Open Rates Aren't Perfect: How to really know if your emails are engaging


For the new year, Webbula is launching a series of blog posts about email marketing metrics. We have a variety of esteemed authors from the email industry lined up to participate. Articles you missed:

  • Understanding and Leveraging the Power of Open and Click Reach Rates in Email Marketing by Jeanne Jennings. View that here.
  • Email as a Conversion Tool: 5 Metrics You Should Be Tracking by Tejas Pitkar. Read now.
  • Inactive Email Subscribers: Measure and Minimize Instead of Reactivating by Loren McDonald. Read it here. 
  • Click-to-Open Rates: The Best Measurement of Email Engagement by Betsy Grondy. Read it. 
  • 6 Ways Customer lifetime Value Can Drive Email Marketing Strategy by Emma Warrillow and Tammi Miller. Read it. 
  • Email Deliverability Guide: How to Interpret Delivery, Clicks, and Opens by Tom Blijleven. Read it now.

  • The Surprising Link Between Major League Baseball and Email Marketing Metrics by Chris Marriott. Read it Now
  • Email Metrics to Replace Open Rates After the iOS 15 Update by Dela Quist. View here. 
  • Email Marketing KPIs: Rev Your RPM to Dominate Email Marketing by Shmuel Herschberg. Read now.

Watch the discussion! 



You've been spending hours meticulously crafting your newsletters and other email campaigns.

You choose each article and piece of content carefully.

You pick the right images to go along with your message.

You are SO proud of the copy you put together.

It's all done, double-checked, tested, and you got the nerve to schedule it or hit send.

Then, you obsessively check your email open rates hoping that means the sales will start ticking up and up.

I’m here to tell you that’s not how it’s going to work. (Sorry!)

Open rates don’t equal engagement. If you’re looking for REAL traction on your emails, then here is what to think about.


Why Email Open Rates Aren't a Great Metric

People love to refer to email opens as a vanity metric. (aka a surface-level metric that doesn’t tell you much).

But here’s the problem. Most people don’t have great data about their email campaigns.

Most Email Service Providers only provide you with surface-level data like opens, clicks, and unsubscribes.

Unless you have the resources to collect and centralize your data so you can get deeper insights into your subscribers behavior, you’re kind of stuck with those metrics. 

And in terms of resources, I’m not talking about just having the right tools. Google Analytics is awesome and free, but you still need to have someone on your team who knows how to use it and is given dedicated time to dig into it.

Not everyone has that.

The most common thing I hear about email opens that turn into a slippery slide is this: an email open leads to a conversion.

Let’s take a step back even further here. What’s typically behind this myth is an assumption that more opens mean more sales.

Let me put this one to bed. Higher open rates do not equal higher conversions.

This idea leads people to use all sorts of clever tactics to get an open.

  • Misleading subject lines
  • One word subject lines
  • Teasers and sensational promises

Guess what? If the content of your email doesn’t deliver on the promise of your subject line, you’re gonna piss off some folks.

And what do annoyed people do with annoying emails? They unsubscribe.


Which Email Metrics To Look At Instead of Opens

The baseline for measuring any digital campaign is engagement. But what does engagement look like?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to this. You have to determine what your goals are for your email campaigns.

Then, you need to figure out which digital signals you can pick up that take people from point a to point b to point c to whatever point your goal is.

That means getting more strategic and digging into what data you have.

If you don’t have all of the data you need, then it’s time to get some help.

Until then, you can look at your email-related site traffic and how many conversions you have that have email as a traffic source.

You also have to come at your analytics from a perspective that they will never be perfect. In order for your digital analytics to be perfect, you need someone on your team to make sure that all data they are collecting is 100% accurate. 

That, my friend, is at least one full-time position.

Digital analytics still require a human to contextualize and validate. They were never perfect, and won’t be for a while. Give yourself some grace and the caveat that you can always do better.

Until then, engage with your audience. Talk to them and treat them like people. That builds and retains relationships at scale period.


The Under Appreciated Email Metric: Unsubscribes

It’s inevitable that people will unsubscribe from your list. Don't take it too personally. It happens to the best of us.

It's just part of being a person in this world. People are going to float away eventually for reasons that usually have nothing to do with you.

What can unsubscribes tell you about subscriber engagement?

People often overlook this metric because it’s a little too painful to dig into. Don't take it too personally. It happens to the best of us.

HOWEVER, it can be an excellent barometer for the health of your list and email community.

Look at your average unsubscribe rates over the last three months. That’s your baseline. 

If you think you’ve developed a clever email campaign, and send it to your list with a huge open rate and clicks, that’s great! If your unsubscribes also spiked, then something is off about your email content.

It could have turned some people off. Engagement isn’t just about what people like. It’s also about what turns people off.

Yes, open and clicks are amazing. They show us that people are interacting with our content. But how do we know we just lost someone to something totally off base? An unsubscribe.

Don’t just dismiss it. Look at who engaged and if that led to your goals. If it didn’t AND your unsubscribes went up, you know you’re off track with your content.

Wrapping Up

There’s a wide world of email metrics to look at in order to perfect your results. Yes, open rates can be helpful. Sometimes, they’re the only thing we have to work with.

No, open rates aren’t the end-all-be-all of email engagement.

Look at your clicks, site visits, and email attributed site traffic.

Look at your unsubscribe rates. They’ll show you not only what people are interested in but what they’re NOT interested in. Sometimes, that's worth more than gold.

Meet the Author


Emily McGuire 

Founder of Flourish & Grit 


Verify, Protect and Grow Your Database