One of the best features of an e-mail marketing service is tracking and reporting. When people are first introduced to e-mail marketing, they're thrilled to find that they can see who is (or isn't) opening their e-mails and what they're clicking on.

But after experiencing the initial delight that comes with discovering this helpful tool, the next reaction can be one of confusion or disappointment. I've heard questions like, What's a good open rate? Why is it that only 40 percent of my list opens my e-mails? When I first started sending, I had a 60 percent open rate, and now it's dropped to 37 percent. What happened?

First, you should know what your open rate is telling you. Basically, it's the percentage of your e-mail recipients who opened your e-mail (bounced addresses are taken out of the equation). The reporting feature of your e-mail marketing service tracks the number of unique opens, which means that no contacts are counted twice, no matter how many times they open the e-mail.

Open rates aren't an exact science; unique opens can be undercounted or overcounted. E-mails don't get counted when people view them with the images turned off or when they're read on a handheld device like a BlackBerry or Treo. Unique opens can be overcounted when someone views your e-mail in a preview pane (which sends back tracking information) but doesn't actually open the message.

So when you've got your percentage, how should you feel about your open rates? One place to start is by comparing them to industry standards. According to "MarketingSherpa's E-mail Benchmark Guide 2006," the most common range for B2C open rates for 2004 and 2005 was 30 to 39 percent; the B2B range was 10 to 29 percent. Open rates also vary widely by business type. According to the "Harte-Hanks Postfuture Index for January-June 2006," restaurants had the highest open rates of any of the 13 business types considered during that period, while retail businesses had the lowest.

What does this mean for you? According to industry standards, if you have a 35 percent open rate, you're doing well. But don't just judge your open rate against these statistics; judge it against your past performance. To examine your own results, map out your business's open rate trend line. Over the past 12 months, when did you get the best open rates? Look at the e-mail communications you sent and ask, What did I do that made this successful? Then try that tactic again.

If your e-mail open rates aren't where you'd like them to be--or you think you can do better--here are five easy things you can do to improve them:

  1. Send more targeted e-mails. The better you know your contacts and their interests, the more you can target your e-mails and increase your open rates. Have you thought about how you can segment your list into interest groups? It's worth the effort. Don't you love it when you get an e-mail about something you're truly interested in? And aren't you far more likely to open it?
     
  2. Improve your subject lines. A good subject line will always increase the chances of an e-mail getting opened. Lead with a benefit that lets the recipients know what's in it for them. Make it interesting, and try to pique the readers' curiosity. You want them to feel compelled to find out more. Also, remember to avoid using all caps, exclamation points and words like "free" and "sale."
     
  3. Test your sending times. Try sending your message on a different day or at a different time of day to see if you achieve a higher open rate. We've seen customers improve their rates 15 to 20 percent by changing when they send. It has long been thought that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to send, but a report released by eROI in 2006 showed that open rates were higher on weekends--38 percent on Saturdays and 37 percent on Sundays--and Monday was the best weekday at 35.7 percent. Because open rates are different for every type of business, it's important for you to figure out the best time to send to your contacts.
     
  4. Check your "from" name. Is your "from" name easily recognizable? Will your contacts know who your e-mail is from? If they don't, they'll likely hit delete, so you need a name your receivers are familiar with in your "from" line. In most cases, this isn't your name (or the name of the person in your office who sends out your e-mails). Best practice would be to use your company's name, though you could use another name if it would be easily recognized by your customers and make sense with your campaign.
     
  5. Evaluate how often you send. You might send too often or you might not send often enough. Send too often and readers will stop opening; send too infrequently, they won't recognize your name. Consider asking your contacts how often they want to hear from you. You can do this by giving them the option to sign up for weekly or monthly e-mails.

By using e-mail marketing to connect with your customers or members, you have the benefit of knowing who's interested in what you're saying or selling. And every time someone opens your e-mail, you're planting a seed, reminding them, "I'm here when you need me." With tracking and reporting, you can know how many seeds you're planting, and you can watch them as they grow.