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5 actionable tips to improve your email marketing open rates

Something we often hear from our customers and prospects is:

"We've been doing email marketing for a while and it used to work really well for us. But, recently, it's just stopped being effective."

Perhaps your open rate has dropped, you’ve got more people opting out than opting in, or the click-through rate has reduced. Whatever your email issues, a sudden decline in the efficacy of email marketing can be a bit of a shock to businesses. So it’s natural to make one of two decisions – both of which could actually damage your marketing performance even further:

  1. To give up on email marketing altogether
  2. To purchase a new email list of your target audience.

The first approach leads to lost opportunities; keeping in regular contact with your customers and prospects is one of your most valuable methods of building relationships and growing your business. Email marketing is (and will continue to be) an effective and important marketing tactic. 

The second approach, purchasing an email list, is also a big no-no, as our Chief Executive, John Kelleher explains:

“This is the first step towards becoming a spammer. Your customers do not want to receive marketing emails from companies they’ve never heard of. Emailing a purchased list hurts your reputation and leads to your future email campaigns appearing in the spam folder.”

So what can you do to get your email marketing back on track? In this post, we'll explore the most actionable and accessible ways to improve your email open rates, because getting your emails opened is the first major hurdles for email marketers.

Avoid Spam, Clutter and Promotions Folders

We all know about the spam folder: It's where all those undesirable, unsolicited emails go to die. It's usually filled with offers to purchase gold at an incredible price. In recent years, email software has become pretty good at identifying messages that you don't interact with and putting similar ones in the spam folder.

Email marketing circles are full of advice about staying out of the spam folder. There's much less advice about staying out of the Clutter folder and Promotions tab, though.

Gmail users will be familiar with the Promotions tab, which collects anything that looks like a generic marketing email and keeps it out of your main inbox. Clutter is Microsoft's equivalent of this feature and has been rolled out to any company using Office 365.

Clutter and Promotions are great features for the end user. They help keep your main inbox focused on productivity, while giving you a place to find promotional emails, without the risk of shady content in your spam folder.

When sending a marketing email, however, there's a strong chance that your message will be relegated to these secondary inboxes. This leads to a reduced open rate and reduced effectiveness. 

Top tip: show your customers how to whitelist your email address so you avoid their spam filters!

Increasing your email open rates

Whilst you can't be certain that you'll get your email into recipients' primary inboxes, you can focus on improving open rates for when customers and prospects are looking through their Promotions tab and Clutter folder.

Using the methods below, we have helped our customers improve their open rates by as much as 30%.

Tip 1: Reduce the amount of  code in your emails

Your first step should be to reduce the amount of HTML and CSS code in your email. Email campaigns are often associated with eye-catching design. But it doesn't matter how beautiful your email is if it doesn't get opened.

Every image, table and button that you put in your email creates a chunk of HTML and CSS code. This is one of the easiest ways for Gmail and Outlook to identify your email as being promotional in nature… which sees it relegated to the Clutter folder or Promotions tab.

Emails sent within a business, from team member to team member, will usually just contain rich text – simple text with the occasional bit of bold, underline and hyperlinks. Creating marketing emails that replicate this style will dramatically increase the chance of your content appearing in the primary inbox – they won't look as fancy, but they will get opened.

Tip 2: Use marketing automation to send emails at the right time

Email service providers (ESPs) are pretty clever. They know when you’re sending thousands of emails in one batch. It’s easy for an algorithm to say, ‘This looks like another email blast, let’s put it in the promotions folder’.

Rather than sending an email to people at a time that suits you, create emails that are triggered by user behaviour on your website. If someone visits the pricing page of your website, send them an invitation to schedule a call. If a prospect looks at your product page, why not email them a link to a blog post related to that product?

Marketing automation (such as that offered in HubSpot Pro and Enterprise) will allow you to create these emails and then set the triggers. You’ll then be sending emails to your targeted audience at a time that suits them – making it much more likely that they’ll open your message. Dustin Hawley at Viral Nation recently explained why carefully timed and crafted automated emails are so much more effective:

‘Automated emails… get 119% higher click rates compared to one-off emails sent to an entire subscriber list. Automated emails also have conversion rates of up to 50% because you’re sending perfectly-timed and strategically crafted emails that catch people when they’re ready to take action.’

Tip 3: Write engaging, snappy subject lines

You’ve spent an age crafting the perfect email. You’ve created a trigger to send it to recipients at a time that works for them. Now, you just need a subject line. It’s all too easy to treat this as a throwaway step, but a good subject line can make a noticeable improvement to your open rate – even if the email was in a secondary inbox. A/B testing tone, vocabulary and even emojis can bring about surprising insights!

Revisit your buyer personas and focus your subject line on overcoming a pain point specific to them. Why wouldn’t you open an email that offers to directly solve your problems?

Apply the same logic to the email preview text, too. We’ve found that this is one of the most under-used tools available to email marketers. Take the time to get it right. 

Tip 4: Send emails from a person

Are you more likely to open an email from ‘Marshall Event Suppliers’ or ‘Michael Jones’? Your customers are more likely to open emails that are sent from a real person with a real email address. Steven MacDonald at Super Office recently reported that:

‘The sender name and subject line of your emails are the most important factors in getting them opened and read. For example, 69% of subscribers say they are likely to read your email because of who it’s from, and 47% of email recipients open an email based on the subject line.’

Stop using your ‘’ email address, too – it’s a friction point for your potential customers, putting a barrier between them and the human side of your business.

Make emails more personal by using your name and actual email address. You’ll need to deal with a few auto-responders, but your email automation means this won’t happen in bulk – and the positive effects will far outweigh any minor issues like this. Include your business address or location to demonstrate trust and authenticity too.

Tip 5: Make sure your contact list is accurate and up-to-date

When you send an email, your marketing software will populate the recipient’s first name, last name and email address for you. Make sure these email list details are accurate.

Your prospect’s inbox might see an email sent from ’J Smith’ instead of the ‘Jenny Smith’ in the business’ database, then mistake it as a sign that it’s a promotional email and should be in the Clutter folder or Promotions tab.

A good tip is to look out for any replies and make sure your data matches the formatting in the email you receive – simply update your CRM accordingly. Some customers will have names set as ‘Mrs J Smith’ instead of their full name, so watch out for this.

Segmenting your email list is another effective strategy for improving your open rates. According to Lyris, 39% of marketers that segmented their list found an increased open rate. Example segmentation options include purchase behaviour, demographics, subscription length, etc. Welcoming new subscribers can keep you top-of-mind for future purchases. 

Don’t underestimate or dismiss your email marketing capabilities. Just because something might have shifted, leaving your current strategy less effective than it’s been in the past, this isn’t a sign that it’s failing overall and time to give up. Despite what’s been declared on some parts of the internet: email marketing is not dead. You just have to be willing to adapt your approach when things change – which is what all good marketers do, anyway.

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