When it comes to email marketing, there are countless metrics that you can track. Some of these metrics may be fun to track and look great on paper (your computer screen) but unfortunately don’t actually lead to improved business results.

These are vanity metrics.

While you might think that vanity metrics help paint a picture of success or improvements to unknowing stakeholders, they are ultimately a distraction.

Facebook likes, Twitter followers, blog pageviews… these are all vanity metrics because they don’t materially impact the success of your business in a tangible way.

But so are email open rates.

Yes, you read that right. The main metric you’ve been tracking (and sharing) to gauge the success or failure of your email marketing campaigns is (mostly) just for show.

What is an email open rate?

An email open rate is the number of unique opens your email campaign receives. Calculating open rate is simple:

Number of unique email opens / Number of delivered emails x 100 = Open Rate

Delivered emails are important here because hard bounced emails do not count towards this calculation.

Note: a hard bounced email is an email that cannot be delivered due to an unchanging and permanent reason. Unfortunately, there is nothing that you can do to reverse this to force your email through.

Some common reasons for a hard bounce are recipient email address doesn’t actually exist, recipient mail server doesn’t exist, and invalid domain name. While a hard bounce will prevent your email from arriving in its intended inbox it is possible that a hard bounce could be caused by something as simple as your recipient having a typo in their email address.

To keep things simple, let’s assume you sent and delivered an email to 100 different users in your campaign. 23 of your users opened this email giving you an open rate of 23%.

23 / 100 = .23 x 100

Easy enough, right?

Up until recently, open rates were a universally loved way to gauge campaign performance.

So what changed?

Your open rate is (now) a vanity metric

Apple changed — mostly. With a dominating 59.8% email client market share, any change they make is a huge deal.

New privacy initiatives from many of the largest email clients are quietly removing email senders ability to successfully track open rates.

Apple is leading the charge with their new “Mail Privacy Protection” (first introduced in 2021 with iOS 15) that allows users to opt-in to having Apple pre-load their email upon receipt. By doing so, the email’s tracking pixel will immediately trigger.

Note: an email tracking pixel is a 1px by 1px square image that is inserted into an email and is transparent in color and invisible to the recipient. These tracking pixels are what allow marketers to measure open rate, click rate, traffic sources and more.

This change artificially inflates open rates as delivered emails will now automatically show as opened whether they truly have or have not been opened by the intended recipient.

These changes to email open tracking are completely out of the sender’s control.

And to top it all off, these changes affect not only users receiving emails on the Apple Mail app itself but also those who use an Apple client in any way (regardless of email server). This means that using GMail, Yahoo, Outlook, etc. on iOS 15 may also contribute to your now-inflated open rate.

What was once a key metric to track and share with key stakeholders should now be viewed with a bit more skepticism.

What’s next?

It is highly unlikely that these recent privacy changes will be reversed anytime soon (ever).

So what can you do about it?

The answer may surprise you.

We suggest continuing to run your campaigns as you have been.

Continue to send consistent emails (both in frequency and content), create intriguing and accurate subject lines and body content, segment your list so that only the most relevant audience is receiving your emails, and pay close attention to your unsubscribe rate.

However, now you should put a greater emphasis on tracking specific product goals in relation to your email campaigns. Have actionable metrics in mind – metrics around business goals such as generating free trials, converting trials to paid, increased usage of your app or inviting team members.

And actually, this should have been the goal all along.

High open rates don’t necessarily lead to increased sales or profits for your business, the end result of those opens is what really makes the difference.

Now that your focus has transitioned to more tangible KPI’s that lead to specific product goals being met it will be much easier to accurately measure the success of your email marketing campaigns.

Looking back on it, maybe your email open rate becoming a vanity metric overnight will ultimately be a blessing in disguise.

Take this as an opportunity to refocus your attention on the KPI’s that ultimately matter for your business. High open rates may have been impressive in the past but now it’s time to craft and measure your email campaigns against the things that truly move the needle.