Should marketers drop the use of open rate when measuring email marketing effectiveness? Membership marketers should not live and die by open rates. Open rates are not an exact science and association membership and marketing professionals can't rely solely on open rate figures to tell how many people read their message.
However, understanding that open rates are not a perfect measure of success and assuming that the same percentage of recipients have images blocked and view your email in preview mode for each email message (give or take a few percentage points), the open rate metric can be valuable to associations.
Why Are Email Open Rates Important to Associations?
If your members are not opening your email, your message is not getting through. In email marketing, you have three key measurements:
Open Rate: Percentage of members that opened the email (not exact)
Click-Through Rate: Percentage of members that clicked on a link in your email
Offer Conversion Rate: Percentage of members that completed the transaction you were offering them (e.g. conference registration or reading an article on your website)
By analyzing the open rate of your member emails, you know what is working and what is not. If you only measure on click-throughs and conversions, you run the risk of misdiagnosing the problem in your email marketing campaign.
If your campaign to generate conference registrations had a lower conversion rate than last year, was is because your emails were not opened, or was is caused by the language and format in the body of your emails, or was it because the registration page was not convincing nor easy to use? It is possible that you could spend time rewriting email copy that was effective when it was your subject line that was the problem.
The open rate metric is valuable to membership markets in the following ways:
Split Testing To Get Better Results From Email Communication
Email subject lines are the most important thing to get right when using email in membership marketing. If you are planning an email marketing campaign that is being sent to 18,000 members to get them to sign up for an upcoming webinar on the benefits of participating in your new online community, try this:
- Run a test with a randomly chosen 3,000 of the 18,000 members – most targeted email tools in your online community or stand alone email marketing systems make this easy.
- Create three distinct subject lines based on email marketing best practices and your knowledge of what is important to members. For example:
- Subject #1: New Member Benefit –Members-Only Online Community
- Subject #2: ABCA Members: Join Discussions with Other Members
- Subject #3: News from ABCA
- Run an A/B test (sometimes called a multivariate test) using your email marketing software and track which subject line receives the highest open rate.
- Use that subject line when sending the email to the remaining 15,000 members.
Imagine if you had not done the subject line testing based on open rate and choose one of the lesser performing subject lines. You would have wasted a touchpoint with members and seen a lower success rate for click-throughs and webinar registrations since few members even opened the email.
Keep in mind that this is not an exact science. So, if the test results show a 3% difference on open rate among subject lines, I wouldn't recommend changing your tactics based on that data. In that case, I would test a little more with more differentiated subject lines. However, if you see a 15% increase in you open rate with a specific subject line, you have come across some valuable data that is going to make a difference in your webinar attendance.
Evaluating Initiatives and Messages By Comparing Email Marketing Campaigns
Assuming that the variables that impact open rate, like having images turned off, mobile readership, and number of people who view emails in preview mode, are fairly constant, associations can compare the effectiveness of one email campaign against another.
Using the online community webinar in the previous example – Let's assume that you are rolling out three new member benefits this year to a membership of 18,000 – an insurance program, a private member community, and a grassroots lobbying initiative. The average open rates for each multi-email campaign may look like this:
Insurance Program: 2,000 of 18,000 = 11% open rate
Online Community: 3,000 of 18,000 = 17% open rate
Grassroots Initiative: 1,000 of 18,000 = 6% open rate
Based on this data, you know that, while all three of these benefits are important, your members are most interested in learning more about your online member community. You can even postulate that shifting more resource to your online community, rather than investing in your grassroots lobbying or insurance programs, will have a greater impact on your recruitment and retention efforts (I'd do a little more testing before shifting staff around).
This technique also helps you test messages. For instance, based on an open rate comparison of two or more different subject line messages, you can make data-driven decisions on the order of articles in your journal, which sessions to approve for your annual conference, and other membership communication decisions.
Click-throughs and conversions are essential metrics, but open rates are also critical in understanding the programs and messaging that are going to get your members to read your message in the first place so that they can convert on the body of your email.