The job of a marketer isn’t easy.
You need to create great content, promote it, and then convert your hard-earned traffic into email subscribers.
It can’t be ignored because email is 45 times more effective than social media in customer acquisition.
But your work doesn’t stop there either. You need to cultivate a relationship with your subscribers if you want them to buy from you.
To do that, you need your subscribers to not just tolerate your emails but actually to get excited about the next email you send them.
The average email open rate depends on the industry, but typically it’s 21.33%. That’s not terrible, but it certainly isn’t good.
Would you be happy if only one out of four to six people who asked for emails from you actually opened them? And that’s just opening, not clicking through or replying.
We hope you said you wouldn’t be happy with the 21.33% open rate. Indeed, you can do much better if you avoid the mistakes most other businesses make.
If the average business has an ROI of 3,800% from email marketing with those kinds of open rates, imagine what you could do if 50-60% of your list opened and interacted with your emails.
In this post, we’ll show you how to achieve those results.
Set the stage: After the signup
You’ve convinced a reader to sign up for your email list—great.
To do so, you had to offer them something. Whether it’s just regular content updates or a free lead magnet, there’s something that your new subscriber wants.
Nowadays, there is no excuse not to deliver any lead magnet within minutes of receiving a new subscription. Every major email marketing platform has some autoresponder you can use to deliver your offering automatically.
This is simple but crucial. People have short memories.
For a loyal reader who just got around to subscribing, it’s not such a big deal. But when it comes to most subscribers, who don’t know you very well, it can be the difference between starting a great relationship and being put in the spam box.
Think about the time when you signed up for a free bonus from someone you didn’t know very well. If they immediately sent your freebie to your email box, you knew who sent it and why you received it—after all, you asked for it.
But if it’s sent to you a day or even a few hours later, you suddenly think: “Who on earth are they again?”
The average person is very protective of their inbox, as they should be. So when they get an email from someone they don’t know, they are cautious. Sure, some don’t mind, but some get annoyed, weirded, or angry.
So, deliver on whatever you promised right away. Simple.
But that brings us to the next important thing you need to do right after your website visitors sign up — while you are still fresh in their minds: set clear expectations.
The first follow-up email gets the highest open rate, often 40% or higher. This is way higher than the overall average open rate. What you say in this email can either help you sustain high open rates in future emails or scare off subscribers.
So, what should you say? It depends on how your visitors sign up.
If they signed up for an offer that said, Send me lessons, it’s pretty safe to assume they know who you are and expect occasional emails from you.
In this case, it’s less about what you will be sending (lessons and updates) and who you are and more about the frequency of your communication.
However, if your new subscribers sign up because they want a free report or a course, they may not realize that they just joined your mailing list.
Brian Casel offers a course for freelancers who want to productize their services. When you opt-in for this email course, you receive an email that begins like this:
Brian does a few important things here:
- introduces himself so you won’t forget him
- includes a headshot
- introduces his product without being overly pushy
- establishes expectations by saying this is the first in a series of email lessons
Most importantly, he knows that almost all of his new subscribers will read this because it’s at the very top of the first email he sends. Then, he delivers what he promised.
We showed you the opt-in for Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks above. If you use a one-time download as a lead magnet, we want to highlight something he does that you should also think about doing.
At the bottom of every email, he includes the following blurb under the P.S.:
This is a simple reminder of what you signed up for.
Often, a new subscriber will download your lead magnet, enjoy it, but forget who you are within a day or so. Then they get an email from you a few days later and get angry when they feel they don’t know who you are. This leads to unsubscribes, being marked as spam, and the occasional I NEVER SIGNED UP FOR THIS! email reply.
Including this short snippet at the bottom of an email will eliminate almost all those complaints and calm down anyone angry.
Let’s review the steps of crafting emails your subscribers will enjoy receiving.
Step 1: Start with an enticing subject line
Once you’ve laid the groundwork, it’s time to start working on crafting future emails that your subscribers can’t help but open.
It always starts with writing a great subject line.
The subject line should be written a lot like the headline of a blog post, although you have a little more freedom with it.
Subject line tactic #1: Use numbers
If you’ve followed us on either the Quick Sprout blog or the NeilPatel.com blog for some time, you’d know we love numbers in headlines. We especially love writing list posts.
Numbers are specific, easy to read, and intriguing. Even The New Yorker recognizes the power of numbers:
“Whenever we’re scanning the environment for nothing in particular, our visual system is arrested by the things that don’t fit—features that suddenly change or somehow stand out from the background. A headline that is graphically salient in some way has a greater chance of capturing our eye, and in an environment where dozens of headlines and stories vie for attention, numerals break up the visual field.”
