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10 easy ways to improve email open rates

By Alexandra Gavril - December 2, 2015

Far from being “dead”, email marketing is still one of the most effective tools for generating customer engagement and sales.

Here are some stats to consider:

Email marketing can be a virtual cash machine when done right. The key is standing out from the crowd. Because what good is a nicely designed email template and a huge list of subscribers if you can’t get anyone to open your emails?

Open rates are a great metric to determine whether your email marketing efforts are effective so in this post we’ll walk you through a few simple yet effective ways to increase yours. But first….

What exactly is an open rate?

The open rate is the percentage of subscribers in your mailing list who have opened your email. So, for example, if out of ten emails two were opened, that results in a 20% open rate.

Don’t confuse open rates with click rates. Click rates refer to the number of subscribers who click on a link inside the email. This can only happen after they’ve opened the email and viewed its content.

The open rate metric is important to monitor as it gives you an idea of how your email campaigns are performing. It tells you whether your subject lines are catchy and resonate with your audience or whether you’re failing to engage with your subscribers.

Keep in mind that the average open rates vary depending on industry, subscribers list and many other factors. MailChimp has released their updated Email marketing benchmarks stats which you can take a look at to compare email response by industry and company size.

This will give you an idea of how your rates stack up against those of your competitors. Once you know where you stand, you can use the tips below to improve your open rates.

10 ways to increase your email open rates

1. Personalise the subject line

There are many studies that show just how powerful personalisation is in emails, especially in subject lines. Email service GetResponse ran an analysis of its customers’ email messages and found that “emails with personalised subjects averaged 26% higher open rates and over 130% higher click through rates than emails without personalised subject lines”.

You’ve probably been collecting people’s first names in your opt-in box. Maybe it’s time to use them. Why? Because users are more likely to open an email if it sounds like it has been written specifically for them. This level of familiarity will engage your subscribers and keep them opening your messages in the future.

There are also other simple ways to use personalisation in your emails that go beyond just using a name. You can also include other subscriber details such as job title, company, location, or any other information that you asked for in your opt-in box. Read this post to discover more ways to use personalisation in your email marketing strategy.

2. Avoid “spammy” sounding words in the subject line

With email filters becoming more and more sophisticated, if your email ends up in the spam folder, your open rates will plummet. Thanks to less scrupulous marketers, almost all email servers filter emails that include certain keywords in the subject line.

So avoid words and symbols like $$$, free, cheap, earn $, make $, rich, deal. Here is a list of 45 more words to avoid in your email marketing subject lines. You should also avoid using exclamation marks and writing in all capital letters in your subject lines and emails.

3. A/B test the subject line to see what works best

A/B testing is based on the simple idea of having two ideas or subject lines, and letting your audience tell you which one they like best. This is a great way to learn what resonates with your subscribers.

Most email marketing tools offer A/B testing that makes it simple to test your subject lines. So come up with two variations that differ slightly like “Now live: Our Cyber Monday offers” and “Cyber Monday is on”. Then set them up in an A/B testing campaign to find out what works best for your list.

Read our simple guide to getting started with A/B testing and then check out these six A/B tests that can help increase your sales.

4. Promote a sense of urgency

There are two types of urgency: real and implied. Real urgency is when an offer expires in 24 hours, after which point it will never exist again. Implied urgency is when you use words like “now” and “today” to get recipients to take action. While there’s no real urgency, you’re suggesting that they need to act now, otherwise they’ll miss out.

There are lots of things you can do to imply urgency. You can add it in your subject lines using words like “now” and “today”: “Start a blog now with no coding”. You can also talk about stock urgency: “FitBit Charge HR to sell out soon.” Or you can add time-countdown urgency that gives subscribers a limited amount of time to take action: “Offer ends in 16h”

5. Consider the first sentence

It’s easy to forget that some email programs show the first sentence or the first few words of the first sentence in the inbox.

first sentence email

Why should that matter? Because after subscribers have scanned the sender name, they are going to use both the subject line and the first line to get an indication on whether your email is worth opening or not.

