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Higher Email Open Rates (Top 10 Checklist)

Barry Stamos
Higher Email Open Rates (Top 10 Checklist) Barry Stamos

Need a quick win in 2006? Boost your email open rates!

I have concluded -- after having reviewed more than 500 unique email deliverables in 2005 for clients, agencies and channel partners -- that few marketers understand what it takes to get an email opened.

So here are my top 10 expert recommendations for higher open rates:

1. Use your company or brand name in the "from" line, which tells recipients that you sent the email. From lines help people evaluate which emails to open, which to delete and which to complain about. Our “from address” testing shows that open rates and clickthrough rates increase when the “from” name, “from” address and “subject line” are appropriately branded from your company. Our testing also shows that these practices reduce SPAM complaints.

Also use your company and brand name in your "from" and "reply to" address (see examples, below). A quality email service provider like Responsys, EmailLabs or ExactTarget should give you a choice of how you display your “from” and “reply-to” address. For example:

(BEST) Option 1: West [[email protected]]
(GOOD) Option 2: West [[email protected]]
(WORST) Option 3: [email protected]

2. Take the time to write a great subject line. If you pick a great one, your email open rates can soar. Make it a priority. Too many marketers wait until the last minute to craft their subject lines. You don’t want to be out of luck in today’s competitive marketplaces. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use your company or brand name in subject lines. Adding your company or brand name is good for branding and immediate credibility and often increases unique open rates by five percent or more. For example, replace “Drug Delivery Solution” with “Dow Corning: Drug Delivery Solutions”. The former reads like SPAM. The latter is clear that this email originates from a credible source. Which one would you more likely open?

  • Write a brief subject line (six words or less is ideal) -- Most email clients cut off subject lines beyond 50 characters (including spaces). Shorter is better.

  • Subject lines should contain actionable information that accurately represents the message’s major content. One way to accomplish this is to include the email’s header or title. If your email doesn’t have a title, then include your company, division or brand name in the "subject" line.

  • Break subject lines into sections by using colons and subtitles. For example, instead of “philosophy shower gels on sale until Oct. 10,” use “philosophy: shower gels (sale expires 10/10).”

  • Check CTR statistics from email campaigns or keyword search results on your website before writing a subject line. Use the most popular keywords in your subject line.

  • Never falsify the subject line -- it is illegal. Avoid using “RE” or “FW” in the subject line as you will not be in compliance with the Federal CAN-SPAM Act.

  • Test to see how subject lines are displayed in different email clients before sending. Your subject line may look different in the different AOL versions; plus Hotmail, Outlook and Express.

3. Design a plain text email version for AOL users and other subscribers who can’t view HTML emails. Even if only five percent of your subscribers prefer text, it’s worth the effort. Here are some suggestions for creating text-only emails:

  • Use copious amounts of white space between and around copy blocks. It helps the reader focus.

  • Use a fixed-space typeface such as 10-point Courier or Courier New.

  • Limit yourself to 75 to 100 words. Keep content simple, direct and focused on one main offer in short statements and bulleted text.

  • Limit your line length to 60 characters to prevent wrapping. Use text size 10 to12. Auto-wrap lines at 60 characters per line (recommended for delivery to AOL users). Some email programs will not properly wrap lines. If you use more than 60 characters, the recipient might see = (the equal character) at the end of each line or an =20 for a hard return. Enter hard returns at the end of each line because line-wrapping will not be respected by many email clients. Non-text components, like lines created with the “-“ or “=” symbols, should be restricted to 50 characters just to ensure they don’t wrap unexpectedly. (This rule can be broken in the interest of time by simply letting text lines wrap naturally.)

  • Don’t attempt to create boxes with characters like “-“ and “|”. The box may get broken up and the alignment thrown off. Instead, use these characters to create lines or sections within an email.

  • Use dashes and asterisks as separators for different sections of the message.

  • Each URL should be on its own line with any additional text below. For example:

To learn more about INBOX Marketing, go to:

This will allow your subscriber to clearly distinguish the link from surrounding text, and it will reduce the chances that the URL will be broken into parts when an email client attempts to wrap text.

  • Keep untracked URLs short. If you want to include a long untracked URL, consider creating a shorter "alias" on your web server directing hits to the longer address, and use the alias in your mailing.

