Email Marketing: The Evolving World of Open Rates

Email marketing is an extremely effective means of communicating with your public safety customers and prospects. In fact, one study finds email marketing to be the most effective form in terms of return on investment—bringing in, on average, $42 for every $1 spent. That’s a fantastic rate of return. But how do you determine how effective your email marketing campaigns are?

Typical metrics like open rates and click-through rates have long been the standard for evaluating success. That, however, is changing. Apple’s new mobile operating system iOS 15—which officially launched in late September—allows users to block third parties from obtaining much of the information marketers have used as benchmarks, including open rates. The same privacy features will be available on Apple’s desktop OS later this year. These updates build upon robust privacy features Apple introduced last year, as well as the App Tracking Transparency feature it released in April.

How It Works

Open rates are calculated by counting the loading of invisible tracking pixels in emails. Apple’s new operating system allows users to block that reporting by routing email through a proxy server. The proxy server effectively “opens” the email, even when your reader has not. Additional privacy features extend as well to Apple’s paid products, such as iCloud, where users will be offered services that would hide their email addresses from marketers when they sign up to new websites.

These changes will clearly impact advertising and marketing. After all, nearly 55% of American cellphones are iPhones. Mobile is a huge part of email marketing, and as stated above, the same changes will soon roll out on desktop. One potential limitation of their reach: The privacy features only kick in for readers using the Apple Mail app, but keep in mind, many users will elect to load email from other providers (e.g., Gmail, Outlook) through this app. The effect will likely be large.

What to Expect

Apple’s new privacy features will almost certainly have an impact on email campaign reporting. First, expect inflated open rates. Because iOS uses a proxy server to open email, emails will be marked open even when the user has not opened them. Second, if you’re used to slicing and dicing email opens and click-throughs by IP address to obtain geographic location data on your readers, that data will no longer be reliable for the percentage of your audience using Apple Mail. Blocking IP addresses will also affect advertisers’ ability to track readers across the web, so it will likely impact retargeting.

Bottom line: It’s safe to assume that some of the most relied-on metrics for email marketing effectiveness will soon carry far less meaning. We’re also going to see more of this trend. Google and Facebook have also launched privacy initiatives. How it all plays out is yet to be seen.

This isn’t to say email marketing isn’t still a powerful marketing product! In fact, the good news in all of this is that open rates, in particular, were never very reliable to begin with. They have always been susceptible to over or underreporting, depending on the device settings and behaviors of your audience. For example, some people block HTML emails and read them as text only. This will not be reported as an open because it won’t load tracking pixels.

What You Can Do

Email marketing is an art. People are inundated with the stuff, and yet we all want good, actionable information that will improve our lives. First responders are no different. The basics remain the same. Strong, direct subject lines; compelling images and copy; and clearly defined value propositions are still all essential. A prominent and compelling call to action (CTA) is more important than ever.

Another important step for all marketers is to thoroughly analyze how you use open rates (if you do) and, if needed, rethink your strategy. For instance, some marketers use email opens to trigger drip campaigns. The date of the last email open may be used to determine when and if a reader gets a follow-up email. Some advertisers have spent time analyzing open rates to determine key send times. Many use open rates as an indicator that the reader is engaged, meaning they stay on the mailing list. All these metrics will be impacted by Apple’s new privacy features. So it may not be enough for you to inform your Go to Market teams about the changes in open rates. You may need to make other changes in your processes, too.

But there’s still a lot you can do with existing tools. While you’ll need to take your open rates with a healthy dose of caution, other metrics and tactics will still be effective. A/B testing can help you identify the subject lines, CTAs and messages that resonate best with your audience. Monitoring web traffic to your own site or social media accounts following email campaigns can give you an idea of what campaigns are more successful. Tracking URLs allow you to continue to monitor clicks and conversions. Engagement is, after all, what we’re truly after.

Crawford Coates

CRAWFORD COATES is the content marketing manager Lexipol. Prior to this role, he was publisher at Calibre Press, a publisher and trainer for law enforcement, and an editor at PennWell Public Safety, publisher of Law Officer, FireRescue and JEMS. He is a co-founder of Below 100 and author of the book Mindful Responder: The first responder's field guide to improved resilience, fulfillment, presence, & fitness--on and off the job. He holds a master's degree in public policy and administration.

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