Email marketing: strategies for improving open and click-through rates

Leif Kendall


I hate to tell you this.

But this is not a short article.

Because there is not a simple way to write effective emails every time.

The reality is that every email is different.

Every email must be considered on its own merits.

Every time you write an email, you must consider your audience, and how you can relate your offering to their needs or interests.

However, there are a few different tactics you can try to improve your open and clickthrough rates.

Write emails that delight your audience

Your audience isn’t my audience.

So while I can tell you about the tactics that help me (occasionally) get open rates of 40% (keep reading for an explanation of how and when this happens), you must understand that the same approach won’t necessarily work for you.

You have to find the subject lines, content and timing that appeals to your unique audience. In most cases, the only way to figure this out is through trial and error.

Test different email tactics

Are you starting a new email marketing campaign, or taking over an existing campaign?

If you’re picking up from someone else, then ask lots of questions about what works for that audience. Your predecessor probably has evidence of what gets a positive response – and what prompts the raging hate-mail. This can save you from sending lots of lame emails that get low open rates.

Specifically, ask about:

  • Subject lines that get opened most
  • Seasonal variations in audience response
  • Content that gets the best reaction
  • Examples of emails that have irritated subscribers in the past
  • Information about subscribers (how, when and why they subscribed, demographics, interests etc)

If you’re starting a new campaign to a list that hasn’t been sent to, then you will have to experiment. This means trying different timings, frequencies, subject lines and offers.

But even if you don’t have evidence of past campaigns to learn from, you will probably have some information about the nature of the subscribers, including their interests, background and status. This might tell you whether these are prospects or customers, or whether they are interested in information or products, or whether they are from a global corporation or a local business.

Are your emails marketing or communications?

Before you get carried away, it’s important to be clear about whether your emails are commercial (marketing) or transactional communications.

The lines between these two categories of business email are often blurred. For example, you may want to cross-sell a new service while contacting your existing customers, or you may give potential customers news about your company.

What kind of emails have your contacts consented to receive?

You can’t send marketing messages to customers who only want to get product updates.

It’s an important distinction which has implications for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Flouting those rules can result in hefty fines.

Will your subscribers care?

Let’s be honest.

Most marketing emails are crap.

They rarely offer something of value.

They’re often sent to the wrong audience. At the wrong time.

Too many people are sending emails without considering the interests of their audience.

Does your email pass the ‘who cares?’ test?

Yes, it’s difficult to create an email that offers real value to the people on your list.

But if you persist in sending low-grade, low-value emails, you will continue to get low levels of engagement.

For some email marketing campaigns, the real work starts further upstream: you may need to create something of value, or engineer some kind of offer, so you have a truly interesting reason to contact your subscribers.

Before you send an email, imagine that, instead of hitting send, you had to convey the contents of this email to the CEO of every company on the list – or your friends. What would they think? Would they be happy to hear about your offer? Or would they start swearing at you?

Assuming that you have a genuine reason to contact your subscribers, let’s explore a few subject line strategies. Again, it’s worth trying a few different approaches so you can discover what your audiences respond to.

Subject lines

Obviously, subject lines are the most important part of your emails.

The subject line is a miniature advert for the contents of your email.

Weak subject lines can obscure the real value of your email, and prevent people from opening.

On the flip side, there’s no point writing amazing subject lines if the email is weak or lacking value.

Email subject line length

How long should your subject line be? The general advice is to keep them short so none of the text is cut off by the recipient’s email app (most email apps have a maximum number of characters they will display).

Maximum subject line lengths by email client:

  • Outlook 2010: 54 characters
  • Gmail: 70 characters
  • Yahoo Mail: 46 characters
  • iPhone (portrait): 41 characters

Given that the iPhone and Gmail are the two most popular email clients (according to Litmus Email Analytics), it makes sense to optimise your subject lines for these – and aim for a subject line around the 41 character limit – or about 7 words.

