This series of reports has been running since the second half of 2006 and has, for me, provided a very useful insight into the effectiveness of email marketing in Australia over the last five years.
The reports are based on data from Vision6, so there's a slight bias based on being a single vendor (competitors such as CampaignMonitor don't yet release similar reports, or combine their information into a single industry report). However it is based on 259 million messages distributed via 112,000 separate campaigns by predominantly Australian companies (and they exclude all emails sent by stand alone resellers and corporate networks) - so it is a large sample for reporting purposes.
Vision6's software (similar to its competitors) tracks email campaigns by sends, bounces, email opens and click throughs (to links in email messages).
This provides very useful ROI data for agencies. I have always tried to encourage agencies to use these types of tools to manage their email newsletters so they can properly report on them and detect user sentiment and trends (this also takes the load off the, often overburdened, email systems used by government agencies).
The cost of these products is quite low considering their capabilities - particularly when looking at A/B testing to identify the most effective newsletter format and content (by sending differently formated emails to several small subsets of your email list, comparing open rate/click throughs and then distributing the most effective email format to the full list).
I'm not aware of any agencies who do currently use A/B testing for either email or websites, though this is widely used by business to maximise ROI - however I live in hope.
Back to the Vision6 survey and its results - the latest July-December 2011 survey reports that government agencies and defense have retained their position as achieving the highest open rate of any industry sector in Australia, with 31.66% of emails opened by recipients (an increase of 0.97% from last survey).
This means that if, as a government agency, you send out an email to a 10,000 person list, on average 3,166 of them will be opened. The others will end up deleted, ignored, blocked or bounced (where email addresses are full or closed).
While this doesn't sound great, it's actually a much higher exposure level than achieved through other mediums. It's also a much better rate than for many other industries, such as construction (20.99% open rate) or sales and marketing (14.79% open rate).
It is also important to consider that smaller lists tend to achieve higher open rates - perhaps due to the additional effort in managing the integrity of larger lists.
By send volume, on average across all industries, lists with under 500 subscribers achieve a 33.17% open rate, dropping to 19.76% for lists with more than 10,000 subscribers.
Government also topped the unique clickthrough rates for all sectors, with 8.42% of subscribers clicking through from the email to further information on a website. This compares to the bottom-place IT and Telecommunications sector, which only received a unique clickthrough rate of 2.25%.
The average clickthrough rate for all sectors was 4.22%, although this also declined by list size (from 7.31% for up to 499 subscribers down to 4.07% for lists of 10,000 or more.
Government also did well on bounce rates, with only 4.43% of emails not getting through. Whilest not the lowest rate, which is held by the Call Centre/Customer service sector with 3.29%, government was third highest and much, much better than the 15.27% bounce rate suffered by the Science and Technology sector, or 10.47% by the Manufacturing/Operations sector.
The average bounce rate was 5.45% and, interestingly bounce rates didn't consistently increase with larger lists.
Vision6's report indicated that lists with under 500 subscribers received, on average, a bounce rate of 5.28%. However lists with more than 10,000 subscribers received a marginally lower 5.26%. There was a bump in the middle however, with lists of 5,000-9,999 receiving 6.07% bounces and lists with 500-999 and 1,000-4,999 reaching 5.90% and 5.70% respectively.
The time taken to open email addresses appears to be falling, with 29.46% opened in the first 24 hours and 90.72% in the first 72 hours. Vision 6 reports that this last figure has increased consistently onver the last five years.
So, finally, what about the email clients used by people? This is important as emails can be distorted, or even unreadable, if the email client doesn't correctly display it.
While the majority of government agencies use Outlook or Lotus Notes email, this isn't the case in the broader world.
When looking at the email clients used by people opening received emails (an average of 21.83% of emails sent), Outlook accounted for 43.54% of clients (22.24%, 14.90% and 6.40% for Outlook 2003, 2007 and 2010 respectively).
Hotmail accounted for another 16.21% and iPhone Mail accounted for 15.14% of email clients (and iPad Mail for another 3.7%) - demonstrating how strong mobile email has become - followed by Apple Mail at 11.98%.
'Other' received 20.11% - which included a range of services such as Gmail, Lotus Notes and others. I would like to see Vision6 really break this out further - however individual agencies can do this if using this type of email management platform.
There's clearly a strong need for organisations to understand how their subscribers receive and view emails as there can need to be important design differences depending on the client - even between different versions of the same product (such as for Outlook).
In conclusion, government in Australia already appears to be using email marketing well - at least when they are using email management systems such as Vision6, it's harder to judge email lists that don't use a management and reporting tool.
However there always remains room to learn from the figures and further improve the design and cut-through of email newsletters - particularly as mobile email continues to strengthen.
Email is still a very strong channel for reaching people with information, particularly in older demographics where social media engagement is less, and should be a core plank of any government communication strategy.
Remember that an email list is an organisational asset. People who have agreed to receive information from you are far more likely to engage and influence others. Don't squander and destroy this asset through poorly considered email strategies, which may include too frequent, too irregular or too 'boring' email updates.
Use approaches like A/B testing to determine what layout and headlines get the most cut-through, improving your ROI, and keep an eye on what people click on to see what types of information or stories hit the mark.
Email marketing is a science, there's plenty of evidence available on what works and cost-effective quantitative measurement tools for tracking and tweaking your own email newsletters.
Don't waste the opportunity by ignoring the evidence, or destroy the ROI by not measuring, reporting and adjusting.