Inflated Email Opens & Clicks (& what to do about them)

  • 6 September 2023
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Marketers have come to rely on their email open and click rates as measures of success, but don’t be fooled - these metrics are not necessarily trustworthy indicators of your messaging performance. Why not? Because now more than ever, open and click rates are often artificially inflated.

Let’s break down the issue, and then look at how Customer.io can help you confidently attribute “real” conversions!

 

Root Causes

There are two major factors junking up your open and click rates:

Apple Mail Privacy Protection inflates your open rates

Apple now pre-loads email data regardless of whether a user actually opened an email, so the open rate is artificially higher. Our current data suggests that for Apple Mail Client users, their opens are about 40% inflated.

Important Note: This also means that if your open rate is already low, your “true” open rate is even lower. If you’re concerned about improving your email deliverability health, be sure to check out our deliverability best practices.

Email security measures inflate your open and click rates

Security-focused inbox providers like ProofPoint, Barracuda, Outlook Protection, plus other third-party email security add-ons have a consistent history of opening emails in a sandbox environment and clicking everything (called “link scanning”) to check for malicious content. This results in automated clicks and opens, and can significantly affect your metrics.

 

Tips to Identify “Link Scanning”

How do you know if you’re being affected by link scanning? It’s not an exact science, but here are some indicators to watch out for.

Large number of clicks on social links

Customers don’t normally click on social links in emails. Some security services only scan links from external domains that don’t match your sending address domain, so sometimes you’ll even notice that there are higher clicks on socials than the call to action! While that initially seems like a worrisome result, it is simply a strong indicator that link scanning is occurring.

Similar numbers of clicks on all social and external links, or all links

It’s highly unlikely that your users are clicking on every link in your email.

Check the timestamps

Watch for link clicks happening at the same time, or extremely close in time, to when the email was delivered. It’s less likely that a real human will click on a link in your email at the exact same time the message lands in their inbox.

Check your audience

Does your audience contain a large number of users using their corporate email address? Corporate emails are more likely to implement additional security measures that utilize link scanning.

 

The Solution: Measure “Real” Conversions

Here at Customer.io we always strongly recommend using real-time customer actions to measure success, to determine if your user’s behaviour was actually influenced by your messaging. This best practice has the added benefit of reducing false conversion attributions from inflated opens and clicks.

Send Events to track real-time customer actions

Opens and clicks alone have always made poor conversion goals. Not only can they be artificially inflated like we have described here, someone opening or clicking something isn’t proof that they actually followed all the way through and converted. People abandon their carts all the time!

Send Events to Customer.io to track real-time actions people perform in your app, website, etc (like actually making a purchase) and use them when setting your goals. Also, be sure to use event filters and/or compare conversion event values to other variables to only count relevant events. Example: if your call to action was to purchase a computer, only include purchases that include a product type of computer, don’t just count every single purchase event! This is a common mistake that we see.

Important Note: Page View events alone also make poor conversion goals, as link scanning will click to open a page and create false positives.

Consider Segment-based conversions

Did you know that Customer.io can set goals not only based on events, but also based on a user entering or leaving a segment? Segment-based conversion goals are a great way to set multiple criteria required to achieve the goal, if there are additional data factors beyond simply opening or clicking and performing the conversion event that should mark a true conversion.

Be careful with goal timing

Many clients set their goal timeframes far too wide. If someone performs an action a month after seeing your message, do they really remember seeing it, and was your message really the cause of their behaviour?

The longer you wait, the harder it is to feel confident that the user was influenced by your messaging, and it’s not just something they would have done anyway given enough time. Especially if the confirmation that they opened your message in the first place was actually a false positive…

Combined with good conversion goal setting, set your timeline so that the user must achieve the goal within 3 to a maximum of 7 days from opening or clicking your message.

 

Important Additional Considerations

One-click unsubscribes can be affected by link scanning!

We have seen cases where a one-click unsubscribe link that does not take the user to a confirmation page has caused users to be falsely unsubscribed, because link scanning “clicks” on the unsubscribe link in the email.

Having a user click to unsubscribe, then go to a website with a final confirmation message, is just fine based on CAN-SPAM rules and strongly recommended for this reason!

HTTPS Link Tracking may help

HTTPS link tracking is not a cure or magic bullet, but if implemented has the potential to reduce some link scanning behaviour, from some security services. Your mileage may vary here, but HTTPS link tracking is always a great idea to implement in general, so don’t hesitate!

Link to your own domain wherever possible

Avoid too many external links and non-custom domain link shorteners in your email content to avoid some link scanning.

 

If you have questions or experiences with inflated opens and clicks, drop us a line in the comments!


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