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email open tracking

Have you ever looked at your open rate and wondered how your platform came up with the email open tracking numbers? They don’t just pull them out of a hat or use some secret mathematical equation that only a rocket scientist could figure out. No, there are set methods to determine them.

Figuring out how different rates are calculated will not only satisfy your curiosity, but also help you understand what it will take to improve them for your next campaign. To give you a better idea of what you need to succeed with one common metric, we’ll break down open rates and how email open tracking works.

What is the open rate?

Before you can understand how open rates are determined, you need to have a firm grasp on what this rate means.

Commonly confused with read rates, email open rates are based off of the number of subscribers who open an email that has graphics enabled. The average open rate for small to medium businesses is 25 percent, but that number varies based on industry.

So what does that actually mean? Your email marketing platform adds an invisible graphic — usually a single pixel called a web beacon — into the emails you send. That graphic is unique to each campaign, and it’s downloaded from the platform’s server when subscribers view the email with images turned on. The image is usually located at the bottom of your email.

The platform then tracks how many times that graphic is accessed per unique subscriber and divides that by the number of emails sent (minus bounces). This practice of tracking open rates is pretty universal across marketing platforms, so it’s not affected by which one you’re using.

An email open rate differs from read rates because it tracks a graphic, instead of the action of actually opening and reading the message. It all comes down to that image.

In a perfect world, you would know the exact open rate. A subscriber loads the graphic because they opened the email, right? Not always. There are a few factors that can skew your results, so be sure to take those into account.

email open tracking

Exceptions to the rule

We’ve already hit on the main component of what your platform uses to track your email open rate: graphics. If subscribers don’t or can’t view this web beacon, they won’t count toward your rate — and that will mess up your numbers. So it’s important to realize that open rate tracking simply isn’t a perfect technology.

Images are blocked

Some subscribers may have set up their email to open all images, but for many others, they’ll be given a prompt at the top of the message, like “Display Images.” And if they don’t click that option, they won’t be tracked because they won’t receive the graphic.

Preview format

On the other extreme, your marketing platform can actually record opens that didn’t really happen. Wait, what? Yes, you might see a spike in opens that don’t have the actions to back it up.

That can happen if the subscriber has images turned on and views the message in a preview format but doesn’t actually open the message. Another cause for the inaccurately high rate is because they set their images to always be on for their emails — and they inadvertently click on the message. The marketing platform is going to count them as an open even if they didn’t really mean to view it.

Anti virus software

Another exception is if a subscriber is using anti-virus software. These programs, like Norton by Symantec, McAfee, and Trend Micro use technology to “scan” the email once it lands in an inbox. This can trigger multiple false opens for the same user.

Email size

The size of your email can also affect whether or not an email gets opened. We know, it sounds weird, but here’s why.

Many email programs like Gmail will “clip” an email if it exceeds a certain overall size. So if you have lots of text and images, it’s more likely to clip the campaign to save bandwidth. And because that web beacon is generally at the bottom of an email, you guessed it — the clip prevents the beacon from being downloaded, and the open doesn’t register.  

Beyond these exceptions, there are also some problems you can have with your campaign that will skew your open rate results. But luckily, you can take steps to limit these occurrences.

email open tracking

Troubleshooting email tracker issues

Nothing is foolproof, and your email open tracker is no exception. If you think your open rates are low, dive into a few different possible causes to fix the problem.

Jumping the gun

We understand the struggle. It’s tempting to check your open rate as soon as you hit send, especially you’re watching real time results. However, that’s not going to give you the full picture of how your campaign is performing. Wait a few hours — or even a full day — until your audience has had time to interact with your message before checking stats. This will give you more accurate results.

Disabled tracking

Another simple fix for wonky open rates is to make sure you have open tracking enabled for your emails. If your open rates aren’t showing up or say you have a big goose egg, this could be why.

Type of campaign

Since open tracking involves including a hidden graphic in the email to get results, the email has to include images. That means plain-text campaigns — which don’t support graphics — won’t allow you to track opens.

Sent to spam

If your email results have taken a hit, look at your unsubscribe and spam complaint rates to see if they’ve gone up. Losing subscribers takes a toll on your overall rates, including your opens. Your wording, image size, and not having the right permissions can raise a red flag with email providers and subscribers.

email open tracking

Part of the bigger picture

No single email stat will tell you everything you need to know about the success of your campaign. Analyze them together as part of the whole picture. 

Some email marketing platforms even allow you to track your metrics in real time. For example, Robly shows users hourly email open rates, as well as read, bounce, and click-through rates. Robly also gives you device-specific reporting to see how your subscribers are accessing your newsletters.

It’s important to monitor your email analytics. This will show you what works with each campaign and how you can improve.

Lauren Dowdle is an award-winning writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Her decade-long writing career has covered everything from landscaping to marketing.


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