How can I get people to read my emails?

Many freelance copywriters are Jills of All Trades.

As well as writing for my clients, I also run the social media feeds and marketing communications for several of them.  

So, it’s not enough for me to be able to turn a tidy phrase, I also need to be clued up on how to use social media, have some ideas about design, and know how to build and maintain email subscriber lists.

Despite these additional services, I am a writer at heart, and few things are more dispiriting than looking at the open rates for an email and seeing it ignored by three-quarters of the people I sent it to.

This article explains what is realistic for email open rates, and gives some ideas on how to improve them.

Don’t feel rejected – it happens to all of us

I can’t be the only one who looks at her email campaign stats and wonders about the 75% or so who didn’t even open the email it took me so long to craft.  They didn’t know what wonders they were missing. What can I do to engage them?

A couple of years ago, I did some investigation. In 2013, Mailchimp reported that the highest open rate was 49% from subscribers to religious lists.  When I looked at the report again, for this article (November 2016), that had dropped to 27%. Still one of the highest open rates, but running behind Restaurants, Hobbies, Government, and Art and Artists – all at 28%. Times they are a’changing.

So, take heart.  Open rates in the twenty-per-cents are good.  

How can you make it more likely that your email will be opened?

First of all, take care of the subscriber list.  

If you are sending emails to abandoned inboxes, of course they are not going to be opened.  It’s a good idea to check every so often that subscribers still want to hear from you.  People who engage with you are going to be more motivated to open your emails.

Divide your list into segments. Don’t send details about London events to people in Aberdeen.  Don’t send information on retirement homes to Millennials.  Irrelevant emails get deleted.  Segmentation also allows you to play around with different tactics to see what works best.

Don’t compete with the gutter press

An informative subject line is much better than a shouty teasing one that sounds like something in a Sunday tabloid.  

The best open rates are for emails with subjects that include the company name and information such as December Newsletter or Quarterly Bulletin.  No, not exciting, but informative, and clearly setting the email apart from anything promising to make you Don Juan In 90 Days or Your Money Back!!!

Try to keep your subject line short, so that it can be read in the inbox list.  

If you can’t do that, make the first 30 characters or so interesting enough to make the reader want to know more.

Don’t look like a spammer

You’ve seen them in your own inbox. Emails selling SEX APPEAL COLOGNE!!!!! BUY NOW BEFORE STOCK RUNS OUT!!!!!  PLUS FREE LIMITED EDITION STUD NEWS!!!

  • Don’t do this.  Don’t write in all caps, don’t build a false sense of urgency, and don’t use more than one exclamation mark.  Ever. I mean this.
  • Avoid offering anything free – and certainly never FREE!!!  Of course, if you are targeting your emails well (see below), then offering something free can be really powerful. One man’s spam is another man’s filet mignon.
  • Don’t talk about Viagra, designer handbags, or the Kardashians unless that’s really what you are selling.
  • Spam filters can’t read images, so more pictures than text means you’ll be sent to the spam folder.
  • Personalising emails can be great – but it needs to be more than inserting the reader’s name into an email of little interest to them.  Targeting emails to people who have shown an interest in the topic, plus personalisation, can be very effective.

Good practice includes:

  • Providing an unsubscribe link that actually works.
  • Writing that is top quality, easy to understand, and engaging to read.
  • Design that is attractive and eye-catching.
  • Including your postal address.
  • Make it clear who the email is from.
  • Using a double opt-in subscription method.
  • Making sure it can be read on a mobile (50% of emails are opened on mobiles now).

Ring the changes

Don’t keep sending the same-old.  Wake people up with new colours and a different design.  

Does changing your call to action make people react better? Play around with different sending times – is there a particular time, or even a particular day, that gets a better response than others?  

Mailchimp research suggests that Tuesday afternoon is a good time, but I find that it differs by audience and platform. So, experiment.

That’s not all

You can’t kick your shoes off and relax yet.  

Getting recipients to open the email is just the beginning. The challenge keeps going. Your goal is to get them to do something (buy, subscribe, donate, reply, etc) so what you put in the email is vital. Even open-rate champions, the Hobbies sector, only enjoys 6% clicks on their emails.

If you’ve got them to open it, at least you are on the right path. There can’t be any clicking without an opening first.

This article is an updated version of a longer article on the Word Hen Ltd. website.


15th January 2017

Abby King

I have to send daily newsletters as part of my full-time job, so I’m constantly challenged with declining open and click rates as our email competes with so many others. Harder still is the fact that I write about freebies, so the word ‘FREE’ has to be prominent! It makes thinking up new ways of engaging readers (and not hitting SPAM filters!) very interesting… What’s helped so far is having ‘proper’ names for images, rather than the likes of ‘dg4fhf6.jpg’. As it’s a B2C email, I’ve also played around with humanising the copy, and the company is planning on changing the design to emphasise this. Our greatest challenge is subject line. It’s tempting to go with something very different every day to keep it fresh but I’m not sure if that will alienate our current audience.

17th January 2017

Kevin Mills

And don’t forget the pre-header! Almost anything’s better than ‘Having trouble reading this email?…’ Maintain conceptual continuity by using the pre-header as a bridge between subject line and email headline.

17th January 2017

Kevin Mills

Don’t forget the pre-header, as I said in an earlier comment that seems to have been deleted.

30th March 2017

Peter Rylands

Love everything you’re saying!

A few points to mention: “double opt-in” will soon likely be a legality, with GDPR coming into force. Make sure your data is clean and engaged. That will boost your opens and CTRs too!

And the issue with saying Tuesday is a good day to send, is that everyone then sends on Tuesday and it becomes too busy. Like you say, just test when is best for your readers, that’s always the best way to optimise opens and click-through rates – TEST.

Furthering Kevin’s preheader text; this will take into account the first bit of text in your email. If you make this match your background colour you can hide the preheader from your main content – letting you use the Subject Line and preheader as promotions of your main message.

Great to hear proper names for images is helping Abby. Alongside mobile opens – make sure you’re not using too many images! The more images, the longer the load time, and that can be quite annoying when reading an email that takes some time to render.

And finally. Know your audience! Unicode emojis can be inserted into subject lines, if you’re reaching out to a millenials list consider saying more with the language they use…but tread carefully, of course.

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