How to Increase Your Email Open Rates [Integrity’s Best Practices]

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Digital Marketing Specialist
Nov 25, 2020

You aren’t the first — and you won’t be the last — person searching for tips on how to increase your email open rates. 

We’re all desperate to keep squeezing the life out of our email campaigns because, despite the sophistication of social platform brand building and paid ads across every search engine, email remains the powerhouse of marketing channels. 

Let’s take a look at some email marketing statistics

In a 2020 study of over 2,000 marketing professionals:

  • 94% of respondents say email is in their top 3 most effective marketing channels.
  • 77% of respondents say email is one of their top 2 most effective marketing channels.
  • 74% of marketing execs feel email marketing is vital to the success of their company.

Consumers are feeling the love as well. Recent statistics show that:

  • 73% of millennials prefer communications from businesses to come via email
  • 59% of respondents said marketing emails influence their purchase decisions

Email marketing: we know it, we love it. But how do we improve on it?

First things first. Where does your email open rate currently rank? 

Let’s make sure we’re talking the same language here. Your email open rate is the percentage of the total number of subscribers who opened an email campaign. We aren’t looking at clicks, sales, or leads — just the open rates. For reference, across all industries the average email open rate in 2020 is 17.8%.

According to Campaign Monitor the top three industries with the most consistent open rate are as follows:

  1. Real Estate, Design and Construction Activities (17.7%)
  2. Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting (17.1%)
  3. Media, Entertainment, and Publishing (16.9%)

Are you terrible? Are you doing much better than your peers? It’s important to know where you stand because you need a baseline to judge your future performance by. 

If you’re in one of these industries and you’re hovering around these open rate percentages you may want to consider other optimization opportunities within your email marketing campaigns, such as increasing the click-thru rates and conversions. 

If these numbers are well above where your email open rates have been trending then we can guess with nearly pinpoint accuracy what your biggest issue is. What affects email open rates the most? 

It’s not you — it’s your subject line. 

Subject lines are the gateway, the proverbial carrot you dangle to encourage and coax a user into opening your email. If your subject line fails, none of the work you did for the rest of the email will matter.

Email subject line best practices are ubiquitous across the web; why should you take our advice?

Integrity started as a web design firm before growing into a web design and marketing agency, so we like to combine an emphasis on user experience with data and research in everything we do, and crafting subject lines is no exception. 

Starting from that user experience methodology we’ve discovered psychology-based tactics that have increased email open rates and ROI for all of our clients, regardless of industry.

Our four guiding principles for dynamic subject lines:

1. Include motivators in your subject line

Email is essentially direct mail's younger, hotter descendant. So it shouldn't be surprising that we can transfer some of the lessons learned from direct mail marketing into email.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, copywriter and author of "Open Me Now," broke down six "marketing motivators" that increase response rates. These are: 

  • Fear
  • Exclusivity
  • Greed
  • Guilt
  • Need for approval
  • Anger

Feeling Seven vibes? While these methods to motivate might feel a bit gross, don’t be put off by them. If you aren’t eliciting a strong feeling with your subject line you’re unlikely to get them to “open the box!”

If your subject line can incite one of these responses in your recipients, you've just upped your open rates.

Let's try creating a few sample subject lines to get you thinking

To create exclusivity, you have to create a sense of urgency. For example, "Limited offer: only 100 samples left. Claim yours now."

How can you inspire greed? Try something like, "Work less, make more — how can your money work for you?"

If you think your audience will respond best to peer approval, you could say "5 sensational gifts anyone would be grateful for.

Once you start thinking about how to use your subject line copy to inspire a specific emotion, you'll be surprised by how easily the ideas flow in.

2. Use your subject line to build trust

Our lives are so saturated with advertisements and marketing that nearly all consumers have become incredibly skeptical. The last thing you want your subject line to do is trigger suspicion or distrust in your recipients. It should generate interest, not annoyance.

Pay attention to the small details in your subject lines.

For example, don't capitalize every word of your subject line. "Limited Offer - Only 100 Samples Left!" seems a lot more spammy than "Limited offer — only 100 samples left." It's a small difference, but people are conditioned to recognize these little cues and respond accordingly.

Generating a false sense of urgency also only works if you aren't doing it every single time, so don't make every matter seem like its life or death.

