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

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Greg Warner is CEO and Founder of MarketSmart, a revolutionary marketing software and services firm that helps nonprofits raise more for less. In 2012 Greg coined the phrase “Engagement Fundraising” to encapsulate his breakthrough fundraising formula for achieving extraordinary results. Using their own innovative strategies and technologies, MarketSmart helps fundraisers around the world zero in on the donors most ready to support their organizations and institutions with major and legacy gifts.

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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5 years ago

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

Greg Warner
5 years ago
Reply to  Colleen

My pleasure Colleen! Thanks for reading my blog!

Christopher Doyle
5 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.

Greg Warner
5 years ago

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

Richard Lamport
5 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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