Why Your Newsletter Open Rates Suck (It’s Not Your Headline)

Update 12/12/2013: Google recently rolled a new “Images Now Showing” feature. This means that if users choose, all the images in the emails will be filtered through Google’s secure servers, reducing the risk of malware disguised as images. If a user allows the feature, then you should still be able to see at least the first open (but maybe not subsequent opens)Of course, this presumes that the user doesn’t do any of the other things in this article that affect the open rate, like forward to another inbox or use Unroll.me.


If you use a mailing list in your business, you’ll probably want to read this. (If not, look, kitties!)

First, an admission. Me and analytics don’t get along very well. Oh, I’ll look at them, take note of whether they are trending up or down, but I don’t really find them useful in determining strategies or action steps. They’re simply too opaque to be useful to me.

For instance. The infamous open rate. What’s a good open rate? I’ve heard anything from 10-30 %. My list runs about 25%, which I figured was about ballpark, so I just check once in a while to make sure I’m in that window, and the rest of the time I ignore it.

But I found out something a few weeks ago that has made me even more leery of mailing list analytics.


I use MailChimp, and I’m grandfathered into a very affordable plan of $0/mo. Other people are not so lucky, including my friend Joel, who uses Aweber and pays a tier rate depending on how many people he has subscribed. So Joel is much more motivated than I to make sure that everyone on his list is engaging and actively using the cool stuff he sends, like his spreadsheet templates.

So, in a bout of spring cleaning, he did a filter on his mailing list for people who had NEVER opened one of his emails. He was bummed there were so many of them, but, mindful of both his economics and the mental bandwidth of the people on the other end, he sent one last email, that said in effect, “Hi guys. I know that you rarely open these, and I just want you to know; I understand where you’re coming from. Life is too precious to clutter it up. So unless I hear otherwise, I’m just going to go ahead and remove you from my list. That way you won’t have my emails cluttering up your inbox, and hopefully it will relieve just a tiny bit of all the noise in your life.

Joel is in my Mastermind group, so I knew he was planning to do this. He was concerned about removing people without their permission, versus the ethics of maintaining simplicity and not bombarding people with things that aren’t important to them.

But then *I* got that email.


Joel is one of my closest friends. I read damn near everything he writes. Why was I on the “Never opens anything” list?

Well, it turns out that a lot of people were wondering the same thing, and after a call to AWeber he managed to clarify the problem. And then he told me, and I was like, “Hmm I’ll bet you Mailchimp does the same thing.”

So I investigated, and sure enough, it did.

And so now I’m telling you.



It has to do with how mailing list services track opens.

They need to load an invisible graphic called a “web beacon” in order to register that an email has been opened.

What this means is that if your subscribers read in plain text rather than HTML OR they don’t click the “Show Images” button at the top, then their opens don’t register.

If your subscribers use an alternate email address that’s set up to forward to another inbox OR they use a service like Unroll.me to read their mailings, in most cases, their opens don’t register.

Are you picking up what I’m putting down? If your subscribers run their inbox AT ALL similar to what I do (multiple emails, all forwarding to a single inbox, use unroll.me heavily, rarely click Show Images) you might have a 80% open rate and not know it.

Your followers may be far more loyal and interested in what you have to say than you previously supposed.

Now the more savvy internet marketers have clearly realized this for a while because here are Mailchimp’s recommended work-arounds

  • Use interesting and compelling images in your email so that people will click “show images”
  • Have them add you to their address book (which in most cases means that the images will no longer be blocked automatically
  • Encourage them to click a link in the email (even in plain text, this indicates that the message was opened, because it couldn’t have been clicked without being open.)

I’m sure these all sound very familiar to you. I’ve heard this advice myself, although nobody has ever told me that I need to in order to make my METRICS work! It’s always couched in terms of engagement.

This does not, unfortunately, solve every problem. Forwarded inboxes and services like Unroll.me will probably continue to confound the mailing list software. But it’s a start.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, for one thing, I hate bad data with a fiery passion. And EVERYONE has been getting bad data from their mailing list software and this is the FIRST I have heard of it.

