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September 3, 2018
Email Marketing  |  24 min read

Tips to Increase Your Open Rate

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Kathryn Hawkins, Jake Johnson, Grady Kerr, Jessica Mehring, Andrea Parker, Paul Sokol & James Thompson

For small businesses trying to drive new business or build engagement with existing customers, it’s essential to ramp up your email marketing game.

Sophisticated email marketing tools, including marketing automation platforms, are now affordable to even microbusinesses, giving you rich insights into how prospects and customers are engaging with your email content.

One of the key problems? Getting your list members to even open your emails. Average open rates vary by industry, but Econsultancy found that email open rates for small businesses typically range around 24 percent, with click-through rates around 3.4 percent. Chances are, less than one in four subscribers will open your carefully-crafted email, much less click on one of your links.

No matter how awesome your marketing email is, if it doesn’t get opened, it won’t do your small business a lick of good.

There are a lot of articles out there talking about how click-through rate is the most important metric of all. But I’m going to challenge that— because the fact is, the click-through can’t happen unless your recipients are opening those emails.

If you are doing email marketing and people aren't opening your emails, you need to fix the problem ASAP. This article will help you increase your email open rates so you can start getting better results from your small-business email marketing.

What is email open rate?

In a nutshell, email open rate is the percentage of people on an email list who open an email.

For example, if you send emails to a list of 100 people, and 20 recipients open those emails, your email open rate is 20 percent.

While for small businesses, open rate is often measured on a per-email basis, larger companies (and precocious smaller companies) also sometimes measure the open rate of entire email campaigns.

The higher the open rate, the more people saw your email content—and the more successful you can count your email marketing.

However, opens are only counted if the tracking pixel is displayed in the recipient’s email program OR they click on one of the links in your email. So if a recipient has image display turned off in their email program, the open doesn’t get recorded by the email service provider (ESP).

The difference between a unique open rate and a non-unique open rate

To make matters a bit more complicated, some ESPs measure only unique open rates, while others measure non-unique open rates as well.

Unique open rate measures whether or not the email was opened.

Non-unique open rate measures how many times the email was opened.

When Google released the Gmail image caching feature, ESPs who measured non-unique open rates had a real problem on their hands.

Before Google made this change, when a person received an email containing images, the email software (in this case, Gmail) would simply point to the source where the image was hosted and display it to the reader. Let’s say a user opened the exact same email five minutes later because they had to leave for an appointment. Once they arrive at their destination, the user would open up the email again. In the past, this caused Gmail to download that same image again. Some email service providers would count this activity as two opens on the same email campaign from the same subscriber.

With this change from Google, this doesn't happen anymore. Now, when a user opens a message from their Gmail inbox, they download images on their servers and host that image themselves. This means that any future opens of the same image for that recipient will open the downloaded (cached) image. The benefit for Google is they don’t need to use as many resources since they are only downloading the image once. The indirect—but intended—benefit to Gmail users is to deliver a more secure email experience.

Secondarily, recipients no longer needed to click that link titled, “Always display images from ...” on emails from senders they trust to display images not showing in Gmail. Caching means that content is temporarily stored so it doesn't need to be re-downloaded again. Gmail caches images automatically so they are only accessed once. As a result, Gmail users may also experience faster-loading emails as well as better-looking messages from email senders since images will render properly and consistently.

Not everyone agrees this change from Google is a good move. Wired outlines some of the privacy concerns of this auto-loading Gmail images feature. In a nutshell, as an email user, if images are loaded, it makes it easier for senders to identify that your email address is valid and that you opened their message. This is how email marketing services track whether or not emails were opened for the past 15 years or so. Spammers—true, real hardcore spammers—can use image loading as a means for validation that the recipient on the other end of the spam is a real person, thus making the email address more valuable.

Since Gmail downloads the image on behalf of the person, the spammers no longer can confirm whether or not there is a real person viewing the email. If a lot of messages are reported as spam, Google could instantly sever the ability to have those images load for security reasons. However, this concept is why some legitimate email marketers are upset. They used this information to identify who opened the image, where it was opened from and how many times it was opened. The latter, “how many times it was opened,” is that non-unique open rate.

Infusionsoft has always reported on unique opens—versus repeat, non-unique opens.

Non-unique open rates can be artificially inflated and thus provide a skewed sense of email marketing effectiveness. For example, say you sent an email to someone and they happened to open it twice. This would produce a non-unique open rate of 200 percent. See the problem? Unique opens, clicks, and click-to-open-rates (CTOR) are the way to go when measuring email marketing effectiveness. Infusionsoft provides this unique open rate metric, as it always has, to ensure our customers have an accurate window into their overall email marketing success.

So what is a good email open rate?

