Email Open Rates Don’t Matter

Stop looking at the open rate and start looking at the actual opens. 

Mailchimp Open Rates | Chimp Answers

“You’re not going to get ’em all opened!”

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TL;DR (Too long; Didn’t Read)

Comparing your email open rates to other emailers is a pointless endeavour. They’re list is different, they have a different deliverability rate to yours and there’s no way you can compare one email lists open rate to another.

In fact, you need to ask the question – should you be tracking email open rates…or should you be tracking actual opens over time – this gives a much better indication of how well your email marketing is progressing…

Since I started the Mailchimp Answers Facebook Group, a popular question that gets posted again and again by members is:

“I’ve got an open rate of X%… is this any good?… what’s your open rate?”

In a world where comparisonitis seemingly affects everyone, we’re all constantly looking for validation about our own activity and wanting to compare it to others.

…But are you (and those in the Facebook Group) asking the right question?…And are email open rates something you should pay attention to?

Why does everyone focus on their email open rate?

Email open rates are almost the first thing people discuss when it comes to analysing their own email marketing performance.

Mailchimp themselves feed this sort of analysis by providing “industry open rates” in your reports, so you can compare yourself to others with similar business types (and be either happy or sad!)

It’s an easy statistic to use and work out – “I sent 100 emails and 50 were opened, so my rate is 50%” – and we all love %s as a way of measuring our performance.

…and let’s be honest, you want to get your emails opened by as many people as possible – to give you a better chance of conveying your message and potentially selling more.

Plus, Email Service Providers (ESPs) like gmail, hotmail and yahoo use information on how many people open email received by their servers as a guide to whether an email should be classed as spam/promotional or not.

So getting more opens matters (it matters a lot!)… but for every one of us, the number of opens we get is completely different to our open rates… and that’s where we trip up.

So why are open rates a ‘bad metric’ and what should we be tracking?

Tracking opens

Firstly, a public service announcement about how email opens are tracked.

Email opens are tracked by tools like Mailchimp by adding a “pixel” into an email sent via their system.

When the email is “opened”, the email reader pulls in the information from the sender – and when it pulls the ‘pixel’, Mailchimp can tell someone’s opened the email.

The problem is, that in several instances, this can be misreported, for instance:

  • If the email is opened, but the tool has “images blocked”, the pixel doesn’t get tracked, even though the email has been opened.
  • If the email is viewed in a preview screen, the pixel gets pulled, but the email hasn’t been fully opened.

So, fundamentally, tracking email opens can get you some screwy statistics that don’t “truly” represent how many people actually opened your emails – especially when comparing them to other businesses.

Now, if you’re sending several thousand emails each time, then you can argue that things will average out… but if you’re sending to a small list, a few misreports can give a skewed view of success.

So just be aware of what is actually counted as an open.

Other issues with open rate tracking

As well as the whole issue of “is an open real or not?” There are a couple of other things to consider with opens and open rates.

Firstly, deliverability will have a huge impact on how many emails get opened.

It stands to reason that the more emails you deliver to an inbox, the more emails you’ll get opened.

…but conversely, the more emails that bypass the inbox and go to spam, the smaller the number of opens.

…so you need to make sure that you’re getting into the inbox – (read this article on deliverability to learn how to improve your chances)

The other issue is unsubscribes.

I think we can all agree that we don’t want unsubscribes, and yet, to get an unsubscribe, you must have an open – so a high open rate may lead to a high unsubscribe rate.  So you should be accounting for unsubscribes in your performance tracking.

Stop comparing

All of these factors make comparing your open rate to someone else a “fools errand” – there’s just no point in doing it because there are too many things that are different for each of us, and focusing on a single statistic doesn’t give us the information we need about how we’re doing.

Plus, there is one final reason that you shouldn’t compare your performance with someone else’s.

Everyone’s list is different and everyone’s business is different.

Consider two retailers who sell food…

One is a big, with branches all over a town and has a big list which it uses to talk about special offers and deals. They send an email every couple of days.

