Fourteen Ways to Improve Your Open Rate

Posted on October 24, 2011. Filed under: Online Communications | Tags: , , , , , |

Brett from NTEN has put together a very thorough list of methods which will assist nonprofits to improve the effectiveness of their email campaigns. If you are using email communications I would suggest you use Brett’s list as a checklist for your email proofing/approval process.

And remember, our CommsConsole enables you to manage your entire email marketing campaign process – from lists to templates to analytics. Contact me if you want to look into how CommsConsole can assist your organisation to manage its social media and online communications campaigns.

Great ideas, Brett, thank you!

Kathie van

Fourteen Ways to Improve Your Open Rate

Writing last month’s post about how NTEN differentiates between types of open rate made me think about the ways we’ve worked to boost our numbers. We’re on pace to deliver more than 1,000,000 messages in 2011, so our data is beginning to amount to something meaningful. Despite the increased volume, we’ve managed to increase our absolute open rate year-over-year.

Looking just at our webinar messaging, we saw an open rate of roughly 22.5% in 2010, but have bumped that up to 23.5% so far this year.

While you should keep in mind that all of this is based on data specific to NTEN – your own results may vary – here are 14 ways we’ve worked to achieve that modest bump.

  1. Keep the new names coming in. We’ve made list growth a continuing concern – not just to fight the inevitable churn, but because new subscribers open our messages at a much higher rate. Recent tests from our 28,000-name newsletter list found that the folks we’d added within the prior month were up to 25% more likely to open the first message.
  2. Deliver content people want to read. Once you’ve captured somebody’s attention, it’s yours to lose. You don’t have to write like Raymond Carver, but make sure you put the requisite effort into making your messages crisp, readable – and interesting. Develop a reputation for giving your constituents what they want, and they’ll be more likely to read your messages out of habit.
  3. Tell them who it’s from. The “From” line is often the first thing folks look at when your message arrives in their in-box, simply because Westerners read from left to right. We believe e-mail should come from a person, not an organization. We use the format “First Last, NTEN”. New subscribers probably don’t know who “Brett Meyer” is, but they’ve hopefully heard of NTEN; long-time list members will (hopefully) see my name and at least look at the subject line. This sort of format will also help you introduce new staff members to the community as they begin to send out messages.
  4. Worry about your subject line. Subject lines have become even more important as webmail and smartphones have become ubiquitous: the preview pane is disappearing. Books could be written on how to write subject lines, but in general, we try to keep them factual and descriptive of the content of the message. I also try to avoid going with the first thing that pops into my head. Spend a few minutes thinking about who your audience is and what they’ve responded to in the past. For more, Kivi Leroux Miller has some great tips on writing subject lines.
  5. Test, test, test. There’s no reason to go with your gut instinct when so many email providers have A/B test functionality this days. (And, even if yours doesn’t, it’s worth the effort to build your own test lists every now and again, especially for your most important messages.) Try some subject line variations on 10-20% of your list, then use the best performer for the rest.
  6. Try playing with the send time. A few years ago, before we could test our messages, I hypothesized that folks are most likely to look at a message when it pops up on their screen with little competition. We try not to get lost in the 8 am rush (when I, at least, clean out all the messages from the night before without paying much attention). Most of our messages go out between 10 and 11 am Pacific — before lunch on the West Coast, right after folks get back from lunch on the East. But I seem to remember Event 360 sending out a message about how Saturday mornings can be effective, too. The important thing for you is to test and test some more to find out what’s best for your list.
  7. Segment your lists. Even if your organization is focused on a single issue like, say, rescued Pomeranians, various cross-sections of your constituents will respond differently to your messaging – in spite of their shared interest in your mission. Here at NTEN, we segment by job type (Marketers vs IT staff vs EDs), organization size, activity level (number of our events attended, messages opened, etc.), membership status, and more (sometimes all at once). Just for webinars, we’ve sent out more than 200 unique messages in 2011, even though we’ve only had 60 events. Sometimes just the subject line is different, sometimes the entire message changes; it depends on the segment. Social media has taught people to expect a more personal experience online, so the more you can personalize your messages and deliver just the content a particular subscriber wants, the more likely they’ll be to open your messages.
