Email marketing benchmarks – the 2016 headlines

15 minute read

It’s official! Email opens (24.88%) and clicks (3.42%) have increased, unsubscribes (0.52%) have decreased. These are the first of many headlines from our newly released 2016 email marketing Benchmark Report.


First, a step back. If you are not familiar with our Benchmark Report, it is a compilation of a variety of performance results from billions of marketing emails sent through the platform over the previous 12 months – in the case of the 2016 report between 1st January and 31st December 2015. These campaigns are sent to both B2C and B2B audiences by small-medium sized UK organisations and public sector departments. We’re hot on permission, so all are sent to fully opted-in lists, never to 3rd party or purchased lists.

The results in each section are documented according to 29 different industry sectors – in order to add more granularity 5 new sectors have been included this year. Industry classification is self-managed by the senders themselves according to how they view their business.

The 2016 report is our 8th consecutive annual publication so in addition to a significantly large current snapshot of email performance we’ve also amassed a considerable archive of historical trend data.

The report is arranged into 11 sections, each focusing on a different aspect of performance. Topics  include open and click-through performance, unsubscribe rates, derived metrics like click-to-opens, automated versus non-automated emails and desktop versus mobile consumption. In addition to presenting the compiled data, each section includes comment on the results and trends and handy tips for consideration and improvement.

2016 benchmark report cover

You can download a free PDF copy of the full report here.

nb. Stay tuned to this blog. In a series of posts over the coming weeks I’ll be discussing key sections of the report, explaining the nature and interpretation of the performance metrics presented and helping put these into the context of some customer applications.

Back to the key findings of this year’s report.

The headlines. Based on averages across all sectors, opens and click/click-through rates both showed increases, and the average unsubscribe showed a decrease.

The current averages for each of these performance metrics are shown below. The graph also shows the change from figures from the 2015 report.

  • 24.88%     Open rate (24.45% in 2015)
  • 3.42%       Click-through rate (3.13% in 2015)
  • 0.52%       Unsubscribe rate (0.55% in 2015)
  • 10.88%     Click-to-open rate (10.79% in 2015)
  • 2.72%       Unsubscribe-to-open rate (2.68% in 2015)

Summary-2015-2016 (r2)


A point of note. Definitions vary, so it’s worth clarifying how we calculate each performance metric.

The open rate is the number of recipients who opened (that is, viewed) an email divided by the total delivered. Opens are tracked through the rendering of an included image pixel in each email. Since images are routinely downloaded (especially on many mobile devices) this needs to be considered in the interpretation of this metric.

The click-through rate (you may also see this referred to as the click-to-deliver rate) is when a subscriber goes on to click one or more links in the campaign. It could be text or an image, anything with an embedded link reference. The metric is defined as the number of unique clicks divided by the total delivered.

Both open and click-through rate results are typically expressed as a percentage. We don’t count multiple opens by a single subscriber and we record unique clicks (multiple clicks by the same person within a campaign are not recounted) as we feel both of these interpretations give a more realistic measure of engagement.

Before I look in more detail at how these metrics vary across each of the tracked sectors, let’s consider how the overall average rates of opens and clicks have fared over recent history.

Historical trends

OpenOpens history graph rates have shown a steady year on year increase across each of the years recorded, rising from around 18% in 2010 (data from 2009) to 25% in the current report.  Overall increases in email volume, improved delivery rates and changes to image display are all contributory factors to rising open rate. The continuing increase in consumption of email on Clicks history graph mobile devices also has an elevating effect.

In contrast, click through rates have been more variable, initially decreasing from around 3.6% in 2010 to a low of 2.95% in 2015 before recovering to today’s figure of 3.42%. Clicks are (a fairly simple) measure of engagement.

I’ll come back to discuss clicks in more detail in a later blog post. For now let’s focus on opens.

Analysis of Open/Open rates

Other than delivery (the percentage of emails sent to those successfully delivered) open rate is often the first point of call to help understand campaign performance. Opens are tracked through the rendering of an included image pixel in each email. Since images are routinely downloaded (especially on many mobile devices) it can be a difficult metric to interpret. There’s also no guarantee that an opened email has been read. That’s why although it’s a very common performance metric we wouldn’t generally consider open rate as the only (or a true) measure of campaign engagement.

Looking at open rates across each of the sectors it’s clear that there is a significant variation, ranging from 18.7% for ‘Other Service –B2B’ to 37.25% for ‘Legal/Accounting’ – a range of .18.78%. By the way, the average for each sector is calculated from all of the sends from companies classified in that sector. The overall average (24.88%) is calculated as the average of each of the sector averages. At this stage no differentiation is made between automated and non-automated emails – again, I’ll discuss this in more detail in a later post.

email open rates - graph by sector

What’s changed from 2015 to 2016?

