3 big reasons why email open rates don’t matter (and what you should measure instead)

First, a short story
Recently I participated in a roundtable discussion led by a salesperson for one of those cookie-cutter planned giving website companies. She was showing off her firm’s marketing emails. As she presented her Powerpoint slides, she kept emphasizing how wonderful the open rates were.

17% open rate. 28% open rate. 34% open rate.

“Oooh. Aaah. Wow” said the others seated beside me.

Then I asked, “Why are you measuring open rates? They don’t account for the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of email marketing. No smart marketer cares about them. I don’t get it. Why do you keep talking about open rates?”

Stunned! The sales rep was stunned. She had no idea what to say. 
That’s because she didn’t know a darn thing about effective marketing. She was just spewing misinformation. Sadly that’s what I see happen at most fundraising conferences. That’s why I rarely go to them.

Some people call email open rates empty metrics. Others say they are just a vanity metric. I’m here to tell you that there’s simply no good reason whatsoever to measure them. Here’s why:

  1. Most email programs that block images misreport open rates;
  2. Many opens on mobile devices such as Blackberry devices do not report that the email was opened;
  3. And, finally, emails read in preview panes are usually not reported as opened.

So what should you measure instead?:

  • Clicks
  • Number of pages visited
  • Types of pages visited online
  • Time on site
  • Forwards/shares
  • Shares on social media
  • Inbound requests for more information
  • Inbound phone calls

What really matters is engagement! Email open rates are faulty and useless! 

So the next time you hear one of those cookie-cutter planned giving website salespeople tell you about their open rates, tell ’em you know better.


>> 15 Powerful Nonprofit Statistics for 2015
>> 14 Tips for Making Your Nonprofit Email More Effective
>> The Top 3 Kinds of Emails Your Donors Actually Want to Receive From You

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6 years ago

I like seeing the focus here. Thanks for providing metrics that SHOULD be used instead!

6 years ago
Reply to  Colleen

My pleasure Colleen! Thanks for reading my blog!

Christopher Doyle
6 years ago

I agree. And I have noticed that on my smart phone or tablet that in order to delete an email in gmail, I cannot just slide it and delete. I have to open the email and then delete it. Which means every email I get in gmail is opened. But 99% I just open to delete. That has to be giving lots and lots of false positives. My measure of emails is how much money did I raise/net. Period.

6 years ago

Exactly Christopher. False positives abound!
You’re smart!!!

Richard Lamport
6 years ago

In the final analysis, it’s the number of leads generated that counts (e.g.: requests for more information, phone calls, etc.) The rest is interesting but not central to the effectiveness of the promotion.


[…] That was in addition to the time in 2017 that I told you not to focus on open rates. […]

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