Understanding Email Campaigns

Understanding Email Campaign Reports

Making sense of open rates, click rates, and email stats

Our customers who are new to email marketing are fascinated by all the tracking they get with their email campaigns. Unlike print or traditional direct marketing, you can actually track how many people opened your email campaigns, and see exactly what they clicked. We often get new users calling us up on the phone, because they’re nervous about sending their first campaign. After we help them build up the courage to click the “Send” button, they click over to watch their stats: “Hey! 5 people already opened! 17 people! Holy cow, 34 people already opened!!!”

Watching your campaign stats is great fun (in a nerdy kinda way), but it’s all useless if you don’t understand how they work, and what you should be doing with them. So let’s go over the basics of email campaign reporting.

How We Track Clicks
Just in case you’re curious about how click tracking works, here’s a little technical information for you. Let’s say you place a link in your campaign that points to your website, and you want to track how many times it was clicked. MailChimp (or any email marketing service) will save your link in its database, and replace it with our own “redirect link.” The redirect link basically routes people to our server first (where we track the click) and then quickly sends them to your original intended destination. The redirect happens instantaneously, so the entire experience is seamless and invisible to your subscribers. But redirect links do have certain implications…

What redirects mean for you and your emails
So when you code a link in your HTML email like this:
Visit my website

and then you select “Track clicks” in MailChimp, we’ll automatically alter the URL in your link with a MailChimp redirect. Your code will end up looking something like this:
Visit my website

Click Tracking Can Raise Red Flags
Some email programs (like Mozilla Thunderbird) will display warnings when they see tracked links in your email. They do this because many scammers send emails designed to look like they came from a trusted source (like your local bank) but when you click their link inside, they “redirect” you to a website designed to steal your password. Because of these “phishing” scams, some email programs don’t like any redirect scripts. In general, they are not a problem so long as you avoid creating links where the description is the URL:

HTML code like this will set off “Phishing” warnings in some email programs…
Please visit http://www.our-website.com

Because email programs will see this whenever tracking redirect links are used:
Please visit http://www.our-website.com

In the example above, the description of the link (what the human eye sees) says that the link will take you to “our-website.com”. However, your email program sees that it’s really taking you to “mcsv.net”. This looks suspicious to them, so they pop up a warning (here’s an example).

Coding links like this will NOT set off alarms:
Please visit our website

In this example, whenever we add redirect tracking links, there is no mismatch between the actual URL of the link, and the description.

In your HTML email, you don’t have to worry about the URL being changed, because your recipients will only see the “Visit my website” part of the link, while the redirect code stays behind the scenes. But in your plain-text alternative emails, there’s no way to hide the URL behind the code. It’s out in the open for all your subscribers to see.

Tracked Links Are Ugly In Plain-Text Emails
When you track a link in an HTML email, nobody sees the redirect link behind the scenes. They just see, “click here.”

But in your plain-text alternative email, you can’t hide your link code. You can’t make text like “Visit our website” clickable like you can in HTML email. For example, when you want to point people to your website from a plain-text email, it’ll have to look like:
To go to our website, visit this URL in your browser: http://www.mywebsite.com

If you were to activate click tracking in plain-text email, it would look like this:
To go to our website, visit this URL in your browser: http://www.mcsv.net/cgi-bin/redir?id=xyz345

Some of your recipients would be suspicious about that “mcsv.net” redirect URL, so they won’t click. It’s for this reason that a lot of our users choose not to track clicks in their plain-text emails. That’s exactly why we give you the option to turn it off.

How Email Open Tracking Works
When you check the box to “track opens” in MailChimp, we place a tiny, invisible graphic at the bottom of your HTML email (people in the email marketing industry sometimes refer to these as “web beacons”). Each time your HTML email is displayed in a recipient’s inbox, that unique graphic for your campaign gets downloaded from our server, which we track as an “open.”

Web Beacons Only Work in HTML Email
First of all, web beacons only work in the HTML version of your email. That’s because you obviously can’t place any graphics into plain-text messages (that’s why they’re called “plain”). So you’re not going to be able to measure opens from the people who viewed the plain-text version of your email (actually, there is sort of a way to track opens in your plain-text emails —if MailChimp tracks a click from plain-text, we also register that as an “open”).

Web Beacons Won’t Work Unless Images Are Turned On
A lot of email applications block images from being automatically displayed in HTML email. When an HTML email is initially loaded, you’ll see placeholders where all the images should be. Users have to click a button, or right-click to turn images on. This is a privacy measure that’s becoming standard in most email programs. They do this because some spammers could theoretically use web beacons for “evil” by tracking whether or not your email account was alive (and then send you more spam). With these privacy measures in place, it gets extremely difficult for email marketers to accurately measure their open rates. Unfortunately, you will just have to take your open stats with a grain of salt.

Typical Email Campaign Stats, and What They Mean
Let’s go over some typical email campaign stats, and how email marketers should use them. These are stats you’ll find in MailChimp campaign reports, but you’ll find them in any decent email marketing service (like Constant Contact, iContact, MyEmma, etc).

