You can’t always take your email stats at face value. You may be surprised to learn that even companies that send tons of emails every week often misinterpret their own inboxing statistics.

We get it: You just want to be able to get your deliverability data quickly and easily and have it tell you exactly what you are doing right and wrong. Who really wants to have to deep-dive the nitty gritty of email deliverability statistics? Shouldn’t you just be able to glance at the numbers and get a snapshot of whether or not your email marketing efforts are paying off? The answer is yes, but  to make well-informed decisions swiftly and simply, you need to understand how these numbers really work.

That’s where we come in. We’ll help debunk and demystify some of the common misunderstandings about email stats so that you can be equipped with the knowledge to accurately interpret your data from here on out.  We’ll touch on delivery stats, third party blacklists, clicks vs. opens, and why engagement stats have their own grading scale.

“Delivered” Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Many email service providers (ESPs) tout impressive stats as they market themselves as reliable services for getting emails delivered to recipients successfully. However, many of these email delivery stats are misleading. It’s common for ESPs to mark emails as “delivered” when, in fact, there’s no way an ESP could actually know that for sure.

What they do know is whether or not inbox providers “accepted” your message. The difference? “Accepted” simply means that the message didn’t hard bounce; it doesn’t take into account if the inbox provider filtered that message into the inbox, spam, or if it was discarded altogether. This is why Ontraport labels messages to each recipient as “Sent” or “Bounced” — not “Delivered.”

If you want to know what percentage of your messages are getting delivered to each inbox provider, running seed tests is the way to go. A seed test involves sending a tracked email to monitored email addresses to gauge deliverability.

Blacklists Are Not All Created Equal

If your email stats suddenly tank or your seed test delivery results come back shockingly low, it’s reasonable to wonder if you’ve been blacklisted by one or multiple inbox providers. As you begin to see if your domain or IP are on any blacklists, keep in mind that some blacklists have developed reputations for having more accurate data than others, and none of them are used globally by all email providers meaning one listing with even the biggest blacklist (Spamhaus) won’t cripple your mailflow.

Most inbox providers are moving away from caring about third-party blacklists and handling their spam filtering on their own, so checking blacklists isn’t a comprehensive way to troubleshoot delivery issues. If you’re using a well-established ESP, such as Ontraport, you won’t have to worry about this anyway. They closely monitor blacklistings and promptly deal with them.

This means that your primary focus as a sender is to keep your domain reputation squeaky clean. For more information on how to do this, follow  these tips.

Link Clicks Are More Accurate Than Opens

There are lots of complicated factors that play into the inaccuracy of email open stats. For starters, it’s industry standard to track email open rates with a 1 x 1 pixel — a tiny image embedded in your messages that records an open when loaded by an email recipient.

But there are many problems with this method that lead to completely inaccurate results. First, in order for the image to be loaded, the person receiving emails has to have images turned on. Many inbox providers block images by default, either across the board for all incoming mail or for non-whitelisted addresses. Also, many people read email on their phone and some email reader apps block images in mobile view. Lastly, some users block all HTML in their received emails and instead only receive a “plain text email” that doesn’t show images.

This means that some people could be opening your email, but it won’t count as an open because the image didn’t load. This turns your email marketing into a game of chance, depending on who has images blocked or not, and you could be favoring a certain email that’s actually underperforming.

Misleading Inconsistencies Across ESPs

At Ontraport, we get a lot of questions from clients who switched over from other platforms about why their open rates appear lower through Ontraport. The answer is many other inbox providers infer an open when in fact there is none. We don’t do this because we want to provide you with the most accurate data possible.

Because many email recipients don’t show images, you can estimate that your open rate is much higher than the number we can actually track. The bottom line is that opens are not reliable as a measure of email success. Focus instead on link clicks, which depict how often the links inside your emails are clicked and can be tracked reliably by everyone. Looking at link clicks also gives you a true understanding of whether your email actually resonated enough to prompt readers to follow through with your call to action.

Engagement Stats Are on Their Own Grading Scale

When it comes to email engagement stats, it’s most important to understand that everyone’s benchmark for success is going to be different. Becoming familiar with your own numbers and using patterns to monitor your results will ultimately give you the most insight.

With that said, you still shouldn’t look at engagement stats on an A-F grading scale, where anything below 60% is failing. In email marketing, engagement stats — such as opens and clicks — are on their own scale. For example a 30% open rate isn’t a fail; it’s actually very impressive.

Here’s a breakdown of the five top email stats, what they mean, and how to interpret your results.


While email opens aren’t the most reliable stat, they’re still a solid way to monitor the health of your results over time. Notice a sudden spike or dip in opens? It’s time to dig further into your stats to find out why. For example, if you’re used to having a 25% open rate and it suddenly drops below 15%, it’s a pretty good indicator that you need to take action.

Generally speaking when it comes to open rates, if your percentage is in the mid-to-high twenties or above, you’re doing well. What’s most important is to focus on your results relative to your own previous results; open rates vary industry by industry, business by business.

Link Clicks

Email link clicks are the more reliable alternative to monitoring opens. Because they don’t rely on images as opens do, clicks are accurately tracked no matter what device an email recipient is using.

It’s normal to be concerned about your click-through rate (CTR), but remember that the numbers are bound to be lower than your open stats — and don’t be surprised if they’re under 10%. Of the people who open your messages, not all are going to click into your links. This is where having strong, relevant, and personalized content can improve your results.


Your bounce rate shows you what percentage of emails were bounced back because of full mailboxes or wrong email addresses. In any given week, if your bounce rate is above 7%, it’s time to take action.


A complaint is registered any time a recipient clicks the “this is spam” button in their email. If your complaint rate is higher than 0.1% in any given week, consider switching up your email marketing tactics.


While it’s a bummer to lose contacts from your list, unsubscribes are a far better alternative to complaints. Your unsubscribe rate tells you what percentage of recipients requested not to receive emails from you in the future.

Don’t be alarmed if your stats are lower than you would have liked or expected. The breakdown is that email marketing is all trial and error — if one approach isn’t working, change it. The numbers behind your email stats will let you know what approach works best.

About Lindsay Kent
Lindsay is a graduate of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and holds a degree in Journalism with a concentration in Public Relations and minors in Spanish and Integrated Marketing Communications. After working with several small businesses, Lindsay moved to sunny Santa Barbara to become Ontraport’s Content Manager.