Front-load the subject line

Given that people tend to scan their inbox to check for interesting emails, it’s wise to put the most interesting words and details at the beginning of your subject line.

Sometimes it’s easier to brainstorm subject lines, and then think about front-loading them, rather than trying to achieve everything at once.

For example, you might come up with the following subject line to promote your vegan sausages:

Available now in our shop: sausages suitable for vegans

But this is awful because the key details are at the end – and too easy to miss.

However, this is easy to reshuffle:

Vegan sausages: available now in our shop

Email subject line gambits

There are lots of different approaches you can take to write engaging subject lines.

Whichever gambits you use, remember that you should use them ethically: you might be able to hoodwink people into opening one or two weak emails, but you won’t build trust, drive sales or increase open rates over time.

Again, you may have to rethink parts of the content or business strategy so that you have reasons to email your list.

Here are a handful of effective email subject line gambits:


Do you have surprising stats or details to share? Details that are contrary to popular opinion work well.

Example: The Experts Keep Getting This Wrong


Can you position your offer mysteriously? Or only give people half the story? This is a divisive tactic that may annoy some of your readers, so use sparingly.

Example: You Need This. Here’s Why…


Offers and gifts are always effective – assuming the offer is relevant and valuable.

Example: A Gift for You: Free X When You Order Y


At ProCopywriters, we send a monthly newsletter.

Know what works best for these emails?

It’s usually the simplest, most vanilla subject lines. Of course, it helps that our audience is an established community, but we regularly get email open rates of around 40% with a subject line like “Your ProCopywriters newsletter”.


All of the tactics in this article are commonly used. One tactic that is rarely used is to get weird.

Businesses rarely get weird because it feels too risky, and most brands want to play it safe. Brands are typically conservative. They do what everyone else is doing. And so they rarely have the freedom – or the cojones – to be weird.

If you’re writing emails for smaller companies, or perhaps brands with a little more personality, then consider writing something weird, something that makes people pause, and piques their interest enough to open your email.


Just as you do in marketing copy, try to grab your audience’s interest by focusing on a problem they are struggling with. Just make sure that the body of your email offers the solution.

Example: Are Your Emails Getting Ignored? Try This.

Eye-catching words

Certain words are more likely to catch our eye when we’re skimming the inbox. This really depends on your audience, but examples include:

  • Fail
  • Win
  • Free
  • Amazing
  • Because
  • Zero
  • Kill
  • New
  • Secret
  • 100%
  • Now
  • Today
  • Only

Pratfall effect

As Richard Shotton explained in his ProCopywriters webinar (available in your member dashboard), the pratfall effect is the strange way that people feel more positively towards brands or people that admit or reveal a weakness or failing. Mistakes prove that we’re human. So if you’ve made a mistake, it might help you deliver your message.

Example: Sorry! We Made a Mistake.

Social proof

Have 500 people already ordered your new product? Or maybe there are only ten places left on your next online course. Tell people!

These details demonstrate that other people are already onboard, which makes the decision less risky for others.

Example: 63 of Your Peers Have Already Joined


Some email applications allow you to automatically add the recipient’s name to the subject line. This can make the subject line more eye-catching – and more tempting to read.


Adding emojis can help your email stand out in a crowded inbox. Instead of just adding more text to a sea of text, emojis give you instant colour and character. Make sure you check any emails containing emojis. I recently sent a ProCopywriters email that translated a book icon into the word ‘undefined’.


Short subject lines are easy to read in a hurry, and they can also stand out in busy inboxes.


Time-limited offers, expiring deals and sold-out events are all effective ways to encourage people to act quickly. Again, if these limits don’t occur naturally, you may want to consider how your business can incorporate deals that expire or another limits to ordering. Otherwise you may find that many of your prospects are perpetually planning to place an order “tomorrow”.


