How Data Privacy Is Impacting Your Email Open Rate

Melanie Balke
August 22, 2023

It’s been happening for a while, but it’s reared its head once more. The rumble of email marketing gossip is growing, focusing on one thing: open rates.

I’ve discussed the metric before, but there’s never a bad time for a refresher!

A campaign’s open rate is one of the oldest and most trusted performance indicators. Marketers have measured their performance with this little number for years.

But the tides are turning.

Here’s the new subject line: You can’t trust the open rate anymore.

What Is an Email Open Rate?

An old postcard. Overlaid text reads, “The Basics: What Is an Email Open Rate?”


Let’s back up the drama bus and tackle the first question: What is an email open rate?

Unlike some aspects of email marketing, the open rate is exactly what it claims to be. It tells you how many people opened an email. Now, that number does not account for any additional actions. Your email open rates will also include all of your conversions, those delightful click-throughs, and your click-to-open rate.

You determine your open rate by dividing the number of opens by the length of your subscriber list, then multiplying the result by 100. (Written out, the formula is (Total email opens ÷ Number of subscribers) × 100.) So, for example, let’s say you have 100 subscribers. After you’re done sending emails, you get 50 opens. That means your open rate is (50 ÷ 100)×100 — 50%!

Aside from being a handy A/B testing tool, your email open rate often serves as a generalized performance marker. However, unlike other email marketing benchmarks, open rates are measured against industry averages.

(As of 2021, Campaign Monitor studies suggest the overall average open rate is 21.5%. At 28%, the education sector has the absolute highest open rate of any industry. Retail has the lowest industry open rate, clocking in at just 17.1%.)

The Click-Through Rate (CTR)

I mentioned that your email open rate overlaps with some other email marketing benchmarks. So, let’s define those, too, starting with click-through rates.

This particular metric measures how many people opened your email and clicked your call-to-action. If you draw a Venn diagram of email marketing metrics, your click-through rate will be a smaller circle inside your open rate — a bit like an email marketing nesting doll. You’ll also (hopefully!) see some overlap between your click-through rate and your conversion rate.

Most email marketing software automatically calculates your CTR. But — for the mathematically inclined — you can calculate it yourself with the following formula: (Total CTA clicks ÷ Emails sent) × 100.

The Click-to-Open Rate

Go back to that Venn diagram. Draw another circle inside the circle for your click-through rate. This is your click-to-open rate, and it’s another part of the email metrics nesting doll.

Your click-to-open rate measures how many unique users clicked any link within an email. In other words, you’re looking for how many unique accounts clicked any of the links in your email content. Again, you’re tracking opens with an additional qualifier — namely, unique clicks.

The formula to find your click-to-open rate is as follows: (Unique clicks ÷ Unique opens) × 100.

Open Rates, Data Privacy, Email Marketing Campaigns, and You

Overlapping leaves. “Privacy: Data Protection and You.”


We’ve got the “open rate” subject line out of the way.

Now, let’s investigate what all the email marketing buzz is about.

It’s no secret that consumers — your email recipients — are more concerned about digital privacy than ever. That trend culminated in Google’s 2020 announcement of the death of third-party cookies. Summarily: They were pulling the plug on all the techno-wizardry powering email campaigns around the world.

Naturally, the marketing world flipped out.

But! There’s more to the story. Don’t panic.

Every Business Is Already Practicing Digital Privacy

I’ll start with the “big one.”

Your business is (or should be) already practicing data privacy. It’s been relevant since the early 2000s, and it’s still relevant today. Everyone — from the massive corporate conglomerates to the smallest of small businesses — should already practice basic data protection because it’s legally required.

In the United States of America, you’re dealing with California’s CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) and the national CAN-SPAM Act. In Europe, there’s the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). And yes, there are rules for Australia, too. All of these rules impact your email marketing, and they’ve influenced many major tech companies.

The Impact of Privacy on Your Email Marketing Campaign Plans

A complex overlapping intersection. “Apple Mail: iOS 15’s Mail Protection Protocol inflates open rates.”

Aside from Google’s third-party cookie shutdown, other tech companies have joined the privacy wave.