The average open rate for email varies by industry. The overall average is around 18 percent, however. This report from Get Repsonse gives a deep look at email open rates by industry.

8 Surprising words that decrease your email open rates

Sometimes a single word or phrase can make all the difference in your email open rates.

Infusionsoft analyzed 3.25 million broadcast emails from 24.3 thousand customer instances of our applications to determine what words hurt open rates. In simple terms, we compared emails that used a word in a subject line against emails that didn’t, accounting for similar accounts.

There were some surprising findings.

Here are eight surprising words that make a big (as in negative) difference in your email open rates.

“Last Chance”

The word “Last Chance” was used in 30,000 broadcast emails from Infusionsoft apps. Turns out that only 26.7 percent of emails with the word chance performed better in terms of open rates than those without it.

About the only time we saw decent open rates with the word “last chance” was when it was paired with a first or last name, which spoke more to a general trend we saw in favorability towards personalized emails when it came to open rates.

TL;DR: Don’t take a chance with “Last Chance” unless it’s proven to work for your list. From our findings, “Last Chance” reeks of desperation.

“Reminder”

Out of 5,881 apps that utilize the word “Reminder” in email subject lines, less than half performed better, coming in at 46.9 percent.

The most common phrases that were employed were “final reminder,” “quick reminder,” “webinar reminder,” and “reminder today.”

This is one of those words that benefits from a pairing with urgency. Of all phrases, we found that “important reminder” performed positively. Out of 336 apps that employed it, 62 percent performed better than those that didn’t.

TL;DR: “Reminder” can work for you, as it did for almost half the Infusionsoft apps that used it. But you need to test the phrases you use it in to see what provides the best results.

“Final”

When it comes to the word “Final,” one thing became clear out of our research—it doesn’t work when used to create a sense of urgency. Folks tune it out. The word appeared in 3,902 apps, and of those apps, only 41.3 percent had performance improvements.

Phrases that performed poorly included, “final call,” “final chance,” “final day,” and “final hour.” One statistically significant phrase that did result in performance improvements was “final detail,” which could speak to expected or waited for information out of pre-existing conversations.

TL;DR: The word “Final” more often than not doesn’t work well when used to create urgency in a subject line.

“Sale”

People like a good sale, right? That may be the case, but they don’t care much for email subject lines that contain the word “Sale.”

I won't hear it and I won't respond to it

Out of 5,731 apps that utilize the word, only 38.2 percent had performance improvements. Our research found that when presented in the context of a limited offer or a reduction in price there is a decrease in performance. This includes phrases like “Black Friday sale,” ”Cyber Monday sale,” “sale end,” “sale extended,” and “sale save.”

What can we make of this? There is probably no shortage of sale emails that hit inboxes on a given day. These require a special alchemy to result in an open. Your subject line needs to stand out and the prospect has to be in the mood and able to purchase. It’s not surprising these emails have lower open rates.

TL;DR: If you’re going to use the word “Sale” in a subject line, expect lower open rates. Try to be creative to stand out and increase your chances.

“Save”

Much like “Sale,” the word “Save” performs poorly, with only 36.6 percent of the 4,716 apps containing the word in a subject line performing better than those that don’t.

We did take a look to see whether pairing the word with a quantifiable amount improved performance. For instance, if you used it like so: “save 50%” or “save $20.” Unfortunately, it didn’t. People like to save money, but they don’t respond well to email subject lines that indicate savings.

One statistically significant area where the word save works? “Save the date”. People don’t want to miss an event, but they can do without your sale.

TL;DR: The word “Save” decreases open rates, even when paired with a specific offer.

“Offer”

This “Offer” is apparently something people can refuse.

the godfather

Of the 5,188 apps it appeared in, 45.5 percent performed better with the word.

Our research indicates that the performance of “Offer” depends on the phrases it is used in. The most common phrases were “offer end,” “special offer,” and “time offer.” Of those, only “offer end” was statistically significant in lowering open rates.

One pairing that performed well was “exclusive offer,” which performed better in 52 percent of the apps, though it did not occur in enough apps to make it statistically significant.

TL;DR: If you’re looking for an alternative to the word “Sale,” “Offer” is a good choice, but be careful how you use it.

“Discount”

Perhaps it’s time to discount the word “Discount” (and bad puns, eh?). Of the 3,101 apps that utilized this word in subject lines, only 38.9 percent performed better with the word than without it.

Common phrases for the word included, “early bird discount,” “discount ends,” “special discount,” and “discount code.” None performed especially well.

TL;DR: If your subject line contains the word “Discount,” there’s a good chance your prospects will discount it.

“Free”

Many email marketers shy away from the word “Free” for fears that it increases chances of hitting the spam folder. After all, even this seagull knows there’s no such thing as free lunch.

seagull eating in a kitchen

But there are times and places where the word gets used.