The other is a small local retailer, who has a small list of local clients and who uses email to talk about quality and to give advice on food prep along with recipes. They send an email once a fortnight.

From one point of view they are both food retailers and so you should be able to compare right?

…but when you look at each of them and how they use email marketing, in reality their open rates are likely to be completely different – making comparison pointless.

What should you measure?

I’ve read many articles that point out the shortcomings of open rates, but few actually suggest an alternative.

The main issue with open rates is that, as outlined, comparing them with others provides no benefit.

…but if you’re justing tracking open rates over time for your own business, to see whether you’re getting better (or worse), then the issues with comparison are gone.

…and in many instances, tracking your opens over time is something you should probably be doing.

…but there is one issue with this.

Open rates take no account of how your list size changes over time.

Let’s give an example…

A list of 100 has an open rate of 50%….

…the list grows over time up to 200… and the open rate drops to 40%.

The actual number of opens has increased from 50 up to 80 (which shows growth), but the rate has dropped (which suggests you’re not doing as well).

So which is it?… good or bad?

If you’re looking at finding one statistic that represents how well you ‘might’ be doing with email (and let’s be honest, one statistic is never going to be perfect), then you should probably look at actual opens over time.

Actual opens over time should give an indication of whether your list is growing AND should also give an indication of how engaged people are with your emails.

Simply put, if the number is growing over time, that’s a most likely a good thing… and if it’s shrinking – less so!

Of course, there may be instances where actual opens are going up at a quicker rate than your database is growing… but growth is growth. 

If you want a bit more detail, then you should also track open rate (showing engagement) and unsubscribe rate (showing how many people opted out).

These three statistics should give a much better indication of how you’re doing (and yes, clicks, sales, etc, matter as well).

There’s more to an email than just an open

The fact is, focusing purely on opens and open rates is just looking at one specific aspect of email performance.

There are lots of other ways to track email performance… 

…but as a ‘rough and ready’ gauge of how things are going, using Actual Opens Over Time is likely to give a better indication that open rates will.

…but please, please, please, stop checking your performance against someone else – just focus on your own and look at steadily growing you Actual Opens Over Time.

Robin Adams

Robin Adams

Robin Adams is a business owner who is passionate about helping businesses build effective marketing systems that work and don't waste money. Having a lifetime of Marketing experience (he's got a degree in Marketing before there were degrees in Marketing!) and having worked for big and small businesses and both client and agency side, he understands not only the theory, but the systems that are required to underpin everything.
51% marketer and 49% Chimp, Robin is the main man behind and the Mailchimp Answers Facebook Group - the world's biggest Mailchimp User Group. Connect with him on Linkedin.

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  1. Preston Lee

    Sorry, but this is wrong, actually. If your total opens goes up, that could be good or it could be bad. What if your list size is growing by 2x annually, but your total opens is only growing by 1.5x annually? You might think you’re doing great, but in reality fewer people (of the total number of people who receive your email) are actually opening it. That’s why you need to stick with open rate.

    This logic is flawed: “The actual number of opens has increased from 50 up to 80 (which shows growth), but the rate has dropped (which suggests you’re not doing as well).”

    50/100 vs 80/200 does not show growth. Hence the need for open rate, not total opens.


    • Robin Adams

      Thanks for the feedback – this article is a bit out of date now that open rate tracking is a bit more of a challenge, but the premise holds true.
      I’d argue that an increase of 50 opens to 80 opens is a step in the right direction – but that’s why I qualify it by saying you need to keep an eye on unsubscribe rate AND open rate to give some context.

      In the example you give, I’d say “i’m happy I’ve got more opens – that’s a good thing… but I’d want to see why my % is dropping…”

      The objective of the article is to stop people comparing open rates with others – as you can’t compare… and showing that open rate % on it’s own is a flawed statistic… and that actual opens (although still a bit flawed as you point out) is potentially a more valuable way of tracking progress… Ideally, you’d track 2 things – actual opens and list size growth >> this would give you a clearer view of actual performance.


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