Everything Wrong About Email Analytics (And What We Plan to Do About It)

by Etienne Garbugli 2 comments.

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Things change quickly in tech.

In the last few years, self-driving cars, facial recognition, and blockchain have all become realities, while widespread adoption of artificial intelligence is becoming more and more inevitable. In spite of all these changes, email analytics and reporting barely evolved.

Features that were once considered exciting parts of email marketing platforms…

Everything Wrong About Email Analytics – MailChimp Reporting 2006
MailChimp – Early Campaign Reporting in 2006 (Thanks Wayback Machine!)

…did not follow the same evolution curve as the rest of the platforms:

Everything Wrong About Email Analytics – MailChimp Reporting in 2019
MailChimp – Email Campaign Reporting (2019)

In email marketing, opens and clicks still rule the day.

The number of email marketing platforms exploded over the past 10 years; there are now ESPs for various niches and customers (bloggers, SaaS, ecommerce, etc). The tools, the landscape and many of the features changed, yet the email metrics did not.

Why change something that works, right?

The lack of innovation in email analytics can, in part, be traced back to the limitations imposed by email headers – used for email tracking – and the leading email clients (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo!, etc).

To be fair, tools like MailChimp and HubSpot have made strides helping their users track on-site goal completion and the return on investment (ROI) of campaigns.

Everything Wrong About Email Analytics – MailChimp Campaign ROI Tracking
MailChimp – Campaign Return-on-Investment Tracking

So, What’s Wrong with Email Analytics?

Opens and clicks are the metrics most marketers use to optimize their email campaigns.

They’re often the best email analytics available to assess the reach and engagement of email campaigns. They’re also some of the core metrics we use at Highlights. Yet, they’re in no way perfect measures of email performance.

Why Opens are Imperfect Email Marketing Metrics?

Email marketing platforms include a tiny image (a tracking pixel!) in every marketing email you send. When that image gets loaded by the email client, an open is counted. This means that if a recipient has image-blocking enabled on their email client, they won’t be included in your open rate.

The open rate underreports on opens, but it also over-reports on it…

These past few years, over 50% of email consumption happened on mobile. This, and Gmail’s market share increasing (example below), have made open-to-delete common place. Yet, those opens count against your open rate.

Everything Wrong About Email Analytics – Email Opens in Gmail
Gmail – Email Open Zones

To add to the complexity of getting an accurate picture of the open rate of your emails, email forwards also count against the open rate. This, technically means, that an email can get an open rate of more than 100% (I’ve seen it!).

Why Clicks are Imperfect Email Marketing Metrics?

Although we generally recommend having a single Call-to-Action (CTA) in your emails, we realize that there are a lot of times when that won’t be possible (newsletters for example). Yet, an email’s click rate includes all clicks (clicks on email footer links, supporting links, and clicks on your main CTA). Does it make sense for all of these clicks to be part of the same click rate?

Now, what happens when your recipients land on your site, blog or landing pages? If they leave within the first second, should they count as part of your click rate?.

This is one of the reasons why we often recommend using custom goals or revenue numbers instead of clicks to assess a campaign’s performance.

We also strongly believe that the clickthrough rate (CTR) should be calculated over the email opens (e.g. 100 emails sent, 50 opens, 10 clicks = 20% CTR), and not the total number of emails sent (e.g. 100 emails sent, 50 opens, 10 clicks = 10% CTR). If the email opens are accurate, this calculation gives you a better measure of the impact of your emails. That’s if… ?

Why Unsubscribes are Imperfect Email Marketing Metrics?

It gets even trickier with Unsubscribes.

Although a person may unsubscribe from a specific email you’ve sent, the decision to unsubscribe might have been triggered by a completely different email in your sequence or your email marketing program.

More so, many subscribers who are tired of receiving your email messages won’t even take the time to unsubscribe. They’ll just stop opening, reading, and clicking. Worst, they might even mark your email addresses as spam. ?

Unsubscribes are a good data point. A better data point might be an email’s disengagement rate. After receiving which email did your subscribers stop opening your emails? It’s a more valuable data point, but it’s a lot more difficult to get that kind of info.

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Gaps in Email Analytics

There are many gaps in the way email marketing platforms calculate and report campaign performance. Most notably, when it relates to:

  • Engagement: How much of your email copy is being read (or seen)? Are the opens just opens-to-delete? Are there dead link – links that never get clicked? Some email testing tools provide insights on how much of the email is being read (mostly based on Outlook data ?). Some email marketing platforms have clickmaps, but those maps don’t really add useful data points.
  • On-Site Performance: Knowing which emails make you money is key. It’s often the main question marketing managers and CMOs want to answer. That said, there’s a lot more to on-site performance than transactions. Do people convert on your secondary goals? What paths do they take? Do they just bounce when they land on your landing pages? Those are still challenging questions to answer for marketers.
  • Performance Gaps: With tools like MailChimp, your campaigns are compared against industry averages. This can work for a time, but these data points become meaningless when you start really optimizing your email campaigns. What you’ll soon want to know is whether your campaigns over- or under-perform in comparison to your list averages or with similar segments within your list. This will allow you to understand whether your business is leaving money on the table (or not).
  • Consumption Patterns: For how long did your campaign perform? How much time did it take between email open and goal? How much time does it take for your different business goals to get completed? Email marketing platforms rarely learn from your campaigns. They don’t typically provide cross-campaigns insights that you can use to improve your future campaigns.
  • Email Sharing: Many email marketing platforms give rudimentary insights on the shareability of your emails (Forwards for example). Tools like Litmus and EmailonAcid can add your emails’ print rate (a form of sharing!) and it’s also possible to get insights on social sharing for your emails, but these data points are just not widely available at the moment.

Email Analytics Beyond Opens, Clicks & Unsubscribes

Getting clear data on intents (signups, opens and clicks) and outcomes (time on site, goals and revenue) is key to optimizing and getting results from your email campaigns.

To help marketers get complete clarity on their email marketing campaigns, we’re diligently working to improve:

  • Email Opens: We want to differentiate the opens that lead to real engagement from the ones that don’t. Although we might not be able to solve the issue with image-blocking, we think that a cleaner open rate will lead to better email optimization decisions.
  • Email Clicks: We want to differentiate core CTA clicks from secondary clicks. We also want to discount clicks that lead to bounces on websites. Businesses rarely only have one goal for their site, and the goals are not always monetary. Highlights already tracks paths on-site and goals beyond revenue.
  • Unsubscribe Attribution: We want to look at email list unsubscribes and disengagement to attribute disengagement to the appropriate emails and campaigns.
  • Performance Gaps: Maybe your campaign got a 5% clickthrough rate, but with the same audience, you really should have got 8%… Highlights learns from past campaigns. We want to use that information to make return on investment projections to help our users understand what they can expect from their email marketing efforts.

We already started rolling out primary and secondary goal tracking. You can already use those to get more clarity on your email campaigns while we’re working to make Open, Click and Unsubscribe rates more actionable.

It’s 2019… Let’s make email analytics great again! ?

Curious to test Highlights’s email analytics? Sign up for a free trial.

Etienne Garbugli
Étienne is a three-time startup founder (Flagback, HireVoice and Highlights), and the author of Lean B2B: Build Products Businesses Want. At Highlights, Étienne is responsible for customer success.


  1. Hi Etienne,

    fantastic post.
    Really thoughtful and well put together. I know it’s small, but I totally loved the image of Gmail’s inbox with the labels “This triggers an open” and “this does not”.
    Simple, yet powerful.

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