Go to page 2 for tips four through 10.

I'm a big fan of ad networks, even the BubbleNick guys. But not every ad network is created equal, and frankly, I couldn't pick any one of them and proclaim it the champion. Regardless of which ad network you work with, remember, there are always choices available to you. Type in "Ad Networks" on any search engine and spend the next three hours becoming familiar with the sheer volume of choices at your fingertips. Whether you are satisfied with your network or are considering a change, it's clear that there is always room for improvement. Perhaps that's the primary difference between a "network" and a "notwork" -- the willingness to improve results for you and your brand with each placement on each campaign.

Disclaimer: I hate bad service. This applies to the dude at the Starbucks counter who insists that I call a large coffee a "Venti Drip," as well as to the ad network I do business with. How much does your ad network focus on "getting" your business versus "servicing" your business? The ratio should be 1 to 10 in favor of service. Advertising via an ad network is a complicated and, for many, overwhelming process. You need to have a committed account team there to help you navigate the territory.

It should be taken for granted that an ad network is going to deliver 100 percent of what it promises. It doesn't get to play in the big pool if it can't hack it in the deep end. Most networks are reliable and accountable. But how are they helping you improve results for your brand? How are they better than the rest where education and project management are concerned? Every network promises reach, targeting, measurability and, yes, even service. If "service" means taking your calls and sending reports on time, find a new network.

Many brand marketers use ad networks more for reach than relevancy. They see this "shotgun blast" approach as cost effective. Some of the biggest and best ad networks out there will gladly relieve you of some of your ad budget and perform against this expectation without helping you understand that the true power behind the network is its ability to target on a mass scale. In my view, that's poor service.

Many of the larger networks do a solid job in the way they track, report and optimize their campaigns. This is great news for brands. While, ultimately, the onus is on the client to determine which metrics need to be measured, it's up to the network to have the technology in place to be able to track, well, everything!

You need to be able to see real-time results against each creative, placement and site in the network. You want to measure impressions, clickthrough and conversion rates against each creative, each placement and each site in the network. Time, geographic, contextual and psychographic-based tracking should also be part of your measurability standards.

Optimization is a mixture of technology -- software configures results and optimizes based on pre-programmed performance data, and the human-driven analysis that involves you and your account rep looking at the data, reviewing the placements and making optimization decisions.

For my money, I would want to know that a woman named Grace, 34, from Green Bay, Wisc., who is a Virgo and likes cats and needlepoint, clicked on my ad for the new BlackBerry Curve at 4:33 P.M., while she was reading the latest dirt on TMZ.com about how Britney refuses to put her PDA away when she is driving. This might be a pie-in-the-sky expectation, but your ad network should be able to keep up with most of this.    
Regardless of how you optimize, make sure you have a network partner that will balance good judgment and great service with cutting edge technology. A good network will be committed to optimization as a practice, not as a sales pitch. The best campaigns are typically those that required the most optimization. I've often said that a good ad network is one that consistently delivers good results, then consistently optimizes to deliver great results. Okay, I just made that up for this article, but you get the point.

How effective can a company be at managing 30,000 website publishers? How often does the network review its sites for target and traffic compliancy? How reliable is the information you have from an ad network when you are making a decision about advertising on a website or a group of websites? Once you make the decision and run the campaign, did the numbers fall in line with the data you used when making your determination to advertise?

The bigger an ad network becomes, the more important it is for them to provide accurate, up-to-date website visitor statistics. While you aren't going to get that level of data from every site in an ad network, it's important to make sure that you aren't burning through impressions on sites that have changed their audience profiles in the span of a few months.

Your ad network needs to be able to certify that the audience profiles in its portfolio of websites have been recently verified for targeting and traffic standards. This affects how heavily you will need to focus on optimization once the campaign is in flight.

We've all heard stories of "ads gone wild" where display ads are shown on objectionable or otherwise inappropriate sites. This is one of many reasons why transparency is important. But, while a particular website might be an appropriate venue to showcase your brand, beware: Not all of the content on that site will match up well with your brand or the creative you are using to market it. Here are some examples:



These kinds of placements are becoming more and more of an issue for ad networks, especially those that have websites that publish user-generated media. Your ad network needs to be able to identify likely problems before they become problems. Sadly, this is a problem solved through humanity rather than technology -- no computer program can make the right judgment call every time.

