Comparing Open Rates

As some of you know, we have been in the process of redesigning and testing our daily updates. Comparisons are difficult; partly because Feedburner analytics (our original provider of choice) are not the best; even for evaluating their own emails!

Keep in mind, you must always test; we have discussed testing in the past and will continue to in the future. We cannot say it enough.

Whether it is the message, the subject line, the time of day, whatever, you must test. And test some more.

One of our goals is to improve the look and readability of our communications; another to provide you, our readers, with additional information on a regular basis.

In trying to evaluate the results, we have been speaking with many professionals across the global non-profit landscape on their experiences. I post two responses, one brief and the second with extremely useful information you should consider in a redesign (the authors information is not posted to protect the privacy of a list-serv).

The question relates to a change in open rates with a new design.

1. My Counter-rant – I have experienced numerous instances of perfectly innocent plain text emails being blocked either from me or to me by rogue spam assassins.

2. Actually, I disagree with the people who say that a redesign won’t affect open rates. Spam scoring takes into account the amount and complexity of HTML code in your email. If you went from a fairly simple design with minimal amounts of code in your email into something very ‘designed’, you can expect to get blocked by some ISPs (especially smaller and indy ones like small businesses and academic institutions).

Its really pretty obvious — is there ANY email out there that has lots of complex HTML in it that isn’t some sort of commercial/advocacy/fundraising email? Does anybody on this list get actual real, personal, individual email that isn’t basically plain text (or maybe has minimal inline HTML)? Spam scoring heuristics are completely aware of this.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding that so many people just don’t get — highly-designed email just doesn’t get the open and click-through rates that something that really looks like a personal email — such as what your grandmother might send you — will get.

Direct marketers in the snail mail world know it quite well — that’s why so much paper junk mail you get looks like a bill, or a hand-typed personal appeal — its what works.

In the same vein — if your new design is now much more image-dependent, not only will your message look lousy in Outlook and in web-based clients that suppress images by default (many of them), but because your message looks lousy you are more likely to manually be flagged as spam to the ISP.

If your message is flagged as spam, the ISP is then going to take that into account in its heuristics as, later in the day, other people get the same message from you — and may send you straight to the spam folder.

Even more fun — the ISPs talk to each other! So if you are getting several spam reports from several ISPs, it is quite possible that you’ll get thrown onto a blacklist that other ISPs will then see, so they’ll block your messages even before they get any reports from their own customers. Again, this is primarily going to be your small businesses and academic institutions.

The main things you (and everybody on this list that is serious about raising money or awareness through email) should do are (in ascending order of technical complexity):

1. Make simple emails. People don’t click through your messages because you micromanaged the font colors and did a complex layout, they click through because of a clear and compelling call to action.

Usually, the only ‘graphic design’ that has _any_ ROI in an email is a call-to-action image prominently displayed near the top of the email, anything else is a distraction from getting people to perform the action you want them to take.

2. Before you send an email, send a test of it through spamassassin or something similar. Fix what it complains about. If it complains that you are mentioning pharmaceuticals, sex, the stockmarket, or whatever in the body of your email, re-write the email if at all possible.

Yes, sure, some of the more ‘enlightened’ ISPs use ‘reputation’ more than content to determine the spamminess of a message, but there are tons of little ISPs that _don’t_, and plenty of individuals that have anti-spam software installed, and you gain very little by flouting them.

3. If you know the IP address of the server that you are sending email from, track it at . That way you’ll see what blacklists you’re on. If your email service provider lets other orgs/companies send email from that IP address, and that other org/company is getting flagged as spam, SO ARE YOU — and you should complain!

4. Keep track of your open and bounce rates on a per-domain basis. If you had an extremely low open rate for email addresses from (or some other domain) compared to all of your other domains, then you need to contact the ‘postmaster’ there and find out why they’re blocking your email (to find the postmaster at an ISP, google for ‘postmaster’ and the name of the ISP).

5. Timeliness of delivery is important, but in a different way than most people realize. Blacklists generally take about 2-4 hours to kick in, and they generally reset 36-48 hours after the last spam report. If you send out a bunch of email in the morning as a ‘test’, then take more than an hour or so to make a decision, you may find yourself getting auto-junked by blacklists while you’re in the middle of sending your main mailing.

If you send out email to a big list two days in a row, you’re likely to get pretty poor opens the second day; but if you hold off on hitting send until any time-based blacklists have reset, you’ll get much better delivery. If you click through the block lists you are on at senderbase, you can see what the status is.

Finally, about content — I won’t go into subject line testing — I’ve seen minor, but statistically significant, differences in open rates based on subject line and sender in A/B tests (say, going from 28% to 31% in an extreme case). A well-written email on a timely topic signed by a compelling national figure can make a HUGE difference in click-through, though.

Food for thought.

If you found this post of interest, be sure to check out an earlier post, Why You Need An Email Service Provider.