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Email click-through rate: One metric to rule them all

by Kate Lindemann  |  October 23, 2020

10 min. read
Email analytics dashboard showing click-through rate.

Email marketing is blissfully quantifiable. Every campaign creates helpful data you can use to refine your approach. But with so many ways to measure the success of emails, it’s hard to know where to focus.

In this overview, we’ll cut through the clutter and take a closer look at the most important metric in email analytics: click-through rate (CTR).

What is an email click-through rate?

Email click-through rate is a metric showing how many recipients opened an email and clicked a link inside it. Marketers use click-through rates to measure how well an email campaign is performing overall. Commonly abbreviated to CTR, click-through rate is among the most important metrics in email analytics.

What’s so special about click-through rates?

If you could only choose one metric to measure the success of your email marketing, click-through rate would be a solid choice. While other metrics are great for fine-tuning, click-through rate is the best indicator of how well an email or campaign did overall.

After all, you’re emailing customers for a reason. Maybe you want them to visit a landing page, watch a tutorial or learn about a product.

There are several steps to get them there, but that’s the finish line.

Ultimately, that’s what click-through rate measures: How many people did you get across the finish line?

Person reading a marketing email.To understand this a little better, let’s look at how click-through rate relates to other key email marketing metrics:

Opens – Open rates are pretty straightforward. They show how many people opened your email. This is the best metric for whether subject lines are working. Open rates can also shed light on bigger-picture questions, like whether you’re sending the types of emails customers want to receive.

Click-to-open rate – Click-to-open rate measures how many of the people who opened the email were persuaded to click. This tells you whether the copy and design inside your email are doing their job.

Click-through rate – Click-through rate brings it all together. It measures the whole journey: How many customers opened the email and liked what they found inside enough to click.

What’s a good email click-through rate?

A lot of marketers wonder exactly what click-through rate they should be shooting for. It would be great to be able to say ‘X%’ and move on. Sadly, the real answer to that question is a bit more complicated.

Average click-through rates

A Mailchimp analysis across all industries found an average click rate of 2.61%, so anything above that would technically be above average. For an ambitious target, 4% would make sense in many cases. However, in others, 2-3% might be the best you can do.

Average email click-through rate is 2.61 percent.
The average email click-through rate for all emails and industries is 2.61%. Source: Mailchimp

Why averages don’t tell the whole story

A whole host of factors affect email click-through rates. Most of them are in your control. But there are a handful that aren’t, and they too will affect your email performance.

Some emails always perform better

Some types of emails are always going to perform better than others. A customer who requested an eBook is very likely to click through when it shows up in their inbox. A newsletter or unsolicited marketing email, on the other hand, will not perform as well – no matter how good your copy is.

Industry matters too

Average email click-through rates vary from industry to industry. An insurance marketer with a 3% CTR is doing much better than the industry average of 2.13%. A news outlet with a 3% CTR can aim higher – the average email click-through rate in media the media industry is 4.62%

Bar graph showing average email click-through rate by industry.
Data Source: Mailchimp

Calculation methods differ

Complicating things even further, not every email service calculates click-through rate the same way. The basic formula for click-through rate is clicks divided by recipients.

But what counts as a click?

Unique clicks – Some providers use unique clicks to calculate click-through rates. Unique clicks measure how many people clicked at least one link. If one person clicks two links, the second click isn’t unique and doesn’t count.

Total clicks – Other systems count total clicks. In that case, one person clicking two links would be counted twice.

Next, who counts as a recipient? There are two options for that as well:

Emails sent – Emails sent is the total number of email addresses on the mailing list.

Emails delivered – This method takes list hygiene out of the picture by not counting addresses that bounce. That way, you’re only measuring engagement by the people who actually got the email.

Ultimately, click-through rates offer valuable insights no matter how your system calculates them. But it’s not a bad idea to look under the hood and see what exactly you’re measuring.

That way, if you ever compare between different email marketing systems, you’re not comparing apples to oranges.

What to focus on instead

With all the variables at play, picking a ‘good’ email click-through rate and trying to hit it is not the best approach. Instead, look at where you are now as a benchmark, and try to improve. Sometimes small changes add up to big differences. So run some experiments and see if you can nudge that click-through rate up.

Graph showing increasing email click-through rate.Need some ideas to get started? Here are some tried and true performance-enhancing tweaks:

How to improve email click-through rates

Reexamine the types of emails you’re sending

Before you start fine-tuning the details, step back and look at the big picture. Are you sending emails customers want to receive?

Look for trends – One way to tell is to compare click-through rates for different types of content. Maybe your customer success stories get all the clicks, while product updates languish unread. That’s a valuable insight. The solution is simple: Give the people what they want!