Most marketers use this space to say something like “Email not displaying properly? View it online.” But here’s the thing: the first few words of your email should help sell the email, not take care of maintenance. That technical message isn’t very enticing. Sure, it won’t hurt you if you have a superb subject line, but this is definitely not a good use of this very valuable space.

Think of this space as the next level headline. It’s a clever way to slip a catchy message to your readers at the moment they’re deciding whether or not to open your email. So use it to build up anticipation or to feed the curiosity that your subject line started.

6. Send highly relevant emails (by segmenting the mailing list)

The key to sending content that is relevant to your subscribers is to segment your email list. That means you need to get to know your subscribers and understand what they care about. Don’t know what they care about? Try an online survey or ask for specific information in alternate emails.

If all your subscribers receive the same campaign, some might become frustrated by irrelevant content and stop opening your emails or mark them as spam. So use subscriber location, industry, purchase history, the last time they interacted with you and any other information you can think of to segment your list. By breaking your list down into groups of similar recipients, you’ll be better able to send highly relevant, highly focused email campaigns, improving your open rates in the process.

You can segment your subscribers based on their engagement, their location, personal information, the other lists they are subscribed to and how many emails they have previously received

7. Keep the list fresh

It’s normal to get inactive subscribers but sometimes they just need a refresher. There are two simple methods you can use. The first is to send an email reconfirming they want to be on your list. You can do this through the 123-reg Email Marketing tool or through whatever auto-responder you’re using.

The second thing you can do when a subscriber has been inactive for a month or longer is to put them on a separate list where they’ll no longer be mailed daily. You can then send them one or two reconfirmation emails a month later and if they don’t open any of your emails, then remove them completely from your mailing list.

So make sure to keep your list fresh and clean by reviewing it periodically and removing inactive subscribers. This is important because not only will it help improve your open rates but it’ll also cut costs by ensuring you aren’t paying to send emails to subscribers who aren’t interested in receiving news from you.

8. Find the best time to send your emails

When it comes to email marketing, timing is everything. So be sure that you’re sending your email at the right times for your audience. You can find this information through testing or by doing research on your industry to see when exactly emails get more opens. For example, according to a 2013 census by GetResponse, people send over 17% of all emails on Tuesday, making it the most popular day of the week to send.

best time to send email

(Source: Experian)

While you should use this information when starting out with email marketing, the best way to find out what works for you is to track when you send and your open rates over several months. The only way to find out when your emails get the best open rates is to test it out for yourself.

9. Set a frequency so they know how often they can expect to hear from you

One of the most common symptoms of an over-mailed list is a low open rate. “List fatigue” is a sticky problem. It happens when your campaigns are sent too often and recipients become tired of hearing from you. To avoid list fatigue, send emails less often or offer frequency options at sign up so your subscribers can choose how often they’d like to receive emails from you.

That said, if you’re emailing once or twice a week and your open rates are weak although you’re A/B testing subject lines and targeting your campaigns, consider increasing email frequency. Every once in a while, marketers end up increasing open rates by increasing email frequency. It’s rare, but it does happen.

Basically you’re looking for the happy medium between fatigue and forgetfulness. This is different for everyone so the best thing you can do it to test and see what works for you. A good rule of thumb is to send no more than one email per week and no fewer than one email per month.

Another thing you can do is to improve open rates is to send your emails at a consistent frequency. If you send emails at erratic times of the day, week or month, you can cause subscribers to stop reading or interacting with your email. For more tips and advice, make sure to read our post on how frequently to send out emails to customers.

10. Ensure your emails read well on mobile

About 74% of smartphone owners use their phone to check email and mobile now represents 51% of all email opens. So if your email (including the site your email links lead to) is not optimised for mobile, subscribers will stop opening it because it’s a pain in the neck to deal with. But when your emails display well on mobile, you’re guaranteed to improve your open rates, in addition to enjoying higher engagement and more clicks.

Wrapping up

Keep practicing these tips with every new email you create and send out, and your open rates will get better and better.