deliverability letter

Are your open and click rates fake? Probably. Here's why.

Thoughts by Nuno Sancha • Freelancer Freelancer

Aaaand SEND.

The satisfaction of creating an entire email campaign from start to finish – writing the copy, making the design, and segmenting your list – is one of the best feelings as a marketer.

You're in your zone.

That is until until we start thinking about how it’s going to perform once it’s been released into the wild.

KPIs, metrics, spam reports; all that jazz we have to worry about.

One of those metrics that we, as an industry, have measured obsessively in our email campaigns is open rate and click-through rates. It's been an industry norm for over 20 years.

At first glance these metrics seem OK to track.

Open rates can be a signal that your subject line resonated with the people on your list, or at least it piqued their curiosity, and they wanted to read the rest of your message. It can also be a signal that your email bombed.

If the message content inside is persuasive enough, or your offer is a steal, people will take action and click on a link — so we track that.

But with both of these metrics, we are making an assumption that emails are opened by real life humans only.

When we began building Bento, that’s what we thought too. That was until we dove deeper into the data.

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is." - Yogi Berra.

After monitoring thousands of email broadcasts, the raw analytics behind them, raw web requests, and trends over time we started to realise that for most customers the majority of email opens were ...

Drum roll please

... actually automated and not real. Seriously.

Additionally, we realised that no other email marketing tools were reporting on this as the bots were artificially inflating their numbers making their software look better.

BEFORE reading this article:


AFTER reading this article:


There are a few signs that your "readers" are actually just bots (aka automated engagement).

Knowing if a bot opened or clicked an email isn’t an exact science, but there are very obvious ways to tell if you are dealing with a bot or not.

A few known patterns we've seen are:

Email opens, or link clicks almost immediately after you send the email to your contacts. Most humans aren’t eagerly watching their inbox awaiting your emails. The fastest real life opens we’ve seen is in the 5 second or so mark. Anything less is most likely a bot. In Bento, you will get visibility into this in your reports and during a batched send.

Clicks happening extremely close to an email open. It’s very rare a tracking pixel will fire at the exact time a link is clicked. The only time we've seen that happen is for users with extremely low download speeds.

A contact clicking on every link of your email. Even on those not important links – home pages, social media links, and so on.

There is a high volume of link clicks from the few same contacts on your list.

The user agent requesting the content is a bot or crawler (like Google’s Image Proxy). You'd be surprised how often this one pops up.

There are many more signals we've seen in the wild but the above are the ones easiest to pick out and the highest volume of automated events (opens/clicks).

These are all contributing to wonky metrics but it's not that bad.

As a marketer, you may not like that this is going on, but bear in mind that these bots are different from malicious bot traffic (side note: Bento uses Cloudflare to stop these types of bots bleeding into your email analytics).

The latter can cause real damage to your business. While the former is there to protect your customers. Having misleading statistics is just something we have to deal with as a marketer.

Here's a more clear cut example of what could be happening with a simple email being delivered to one user:

  • They recieve an email from you to their Gmail account.
  • Google's proxy service downloads and requests the image file.
  • An open is triggered.
  • Their iPhone shows an iOS notification from Gmail.
  • Another open is triggered.
  • They go over to their work PC with anti-virus installed on it.
  • They open Microsoft Outlook which scans emails for viruses.
  • A click is triggered for every single link in your email.

Result: 3 opens, multiple clicks and they might not have even read it yet. Wild, right?

How this story plays out depends on the industry you're in and if the majority of your subscribers use their personal or business email.

Regulated industries like Finance and Healthcare tend to see more of these bots’ activities than B2C and DTC.

Okay, it's bad but how can we track it?

Your email marketing tool can give you more accurate numbers to track but will they? Incentives say no — they want inflated metrics so their customers feel better about using them.

With Bento, we care so we're doing our best to highlight this automated activity so you can take action on it. We've created a series of handy rules that classify each event and then showcase it in our reporting.

Like so:

bot tracking

You can then just take your opens and subtract them from your bot opens to get a more accurate metric.

We're already doing our best to block all automated click tracking from showing up in reporting or triggering automations.

There are three factors that we're concerned about moving forward.

Over the last year or so we’ve seen three very clear causes to inflated email marketing metrics that only seem to be making the situation worse. They are (but not limited to):

  • Gmail triggering an open when a device shows a notification. For more details on this absurdity, you can go here.
  • Apple's iOS update makes it so images are opened and proxied (therefore marked as an open via a request). You’ll hear a lot of marketers online talk about how this will hurt open metrics but it’s the complete opposite.
  • Anti-virus software used by both consumers and businesses that check every single link in a sandbox (instantly) before delivering to a user. We've seen a huge uptick in these over the last 6 months.

All three of these Bento does it's best to filter in our reporting. Whilst this gives you a better and more accurate metric to track vs. our competitors we still can't catch everything.

How bad is it now?

We’ve seen some campaigns where the raw open rate was higher than previous campaigns but when you factored in bot opens it was below average. We've even seen some campaigns with upto 50-60% bot opens. The worst examples we've seen is domains that were being spam foldered but hitting record opens — which is impossible.

For marketers, we encourage you to track revenue over time instead of your opens and clicks. It's far more accurate.

Want to know how many opens are bots?

If you want to learn what percentage of your email campaigns opens are actually bots then go try Bento for free this month. Load up your subscribers, send them a newsletter and see how they respond.

We think you'll be surprised.