10% because the list was never cleaned. We didn’t screw with it because it was making so much money.

And we were often surprised how often a “dead” contact would buy a $1,000 product out of nowhere.


Don’t Forget the Math of Open Rates

Open rate is calculated as the number of emails opened divided by the number of emails sent.

If you get 3,000 opens out of 10,000 emails sent, your open rate is 30%.

But let’s say you cut 2,000 unengaged contacts off your list.

So now you get 3,000 opens out of 8,000 sends for a 37.5% open rate.

Your open rate went up, but your opens didn’t.

You’re not making any more money.

Why Email Marketers Brag About Open Rates

The reason we brag about open rates is that people are impressed by big numbers.

It’s really that simple.

That’s why I made a YouTube video about 10 ways to increase your email open rate:

Now I just explained to you why email open rates are inaccurate.

And even I play this game!

Because it works.

Sad, right?

The lesson here is that yes, it’s nice to have a high open rates. It’s good marketing.

But the long game is about dollars and relationships, not vanity metrics like open rates.

The email with a 3% conversion rate beats the email with a 1% conversion rate every single time – regardless of the other metrics.

And if you build good relationships with your subscribers, people will look for your emails and open them.

That’s your key to long-term success.

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