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Optimizing Your Open Rates: If It Doesn't Get Opened, Nothing Else Matters

You can’t get great performance out of an email if it doesn’t get opened. Below, I outline 4 levers you can pull to earn that all important first click.

Email marketers measure a lot of things. Delivery Rate, Click-Thru Rate, Bounce Rate, Churn Rate, Unsubscribe Rate, Conversions, Revenue… any number of org-specific KPIs. And with good reason: success is as much the product of incremental optimizations as it is all-star creative.

But before your customers can appreciate your thoughtful design, smile at your well-targeted messaging, digest your personalized content, click on your perfectly styled CTA, and engage in the many behaviors that add real value to your bottom line, they need to open the email.

This is why marketers also measure Email Open Rate*. Open rate is a gatekeeper metric: the one you need to nail to achieve any of your subsequent goals. A high open rate in no way assures your campaign will be victorious, but it explicitly defines the size of the trophy you can win.

* NOTE: an email is generally considered “opened” only if the images contained in it are downloaded. (More precisely, there is a tracking pixel added to your emails that must be downloaded to track email open rates) A lot of email apps have image blocking, which means your reported open rate is likely to be lower than the number of times that email was really opened.

There are four levers you can pull to influence open rates.

  • Frequency
  • Timing
  • Sender
  • Subject


Lever 1: Frequency

Engagement and frequency are negatively correlated. In plain-speak, that means less is actually more. Beyond a very specific threshold, sending more emails will decrease the rate at which people will actually click on them. Clear enough, but here’s the mathematical trap that so many people fall into:

  1. If I send 1 email a week to 100 people with a 10% CTR, that means 10 people will click.
  2. If I send 2 emails a week to 100 people and the CTR drops to 8%, that means 16 people will click.
  3. Email is cheap to send, and 16 is better than 10.


Yes, but there are additional costs to those extra 6 clicks:

  1. Reduced engagement rates correlate to higher churn, and new subscribers cost time and money to acquire.
  2. That lower CTR represents an erosion in brand value, meaning you will have to work harder to increase engagement in subsequent emails.
  3. It’s really annoying to your audience, who you presumably want to keep getting value from.

The answer is in your data, but you’ll need to keep pushing and testing, because that tipping point can shift quickly, for individuals and even entire segments. You want to stay right on the edge of the edge of that cliff: maximizing overall exposure and engagement without eroding brand equity and risking churn.

The key: Find out that equilibrium where you send as frequently as necessary, to the point where you start to see diminishing returns. Remember, don't be annoying with your emails.

Lever 2: Timing

The time at which you send an email has a big impact on whether it’s opened, but be aware that the optimal timing is a highly-individualized data point. Even within relatively homogenous segments, individuals are likely to have different relationships with their inbox. We also know that inbox position (how close your email is to the top of the list when first seen) has a big impact on open rates. Given the wide variances in personal preference and the degree of customization provided by the email applications today, it’s difficult to combat this “position bias” with any generalized rules or best practices.

Delivery Time Optimization (DTO) can help you overcome this by placing your email at the top of an individual customer’s inbox at the moment they are statistically most likely to engage with it. If an email vendor offers DTO, be excited, but be a savvy shopper. It’s relatively easy to optimize your send time around when an individual or a group is most likely to open an email, but your ultimate goal is farther down the line. People may be more likely to open emails in the morning, but more likely to convert in the evening. Optimizing timing around conversion is the more complex but ultimately more rewarding path to follow.

Lever 3: Sender

The email “From:” line can have as much impact on open-rate as the actual subject. You can make this line anything you like, but it’s not a decision to make lightly. The "From:" line is the foundation of the trust between you and your customer, and it should also set context for the content to come by helping the recipient differentiate between promotional, transactions,and service emails. Ideally the “From:” line and the subject line work together so it is clear to the reader who the message is from and why it is important.

Generally speaking, clarity and specificity are your goals. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need a name, but rather that the “sender” should be specific to the content in the email. Consider A/B testing the “From:” line in addition to subject-line testing. Generally, it’s best to stick with a name and build equity in it… people tend to distrust strangers. Examples:

  • Nordstrom Deals vs. Nordstrom
  • Stephanie at Delta Customer Service vs. Delta Service Desk
  • Taco at Trello vs. Trello
  • J. Crew Men’s Shop vs. J. Crew

Lever 4: Subject Line

When it comes to driving open rate, every decision matters, but the subject line is where the battle is truly fought. You have a handful of of words with which you must explain what this email is about and why your busy, over-stimulated, constantly bombarded, overly skeptical customer should take time to hear you out. There are dozens of tips, hacks, cheats and even templates out there for a writing a compelling subject line. Use them, but be aware that everyone else is too. In this highly public and highly dynamic arena, there’s no such thing as a trade secret or a lasting truth: When it comes to writing engaging subject lines, today’s best practices are tomorrow’s overly-imitated tactics.

Some important factors to consider:


Shorter is generally better. MailChimp studies suggest you keep it under 50 characters (with 28-39 being the sweet spot), which is roughly 6-10 words. Keep in mind that most mobile email apps cut off the subject line at 35 characters. (And we hear this mobile internet thing might be more than just a fad.)


Nothing, even character counts, should get in the way of clearly expressing your idea. Your subject has to set the expectation for what people will see on click*. If dates matter, include them. If abbreviations are wonky, write them out. And remember that you have to do this in roughly 1/3 of a tweet, so do yourself a favor and limit it to one singular and specific idea.

*You gotta deliver on whatever expectations you set… tricking people into a click makes you a dick… and it only works once.

Urgency, Mystery and Interaction

Email marketing is an ephemeral beast. If you can (physically or psychologically) shorten the time users have to respond to a valuable proposition, they will feel more compelled to engage with it. Also, remember you’re trying to engage people, which means you need to activate their brains.

Take inspiration from the kinds of things people engage with:

  • Questions
  • Puzzles
  • Scarcity (oldest and best sales technique in the book)
  • Special Treatment
  • Familiar things in unfamiliar contexts


Anyone can pull the recipient’s name from a database and drop it into the subject line. Computers will do that all day long, but they will generally fail at the main objective of personalization,which is NOT to sound like a computer. Consider localization as an alternative, or better yet, personalize the subject line by referencing content that you know that recipient is statistically more likely to engage with. [See this article on Machine Learning and Email]


Many of the rules and best practices that govern longer-form writing should be completely ignored, others should not. Better writing will generally get better responses. Use verbs, avoid passive voice, watch the jargon. Great style also means having a style, which demands some integrity. Write with a voice and write with an audience in mind. Know your brand and how far you can push it. Stand out for the reasons you want to stand out.. not for its own sake.

Your surroundings

The average email user receives hundreds of emails per week and deletes a majority of them unread. You have to stand out, which means you need to know what your competition and the industry at large is up to. Be careful about falling back on gimmicks, but there’s nothing wrong with being aware of trends and even taking some risks. Even Presidential Candidates, like Barack Obama, had some pretty great results with one word subject lines… just saying.

…and above all else… TEST!

We know what kinds of things people click, but that doesn’t mean we know which specific thing will cause one subject line to get 50% more opens than another that seemingly says the same thing. Do what the pros do and A/B test everything.

I originally wrote this article for Boomtrain.