How to Improve Email Open Rates

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You've worked hard to grow your email list. You've created great freebies, promoted them in all the right places, and created a great welcome series.

But when you send your emails, you're not getting the responses you wanted.

And it’s not just responses.

Most people aren’t even opening your emails.

The three biggest reasons that your emails don’t get opened are:

  • They're not making it to the inbox in the first place.
  • Your subject line isn't compelling.
  • Your send time (or frequency) is all wrong.

So, how do you know which you’re facing? Let’s talk about that – and how to fix each one.

Red Flag #1: You’re not making it to the inbox in the first place

More often than we’d like to admit, our emails don't make it to the inbox. Sometimes that's because of who we're using as an email service provider, our sender reputation, or the quality of our subject lines.

Spam filters (including the promotions filter in Gmail) works based on a scoring system. A “spam score” varies somewhat between inbox providers and users, but here are a few common things that get you sent to the spam box fast:

  • Using “spammy” subject lines – including the word FREE, all capital letter subject lines, and too many exclamation points. (As an exclamation point lover myself, this is one that I have to be careful with!!!)
  • Poorly created and implemented templates with broken HTML. If you’re sending an HTML based email – especially one with lots of graphics, this is a big one for you. Make sure you’re using a good template to start and send a test message to yourself with multiple email clients to make sure it all looks and works the way you expect.
  • “Dirty” or lousy email lists. Listen, I know that it stinks when your email list is in the single digits and double digits. Heck, it still might smell like a dirty gym sock if your email list count is in the triple digits when you see the opt-in forms on other people's sites saying “Join the 100,000 email subscribers who already know and love me!” So you may be tempted to buy an email list, and dump all those names onto your subscriber list.

Don’t do it.

Not only is it illegal, but it's also going to relegate your emails to the land of cheap ink and secret weight loss emails, even for your valid subscribers.

So, how do you get out of spam jail?

  • Make sure you're using a reputable email sender that's got excellent deliverability. I love and recommend ActiveCampaign. (If you have little to no budget, MailerLite is a good option. I’m also checking out MooSend.)
  • Ask your subscribers to whitelist you or add you to their safe-senders list.
  • Check your subject lines – something I’ll share more about next.

Red Flag #2: Your subject line isn’t compelling

Once you’ve taken out the exclamation points, all capital letters, and trigger words, your subject line isn’t done yet. You still need to capture the attention of your subscribers in a VERY crowded inbox. What makes an email subject line great? It either needs to speak directly to the reader's known pain, get them curious, or make a significant promise. Oh, and you need to do all that in under 40 characters (if possible!) The ideal subject line length for mobile devices is 20 characters; for desktop is 36 characters. Anything longer is more likely to get cut off in the preview. If you have more information you need to share, use the preheader text to convey additional value. How well are your subject lines performing? You can check them with a tool like that will evaluate your subject line on key deliverability issues, including looking for the spam traps we talked about earlier. Unfortunately, tools like SendCheckIt don't know your audience and what's interesting to them. To do that, you’ll probably need to do some split testing. To do a subject line split test, you’ll keep everything else on your email the same – the offer, the design, all of it – but send ½ of your list subject line A and the other ½ subject line B. It’s that simple. Need help with subject lines and email content? Be sure to check out the email content swipe file with over 300 email subject lines and templates to help you write messages even faster.

Red Flag #3: Your send time (or frequency) is all wrong

If you’ve ever had a kid napping in the afternoon when a delivery guy arrives, you’ll know exactly what I mean about timing being all wrong.

And the same can be true with when you send your emails, and how often you send them.

First, let’s talk about WHEN to send. When deciding when to send your email, it’s not just about what’s convenient for you. All reputable email service providers let you schedule emails to send later.  Instead, you need to figure out when your readers need to get your email.

Go back to your ideal customer profile. When are they facing the challenge that you’re there to solve? If you offer easy dinner solutions, you 10 am on a Tuesday isn’t when your subscriber is thinking “what’s for dinner”? 430pm may be better. On the other hand, if you’re promoting project management software, 10 am on Tuesday may be perfect.

Once you’ve identified a couple of times, then… you’ve got it: test.

Send to ½ of your list at time slot A, send to the other ½ of your list at time slot B. Everything about your email campaigns should be identical. You'll probably need to run this test 2 or 3 times (at least) before you declare a victor. Also – don't run this test on time-sensitive emails like 24-hour sales.

The other thing that may be happening is that you're emailing your list too often or too infrequently. There are some retailers that I get multiple emails a day from (I'm looking at you, Groupon & Living Social!), and other businesses that I only hear from once a month.

With too high of a frequency, your subscribers either get annoyed or desensitized. (Ever slept through an alarm because you didn't hear it? It's the same principle.) If they're annoyed, they may unsubscribe (best case) or mark you as spam (worst case – because this means you're more likely to end up in the spam folder of other subscribers too).

With too low, you run the risk of your subscribers forgetting about you. This is especially true in the online business space when they're only likely to encounter you in crowded areas (like their inbox or social media feeds).

Unfortunately, no best practice can tell you the exact best email cadence or frequency to use. MailerLite recently released a post with email cadence research based on its users, and there was no definitive right answer. 

Instead, you'll need to experiment with your audience as well as your ability to create content to find just the right answer.

You’ll need to consider:

  • How often do you have something new and unique to share with your customers?
  • How much bandwidth do you have to create email messages?
  • How often did you tell your subscribers you’d be sending to them when they signed up for your list?

From there, you can play with your frequency. If you're sending too often, you'll know in the form of increased unsubscribes and decreased engagement. You'll need to make sure that no matter what, you're landing on a sustainable frequency for your capacity to create.

More ways to improve your email open rates

Of course, these are only three of the most significant factors that come into your email open rates – and open rates are just the first metric of many to review in establishing the health of your email marketing program.

To get a high ROI, you'll need to ensure that your marketing messages aligned with the needs of your audience with each message you send.

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PS. I hate SPAM even more than you do. (Not even the bacon SPAM is tempting.) Your email address will never be sold or shared with a third party.

Improve your email open rates

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