Want to increase the open rate on your emails? You’re in the right place. First, a couple of quick disclaimers:
- The MailerLite links in this post are affiliate links. It is the mailing list service I strongly recommend, for all the reasons outlined in this post (which also explains why I left Mailchimp, and no longer recommend that service). If you also want to move from Mailchimp to MailerLite because of recent price hikes and service changes, read this guide. But if you are with another service, all these tips still apply, with the possible exception of #6 which might be a MailerLite-exclusive feature.
- These are words I never thought I’d write, but because of the global pandemic, you might not be feeling like working right now, or might not be in a position to carve out any mental energy to worry about email open rates. That’s totally fine. I’ve spent a few weeks mostly watching television. Look after yourself and your family, and do what you need to do to get through this on a personal level. But for those who need the distraction…
Having a big email list is great, but utterly pointless if your open rate is in the toilet. Quantity might get the headlines but it’s quality which pays the bills.
You need engaged subscribers, ones that care about getting your emails, people who open your messages and act on the contents. If you are putting effort into growing your subscriber count but not proactively taking steps to assist open rates, then all you’re really doing is bailing out your boat with a leaky bucket.
I have several mailing lists, but here’s an example of one of them. These are the most recent sends.
You’ll see the open rate for all these emails is north of 50% – or will be on that most recent send once the weekend warriors get around to opening. This is typical for me and this particular list. Sometimes it’s a little higher, sometimes it’s a little lower, but performance is consistently 50%+ and it has been that way for quite a long time.
In other words, this is a large, engaged list of happy subscribers. And, needless to say, this is a well performing list. I should also note that this was typical content for this list, just an informational email, unconnected to anything like a new release which would see higher open rates and (much) higher click rates.
The point is, these kinds of numbers are totally achievable for you too, as is keeping this level over an extended period. Indeed, some authors routinely exceed these numbers. While these definitely are good numbers, I’m not posting industry-leading, earth-shattering figures here.
People often say things like “it’s natural for open rates to fall over time” – and that’s true… if you do nothing about it. Also, there are plenty of practices you might inadvertently engage in which might accelerate the natural wastage you tend to get over time. But there’s also plenty you can do to address falling open rates and even reverse them.
Yes, you can actually have increasing open rates on a large list of subscribers and maintain that trend on a growing list over time too. What witchery is this? Let’s take a look.
1. Change The Subject
One of the biggest factors affecting open rates is your subject line, certainly the key variable here that can be most quickly and easily addressed. Feel free to experiment with different approaches but avoid veering too much into clickbait as that will erode trust over time and is a much harder problem to then subsequently address. Things like emojis in subject lines can be very effective but be sparing with these also.
The danger with leaning too hard on crutches like emojis or clickbait, is that you might be masking some lazy copywriting. Make the subject line as snappy and hooky as you can before reaching for those solutions – and you will often find you don’t need to. Also make sure you aren’t promising something that you don’t deliver; readers may not open the next email if you engage in even the slightest bait-and-switch.
There’s some really comprehensive advice here from MailerLite on how to use subject lines to boost open rates (aff link).
2. Examine Your Hello
It’s all well and good to spend time lovingly crafting a welcome sequence that you think will appeal to readers, but if you aren’t periodically checking on its performance, you are just guessing on that appeal, or relying on the small sample of initial performance, which might not hold true over time for any number of reasons. Sometimes you will find that one of the emails isn’t hitting the mark and your precious new subscriber bucket has sprung a rather substantial leak. Plug it.
Let me also stress the “periodically checking” part too. I had a great welcome sequence for one of my lists, but the content morphed over time as I found my feet with that audience, and I didn’t realize there was such a disconnect between the type of material new subscribers were getting as a preview in the onboarder versus the actual “live” newsletter content. The onboarding has been working much better since that was tweaked.
3. Whitelisting FTW
It’s boring – for you and your readers – and only a fraction of them will ever go through the whitelisting steps, no matter how easy you make it or how often you suggest it. It’s still worth doing, though, because if someone whitelists your email address you will sail past those pesky spam filters and always dodge their Promotions tab and land right in their inbox.
I recommend doing it as part of onboarding, and then periodically suggesting it to existing subscribers too. Aside from anything else, if a good chunk of your list whitelists your email, then you need to worry less about links or images sending your emails into Promotions (or Spam!).
4. Check Yourself
I mentioned this tip before in my previous post on advanced email tips but it’s important enough – and underutilized enough – to bear repeating: sign up to your own list. Do it with a Gmail account, a dummy address which you don’t use regularly.
It’s important that this email address is one that your main, list-connected email has no messaging history with. Watch your welcome sequence fire, see how everything looks from the reader side, and – most crucially of all – check those emails are arriving where they should be.
I also recommend sending a test email before each send to ensure that the amount of links and images etc. isn’t sending your emails into Promotions/Spam.
5. Watch Your Frequency
The biggest mistake I made with email over the years was only emailing people when I had a new book – not the smartest approach for a slow writer. You need to keep in touch with your readers regularly, or else open rates will fall, along with other, crucial measures of engagement, such as click rates and the rather important part of buying your latest book.
If you need more convincing on this oh-so-important point, then make sure to read this post: Email Marketing: Your Secret Weapon.
