Perhaps it is because we are in a newer industry and few people know what to expect, but the desire to know what average is can wreak havoc on what may be a great email program. A quick search on the Web shows reports of average open rates being reported in the 20s, 30s and 40 percents. The bottom line is, while there may be a mathematical average, there is no "average." If anyone ever truly calculated the average open rate, for example, it would be made up of numbers in such a large range as to be virtually useless. So, does it really matter where that number falls in evaluating your email program's success?
Marketers who know how to succeed usually disregard industry averages and focus on the two numbers that really matter: return on investment and improving their results using innovative tests. In any marketing program, ROI is like the green light that keeps you moving forward. A positive ROI, and one that, relative to others, is equal or greater, indicates that it is probably a good place to keep spending your marketing funds. If you have a positive ROI that you can live with, it is time to work on improving it through testing (and not in driving towards any industry average).
It is possible to overemphasize benchmarking to the detriment of a program's success. Marketers get so fixated on what others are doing that they fail to see the great things (or the items in their own program that are different) and are thus yielding different results. In the end, they let the benchmark guide them into an uncomfortable position because they are focused on the wrong goal.
If you keep in mind the basic premise of direct marketing and email marketing success, you will have a much better understanding of what works for you, and why what you are doing makes much more sense than any industry average. Last week I had the opportunity to meet with one of our clients who understood the value of testing. They were not focused on what others were doing, but were doing all kinds of variations on their control message to see how they could improve their messages performance. Some tests provided some surprisingly interesting results: options they would never have even bothered to explore if they were just focused on what was average.
So to the motto for any great marketing department today should paraphrase Garrison Keillor: "Welcome to our marketing department, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the email campaigns are above average."