The graph below shows open rates across each of the sectors as recorded in our previous 2015 and current 2016 report. Sectors are shown from left to right with increasing levels of improvement.

Overall (towards the left hand side) 13 sectors saw a decrease in open rate from 2015. The largest incremental decreases were in Engineering, HR/Recruitment and Restaurant/Hospitality.

10 sectors saw an average increase in open rate from 2015. The largest increases (towards the right hand side) were in Other Services/B2B, Fashion and Sales/ Marketing/Design. There were also 5 new sector classifications for the 2016 report for which no corresponding 2015 data was recorded.

Interestingly, both Legal/Accounting ­(top of the opens) and Other Services-B2B (bottom of the opens) were in the top 5 of opens improvers from the previous year’s data.

Opens 2015-2016

Another interesting observation is the relationship between opens and clicks. Higher open rates don’t necessarily result in higher click-through rates. This is demonstrated on the graph below where the click-through averages for each sector are overlayed on the opens as ordered highest to lowest. I’ll show the corresponding graph in my next post – that is sector opens ordered by highest to lowest click rates.

Opens - and clicks

The take-home points?

Open rate is a measure of engagement, albeit a simple one. That’s why open is the first usual step in understanding engagement. Of course there’s no guarantee that an opened email has been read.

It’s also worth mentioning that open may not be the objective or even needed for a campaign to be of value. For most of us, purchasing a new car or holiday of a lifetime may not be a regular occurrence despite receiving weekly offers or monthly news updates. If marketers are able to convey the essence of their brand and solution offering merely in the title of their regular emails open may not be necessary for this to still register a cognitive impression on their consumer. Opening when the time is right may still have the desired effect.

Nonetheless improving open rates is a hugely common objective and achieving this is likely to have a positive impact on click-through and other measurements of engagement. So what impacts getting opened?

0. Getting delivered.

It stands to reason (hence bullet point ‘0’) that undelivered emails won’t be opened, so the first step is to ensure that your delivery rates are as high as possible. Ideally you should be achieving in the high 90’s% of delivery (by the way the average delivery rate for emails in the 2016 Benchmark Report was 98.26%).

1. Your reputation.

Successful email marketing is initially about permission and subsequently about developing trust. Consistently delivering valuable, timely and engaging content will quickly establish this trust. This is why being consistent with your ‘from-name’ is important. Having delivered stellar content in your last few campaigns it will mean that the arrival of your next campaign (identified as you by your ‘from-name’) will be anticipated, welcome and much more likely to be opened – and always include a valid reply-to address too. Encouraging your subscribers to whitelist you will also ensure successful delivery and arrival in your primary inbox.

2. Subject line.

Even if you are recognised and trusted your subject line is the gateway to getting opened. On most devices you have around 30-50 immediately characters to play with so getting your message across concisely and interestingly is important. General consensus of opinion is to be clear – cryptic subject lines can introduce curiosity but equally hesitance. I already mentioned that with a good subject line, for some objectives an open may not even be needed. There’s also evidence to suggest that getting a call to action into the subject line itself can influence whether or not that action is completed – interesting!

All in all it’s worthwhile taking time over a subject line. It’s also one of the most commonly applied split-test experiments – that is, different subject lines on otherwise identical campaigns which are sent to sample sections of the overall audience. The winner, according to a pre-defined objective (for example opens) is then automatically sent to the bulk remainder of the audience.

3. Automation

Even with detailed profiling and accurate targeting it’s unlikely that more generic (broadcast) campaigns like promotional offers and newsletters will always hit exactly the right spot. However because emails driven by marketing automation are individual 1-1 messages triggered by specific, individual subscriber actions, it follows that they are much more likely to meet the right person, right message, right time objective. This has a dramatic effect on open rates. Welcome emails are good example – typically attracting 4x more opens than similar non-automated campaigns.

The graph below shows average open rate performance (also click-through) for overall (all recorded campaigns), standard (non-automated) and automated campaigns as extracted from the 2016 Benchmark Report data. This data is then further detailed by each of the individual industry sectors.

Automated opens vs scheduled campaigns

Automated email campaign opens - by sector4. Other

There are many other factors which impact open rate. Timing and frequency are valuable investigations – they’re both subjects in their own right so here are 2 other posts which discuss each of these further.

That’s all for the moment. I’ll be back soon with further blog posts examining some of the other findings of the Benchmark Report in the next few days – starting with click-throughs.

In the meantime, you can download a free PDF copy of the full report here.