Out of 8,628 apps that used the word, only 40.7 percent performed better with it than without it. Phrases that hurt open rates include, “chance free,” “join free,” “free shipping,” “free live,” “tonight free,” and “free event.”

That being said, there are places where using the word “Free” anecdotally improves open rates. Those phrases include, “free copy,” “free e-book,” and “free download.” However, it’s important to note these were not statistically significant in our samples.

TL;DR: Most people are wary of the word “Free” in subject lines—plus it devalues your offer. Try to avoid it and be more creative. We found that using “Bonus” or “Gift” resulted in higher open rates.

As with any study like this, it’s important to use it as a guide that informs your own testing efforts. Play around with these words in different phrases in A/B tests and see how they perform. If they work for you, then by all means, keep going forward.

Most email lists will require constant change and refinement in the long run. So even if something works today, it may start to diminish over time. Keep good records and test often.

Use the anatomy of email to your advantage

When your email appears in your contact’s inbox, you have three areas of influence to entice them to open it up. Improving these three areas can have a positive impact on your email open rates.

email anatomy sender and subject line

1. The sender name

This is the display of who the email is from. Typically you will see one or more of these three things here: the first and last name of the sender, the name of the company they belong to, or just the email address it came from. With a few changes to your sender name, you can stand out and add personality.

The sender name should instantly be familiar to the recipient. Having your first and last name might feel personable, but it may not be if you’ve never met. If a contact books an appointment with your company online and you send them a confirmation email with a pre-meeting questionnaire with your name as the sender, they might not know who you are and keep scrolling through their inbox.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, using your company name as the sender can seem cold and robotic. That confirmation email may be seen simply as a computer-generated response that isn’t worth their attention.

A great solution is a hybrid of both. The sender name might say, “Ron Swanson | Food and Stuff” or “Grady with Infusionsoft”. You want something that tells your recipients that you are a human and that you represent a company.

In a MarketingSherpa case study, one company found that special promos that used an employee's name in the sender field got an open rate 40 to 100 percent higher than its corporate-branded emails, and a click-thru rate between 10 percent and 20 percent higher.

We use this strategy here at Infusionsoft ourselves: Getting an email from "Jake from Infusionsoft" just seems a lot more neighborly than a bland corporate drone, doncha think? (And maybe readers will think twice about hitting "unsubscribe" when they know they're rejecting a real human.)

email example from infusionsoft

2. The subject Line

The subject line should be like the headline of your newspaper. It’s meant to grab attention and create intrigue. On average, email clients will show about 60 characters of a subject line. You may be tempted to fit in as much content here as possible, but less is more with the subject line.

More than 40 percent of emails are now opened on mobile devices, making it more important than ever to keep your subject-line copy short enough to appear on a smartphone screen.

Use action-oriented wording, show how you’ll demonstrate value, and try to limit the copy to 60 characters or less. If you’ve got a gourmet food shop, promote your goods with a newsletter called something like “Get Sizzling: 5 Recipes to Revolutionize Brunch” instead of a generic headline like "This month's new products."

We have actually found that 20 to 30 characters are the ideal. Here are some examples: “Shorts under $30,” “We miss you at the gym,” “Bacon Thieves are at Work,” or “I will be there tomorrow.” These shorter subject lines instantly cause readers to ask questions. This will also help you avoid embarrassing subject line cut-off fails.

Take, for instance, the subject line: “Let’s meet together next Tuesday and I’ll check out your assessment of your home’s appraisal report.” If your recipient’s email client only shows the first 60 characters, things could get really awkward.

3. The preheader

Most email clients will offer preview text of the email contents, which we call the “preheader.” This can make all the difference in whether your email is opened or passed over. When the preheader says things like “Trouble reaching this message? Click here!” everyone knows that it is an automated email.

Like the subject line, the character count allowed in the preheader varies by email client and text display size. A good rule of thumb for preheader text is 40 to 50 characters.

Do not use this real estate to say “Hi [merge.first_name!]” No one is impressed with merged first names anymore.

Also, make sure your preheader is above any banners. Some email clients will show the image URL as part of the preheader.

Now that you have more space, you can elaborate on your brief subject. Let your readers know what to expect in the email so they know they need it to read it!

“I need some information from you before we meet,” “These summer shorts usually sell for $100,” or “All the best places to hide your bacon around the office,” are good examples.

office bacon

When you optimize a sender name, subject line, and preheader, you can increase email open rates dramatically. The beauty is, these are all things you can start doing today!

ron swanson email example

10 Ways to increase email open rates

Now that you’ve mastered the inbox display, it’s time to deploy a few more advanced email marketing tactics:

1. Slice and dice your audience

You can't stick all your email subscribers in a single box—even millennials! Some are parents, some are college kids, some would rather read books than check in on Facebook—as this Boston Consulting Group study finds, you won’t find any consensus about what millennials are looking for as a general rule.

