Email Marketing

11 Ways to Improve Email Open Rates

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Web Marketing Today. Practical Ecommerce acquired Web Marketing Today in 2012. In 2016, we merged the two sites, leaving Practical Ecommerce as the successor.

“Open rate” is one of the most telling email marketing metrics. Open rates determine click rates, conversion rates, and the overall performance of an entire email-marketing program. Even deliverability can be affected by open rate.

Open rates are also a key way to measure subscriber engagement. Sure, one message may do unusually well or unusually poorly, but an email marketing program’s overall open rate is a key indicator of health. As we’ll see in a moment, a weak open rate can be a symptom of many things.

Average Open Rate

Before I get into how to improve open rates, consider average open rates. While “average” varies widely from provider to provider, generally an open rate below 10 or 15 percent is cause for alarm.

  • Silverpop’s “Email Marketing Benchmark Study: An Analysis of Messages Sent Q1-Q2 2012,” reported that email marketing messages had an average open rate of 19.7 percent.
  • MailChimp’s email marketing benchmarks research breaks out open rates by industry, with email messages from “Daily Deals/E-Coupons” marketers getting a 19 percent average open rate, and messages from marketers in the “Religion”, “Photo and Video” and “Manufacturing” niches getting 48 percent open rates.

If the open rate for your email program is better than those averages, that’s good. But even your emails might benefit from a few of these tactics.

11 Tactics for Improving Open Rates

  • Get the sender name right. Make sure your emails’ sender name (also called “from name”) is easily recognized and consistent. On iOS devices, sender name is more prominent than the subject line of your message.

Email marketing experts have a name for how recognizable your sender name and address are — it’s called “sender familiarity.” Email service provider Campaigner published a study earlier this year that showed sender familiarity is especially critical on mobile devices, where sender name was ranked as a more powerful “mobile email motivator” than even the email subject line.

  • Get the from email address right. This is similar to sender name. The goal here is to keep the sender address the same, and make it look professional and recognizable. Changing the sender email address can hurt deliverability rates, because you’ll no longer be mailing from the email address that some of your subscribers whitelisted.
  • Get the subject line right. Subject lines matter. Testing subject lines is a good way to find out which words engage your audience best. Maybe they’re more likely to open an email about a “flash sale” than a “monthly sale,” or they prefer you to tie your messages to current events, not holidays. Or maybe your audience loves subject lines with numbers in them, or subject lines with special characters. Whatever it is, do some split testing to find out what works.
  • Personalize. Every quarter there’s seemingly a new study showing how powerful personalization is in emails, especially in email subject lines. Email service provider MailerMailer’s 2013 “Email Marketing Metrics Report” showed a clear lift in open rates for messages with personalized subject lines. GetResponse, another email service provider, ran an analysis of its customers’ email messages and found “emails with personalized subjects averaged 26% higher open rates and over 130% higher CTRs than emails without personalized subject lines.”

You’ve probably been collecting people’s first names in your opt-in box. Maybe it’s time to use them.

  • Optimize preheader text. After subscribers have scanned the sender name and from address of your message, and decided the subject line is worth review, they’ll likely read the preheader text, which appears in smaller grey type right after the email subject line. Ideally, it’s about 50 characters long.

Most often marketers use preheader text to say something like “Can’t see this email? View it online.” That’s a reasonable use of this very valuable space, but you can do better. Think of the preheader text as the email’s subhead, or think of it as a way to slip a clever message to your readers just at the moment when they are deciding whether or not to open your email.

  • Segment. If you segment your list well, you’ll be able to easily deliver content that’s much more suited to your audience’s interests. This results in better open rates.

Some examples of simple segmentation are:

• For a recruiter: employers vs. job-seekers;
• For a real estate broker: buyers vs. renters;
• For an ecommerce company: buyers vs. non-buyers, or buyers segmented by purchased product category.

  • Give your subscribers what they want. This technique affects your entire email program, but it will increase open rates too. It’s simple. Find out what your subscribers really want to know, then deliver it. You can find out what they’re interested in with surveys, polls, or via social media listening.
  • Send at the right time. Open rates can vary dramatically depending on what time of day and what day of the week the emails are sent. The best way to find out your audience’s preferred time for emails is to test, but you can also check some recent industry reports for clues. I’ve addressed sending times previously, at “When Is the Best Time to Send an Email?”
  • Send with the right frequency. One of the most common symptoms of an over-mailed list is a weak open rate. List fatigue is a sticky problem that requires a series of changes to fix, but one of the best places to start is by mailing less often.

That said, if you’re mailing once a week, or even twice a week, don’t dismiss increasing your mailing frequency if your open rates are weak. Every once in a while, an email marketer actually increases mailing frequency and ends up increasing open rates. It’s rare, but it does happen.

Test. I included testing in other techniques, above, but it’s such a key process for improving anything that it deserves to be counted alone.

Here’s the best way to do more testing: Figure out what it would take it make testing easier and faster. Too often, testing gets bogged down in technical headaches and by being seen as an add-on, a nice-but-not-necessary thing to do. Change that.

  • Use double opt-in. Signing people up for an email list with single opt-in vs. a double opt-in can have a huge effect on open rates, months after people have subscribed. Double opt-in (sometimes called “confirmed opt-in,” where subscribers have to confirm their email address before they’re subscribed) ends up being well named. Using a double opt-in can, well, almost double open rates. MailChimp has reported that double opt-ins receive a 29 percent average open rate versus a single opt-in getting an average 17 percent open rate.


Those are just a few of the ways to improve open rates. What have you tried? What’s worked? What hasn’t worked? Let us know in the comments.

Pamella Neely
Pamella Neely
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