If your ad network cannot control contextual placement based on the content that will approximate your ad, you become unable to determine whether the site and/or the placement is truly appropriate for your brand. Optimization then becomes more about binary code and less about contextual relevance -- which then makes any advertising moot.

With the amount of content flying back and forth on the web, even humans can't keep up. Still, your ad network needs to be proactive in addressing these kinds of problems up front. While they are a part of most ad network buys, don't let these kinds of placements to be deemed "part of the deal."

Does anyone really buy from networks that aren't transparent anymore? You bet they do. The real question is why. With 20-plus large-scale networks, tens of thousands of publishers and at least a dozen marketing methodologies to choose from, the landscape is confusing enough. Navigating it blindly is just plain foolish, especially for those brand marketers who are new to the ad network game.

Lack of disclosure takes the control out of your hands and puts it into the hands of the ad network, which in some cases is more software than anything else. I've been playing the advertising game long enough to know that the more we trust software to make certain marketing decisions, the more disconnected from the consumer we become.

This is a hot debate in the ad network industry. Some networks will tell you that you will pay a premium for transparency. Pay it. At least with transparency, you know what you are getting in the deal. Some ad networks will also tell you that quality and disclosure are not mutually exclusive. That's correct, but neither are disclosure and lack of quality. You can reach your targeted audience very effectively with ad networks that disclose their list of sites. It's irresponsible of networks to claim otherwise.

King of the hill
Foursquare is one social media platform that might seem trivial on the surface. But for businesses, it can be a highly effective, multi-functional tool. Every day, as commuters in San Francisco's SOMA district saunter sleepily to work, hundreds will stop at the Blue Bottle Café, just off Fifth Street. While they wait in line for freshly brewed espresso made from organic and pesticide-free, shade-grown coffee beans, most customers will pull out their mobile phone to check in on Foursquare:

Why do they do this every morning? Because Foursquare is as addictive as the coffee Blue Bottle serves.

Foursquare is fundamentally the grown-up version of King of the Hill -- whoever can stay on top of the hill the longest without getting shoved off by another contender wins. Multiple check-ins enable a customer to become the "mayor" of a location. Many businesses offer mayors discounts on services, or even discounts to users who happened to check in. In this sense, Foursquare has become the next evolution of the frequent flyer card, allowing for endless combinations of reward programs: 10 percent off for mayors, buy-one-get-one-free with proof of check-in, and so on. For example, this summer, Starbucks offered mayors at all of its U.S. stores $1 off Frappucinos.

Foursquare users are your business' loyalists. They want to show off how much they love their neighborhood hangouts. Each time a user becomes the mayor of a location on Foursquare and the activity is posted to that person's Facebook wall, the user is essentially shouting from the mountaintop to come check out that business. That person is saying, "I frequent this brand because their services are valuable to me."

The competition between customers vying for mayoral status only drives this social activity further -- and as a business, you haven't spent a dime. Checking in becomes a compulsive experience ("I must check in to every store on my Saturday morning errand run!"). This is all related to positive reinforcement -- the reason why Pavlov's dog salivated upon the ringing of a bell. It's the reason why we think our mobile phones are buzzing with phantom texts or emails, even when they aren't. Like any other organism, we tend to repeat particular behaviors once we are given positive stimuli as a consequence of those behaviors. The incentives offered by a business through Foursquare, or just the sheer urge to become mayor of their favorite local shops, fuels customers' need to check in regularly.

So what if you are a new business or trying to build awareness of your new storefront? Much like Yelp (although with a much more fluid interface), users will often leave short tips or commentary on your services. These endorsements not only display on your company's Foursquare profile, but they are also served up geo-contextually as Foursquare users search for tips in their area. All of this compulsive behavior brings you more customers and encourages the ones you already have to stay loyal.

If free advertising and loyalty programs are not enough incentive for you to engage your customers through Foursquare, then perhaps the newly launched business tools featuring free metrics will get you on board.

Image source: Foursquare

Once business owners claim their location, they can begin viewing real-time reports of total check-ins, check-ins per day, unique visitors, plus Twitter and Facebook activity. The capability to track more stats is on the way (very likely via a subscription-based model). Engaging new and regular customers with Foursquare should be a no-brainer for any small business.

