How to Improve Your Email Open Rates

With spam incessantly inundating our inboxes and people’s attention spans constantly shrinking, some have claimed that email marketing is on the way out.

I say “nonsense.”

In fact, it’s because of those very reasons that email marketing is now stronger than ever before. I personally know of some marketers who have made literally millions of dollars with email marketing alone in recent weeks.

I’m talking about legitimate, law-compliant, optin email.

Remember, the most common use of the Internet is still email — not instant messenging, social networking, or browsing websites. It’s often the very first thing people do when they log onto the web.

Granted, the biggest stumbling block is to increase your “open rate” (i.e., the percentage of people who actually open your emails). And to do so you first need to get your emails delivered and overcome overzealous spam filters.

But once they do reach your readers’ inboxes, the most important step in getting your messages through to your audience is with good copy. And like a good headline in sales copy, it all starts with the subject line.

One thing you may have noticed, particularly of late, are clever headlines spammers use.

Spam subject lines are often a lazy tactic to improve open rates. How many times have you seen a headline in your inbox, only to realize that the email is trying to sell you some sleazy, snake-oil aphrodisiac?

In other words, you get emails with headlines that may seem legitimate, but the moment you open them your “Delete” button gets the brunt of your index finger.

Sure, curiosity may get you to open the email. But they usually end up in the trash if they’re not in your spam folder already.

That said, however, spammy headlines do have something to teach us.

You can improve your open rates using some of the same tactics spammers use, but in legitimate, confidence-inspiring ways that will increase readership and, of course, response.

Here are three of my favorite and easiest tactics I use to increase my open rates.

1. Urgency

Urgency says it all. It’s when your subject line communicates something time-sensitive or quantity-bound, which simply can’t be ignored.

Some of the most profitable email campaigns have subject lines that have some element of scarcity. You see this with subject lines like, “It ends tonight at midnight!”, “There are only 4 left”, “One spot just opened up”, etc.

While the above are examples of direct scarcity (i.e., the limit is directly stated in the subject line), indirect scarcity works well, too — such as an upcoming event, holiday, sale, launch, contest, season, news item, etc.

But don’t just limit yourself to an event. You can also use situations to communicate fear of loss, which inherently creates tension. For example:

  • “When she learned my secrets…”
  • “Unless you do this, you are lost!”
  • “The sneaky mind trick they use on you”
  • “You are losing money right now!”
  • “Are you aware of these 5 danger signs?”
  • “Avoid these 7 mistakes at all costs!”

Fear of loss is one of our biggest motivators as human beings. While the urgency may be indirectly stated, it’s compounded: there’s urgency in the topic itself, as well as urgency in missing out or failing to at least know about it.

Speaking of “need to know,” this leads me to my second point…

2. Curiosity

Curiosity pulls them in. And the easiest way — it’s not the best way but it’s effective nonetheless — to use this winning tactic is to start a sentence, add an ellipse, and continue the rest of the sentence in your email.

These teasers can often drive response rates through the roof. Based on the Zeirgarnik effect, people are intrinsically curious, and an unfinished idea will create a certain tension that will force readers to seek closure.

For example, the subject line starts with “It all started when…” and in the body of the email, it goes on with “… She told me about this website!” The subject says “I’ve never had a chance to…” followed in the email by “… tell you about this amazing secret!” Or the subject says “Don’t leave me…” continued with “… hanging by not responding to this offer.” You get the picture.

However, an important caveat.

Subject-line teasers need to be handled very carefully. It’s easy to lose credibility. They can come off too spammy and, if your email doesn’t follow through on the subject line, then you’ve lost credibility.

That’s why the best curiosity subject lines are those that really tease not by omission but by implication. In fact, one curiosity-building tactic that works quite well is to tempt an open by implying that the answer to a question is within your email.

To help you, take a look at the headlines on the covers of tabloids and grocery-rack magazines, such as Vanity Fair, Cosmo, National Enquirer, etc. Here’s one from Women’s World magazine, sitting right now on my wife’s desk: “I lost 19 pounds eating chocolate!” Other examples include:

  • “The real reason people gain weight”
  • “No joke! Shocking study proves laughter is dangerous”
  • “Is he cheating? Find out with these 6 tell-tale tips”
  • 7 medical myths even doctors believe

That last example uses the third common tactic…

3. Controversy

Controversy is another powerful tactic. The word “controversial,” by definition, means “of a diverging viewpoint,” “opinionated,” “disputed,” “arguable,” “contentious,” etc. Being controversial simply means to be different.

While your subject line may raise eyebrows and convey surprise, dismay, even anger, it doesn’t need to, and probably shouldn’t offend. Instead, tie your subject line to a current event, news item, or hot topic.

You don’t have to limit yourself to your industry. You can use controversial topics outside of it, as long as you link them to something relevant to your readers and provide compelling reasons why in your email to justify its use.

One of my email coaching students, John Ritskowitz, in an email about the power of headlines, used “Dead Man Wakes Up Under Autopsy Knife.”

This was pulled from an actual, recent news story. And John used that headline to show the power of headlines in a small video tutorial for a new copywriting tool he was promoting.

Speaking of being controversial, another successful tactic I’ve seen — and contrary to common knowledge — is to NOT include the email recipient’s name in the subject line.

There are many benefits to personalizing emails, and I still recommend it with email body copy — or any copy, for that matter.

But like with any marketing tactic, once a winning strategy is overused we tend to become desensitized to it.

I suspect that the recipient’s name in the subject line is often an indication that it is a sales message, and the email will likely hit the trash can faster than you can say “spam!”

By the way, Larry Chase’s “Web Digest For Marketers,” an ezine I’ve been subscribed to for many years, has an interesting article on 13 tips for crafting subject lines.

Bottom line, observe what spammers are doing, and apply some of the same tactics to your email marketing efforts. But don’t be clever or misleading.

In the long run, you’re better off to spend a little time using what we can learn from spam and creating a subject line that will really work. The key is to be relevant — to your email message, and more importantly, to your readers.

About The Author

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Michel Fortin is a certified SEO consultant, content strategist, and marketing advisor helping plastic surgeons, cosmetic surgeons, and medical aesthetic clinics attract more patients. Since 1991, he helps cosmetic and aesthetic professionals increase their visibility and grow their practices. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.

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