Mailchimp does have some information on their help desk, but Joel reports that Aweber’s articles are inaccurate. But we had to go looking for this information. Am I the only one who thinks the limitations of the service should be stated up front?

So what should mailing analytics be used for?

Well, split testing will still work. Of course you’re not able to measure an accurate level of engagement, but you can still tell which subject line got MORE opens. As with all stats, these results work better the bigger your sample size is, so don’t get too wound up about it.

You can slightly raise the measured open rate (as I plan to) by adding a little note in the header like “please click Always Display Images so that I can get better data about what you like to hear from me about,” and increasing the incentive to click on the newsletter to go somewhere and do something.

But those are only stop gap measures. You won’t get perfect data, and you must never increase the click rate at the expense of authentic engagement. Nothing pisses people off more than “Click Here to Read More.”

However, I hope that this is as eye-opening to you as it was to me.

This has been a public service announcement.

P.S. To change your settings quickly Mailchimp, login. Go to the Campaigns tab on the sidebar, then click on My Templates in the top right corner. Choose the template you want to add a reminder to in the header box. It’s that simple. AWeber people, I’m afraid you’re on your own.


12 thoughts on “Why Your Newsletter Open Rates Suck (It’s Not Your Headline)”

  1. Thanks for this! I’ve always been curious as to how accurate the open rate info I get from MailChimp is, and now I know. 😀

  2. Excellent information, Shanna! Thank you!

    <i>”…always been couched in terms of engagement”</i> completely misses both the “How??” and the “How come?” answers that make my ADD-ish brain <i>much happier</i> about actually registering (and retaining) information.

  3. Shanna Mann Yep, but a pleasant one. My open rate is pretty awesome already (and if I knew how I managed that, I would totally be telling people), so it’s nice to know that, even if it dips a bit, I haven’t the slightest to worry about. 🙂
    I mean, it’s kind of dismaying to learn that the data we’re getting is inaccurate but, when that reality is actually better than the data we’re getting, that’s kind of cool. Encouraging, even. 🙂

  4. Karen – thank you very much for the plug!  God knows I need it!
    Fortunately, my MailChimp account has never been an issue.  I have only a few followers who opted for the email notifications, and I have an open rate of  between 50-60% (small list, lots of dedication).
    My issues, as you know, have always been with the WordPress.com way of calculating stats inasmuch as anyone who reads my posts through the WordPress Reader are not counted in the overall stats.  For instance, this morning WP indicated I had one view after posting my Special Edition! last night, but yet I already had 5 likes, and the MailChipm email hadn’t even gone out yet.  In fact, one of my likes on that post came in within a minutes of my publishing it, which shocked the hell out of me because it was from a reader I didn’t even know I had.
    In any event, I’d like to put the issue to rest now.  Since my original stats post, my “followers” have increased enough to calm my newbie anxiety.  I’d much rather spend my time writing the darn posts than worrying about who may or may not be reading them.

  5. Hey – Same question from a different direction: Does “click here to read this in your browser” count? Because I never-ever see “… to see images”, on any blog notices. but I don’t usually go to my browser, either… if it’s on *their* site, I’ll read it there. Otherwise, I just read the email… or Maybe that’s because I don’t use RSS – I get emails directly?

    1. I think that’s because you’re in Yahoo mail. I was just reading this morning that only gmail sequesters images (and they’ve since stopped– now they’re loaded through secure servers to about transmitting malware). Apparently none of the other email providers offered this service.

  6. Karen J  I think that’s because you’re in Yahoo mail. I was just reading this morning that only gmail sequesters images (and they’ve since stopped– now they’re loaded through secure servers to about transmitting malware). Apparently none of the other email providers offered this service.

  7. Shanna Mann – Thanks for that tid-bit of info! 
    Another assumption made by designers or programmers somewhere, that “everybody uses g-mail” so we don’t have to cover any other platform… ?

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