If you don't speak up for your brand, then who will?
One aspect of social media that scares off many businesses is the possibility of negative criticism or slander. Small businesses should be more wary of missing out on the conversation around their brands than they are of having to regulate nasty comments. Instead of living in fear of negativity, why not utilize your Facebook channel as a sounding board for your customers? If the tone of your social communication is more conversational than mechanical, your customers will feel more open in sharing their positive experiences and growing your brand's culture.

One of my favorite neighborhood lunch spots is Speciality's. I check its Facebook page regularly, as it will often post trivia or polls and invite customers to participate. If I can reply with my correct answer before the 30-plus other customers do, I could win a free cookie or sandwich. Frequent events like these will get your fans to refresh your page religiously in hopes of getting a free lunch.

Besides offering promotions, Facebook enables a business and its customers to share personal, emotional stories, which put an honest, human face on a platform that can otherwise be cold and impersonal. Specialty's fans will often beg for their favorite menu items:

Recently, Speciality's felt close enough to its 4,000 fans to reach out to raise funds for one of its employees who had shattered vertebrae in her neck and was facing large hospital bills:

Such transactions are just not possible with traditional advertising media. Down-to-earth, conversational social content can only serve to enhance customer perception of your brand. Consumers are going to talk about your business, whether you are present on social media or not. It is vital to a brand to be able to guide the conversation and offer counterpoints to dissension. If you don't speak up for your brand, then who will?

Be where your customers are
There are some business models that rely on social media exclusively for offline customer traffic, such as the nomadic food cart phenomenon in metropolitan areas. Consider the cupcake truck Cupkates, operated by Bay Area resident and ex-Dwell magazine editor Kate McEachern.

As her staff drives the mobile sweet dispensary around the Bay Area, Cupkates will post its location to its 3,000 Twitter followers:

Missives like these conjure images of the Pied Piper, leading a herd of sugar frosting-enabled zombies into tooth-decaying oblivion. Using Twitter, Cupkates is able to circumnavigate the lack of a storefront by keeping loyalists constantly aware of its current location and new menu items. Updates are cheerful, yet to the point, and are often synced with the company's Facebook profile, where another 4,000 wait with bated breath.

Cupkates also uses Twitter to answer customer questions and invite suggestions for new confectionary, further enhancing its customer relationships -- rather than simply issuing updates composed of textspeak ("Haz cupcakes 4 u. BRB.") and inane observations not related to its business. As consumer attention spans shrink, correct utilization of microblogging services like Twitter must be efficient, while maintaining a helpful, well-branded conversation.

Showing off
If a business offers custom products, which expand well beyond the bounds of the typical catalog display adopted by most ecommerce websites, then social media offers a chance to show off unique offerings, while allowing potential customers to visualize new products in their hands.

Manifesto Bicycles in Oakland is a tiny shop on 40th Avenue, where a compact showroom offers a rainbow of disembodied bike parts, from which customers can pick and choose to create their dream ride. Shop owners Sam Cunningham and MacKay Gibbs take pride in their custom builds with blue-collar price tags, and they upload nearly every custom bike they produce to the Manifesto Bicycles Flickr gallery.

Customers can browse nearly 800 unique bike configurations, all accompanied by their owners, smiling with contentment. A traditional ad campaign with models and testimonial copywriting to match this implementation would be well past the typical small-business budget.

With Flickr, past and soon-to-be customers are encouraged to revel in Manifesto's creations. Visitors can express admiration, and soon-to-be customers can be inspired by the list of gear combinations, before they even set foot in the brick-and-mortar store. These image galleries have had an astounding impact on Manifesto's bottom line, "A third of our business comes from folks browsing our Flickr gallery," Gibbs says.

Getting lost in a sea of endless content might be daunting at first to small businesses that are hesitant to jump in the fray of social media. But a free tool that lets you make connections with customers and distribute your content quickly is hardly a fruitless exercise. Social media marketing is a logical extension of the oldest form of advertising -- word of mouth. Utilizing these free social media tools in a contextually relevant and insightful manner can shape the conversation your customers are already having about your services.

Skip Allums is an interaction designer at Isobar North America in San Francisco.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


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