One of the most prevalent subscribers to the consumer protection model is Apple. More precisely, we’re talking about its iOS 15 release, which included an Apple Mail update known as Mail Privacy Protection (MPP). While this may not be a huge deal for some markets, many American brands will want to pay attention to this, as Apple’s iOS is the most popular operating system for checking emails.

When a user opts into the MPP service, all subsequent emails are automatically opened. This means that the open rate for email on iOS devices is artificially inflated. In fact, MarTech reporter Natalie Jackson noticed a 10% bump in open rates between June 30, 2022, — when the MPP update rolled out — and January 2023.

Summarily: Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection software has increased open rates, and that’s not actually a good thing. It’s made it harder for marketers to determine a good email open rate and made data from mailbox providers less reliable. So, if your target audience is loyal to Apple, know that your average open rate is probably lower than what you’re seeing.

Accounting for Other Email Service Providers

Apple’s not the only email service provider limiting our access to consumer data.

Your marketing emails’ open rates are also influenced by a few other factors, including…

  • DuckDuckGo. You’ve probably heard of this company name. This privacy-oriented search engine doubles as an email service provider. As you’d expect, DuckDuckGo users can hide all their interactions with email content.
  • Microsoft Outlook. Primarily used by business professionals, Microsoft’s email platform will also artificially increase open rates. If your audience favors Outlook, know that your average email open rate is lower than what you see. This variance is more likely to impact B2B companies.
  • Mozilla’s Firefox. Like DuckDuckGo, Mozilla also offers email services. This serves a relatively small chunk of the consumer pie, but it may still impact your email click-through rate and open rates. If your target audience is tech-savvy, account for decent wiggle room as you calculate your overall email performance.

How to Use Open Rates in Your Email Marketing Strategy

A FedEx delivery truck. Overlaid text reads, “Open Rates: Modern Uses for an Old Metric.”

However, none of these facts make open rates “bad” benchmarks.

You can still gauge your success with open rates, but you must modify your strategy. Email clients have changed. The bottom line is that email open rates are no longer the de facto performance benchmark. Moreover, we’ll probably see the definition of a “good” open rate change in the next few years.

And — before I continue — let me repeat that different industries have different definitions of “good” open rates. Moreover, your open rate will change. Some campaigns do better than others. It’s your marketing team’s job to find out why.

Combining the Open Rate With Other Metrics

One of the easiest ways to repurpose the trusty open rate is to compare the metric to other email marketing benchmarks, such as…

  • Conversion rate.
  • Per-account revenue.
  • Overall revenue.
  • Spam rates.
  • Subscriber list size.
  • Website interactions.

Aside from giving you a complete picture of your email performance, these comparisons may help you determine your true open rate. Moreover, comparing such information is common practice in A/B testing.

For example, the difference between an email’s open rate and CTR is often used to determine the efficacy of preheader text and subject lines. Similarly, a low open rate with a high conversion rate can be used to extrapolate which email subscribers are high-value customers.

Use Those Email Open Rates for Something Else

You can also use your email open rate to figure out other metrics.

This sounds a bit convoluted, but let me explain. As email open rates become less reliable, marketers have repurposed them as benchmarks for other stats.

Many media companies use open rates to determine a campaign’s overall reach. Others use those auto-opened emails to estimate how much of an impact their email campaigns had.

Get the Most Out of Your Marketing Emails

Regardless of your email campaign plans, there are still many other metrics to use. Those email subject lines may influence your click-through rates. Alternatively, changing the CTA of your email campaign could dramatically increase open rates and conversions.

It’s a delicate balancing act, and the best promotional emails are a mix of strategy, art, and creativity. Unfortunately, few business owners have enough time to scrutinize every email message, and many brands suffer from a low open rate. You can change that!

A skilled team of email marketers can reverse the course of your marketing strategy, turning otherwise dull campaigns into vibrant celebrations of your business. If that sounds like something you’d like, now is the perfect time to investigate. Give me a call to schedule a free strategy session. We’ll discuss your unique marketing needs, and I’ll show you how to amplify your open rate for email marketing!

In the meantime, don’t forget to check the rest of the blog for more information. This isn’t my only blog post, after all. I have many more tips, tricks, and ideas up my sleeve to help your business achieve marketing success.