Adding numbers to subject lines is one of the most effective ways to increase your open rate:
Subject line tactic #2: Induce curiosity
Curiosity is powerful. When we want to know the answer to something, it gnaws away at us until we find it.
Writing a headline that induces curiosity takes practice, but it works well when done right.
The key is to be specific about an event or result but be vague about what led to it. Naturally, your readers will want to know how you produced that intriguing event or result.
For example, if we sent an email with the subject line This one tactic led to 60,000 visitors in two months on a new blog…, you’re going to open the email to find out what This one tactic was.
It’s the exact same principle behind all those one weird trick ads:
Subject line tactic #3: Keep it short
Informz found that shorter subject lines generally beat longer headlines. This doesn’t mean that short subject lines are always better than long ones—they aren’t. But in general, short ones are better because:
- The whole subject line can be read (without being cut off)
- Short subject lines typically induce more curiosity
- They force you to be clear (readers won’t open ambiguous headlines)
Subject line tactic #4: Test different subject lines
Everyone should test different subject lines, even the President of the United States…oh wait, he did.
Leading up to the last election, the Obama campaign team split-tested several headlines to see how much money they would raise. The results were incredible. The top result was projected to raise $2,540,866, while the bottom result would have raised only $403,603 — A 629% difference.
One way to split-test subject lines is to send emails with different subject lines to small groups of your list and then send the winning subject to your full list.
Alternatively, many email marketing providers have a split testing function built in.
If you use Aweber, go to create a broadcast like you normally would — In the Messages > Broadcasts” menu option), but click “Create a Split Test below the big green button.
You can then choose how many variations you’d like to create.
Then you can choose the percentage of your list you’d like to send each variation. It must add up to 100%, so an even split is usually best:
Once you save the split test, return to your broadcast messages page. You’ll now see two (or however many variations you chose) drafts. Then you must edit each email individually with your subject lines and message.
Step 2: It’s all about value
Consider why new subscribers open that first email: it’s to get something.
At this point, you’re not a friend. You’re not even an acquaintance.
But you have something they want, whether it’s knowledge or a tool.
It’s not wrong in all cases to pitch your services right away, or at least say that they are available, but in many cases, it is.
In general, people tolerate pitches to get value from you.
If you pitch too soon, frequently, or hard, you’ll scare away a potentially good prospect.
Think of every new subscriber like a new bank account. Every time you add value to their lives, you make a deposit, but you withdraw every time you pitch them or don’t deliver on your offer. Take out too much, and the account will get closed.
Trust takes time: You have to earn trust by giving away value, time after time. Once subscribers realize that you’re not just trying to make a quick buck off them and that your work is actually making a difference in their lives, they will start to trust you.
Glen Allsopp, owner of DETAILED, runs a hugely popular blog on viral marketing. He is known for creating epic guides and providing new insights within his niche that no one else has discovered yet. In other words: he provides tons of value.
When his subscribers get an email from him, they know it’s going to be something that improves their marketing results. That’s the secret behind his outrageous open rates:
Step 3: Make it personal
Think about how you make a new friend.
You learn more and more about the person over time, as they learn about you until you become better friends.
You bond over similarities and common interests.
Obviously, you and your subscribers have a shared interest in your particular niche, but at the beginning, you don’t have anything else beyond that. You’re just a name behind some text.
Here is how to make friends with your subscribers.
Share interesting personal stories
One of the best ways for someone to get to know you and get a glimpse of your life is for you to share personal stories with them. You can do this in your blog posts, but email is another great time to do it. After all, friends don’t write us a blog post when they want to tell us a story. They send us an email.
Bryan Harris often begins his emails with entertaining short stories. But he always finds a way to tie them back to his point. So, not only do you learn a little bit more about him every email, but you also get the value you’re looking for.
Talk to one person—add personality
No one wants to be talked to in a corporate tone. You should write emails just like you write blog posts. Use the words you and I, and don’t be afraid to include questions and some occasional slang.
When you write your email, pretend you’re writing the email to one specific person—a friend. If you have trouble doing this, go to Gmail, start a new message, and write your email there. Then, copy the message back to Aweber or whichever email service you’re using.
If you try to rush, you’ll freak people out
We think everyone’s guilty of this at one point or another in our lives, although some more than others. You meet someone, and they tell you their life story right away. It’s like when a person you’re dating tells you they love you on the first date (classic Ted Mosby).
