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Want Better Email Insights? Time to Look Beyond the Open Rate

Click throughI’m of an age when I remember when email didn’t exist, but honestly can’t remember how I lived without it. And the fact that I work in email marketing and digital fundraising as part of my job is fascinating since email marketing and digital fundraising wasn’t really a ‘thing’ as recently as 15 years ago. By some definitions, that’s only a half-generation which gives a sense of still how new digital tools are to our nonprofit industry.

While we are always finding new and better ways to measure our success in email, I find that we continue to place too much emphasis and trust on one popular metric: open rates.

I’m not suggesting that measuring and optimizing on open rates isn’t important. It is. However, there are two key problems with elevating open rates above other metrics.

Open rates inherently do not provide accurate data. There are several possible reasons why the open rate on the email you just sent are skewed. The most obvious one is how opens are actually tagged by email delivery platforms. When someone “reads” an email, it opens an invisible html pixel that gets passed back to your email platform. But relying on this pixel to fire in order to indicate an open creates opportunities for error.

For instance, if images are turned off by a recipient’s email app (I’m looking at you Outlook) then it won’t record the open even if the message was read. Or if someone receives an email as plain text rather than html, then there’s no html pixel to fire and it won’t record the open.

Another problem is that many individuals hate to see “unread” email badges on their phones, tablets, and computers. So they’ll mark a message “read” without actually reading the content.
1000 unread emails

This is where I have to confess that I have a particular point of view on email as an effective channel for digital fundraising. Here it is: each email message must have a clearly defined reason to exist. If we don’t have an objective driving our message, then we need to reconsider what we’re doing.

Our donors get dozens if not hundreds of emails a day so the competition for inbox relevance is fierce. Every single message must count. There is no such thing as an unimportant throw away email. If we’re not providing value or inspiring action in each email message, our effort gets relegated to the trash bin (or worse, the spam folder). An unsubscribe is a directive from the recipient that says, “Stop wasting my time.” Good luck getting them to come back again for another shot.

So how can a message be considered successful if it’s not actually read (or if it is read and is met with indifference)? By looking primarily at open rates, we’re left with an inaccurate measure that doesn’t tell us whether our message achieved its objective. Additionally, open rates really are at the mercy of the recipient’s app and that takes a lot of control out of our hands.

Think of it this way and we’ll use social media as an example. Just because your organization’s page has 500,000 likes on Facebook, does that mean you’ve successfully advanced your cause and motivated your supporters to take tangible action? What you’ve done is merely increase the potential of your organization to meet your objective, but you haven’t actually achieved your objective. To do that, you need to measure action.

In email, this is the click-through rate. If a recipient has opened an email and then decided to click a link, you now have valuable insight and a result. Let’s take a couple of message types for example.

If you’re sending out an email appeal for a donation, the goal is for the recipient to click through to the donation form. Right? Regardless of whether the email was tagged as “read” or “unread”, if a click doesn’t lead to making a donation, then the message did not achieve its purpose.

Same for an advocacy email. If you don’t motivate a supporter to click through to an action, then the message didn’t achieve its purpose.

What about your newsletter? Have you considered whether it is a vehicle for action? Have you set up links that will help you understand which articles resonate best with your audience? It’s not enough to know that someone has opened your enewsletter…you want to know what types of articles drive a desire to know more and do more for your cause. That data will allow you to focus your limited time on generating value.

One of the key email fundraising metrics I’ve set up for my organization is built on a weighted engagement score where:
An open = 1 point
A click through = 2 points
A conversion = 3 points
In this scoring model, it still counts an open, but places more emphasis on whether a recipient clicks through to a donation form AND submits a donation. (You can do similar with volunteer requests or advocacy petitions.)

Best of all, this model offers insight into a couple of things:
1. We can see which particular email and campaign was successful to achieving our fundraising goals.
2. Because I’m able to attach scoring to a recipient’s record, I can track a supporter’s score over time to see whether they are unengaged, an engaged donor, or a super-engaged champion.

What else have you done to gain insight into your supporters? Anything I’ve missed? Look forward to the conversation.