November 11, 2019

What’s a good open rate for my emails?

I’ve been working with email systems and the people who use them for about eight years, and email continues to be one of the most effective ways to share information with people.  Everyone you know has an email address, and our inboxes reflect a digital archive of our interests. Mine is full of messages about books, cats, clothes, family, and news. Yep, that’s me in a nutshell.

If you’re on the sending side of email, it’s easy to wonder whether you’re getting it right.  Am I targeting the right email addresses?  Do I have the right content in my emails?  But the question I get far more than any other is: What’s a good open rate for my emails? The answer is: It depends.  Here are a few things that impact open rates and how to think about yours.

What do you mean by open rate?
There are a couple of open rate metrics that you might hear about: 

  • Unique open rate measures the number of distinct email addresses that opened your email
  • Total, or cumulative, open rate reflects how many times your email was opened by all email addresses

If I opened your email five times, I would contribute one unique open, and five total opens. To understand your email’s reach to individuals, and to understand the effectiveness of your subject line (more about that below), the better metric is unique open rate.  

To see the unique open rate for your newsletters in LibraryAware, go to Reports > Newsletter Send History.  You can filter the report by specific newsletter lists and by custom time periods to see trends, and you can download a CSV file of the results.  

For e-blasts, get unique open rate under Reports > Promotions Overview, and click on the email tab.  You can filter this report by promotion and date range, and you can download a report for just the email tab or for all your communication channels.  

What type of emails are you sending?
Relationship emails, sometimes known as transactional emails, are one-to-one messages you send to recipients based on a process or relationship the person has begun with you. If you’re sending a welcome email to new cardholders, or a notice about past-due fines, or you’re emailing personalized reading recommendations to a patron who requested them, those are relationship emails. 

They usually have high open rates, and you can expect a unique open rate of 40% or more for those types of emails.  If your unique open rate for relationship emails is lower than 40%, check the accuracy of email addresses in your list and talk to recipients about what they think of the look or messaging in your emails. 

Promotional emails are messages to generate awareness of — and action on — information, news, events, offers, and opportunities.  An example of a promotional email is a monthly library newsletter that shares events, programs, and new books in a library’s collection.

A good baseline for promotional emails coming from a library is a 20% unique open rate.  If yours is lower, the first thing to evaluate is your subject line.  (See the next section of this post for more about them.)  From there, you want to start looking at the content. Are your content choices driving interest via clicks? Are people engaging more with certain types of content than others? For example, do your clicks indicate an interest in books and events but not as much in the monthly featured recipe?  Is there too much or not enough content for your readers? 

How’s your subject line?
A study of email subject lines1 found that 47% of email recipients opened an email based on the subject line alone.  Perhaps more importantly, 69% of email recipients reported an email as spam based solely on the subject line.  Here are some subject line best practices:

  • Change it up. If you are using the same subject line for every email send, e.g., “This week at the library,” you’re not helping your recipients understand what’s inside or why they should care. What if every book in the library was covered with a jacket that said, “It’s a Book”? That probably wouldn’t drive circulation. In the same way, your email’s subject line is going to represent an initial decision point for many people, so help them make the decision to open your email.
  • Tease what’s inside. You know your patrons. Is there an event, program, class, or book in the email that will get people excited? If so, include it in your subject line. You can include more than one topic in your subject line to reach multiple target groups, e.g., “Tommy Orange visit; we’re going fine free; Veteran Film Festival.”
  • Keep it short. With more than 40% of emails in the United States being opened on mobile devices, there’s not a lot of space to grab someone’s attention. Subject lines should have fewer than 65 characters, including spaces, and optimally between 25 and 50 characters.

Who are you emailing?
Increasingly, state and national laws require email lists to be made up of explicit opt-ins, people who have consciously chosen to receive communication from you via a traceable action, like checking a box on a form. If you’re emailing a list that’s entirely, or mostly, made up of explicit opt-in addresses, you’ll likely see higher unique open rates. A 2018 Marketing Benchmark Report2 found that the average unique open rate in Canada, where the Canadian Anti-Spam Law requires explicit opt-ins for all email communication, is 38.4%, vs. 18.2% in the United States.  

In the United States, we may also add implicit opt-ins to our email lists.  Those are people who have given you their email address for a business purpose, say signing up for a library card, but who have not explicitly elected to receive email communication from you. If your email list is made up largely or wholly of implicit opt-ins, you are likely to see lower unique open rates. Still, you may decide it’s worthwhile to include those addresses to increase general awareness of your offerings.  

When are you emailing?
For most types of email communication, open rates are strongest on weekdays, with Tuesday through Thursday sends experiencing the highest average open rates.3

If you have the bandwidth, you may also want to experiment with your email send frequency to understand how often your audience wants to hear from you. If you have a monthly newsletter, you might see a bump in engagement if you send twice a month.  If you send twice a month, you might try sending emails weekly.  On the other hand, if you see that the total amount of email communication from your organization is negatively impacting open rates, you can try sending less frequently to determine whether that change increases opens.

I hope this post has demystified open rates a bit, and it is but one metric to determine the effectiveness of your emails. (Perhaps we can delve into others in future posts.) What matters most is that you’re reaching out to people. Speaking of reaching out, you’re welcome to contact me at anytime with questions and comments about all things LibraryAware.  


Thinking of launching a newsletter or want a fresh look for the one you’re currently sending? We’ve collected some helpful resources — including this whitepaper and webinar on Library Newsletters: Best Practices.


1 “Email Subject Lines – Statistics and Trends,” by Kalid Saleh of Invesp, March 2016
2  “2018 Marketing Benchmark Report: Email and Mobile Metrics for Smarter Marketing,” by Watson Marketing | IBM, May 2018  
3 “Ultimate Email Marketing Benchmarks for 2019: By Industry & Day,” by Campaign Monitor, 2019

Jenny Schafer is the Senior Product Manager for NoveList. She is currently reading Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton. 


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