Total Recipients
This one’s pretty obvious. It’s basically the size of the list of recipients you tried to send the campaign to. Not all deliveries will be successful, though…

Successful Deliveries
Some emails bounce back, or get blocked by email firewalls and spam filters. The “successful deliveries” is a quick number showing you how many of your emails actually got through to your recipients’ receiving servers (not necessarily inboxes at this point).

Bounces
When you send a campaign, you get bouncebacks. In general, you can expect about 10% of your recipients to bounce back your message (See: Email Marketing Benchmarks). Anything more than 10% total bounces, and you’ve probably got an old or dirty list. There are two types of bounces you should know about. A “Hard bounce” basically means you sent your campaign to a bad, “undeliverable” email address. Maybe the person closed down their account, or got fired. Whatever the case, you shouldn’t send anymore emails to that address, or the recipient’s email server will start blocking you. MailChimp instantly removes hard bounced emails from your list for you. The other bounce type is a “soft” bounce. In general, a soft bounce just means the recipient’s email account was “temporarily unavailable.” Maybe their server was busy, or their account was too full. MailChimp won’t remove these people from your list (unless they soft bounce 5 campaigns in a row). Email marketers should keep a close eye on bouncebacks, because in general, they’re an indication of the overall “health” of your lists. Your email service provider will probably be flagging your account if your bounce rates exceed certain thresholds, because high bouncebacks can lead to deliverability problems for them (they’re also an indication of a purchased or rented list, which are a big no-no).

Total times email was opened
This is a stat with lots of “wow” factor, but don’t let it get to your head. Your email might have been opened 10,000 times, and that sounds really cool. But what if it was just one guy (a guy with way too much time on his hands) who opened your email 10,000 times? That’s pretty extreme, but you get the gist. It’s not a totally useless stat. For example, if you sell banner advertisements in your email campaigns, then an open is an impression, and you want to show total impressions (even if one of your recipients is a whacko).

Recipients Who Opened
This is a more accurate stat. It tells you how many individuals opened your campaign. So if two (very sad, very lonely) people opened your campaigns 500 times each, that would be 1,000 total opens. This stat would show, “2 recipients opened” which is a lot more useful to email marketers.

Average Times Email Was Opened
This stat just gives you a general idea of how many times each recipient opened your campaign. Literally, it’s your total opens divided by recipients who opened. 1.5 or 2 is pretty average. Anything more than that, and your email newsletter must be pretty interesting!

Total clicks
This is the total number of clicks your email got. It’s handy in determining how much overall web traffic you’ll get to your website after a campaign is sent. For instance, it might be nice to know that “after every email marketing campaign I send, our website gets about 600,000 visits.”

Recipients who clicked
This number tells you how many people clicked on some link in your campaign. Let’s say you sent your campaign to 5 people. 4 of them click a link in your campaign once. But one of the recipients is our weirdo from the examples above, and he clicks your link 500 times. This “recipients who clicked” stat will show you that “5 people clicked something.” Your “Total clicks” stat, on the other hand, will show “504 total clicks.”

Clicks by URL
This is one of our favorite stats. It tells you exactly which URLs in your email were clicked, and how many times. Use this stat to learn what kind of content your subscribers prefer. For instance, do they respond better to whitepapers and research articles, or special offers and promotions?

Unique Clicks
This stat counts how many times your recipients clicked on links inside your email campaign, minus any duplicate clicks. So if some weirdo clicked on 2 different links 500 times each, we tell you that you had 2 unique clicks.
Times forwarded

MailChimp lets you insert a link into your email campaign that allows your recipient to forward a copy of your campaign to a friend. We’ll actually track how many times the email was forwarded using this link. Note that we do not track who your emails were forwarded to, and we certainly don’t add them to your list. And we can’t tell if you forward a campaign from your own email account. That would be evil.

Forwarded email opens
Maybe your recipients forwarded your campaign to 1,000 friends. This stat will tell you how many times those friends opened your campaign. It’s a nice measure of how “viral” your campaign is.

Total unsubscribes
If any email campaign stat is capable of bringing a tear to your eye, this is the one. We’ve seen average unsubscribe rates of less than half of one percent. Anything above that means you did something to make a lot of people very angry at you.

Total abuse complaints
You know when you get a piece of junk email, you click that button in your email program that says, “This is junk” or “Report Spam”? Every time you do that, a report and copy of that email is sent to your ISP. Your ISP then sends a little warning to the sender that says, “too many more complaints, and we’ll block all future emails from you.” Well, whenever you send an email campaign from MailChimp, we track how many complaints your recipients submitted (we’re subscribed to ISP feedback loops). By the way, we automatically remove anybody who complains about you from your list. If you don’t clean your lists this way, ISPs get really angry.

It’s normal for about 0.04% of your list to report your campaign as spam (yes, even if they know you, and even if they gave you permission to email them!). If you get anything above 0.1%, major ISPs like AOL will start blocking future emails from you.

Last click date/open date
Some people post special landing pages that they point their email campaigns to. Over time, they have tons of landing pages and supporting content on their server, and they want to delete them to make room. But what if some of your recipients are still opening that old email you sent 5 months ago? This stat will tell you if it’s safe.

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