Marketers replacing content in an email.Group contacts into segments – Of course, not every customer likes the same type of content. By grouping your mailing list into segments, you can send different types of content to different people. A little organization goes a long way – on average, segmented email campaigns get nearly 50% more click-throughs than unsegmented ones.

Check out our email segmentation guide to learn more about how to split your list.

Dial in your cadence

Cadence is how email content is spaced over time.

If you email people too frequently, they’ll tune out, and click-through rates will plummet. If you don’t email them enough, you miss out on opportunities to engage.

Marketer creating email cadence.As you fine tune your email cadence, remember to compare total click-through rates for a campaign. Emailing customers more frequently might mean fewer clicks per email, but more overall.

Fine-tune your subject lines

The first step to getting someone to click is getting them to open, so it’s important to get your subject lines right.

Keep it short – Most email clients will cut long subject lines off, especially on mobile. Stay under 50 characters – fewer if you can.

Start things off right – Whenever possible, put the most important word or phrase at the beginning of the subject line. That way, customers see that information first. Plus, you’ll know for sure it won’t end up hidden behind an ellipsis on a narrow phone display:

Email subject lines cut off on narrow screen.Show value – Why should someone open your email? Subject lines have to state your case. Think about the essence of what the email offers. A unique expert perspective? The solution to a problem? A money-saving discount? Whatever that value is, make sure it comes across loud and clear.

Be accurate – Getting lots of opens, but no clicks? Make sure your emails are delivering on what the subject line promises. Misleading or clickbaity subject lines may boost open rates, but the click-through rate will suffer if the content inside doesn’t live up to expectations.

Get to the point

Keep email copy short and to the point. Nobody’s going to find a call to action buried under six paragraphs of text. In fact, most people won’t even read your entire email. So decide exactly what you want customers to know, and put it right at the top in a bold, snappy headline.

Short, concise marketing email from Adobe.

You can also experiment with different writing styles. Do your customers prefer things straightforward, or respond better to a little whimsy? Just don’t stray too far from your brand’s usual style. You don’t want to surprise people with a totally different personality every time they hear from you.

Follow email design best practices

Email design is more than aesthetics. Good design choices guide the reader through an email and encourage them to click.

For starters, don’t try to cram too much in. ‘White’ space, the empty space around design elements, makes your content stand out.

Make sure directional elements (like a person’s gaze) point towards the copy, not away from it. If your design has no inherent directionality, create it by using design elements to point the eye to your call to action.

Inverted triangle points to call to actionFor more visual tips and tricks, check out our email design guide.

Focus on your calls to action

Your call-to-action button is the last chance to persuade customers to click, so it’s worth giving it some extra attention.

Stick to one – Choice can be paralyzing. Take it out of the equation by using only one call-to-action button per email. If you absolutely must have multiple buttons, designate one as the most important. Make it make it bigger, brighter and more central than the others.

Be bold – Your call to action is the last thing you want to get lost in a cluttered email design. Buttons should stand out, so it’s clear where customers should click. Use a bright, contrasting color. To make things easy for mobile users, make your buttons finger-sized: at least 45 px tall.

Write a good call to action – An ideal call to action is short, descriptive and explains how the action benefits the customer. This example checks all three boxes:

Email from Chipotle with CTA that says get my guac.Sadly, many things in life are more complicated than free food. If you can’t sum it up in two to three words, use descriptive text around the button to provide additional context.

A/B test everything

A/B tests take the guesswork out of fine-tuning your marketing emails, and most email marketing systems make them easy to run.

A typical A/B test might look something like this:

Step 1: Create your variants – Write two versions of the same email to test what style your customers like more. Maybe one is straightforward, and the other is funny.

Step 2: Run the test – Most email marketing programs will automate the rest of the A/B test. 25% of your list will get the straightforward version of the email. Another 25% is in for a bucket of laughs (or groans – that’s why you’re testing).

Step 3: Use the results – Whichever email gets more clicks will automatically go out to the rest of the list.

Two emails in A/B test.You can A/B test almost any aspect of an email. Pit two subject lines against each other. See if one photo outperforms another. Compare click-through rates with different button colors.

Not only will you improve the performance of individual campaigns, you’ll collect valuable data with every test. Over time, these data points add up to tell you what works best for your audiences.

Time to roll up your sleeves

Now that you understand click-through rates as a performance metric, you’re all set to start improving yours.

Use the other analytics metrics to figure out what might be holding your campaigns back. Once you’ve found something that needs improvement, make a change, run some tests and watch your click-through rates grow – one adjustment at a time.