But you can get to know your unique audience members by following their online habits. For example, if you own an apparel store and one group of users has clicked on your accessories pages, send them more content about this season’s beanies. Does another set of users spend more time on your shoe section? Send them a collection of this season’s trendiest boots, with a special promo code included. Cater to their interests, and they’ll pay attention.

2. Data is your friend—pay attention

Most email marketing software gives you reams of data to sort through: You can see how many people opened, who clicked, what they clicked on, who unsubscribed, who marked your email as spam (sob). Used wisely, this data is priceless.

For instance, did you get a higher open rate for the email you sent on a Thursday afternoon than a Monday morning? Then scrap Mondays from your schedule.

3. A/B test

In addition to optimizing your mailing times, play around with split testing within your list.

Let’s say you have 10,000 people on your list. Before sending out a mass mail, send a message with Headline A to an initial group of 500, and Headline B to another group of 500. Then use the winning headline to amp up your open rates with the remaining 9,000 people.

4. Get personal

How do you feel when you’re talking to someone in person and they use your name in conversation? You likely feel more connected to them because they aren’t just talking at you, they’re talking with you.

This is how you want your readers to feel as they open your email. So don’t be afraid to use the personalization feature of your email marketing software to include your recipient’s name in the first line.

Also, embrace the reality that not everyone on your email list is looking for the same item or service. Send out several variations of the same email message with personalized messages to those who fall into different categories of need. By sending out, for example, three different (but not too different!) monthly newsletters or offers, you’ll have a stronger response from customers and prospects because the message they received speaks to their specific need.

5. Avoid overkill

When a person starts to get too many emails from the same sender, that sender’s emails quickly get relegated to the trash or, worse, the spam box.

Send messages sparingly to those on your list. You will have more time to craft beautiful, effective messages—and the fewer emails you send, the more likely your recipients are to open them.

6. Write super direct subject lines

Cute subject lines can inflate the open rate but lead to a low click-through rate—which makes your higher open rate mean nothing for your bottom line. This is because people will open the email out of curiosity, not because they have intent to take the action found in the subject line. In other words, they aren't your target at that moment.

A more direct subject line may not get as high an open rate, but quite often they deliver a better click-through rate and, ultimately, more results.

For example, let's say you are offering a $25 discount on some product. A subject line that says "$25 off Widget A Until Friday!" should deliver better click-through rates than something cute like "Save some cabbage on Widget A!" This isn't hard truth as different audiences respond differently, but generally, this is the case.

Of course, being this direct means you have to be abundantly clear why you are emailing someone in the first place. Hopefully, that isn't too hard of a question to answer.

7. Use the preheader as the sub-headline

This is a super overlooked tactic that can easily boost open rates. The idea here is to leverage knowledge about email software and classic copywriting.

Most email software will show a "preview" of an email's content before the user opens it. This means we have some extra messaging to play around with in addition to the subject line before they open the email.

In copywriting, the headline of an ad (aka the big thing your eye is initially drawn towards) has one purpose. That purpose is to get the next sentence read. You know what the purpose of the second sentence is? To get the third sentence read. And so on.

Opening and reading an email is the same as reading a print ad. Open email, read it. Read the headline, read rest of message.

If we treat the subject line as a headline, the first bit of the email can be thought of as the sub-headline. Use it to further build a desire to open the email.

For example, if the subject line is "$25 off Widget A Until Friday," you can put at the very top of the email's body something like "Use promo code COOLGUY at checkout"

Now if someone is curious about the $25 off, they also have a promo code—all the more reason to open the email and click through to make the purchase. Notice how we bolster the promise of the subject line using the preheader before they even open the email. When done right, this should increase open rates.

8. Break patterns with symbols

This last tactic works well when used sparingly. If you use it all the time, your email recipients will go blind to it and it loses effectiveness.

Often, a subject line is only text. However, there are ways to inject symbols into a subject line—hearts, arrows, smiley faces, etc. This is a pattern interrupt from what people are used to seeing (from you anyway) and can provide enough intrigue to drive the email open.

Be careful though. To effectively lift open rates, the symbols do have to be relevant to the main call to action in the email. It can't be used just to be cute.

For example, you could use a subject line that states "✁ $25 Off Widget A Until Friday"

That example is forcing it a little bit, but you get the idea.

The bottom line on email open rates

Email marketing isn’t going anywhere. Use your data to understand your customers and play to their unique interests, use best practices for writing emails, and avoid using phrases that turn your subscribers off—and you’ll be able to avoid the dreaded “unread” curse.

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