Relationships take time to develop. You can share stories and personal details one step at a time regarding your email list. When someone first subscribes, they might like to know who you are and one cool fact about you, but they don’t want your life story.
Step 4: Create cliffhangers
We already talked about the power of curiosity.
One tactic you can use to take advantage of it is cliffhangers. If you’ve ever watched a TV show, you know what a cliffhanger is.
It’s when something unexpected happens right at the end, leaving you dying to discover what happens next. If you want to find out, you must watch the next episode.
TV shows have been using cliffhangers with great success for quite some time, but marketers are still playing catch-up.
Think of every email you send as an episode that leads to the next. You should always build upon each email you send.
Near the end of each email, you will reveal some result that you or someone you know achieved, e.g., getting a post to go viral and attracting over 50,000 views.
Say that you’ll tell them exactly how you achieved that result in your next email. BOOM — Instant cliffhanger.
You can create a cliffhanger in a few different ways.
The first is to continue a topic your subscribers are already interested in. For example, here’s the end of another email from Bryan Harris. Instead of overloading the reader with too much information in this single email, he tells them he’ll send over the next part tomorrow.
Here’s how you create a traditional cliffhanger courtesy of Nathan Barry. See how he ends it off? He reveals that he knows a pricing strategy to triple revenue but won’t share it until the next email. I’m hooked.
Finally, you can be even more subtle if you’d like. Ramit Sethi is the master at slipping in little teasers throughout his emails or at the end in a P.S. He asks three questions that most of his readers will want to know the answers to, which will then prompt them to open next week’s email.
Step 5: Email shouldn’t be one-sided
Do you value the opinion of your subscribers?
We really hope you answered yes. What’s the point of all your work to improve their lives if you don’t?
We think most people answer yes to that question, which is great. So why is it that most email lists feel like one-sided conversations?
We talk, you listen.
That’s the wrong way to approach it.
So, what’s the solution? Get your readers involved.
Many marketers know this already but attempt to get subscribers involved in all the wrong ways.
Similarly, many okay but not great teachers do the same thing. They ask their students questions but do it in a way that doesn’t entice anyone to answer. *Cue awkward silence until the teacher singles someone out.*
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Think about why people don’t answer:
- They’re afraid to be wrong
- The answer is obvious
- They don’t care about the question
- They feel insignificant (just let someone else answer)
Let’s deal with these one by one.
Reason #1: They’re afraid to be wrong
You are the expert in your niche. Your subscribers don’t want to look dumb in front of you if they answer a question wrong.
Here’s what you can do about this.
The first thing you can do is to let them answer anonymously. If you’re collecting data, send them a link to a Google Forms sheet, and give them the option to leave off their name. Make this a clear option in the email.
The second thing you can do is share your answer when you were asked the question the first time (if you were wrong). Challenge them: Say that almost no one gets it right the first time (you didn’t), but invite them to take a guess.
The third is to give them an alternative. Many are intimidated by having to reply directly to you. Instead, do what Ramit does: leave them the option to comment on your site.
Reason #2: The answer is obvious
We ask many questions in our blog posts, mainly because the answers are obvious. You know we don’t need you to reply to those questions. Sometimes though, marketers will ask ridiculously simple questions in their emails to try to encourage engagement, but subscribers don’t take those questions seriously.
The lesson from this is that you can’t trick people into engagement. Only ask questions that serve a purpose.
Reason #3: They don’t care about the question
This one’s easy, and you probably don’t need to worry much about it. Occasionally, some marketers try to ask questions about unrelated topics that will be ignored for the most part. Instead, keep the questions to your niche. It’s as simple as that.
Reason #4: They feel insignificant (“just let someone else answer”)
This is by far the trickiest hurdle to overcome, especially when you have a big list. You’re trying to make someone feel special even though they are just one of thousands (much worse than a classroom).
One technique to overcome this problem is targeting a specific portion of your readers. Instead of asking:
“What tactics have you tried to increase your conversion rate?”
“I know not everyone has a huge site, but if you own a site with 20,000 or more visitors per month, what have you tried so far to increase your conversion rate?”
Sometimes it’s better to exclude a part of your list (they won’t mind as long as it’s not all the time) to make another part feel more special.
Another technique you can use to make your subscribers feel special is one we saw Carol Tice use. You ask for answers or feedback to feature them in a future email or blog post.
