The top drivers of open rates are your Subject line, offer and ongoing relevance. Before we talk about each of these, let's first talk about what an unreliable metric open rates are.
Open rates are very hard to track, because most email clients (Outlook 2003, AOL, MSN.Hotmail, Yahoo!, and Gmail) suppress images by default. This is the functionality that protects you, the reader, from seeing spam images or unintentionally launching viruses. While a good thing for consumers, image suppression turns most marketing emails into a jumble of broken .gifs and mis-aligned tables. And, it makes it very hard to track open rates accurately. You can use open rates as a proxy for readership if you track the variances. So don't bet your boss around a specific number, bet her that you can keep open rates steady. A sudden drop in open rates could indicate deliverability problems.
So how to optimize? Think of open rates as one aspect of your response rate. Your subject line is the most visible and easily managed opportunity for driving higher open rates. Be specific, keep it short, use an active tone and avoid "spammy" words, all caps and punctuation. Test your creative in various email clients to be sure it passes the spam filters. Think magazine headlines. So, "Three Ways to Get Your Garden in Bloom" is better than "Gardening this Spring." And, "Grow the Business with Advanced Software Tools" is stronger than "New product release."
Always test subject lines. Send time on them, as they are the key to letting the rest of your email do its magic. Come up with two, test them with a subset of your file and then use the winner to optimize response for the rest of the list.
Perhaps it goes without saying that your offer is key to response. Be sure to target your offer and messages to the audience–segment by status (prospect or customer), place in your product cycle (new, renewing, one product, five products) and demographics important to your business like geography or job title.
Lastly, the most important driver of open rates-and all response-is trust. Do what you say you will, and send your subscribers email that is interesting to them. Over time, they will value your email messages more than others, and repeatedly open, read and respond to them. Abuse the permission grants you've been given or send untargeted, irrelevant offers, and subscribers will quickly tune you out.
-Stephanie Miller, Vice President of Strategic Services, Return Path Inc.
The best way to increase open rates is to conduct testing using variations of your message. Most people will find it easiest to conduct simple A/B split tests with only one variable being modified between groups. That means you send part of your list one message, and then make a small change and send to the rest of your list. Then you track the differences in open rates to see if one way works better.
The three variables to play with when optimizing an email campaign for a higher open rate are the subject line, "from" name, and "from" email address.
Some variations to test:
- Personalize the subject line (ex. "Bob, is your portfolio in good hands?")
- Try different subject line messages
- Test aggressive sales copy against more passive copy
- Sending from a real person versus company name (ex. Maureen Smith vs. XYZ Company Inc.)
- Try an email address in the "from" name and "from" address
The possibilities are endless. Keep in mind that many email clients will truncate the subject line when viewed in the inbox, so the first few words of your subject are very important. Also, some spam filters are strict on words that appear in the subject line, so avoid words often found in spam such as "free" or "credit."
Keep in mind that each test may only yield a small improvement. After several iterations, however, these small improvements will add up to a significantly higher open rate.
–Luc Vezina, Director of Product Management, GOT Corporation.