October 12, 2011

14 ways to improve your email open rate

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Your nonprofit’s messages are important. Here’s how to make sure they’re seen

Target audience: Nonprofits, NGOs, cause organizations, social enterprises, businesses, brands, marketing professionals.

Guest post by Brett Meyer
Communications Director, NTEN

While you’ve probably worked hard to build a subscriber list for your organization, getting those e-mail addresses is only half the battle. You may be sending out important messages, but your recipients may not be reading. At NTEN we’re on pace to deliver more than 1 million messages in 2011, and we’ve managed to increase our absolute open rate year over year. Based on our experience achieving that growth, here are 14 ways you too can boost your open rate.

1Keep 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’ve added within the prior month were up to 25% more likely to open the first message.

2Deliver content people want to read. Once you’ve captured somebody’s attention, it’s yours to lose. 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.

3Tell 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, Socialbrite.” This sort of format will also help you introduce new staff members to the community as they begin to send out messages.

4Think about your subject line. Subject lines have become even more important as web mail and smartphones have become ubiquitous: The preview pane is disappearing. In general, we try to keep them factual and descriptive of the content of the message. 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.

5Test, 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. People are most likely to look at a message when it pops up on their screen with little competition. We try to avoid 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. The important thing for you is to test and test some more to find out what’s best for your list. If you use Gmail, Boomerang lets you specify the time of day your email is sent.

7Segment 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). 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.

“We believe e-mail should come from a person, not an organization.”

8Vary 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 two 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.

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.

10Don’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.

11Avoid 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.

12Develop a good email template. On the more technical side, sloppy HTML code can certainly trigger spam filters, but a nice, clean, easy-to-read 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.

13Include 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 OK 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.

14Develop 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.

2 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 five 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. It’s more important to have an active, engaged list than a big list that never does anything.

Try some predictive analytics. 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, 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.

How about you? What have you done to try to boost your open rates? Has it worked?

Brett Meyer is the communications director at NTEN. Follow him on Twitter at @brett_meyer. This post originally appeared at greater length on the NTEN blog. It is condensed and republished with permission.
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