Are you working with an authority in your field? Recognised names are likely to catch readers’ eyes. Readers will also be intrigued to know how your offer relates to the authority figure – so you must use this technique legitimately, and not simply drop celebrity names into your emails as a cheap trick.


What can you offer your subscribers, than nobody else can have? Can you offer a reward, a piece of content, a discount or priority access to an event? This is another way to give people a good reason to open your emails.


Are you running out of tickets? Or almost out of widgets? Leading with the scarcity of an item will encourage people to act quickly.

Powerful words

There are a few words that tend to get our attention:

  • You / your
  • New
  • Offer
  • Deal
  • Discount
  • Save
  • Get


As with all things email-related, the only way to know the best time to send emails is to try different times.

However, many studies suggest that, on average, mid-week days and mid-mornings are the most effective time to send marketing emails.

So Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday tend to work well, around 10:00 AM.

However, you may find that your emails are landing around the same time as everyone else, so why not try a different strategy? Consider what your audience is doing at different times of the day.

At seven in the morning, they might be checking messages on their phone.

At lunchtime, they might be having a desk lunch and tidying up their email folder.

At six, they might be on a train heading home.

At nine, they might be checking their phone for the last time before bed.

Depending on your audience, any of these times might be more effective. You just need to test different theories and see what works.


It’s obvious, but worth repeating: don’t send emails that are full of rubbish – even if you’re really desperate to get a few sales or just keep your email campaign ticking over.

The content of your email is almost as important as the headline.

The content must live up to the expectations and promises made by your headlines.

If your content is weak, or pointless, fewer people will open your next email.

And more people will unsubscribe.

What can you put in your emails?

  • Product updates
  • Special offers, deals and discounts
  • Support information
  • Event announcements
  • Customer engagement stuff (e.g. How to use your new widget)

As a general rule, aim to include something of value in every email.

This might be financial value, or useful information, but make sure the recipient stands to benefit from opening your email.

Encourage action with your emails

Why are you sending emails? What action are you hoping to provoke?

You may be hoping to drive people to your website, sell a product – or just generally build awareness.

Make sure that every email has a clear purpose.

Readers should be encouraged to complete an action.

Ideally, you should pick one action, and focus everything on that singular goal.

More goals (and more calls-to-action) usually means diluting the effectiveness of your email.


How often should you send emails? This depends on:

1. How much you have to say
2. How much your audience wants to read
3. Your capacity for creating and sending emails

You have to strike a balance between all three factors. There’s no point sending daily emails if they annoy your audience. And obviously, writing, constructing, testing and sending emails takes time.

You might not have the capacity to send emails more than once a month. Whichever pattern you choose, try to stick to a routine. If you find that your weekly emails often go unsent because you’re too busy, reduce the frequency to something you can stick with.

Use all the tools

Email apps are constantly trying to out-innovate their competition. Look out for new features and don’t hesitate to try new things as they emerge. Inboxes are overloaded, and new features can help you create more attractive emails with more compelling subject lines.

For example, your email program might roll-out emoji support, personalised subject lines, A/B testing or interactive content – or perhaps even dynamic content that you can tweak depending on the recipient.

Open rates aren’t everything

Most people judge the success of their email campaigns on a few core metrics:

  • Open rates
  • Click rates (how many people clicked a link in your email)
  • Unsubscribes (how many people unsubscribed after you sent an email)

And that’s usually the correct approach. But it doesn’t tell you the whole story, because there is value in being seen on screen, even if someone doesn’t open your email.

Every email is a little advert.

Even unopened emails are little adverts, because they put your name in front of your audience. People might not always open your emails, but they probably register your company name. Over time, this builds up to repeated exposure to your brand. When the recipient eventually needs to make a purchase, your company is more likely to come to mind.

Have you got any email marketing tips?

Please share your ideas – and articles – in the comments below.

Also – if you’re a member of ProCopywriters you can catch up with Tim Fidgeon’s webinar: An introduction to email marketing for copywriters. The video is in your dashboard.

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