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Aug 14, 2002
How To

How to Track Open Rates of Text Messages With a Teeny-Tiny Bit of HTML

SUMMARY: Most marketers and email newsletter publishers know the rule:
You can not track open rates of text messages.

When we mentioned this oft-quoted rule to our Tech Editor
Alexis D. Gutzman the other day, she scoffed at it. "Of course
you can track text open rates." Interested? This quick, practical
article includes:
-> Notes on what open rates to track
-> Why open rate measurements are not (ever) perfect
-> Circumstances when text-email works better than HTML
-> Tech notes for your email techie
Most marketers and email newsletter publishers know the rule:
You can not track open rates of text messages.

When we mentioned this oft-quoted rule to our Tech Editor
Alexis D. Gutzman the other day, she scoffed at it. "Of course
you can track text open rates."

Turns out, all you need is a little spec of HTML code added to
your text message. It will still look like text to the
recipient, and have all the benefits of text in that everyone can
open the message. For most recipients you will also be able
to get open rate results.

[Note: As we describe below, this tiny bit of code does mean you
are sending little bit of HTML with your regular plain text message.
However, it is so little that people who prefer text (but can read
HTML) will "see" nothing but text. People who can only read text
will "see" a regular text message with one tiny item at the top that
looks like brief typo. Read on for details.]

The brief tech details from Alexis are below. In the meantime,
two caveats:

Caveat #1 - No open rate is really ever accurate.

For example, if your recipient is using an email system such as
Outlook, mail may open automatically in their "preview panel"
even through the recipient did not chose to open it.

If your recipient is using an email system such as Lotus
Notes (which many Federal government and Fortune 500 employees
use) which does not read HTML at all, their system will not recognize
the trick below and return open rate data to you.

What they will see is a regular-looking text-message with a little
weird bit of code at the top that looks like a small typo.

The only thing open rates are good for is an estimate. A
rough feeling. A general guide.

You should definitely watch your open rate, especially if you
send mail to the same list on a regular basis or you've rented a
list, so you can spot potential delivery problems, etc. As we have
mentioned before in this newsletter, you might also want to watch
your open rates based on:

-> How new an opt-in is: Opt-ins that are 90 days or less
generally have *much* higher open rates than your normal opt-ins.
It is good to know what your fall-off is, and if tweaking content
can help sustain higher open rates longer.

-> What list an opt-in came from: Especially if you are
buying names from co-registration deals or expensive marketing
campaigns, you should track all of this group's responses as
separate from your main list.

-> Whether the names use free email systems such as Hotmail or
Yahoo addresses, or if they are AOL names, either of which might
exhibit dramatically different responses than your main body of

Caveat #2: Why send a text message vs HTML?

So many marketers who have tested HTML over the years have reported
extraordinarily better responses than from plain text messages
that many think going HTML is a guaranteed Best Practice.

It is not.

There are plenty of cases in which text is better. These include:

-> Messages sent to people who can not read HTML (duh).

-> Messages sent to the roughly estimated 25% of people who
simply prefer text. (No, they are not impressed by the often
ugly or thoughtless format your HTML program designs the text-
version in when it is created "automatically" instead of by a

-> Messages sent with a serious or personal tone. Nothing says
one-to-one like text does.

-> Messages sent to demographics that view anything HTML as yucky
advertising. HTML is beginning to scream "Commercial Message" to
many people.

-> Messages sent to a marketplace that gets heaps of HTML.
Sometimes being the text-only kid on the block can actually help
you stand out.

In general, think of text-only as a very simple, plain direct
mail package. Perhaps a #10 white envelope without any graphics
containing a typed black and white letter. HTML on the other
hand is a bright, glossy direct mail package containing a four-
color brochure. There is a time and a place for both in your
marketing tool kit.

That said, here's Alexis' (short) tech how-to note:

"If you want to detect opens, but want it to appear to the
recipient that the message is plain text, you can include the
entire message between a begin PRE (for pre-formatted text) tag and an end PRE tag (with the open-tracking image after the PRE tag).

Then tell your email vendor's software to go ahead and send the
message as multipart (the way you normally do if you send an HTML

This way, anyone who really can only read text (AOL 5 and
earlier) will see only text, and anyone who can see HTML will see
the same text, but you will get open metrics for these people. Of
course, you still won't know how many people opened the message
as plain text, because the ability to count opens is limited to
HTML-capable browsers that are reading email while the recipient
is online."
See Also:

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