Finally, never make your readers feel like they are sending their responses into a black hole. We’ve seen a lot of marketers improve in this area lately. When they ask a question at the end of an email, they make sure to point out that they respond to all emails or, at the very least, read them.
Respond to as many as you can. Even though it may be time-consuming, it’s the best way to build relationships with your readers and gain true fans.
Step 6: Bigger isn’t better
This is a very general rule and can be broken.
Some marketers write very lengthy emails, even with 1,000+ words sometimes, and do very well with them.
However, if you’re going to write that much, you’d better have something really important to say.
If your subscribers read through all of that lengthy email and get nothing out of it, they aren’t going to do it again.
Another thing to consider is that if you send email updates more than once a week, most subscribers won’t have the time to read multiple lengthy emails unless they love you.
Finally, it takes a long time to write good long emails. Most marketers that do so regularly are strong copywriters as well.
This is why you should stick to a short, clear email unless you have a good reason.
Informz found that shorter emails get the highest opens and click-through rates. They also found that emails with more links have higher click rates. With less content, every link you include will stand out more.
Step 7: Function over form (make it readable)
If there was a way to measure the bounce rates of emails easily, we think many marketers would find the data shocking.
If you don’t make your email quickly loadable and highly readable, your subscribers will delete it and move on to the next one.
Tip 1: Go light on images and fancy formatting
We all know that images are important in blog posts. They break up text, reinforce points, and make your content look better.
And while there are similarities between emails and blog posts, this is not one of them. Images and formatting should be kept to a minimum in your emails. OCTOPUS found that the more images were in an email, the lower the click-through rate was.
One problem is that they take longer to load on most mobile connections. This is a big deal considering that 44.7% of email is opened on mobile devices.
Another concern is that they distract readers from your text and links. If you do include images, make them complement your content, not compete with it.
Tip 2: Format for all devices
As we said, almost half of the emails are opened on mobile devices. That means that optimizing your emails for mobile is even more important than optimizing your blog posts for mobile.
Here are some best practices:
- Keep the line length short: most phones have a maximum width of 300-500 pixels.
- Keep pictures to a minimum: they can show up wrong, bloat the file size, and cause the email to get flagged as spam.
- Use dark text on a white background: light text is often more difficult to read on mobile devices.
- Minimize HTML: Even common tags like paragraph tags aren’t recognized by all mobile email apps.
Tip 3: Make links obvious and easy to click
Always keep in mind the point of your email. For most emails, the point will be to get your readers to click through to a page on your website. You need to make it clear.
Additionally, links can be difficult to click on small mobile screens, so the more they stand out, the better your click-through rate will be.
Here are some of the things you can do to maximize your click-through rate:
- Use a bigger font for links
- Put links on a separate line
- Bold links
- Put multiple links to the same post with different anchor text
You don’t need to do all of these simultaneously to get a link to stand out.
You’ll notice we use the same template for most emails. You can see that one link is on its own line, and we include three links to the same post.
Step 8: Send consistently and deliver on your claims
Right within your first email, you should indicate how often your new subscribers will get your emails.
Regardless of that, however, you want to send your emails consistently, or else your readers will forget about you over time, and your list will go stale. Express Pigeon found that sending four emails per month, as opposed to one, significantly increases your average open rate.
So, now you’ve got your readers regularly expecting your emails. Thanks to your solid subject line, they’re opening them and enjoying the content.
Now you must take care of one last piece of the puzzle: what happens after your readers click the link?
If you link them to a disguised sales page or a weak blog post, they will feel like you took advantage of them, and you will lose their trust.
On the other hand, if you send them to a post or page that fulfills your promise, you will gain their trust.
Brian Dean gets away with sending an email only about once a month to his subscribers simply because every time they click through, he blows them away with an epic post.
It’s better to be honest in describing what you’re linking to and have a lower click-through rate than to be deceptive to get more clicks. The short-term greed will lead to long-term declines in engagement and list size.
Email marketing is the most effective type of marketing there is by a wide margin. It’s not going away anytime soon.
When you’re attempting to apply these eight steps to your future emails, remember that they are guidelines, not rules.
Consider the underlying concepts discussed in each section to see which parts apply to your emails and when they should be used.
If you read this post carefully (maybe even re-read it a few times if you like it), you’ll have a deeper understanding of these principles. At first, they will help a bit. But over time, as you gain experience, there’s no reason you can’t achieve consistent 50+% open rates and record profits.
What’s your biggest takeaway from this post on how to increase your email open rate? We’re genuinely curious and will always reply to every comment below.