But you can go the other way with this too. Are you emailing too often? I’ve seen some spammy internet marketers email as frequently as daily which is just crazy. A sure sign someone is just burning through subscribers and squeezing them for as much as possible before tossing them away.
6. Experiment with Rich Text
We’re in a constant battle with companies like Gmail. Because of the daily firehose of spam, email services must use a variety of tools to stop users getting overwhelmed (and scammed). You might think you get a lot of spam, but most of it is zapped before it even makes it to your Spam folder, let alone your inbox.
The algorithms doing the zapping aren’t infallible, of course, and lots of genuine commercial messages will end up getting axed en route. However, there are lots of things we can do at our end to increase the deliverability of our emails.
Mailerlite has a new beta feature which I’ve been playing with: Rich Text Emails (aff link). Your regular newsletters are probably HTML-based, meaning there are bits of code gubbins hidden in the message to pretty it up, and which enable all those bells and whistles you may or may not use: images, surveys, embedded video, and so on.
Rich Text Emails strip all that back to the bare essentials: text and very simple images. This should help you hit more Inboxes for your more bare-bones email sends (I started using them for my culling emails, for example, to try and reach those subscribers who are not receiving/opening my messages, for whatever reason).
7. Start A Conversation
One of the key attractions of modern communications is interactivity – something we can forget when caught up in broadcasting our finely crafted messages. Don’t be afraid to engage your readers in the simplest way, i.e. by asking questions. This isn’t the only way to provoke a response, of course, but it is the simplest.
Any dialogue between you and a subscriber doesn’t just engage them on an emotional level, it also looks like organic, two-way communication to the email providers and increases your chances of landing in more Inboxes. Because it is.
But also the emotional thing. Don’t want to downplay that at all, especially right now, with everything that’s going on, and all of us experiencing less face-time with the world at large.
This cuts both ways. You get great psychological benefits from this dialogue, not just your readers.
8. Actually Survey Your Readers
While we’re asking questions, consider doing this in a more organized way too! Mailerlite makes this super easy with embedded surveys (aff link), and you can just drag and drop a content block into your email that is easily customizable. Want to know which of your readers prefers Kobo over Kindle? Who loves audiobooks? Which characters they would love to see hook up in a spin off? Ask them!
(Then tag them in your database so you can send them tailored content in the future – like new audiobook releases, for example.)
9. Make The Emails Better Maybe?
Hey, at least I didn’t open with this one. But, eh, honestly? Most emails are crap. Boring old corporations have an excuse; they’re boring old corporations!
We can do better – we’re natural storytellers. And we forget that sometimes when doing sales-y stuff. Which is kind of ironic because the big trend in copywriting and content marketing now is for… storytelling!
10. It’s OK To Take A Break
Sometimes the well goes dry. Other times, life gets in the way, or, you know, a global crisis.
What do you do when you have an email due and nothing schedule and no earthly idea what to say? If I was one of those Perfect Productivity People, I’d tell you to dig deep and stop wussing out or some such nonsense.
Here’s the truth: it’s okay to miss an email now and then. It’s fine to skip out on a commitment sometimes. If it means you coming back next week fresh and happy and relaxed and writing a killer email that is authentic and unforced and with all the words in the right order, well, I’ll take that any day.
(But maybe try and push through it that feeling first before caving and bingeing The Expanse. At least, that’s what I have to tell myself. I’m a lazy git. You do you!)
11. Cull the Herd
Removing habitual non-openers from your list has a number of benefits from reducing your costs to, rather crucially, improving your overall deliverability to those who actually do want to get your emails. However, as tracking is far from infallible, it’s better to take a couple of steps first before culling anyone.
12. Segment and Reengage
Separate out non-openers first. Attempt to re-engage them. Then, if that fails, you can consider culling them. But before you do that, send them one last email to let them know you will be cutting them soon.
Make it a plain email (or Rich Text Email – see #6 above) with no links or images to ensure maximum deliverability. You’re bound to scoop up a few stragglers that either weren’t getting your emails because of text/links or those who were getting your emails but your provider wasn’t tracking the opens for whatever reason.
Tag all those people in your database so they don’t get bothered with re-engagement/culling emails again. And if you feel like you need something special to bring those wavering subscribers back to the light, well, bribing works. Ask any parent with a toddler!
Reader magnets (or content upgrades) can be more than just welcome gifts, you can also use content like that to periodically re-engage those who are starting to slip, as well as those who have become unresponsive altogether. Then if a freebie can’t bring them to open your email or engage with its contents, then you really can cut them with a clear conscience.
13. Velvet Rope Your Front-End
All this segmenting and re-engaging and bribing and culling is quite the palaver, but maybe you can cut down on a lot of this busywork by being a little more discriminate in how you seek those sign-ups in the first place. Garbage in, garbage out after all.
Wait, did I just call readers garbage? Not quite. I’m warning against treating the great reader population as fungible, faceless consumption units. Not every reader is right for your list. You are not right for every reader. Try and practice a little more self-selection at the front-end of your operation, and you’ll have less to… expel at the back-end.
This post from a couple of months ago has lots of advanced tips for improving the overall performance of your author newsletter, including all my recommended resources: 7 Expert Tricks To Improve Your Author Newsletter.
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