  8. Vary your messaging volume. Some of your constituents will want to hear from you more often than others. I know that people who have attended more than 2 of our events in a year are more likely to open a message from me (and sign up for the event), so we send more messages to them than to subscribers who haven’t engaged with NTEN yet. We look for the best opportunities to reach out to the unengaged groups – like our recent free Cloud Webinar series – so they don’t become overwhelmed by messaging they may not be interested in. Just be sure you…
  9. Collect and use your data. You need to keep track of how often your subscribers want to hear from you, which subject lines perform best, the times of day most likely to result in an open, and what your various segments have responded to the most. Your data should focus your efforts as time goes on, since you’ll have a better sense of what works. Just don’t forget to go back and test to make sure your assumptions continue to hold true.
  10. Don’t ask for something every time. This goes back to the whole “deliver content people want to read” idea: if your constituents know that your message will just ask them to donate again, they’ll likely get tired of it. Mix it up. Send out important news, a free offer, a cool conversation happening on your Facebook page. You want to build a relationship with your subscribers – just not like the relationship you have with your ATM.
  11. Avoid the spam filter. Even if you run a double opt-in for your list, your messages can get trapped by the increasingly sophisticated spam filters in place just about everywhere. It pays to know why your messages may be sent into the dank, squishy depths of the spam folder. MailChimp has a fantastic overview of “How Spam Filters Think“.
  12. Develop a good email template. On the more technical side, sloppy HTML code can certainly trigger spam filters, but a nice, clean, easy-to-read and understand template can make it more likely your subscribers will want to open your message – particularly if you make sure it renders properly in every mail client. Sean Powell put together a great HTML email boilerplate as a starting point. We go a little further by separating out content from the details of our call to action in our template: the “pitch” is on the left, while those who know just from the subject that they want to take the action can quickly find the time, place, etc. on the right. (And yes, we have tested it versus a single column format.) The key, as with so many things, is to remain consistent.
  13. Include some Easter eggs. While I haven’t crunched the numbers yet to find out if a link to a cute cat video makes folks more likely to sign up for a webinar, I do know it helps me find out how many people are reading my messages all the way to the end. It’s okay to include fun links in your messages; bonus points if you can make them relevant to the content. Vary the placement, so they’ll have to at least scan your entire message to find them. This is just another form of engagement, and engagement is the name of the game.
  14. Develop a strategy. It’s one thing to try a few of these suggestions to boost your open rates, another to plan it out. You need to approach your email marketing program as you do all things: mindfully. Lay out a plan. Implement it. Record the results. Tweak the plan based on the data. Try again. Treat your subscribers well and they’ll reward you by actually reading the messages you spend so much time putting together.

Bonus Tips!

Here are two more things that will likely boost your open rates that we haven’t fully implemented yet.

Clean your list. We don’t quite have enough data to do this to the extent we want, but: if you’ve had a name on your list for 5 years, and they’ve never engaged with you – no donations, no events, no click-throughs or even message opens – you probably don’t need them on your list, even if the address is still deliverable. This may sound like an artificial boost, but it’s more important to have an active, engaged list than a big list that never does anything. It may not cost much to send an e-mail, but it does add up over time.

Try some predictive analytics. I heard Event 360’s Jeff Shuck talk about predictives at the 2011 NTC, and it made me excited to be a nonprofit marketer. We’re close to being able to build our lists based on how we think subscribers will respond. For example, if somebody has opened 70% of the messages I’ve sent about Cloud Computing and registered for several of the events, that person is much more likely to want to attend an advanced “Security in the Cloud” session than your average IT staff member. This may sound a bit creepy to some, I know, what with the ads for digital cameras that follow you around after you visit a camera review site. But – as long as the data is collected and used in aggregate – I’d much rather see advertisements targeted to my specific interests than yet another Unilever ad for Axe body spray.

Source: Fourteen Ways to Improve Your Open Rate –


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