David Kirkpatrick

Email Marketing: Factors that influence open rate

December 14th, 2012

Most email marketing campaigns (but not all) focus on three goals:

  • Getting the recipient to open the email
  • Taking the next step by following the call-to-action in the email
  • Clicking through to the final destination, which is often a specific landing page on the website with an action to be taken, such as filling out a registration form

The key performance indicators for email marketing are often open rate and clickthrough rate, and then that final conversion on the website, which can take a number of different forms. A consumer marketing email effort might seek out an immediate purchase, where as a B2B campaign might look for additional information on the email subscriber to more fully populate a database record.

Of course, the key to any email marketing program is getting the recipient to take that first action – opening the email. Without an open, there can be no clickthrough and certainly no final conversion on the website.

With that in mind, improving email open rates should be a priority for email marketers. Based on tweets as a very loose metric, MarketingSherpa Blog posts like “Infographic: Email open rates by time of day,” published at the end of October, and “Email Personalization: 137% increase in open rate from personal note approach,” from a couple of weeks ago, show email open rate is a popular topic with our audience.

To offer our blog readers more on email open rates, I had the chance to speak with Justin Gray, CEO of LeadMD and Software Advice Advisory Board Member

To open our conversation, he provided a number of anecdotal factors that influence email open rates.

I know this list is long, but it serves to show just how many elements can affect your open rate, as well as hopefully provide some ideas on where to test or look for improvements:

  • Recency to online interaction
  • Recognition of the sender
  • Subject lines still play a major role in open rate
  • Urgency
  • The “look” of the email
  • Word count
  • Emails that are passed on through forwarding (FW:) open at higher rates
  • Subject/Body agreement: you may have a catchy subject line, and your customer may open the email; however, if nothing in the body supports your subject line, then it’s trash
  • Time of day
  • Email works surprisingly well for opens while being consumed in downtime, such as evenings and weekends
  • The 8 a.m. email rush no longer works
  • Sending in early afternoon works pretty well – especially on the West Coast as that’s when people start to fall into their day


Recency, recognition and subject line

Justin identifies three factors of particular importance. He says, “Recency, recognition and subject line – I would all rate as paramount. When we send an email that capitalizes on recent online or event activity, has clear benefit to the user, and comes from a source that they know – the email gets opened.”

Justin adds, “When we talk about things that are interesting to someone, they listen.”

And, email recipients who listen are opening the email they receive. One way to offer content that your audience will find interesting is by defining segments and personas for targeted messaging.

A way to segment the database is through a persona exercise, according to Justin. He says a key element to this process is not going into the exercise thinking that you already understand your target audience.

Justin mentions one client who insisted their customers did not buy based on personalities.

“We went around the decision maker and started a guerrilla persona process,” he explains. “We interviewed sales reps in the organization and asked them not about why people bought, but instead what the people were like that they sold to, and others involved in the sale.”

He also emphasizes that this “guerilla process” is not representative of a full persona exercise.

For that he says, “You must interview current customers, employees and executives. Then, form models and test them for months to hone in on a good persona. (The guerilla process) was conducted over 30 days. We simply took what we knew about the solutions, listened to Sales about how their buyers behaved, and formed some rough personas.”

Justin continues, “We then tailored subject lines and email frequency to those personas. We A/B tested the next email that the client sent. Our subject performed 14% better than theirs. We had been involved in the account for less than 60 days at the time. It’s not about the buyer; it’s about how well we understand their needs.”


A little lagniappe …

Lagniappe is the idea of getting a little extra in a transaction. In the holiday spirit, although this blog post is focused on email open rates, here’s a little extra in the form of an email marketing test on a landing page that increased registration form completion.

This graphic includes a small thumbnail image of the email that created the clickthroughs to the two landing page treatments. You can see how the email body and the landing pages had continuity in general design elements and “look.”


As you can see, the key difference in the two landing page treatments is that one page highlights (white text on a blue background) the report being offered for download in exchange for the completed registration, where the other page highlights the form rather than the report incentive.

The landing page with the registration form highlighted outperformed the page with the incentive highlighted by a little more than 43%. The sample size was small, but the design change provided a result that can be used for future testing ideas.


Related Resources:

Complimentary $97 Special Report for Sharing Your Email Insights

5 Email Marketing Lessons From The Obama Campaign (via Kissmetrics)

Email Marketing: Six-email welcome increases revenue 13%, open rate 66%

A/B Testing: Working with a very small sample size is difficult, but not impossible

Value Prop Testing: 17% increase in open rate from a subject line test

Reader Mail: Understanding differences in clickthrough rates and open rates

David Kirkpatrick

About David Kirkpatrick

David is a reporter for MarketingSherpa and has over twenty years of experience in business journalism, marketing and corporate communications. His published work includes newspaper, magazine and online journalism; website content; full-length ghosted nonfiction; marketing content; and short fiction. He served as producer for the business research horizontal at the original Office.com, regularly reporting on the world of marketing; covered a beat for D/FW TechBiz, a member of the American City Business Journals family; and he provided daily reporting for multiple LocalBusiness.com cities. David’s other media and corporate clients include: USA Today, Oxford Intelligence, GMAC, AOL, Business Development Outlook and C-Level Media, among many others.

Categories: Email Marketing Tags: , , ,

  1. Stuart Wooster
    January 2nd, 2013 at 09:02 | #1

    Just goes to show how design has such a large impact when a simple change of the opt-in box shows such an increase.

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