That's not to say that you shouldn't give your subject line a bit of timeliness to make your recipient feel the need to read your message sooner rather than later. Just try to put yourself in your recipients' shoes when writing copy. Would you open that email, or would you immediately trash it?

Next time you sort through your inbox, pay attention to the emails you open and the ones you dump and try to consider what made you take that action.

3. Ask a question or offer a benefit directly in the subject line

People are always more likely to do anything if they think it will benefit them. That's really not rocket science. Say, for example, that you use your emails to distribute your company's blogs. If you title your email "Read our latest blog!" guess what recipients are not going to do?

Instead, you want to make them feel like you're giving them something of value. If your subject line implies that the reader will profit from the content of your message, they'll probably click it, even if only out of curiosity.

Make your reader curious and you can almost guarantee that they'll open your email.

Instead of saying, "Lose 10 pounds in two weeks!" say, "Is it possible to lose 10 pounds in two weeks safely?" The first line makes a reader think "Ugh, spam." But the second one might make them think "Could I lose 10 pounds that fast? I do have that reunion next month..." Click.

4. Personalize your subject line

Calling individuals by their names when making a pitch is a well-known sales technique, so why wouldn't you use it in your email if you can?

Personalization tactics are leading the increase in email open rates

  • Nearly 75% of marketing professionals say personalization in email increases engagement
  • Birthday emails generate 3.42 times more revenue per message than a standard promotional email. 
  • Emails with personalized subjects are 50% more likely to be opened.

Ready to give personalization a try? For example, "Identity theft is on the rise — you may be at risk" vs "Identity theft is on the rise — you may be at risk, Kim." Which one do you think Kim is more likely to click on? The one-size-fits-all subject line, or the one that makes her wonder whether there is a specific reason why she, Kim, could be particularly at risk?

Personalization does require slightly more technology infrastructure when compared to other techniques. Unless you’re planning on torturing an intern by having them send out each email individually, you want to make sure your email system allows field mapping and that your contacts are segmented in a way that allows you to insert those personalized fields into your subject lines. At the very least, first and last names should always be separated.

There you have it, four agency and industry tested subject line tactics — based on data and the way real users think — that will increase your email open rates. 

A couple of other tactics that may be worth mentioning

  • Keep it brief. You shouldn’t exceed 60 characters at max to ensure your full subject line populates in the inbox on both desktop and mobile.
  • Use numbers and statistics. Figures are concrete and lend immediate authority and clarity to a subject line. 

Subject lines aren’t the only way to increase your email open rate

We won’t deep dive into all of the possible tactics  here but there are 3 simple tips to improve your email open rates, and they don’t include your subject line:

Be critical of your subscriber list.

Purchased email lists that are unqualified, old addresses that are no longer in use, and uninterested subscribers will drag your open rates down. 

Segment your email list.

Make sure the most relevant content goes to the most interested audience. Email subscribers that have previously purchased at full price are more likely to purchase again without extra incentive. Email subscribers who always use a discount code will likely only respond to extra savings emails and they’ll expect to see that highlighted in the subject line! 

Optimize your email’s timing.

Schedule your emails so that they arrive in the inbox at an opportune time to be opened. You can go by past data of your personal campaigns or use your email providers algorithm-based recommendations.

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These tactics are also designed to help you increase the ROI on your email marketing campaigns. We don’t just want your audience to open the email — we want them ready and excited for what’s inside.

When our four guiding principles and three simple tips are followed correctly we can almost guarantee that you'll see both your email open rate and your ROI go up.

As we mentioned earlier, we’re always looking for ways to squeeze more value out of email marketing. While the subject line, list health, and timing are critical for getting your foot in the door it is not enough to get readers to reach your end goal.

A subject line that doesn't deliver on the expectations it created will be identified as clickbait by today's savvy consumers. More than that, it will keep them from opening any subsequent emails and may even cause them to unsubscribe entirely. The main content of your email, its layout and effective CTAs are equally as important when it comes to driving actual conversions. And that’s all before we start A/B testing everything!

But that’s what we'll cover in future posts. Practice our subject line tactics now and be sure to check back soon for more Integrity tested and approved marketing methods.

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Need a team of expert digital marketers to craft your e-mail marketing campaigns and increase your open rates? Contact the team.

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