Email Newsletters Hit a Speed Bump: Inaccurate Open Rates

Email Newsletters Hit a Speed Bump: Inaccurate Open Rates

As Clover Letter Emails Got Bigger in size, Founders Say, Its Open Rate Collapsed…

Email newsletters are just as effective when working with existing customers, as they were from the very start. With whole digital-media startups built on their backs and traditional publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post producing them by the dozens.

The conversational news roundup TheSkimm, for instance, stated that it has over three million subscribers. Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s Lenny Letter claims hundreds of thousands. That reach is valuable when drawing readers to websites’ homepages keeps getting tougher. Both are now focused on building sustainable businesses, backed by venture capital at TheSkimm and by magazine powerhouse Hearst in the case of Lenny.

But another newsletter flagged an unexpected challenge last week, one that caused its founders to re-evaluate their primary method of distribution and introduce an app to complement it. Liza Darwin and Casey Lewis, who started Clover Letter in February for teen girls, wrote on Medium that their strong start was running into a problem with their open rate.

“A week into the launch, we had a couple thousand subscribers and a 70% open rate,” they wrote, under the headline “The Problem With Email Newsletters.”

As they got more comfortable with MailChimp, the service they used to manage and send Clover Letter, they said they began adding “GIFs and Instagrams and other things that made the experience feel that much more exciting than your average promotional letter in the box… 

And that’s when our open rate began to drop off the cliff…” But, the two wrote, the drop wasn’t because readers were actually opening Clover Letter less often. They traced the issue to the way MailChimp sees whether a newsletter has been opened, which relies on a “tiny, transparent image” that is loaded when an email has been opened. (MailChimp has this whole process explained on their website)


Thus, large newsletters can get “clipped” by email programs, which hurts the open rate because the image is located at the very bottom of the email. Gmail, for example, clips emails that are larger than 102kb and puts everything beyond that mark behind a link that says “See the entire message.” Recipients who open the email and read much of it but don’t click that link will never give the tracking image a chance to work.

– A week into the launch, we had a couple thousand subscribers and a 70% open rate.Liza Darwin and Casey Lewis

Also, the part of the problem may be the “offline reading” option, used by many people worldwide. It means that they mail client app loads the letter, but when they open it does not necessarily mean that they will have an Internet connection at that time.

Email Newsletter

For both editorial and commercial, marketing and strategic purposes, the “open rate” metric makes huge importance.

Editors might use it to help gauge whether their subject lines resonate.

For people looking our to advertisers, it suggests something about a newsletter’s actual audience. Nicholas Quah, who writes a newsletter about the podcasting industry, compared open rates to websites’ click-through rates, as far as advertisers are concerned.

Clover Letter explored other newsletter providers, but “came crawling back to MailChimp,” Ms. Darwin and Ms. Lewis wrote. Looking for alternatives, Clover has created an iOS app, though it’s not doing away with its namesake newsletter.

MailChimp did not respond to requests for comment. Its website acknowledges that its open rate isn’t 100% accurate and urges publishers getting clipped by Gmail to keep their newsletters below 102kb.


Publishers may not embrace that solution.

“We’re talking to developers and are considering different options, but based on reader feedback, abbreviating the letter would be doing a disservice to the audience,” Ms. Lewis told Ad Age in an email.

Ms. Lewis said Clover is focused on growth aspect rather than brand deals at the moment. Dove served as Clover’s launch sponsor, but the newsletter doesn’t run traditional advertising. “It’s unclear just how aware advertisers are that open rates can be inaccurate because it seems like no one really talks about it,” she said.

Benjamin Cooley, CEO of Lenny, said spam filters used by providers can also prevent readers from getting their newsletters.

“As the Clover creators noted, a lot of the problems with delivering email is that Outlook, Gmail, and other email servers look for certain words and tags in your email to determine if they are friend or foe,” he said. “When emails become laden with a lot of pictures and gifs or use words like ‘vagina’ one time too many (as they sometimes will when talking about women’s health) the email gets blocked.”

2 Responses

  1. What an informative article. Thanks for sharing!

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