How to Raise Your E-Newsletter Open Rate [Results from Our Experiment]


Trying to improve the open rates for your email newsletters?

You can try changing up your content, your format, your subject lines, your frequency, and even who the newsletter comes from.  Or, you can change who receives your newsletter.

We tried two of these tactics in the last six months with our weekly email newsletter here at Nonprofit Marketing Guide, and we’d like to share the results with you.

Way back in 2014, we saw our weekly email newsletter open rates drop from 18-20% to more like 16-18%.

As we moved into 2015, the open rates continued to drop, until they reached a low of just 11% in early September 2015.

Our newsletter is essentially a business-to-business newsletter (we are a consulting/training company sending the e-newsletter primarily to people who subscribe because of their jobs.) The typical open rates for that kind of newsletter are in the 20-25% range. So while I was OK with the 18-20% in mid-2014, this plummet to 11% by the end of 2015 was definitely not OK.

First, we changed the content.

In September 2015, we moved to a new “5 Things to Know This Week” format, with a quick headline, one sentence of info, and a link. That’s followed by a few other sections that are also very short. Overall, the newsletter covers more topics, but in a much faster to read (and write!), skimmable format.  At the same time, we started experimenting with shorter subject lines, often just two or three words.

From mid-September to mid-December, we raised the open rate to an average of 17% — a great improvement over 11%.

Then we started using longer subject lines — more along the lines of 7-8 words — from mid-December through the end of January. The open rate slipped to about 15%.

Then we cut the list.

In December, I decided to take a closer look at who was opening our newsletters. I found that in any given month, only about 1/3 of our list opened any one of the weekly newsletters during that period.  In other words, you only had to open one of the four newsletters that month for me to consider you “engaged” with the newsletter. That meant 2/3 of our list was not engaged!

Those kinds of numbers will kill your open rates. So I hatched a plan:  I reviewed the results of about 30 emails, including newsletters and promotional emails that went out in a 10-week period. If a person hadn’t opened or clicked on ANY of them, they were tagged for a re-engagement campaign. That list of inactive or unengaged email newsletter subscribers was about 16,000 of the 33,000 people on the newsletter list — nearly half of the subscribers!

We sent those 16,000 people three different emails in January, giving them a chance to re-engage, including an email about the new 2016 Trends Report, an invitation to a free webinar, and a “should we take you off of our mailing list?” email. Those reduced the “inactive subscribers” list to a little under 15,000 people.

At the beginning of February, we started suppressing those people from the newsletter mailing. That meant we were sending to around 19,000 people instead of 33,000. I admit, this was pretty scary, but it made perfect sense.

And it worked. Our open rate soared to an average of 27% — not including one week when we forgot to suppress those people from the mailing. That week it dropped back down to 16%, which further proved the point.

My current goal for our newsletter is a 25% open rate.

What about click-through rates?

The average click-through rates for a B2B consulting/training newsletter are in the 2-3% range. Even when our open rates were lousy, we were still consistently in that range.  After the redesign, we were at 3-4%, and after cutting the list, we are closer to 4-5%.  (Keep in mind that we are just talking about the newsletter here, not our promotional emails or emails to customers participating in programs — those are categories for another blog post.)

Some people use click-through divided by open rate, or the click-to-open rate as a way to measure the effectiveness of email content. Here’s how that ratio has changed over time . . .

Before reformatting: 15.4%

After reformatting/short subject lines: 17.6%

After reformatting/longer subject lines: 26% (I think this bump can be attributed to especially popular downloads and videos in these issues.)

After cutting list size (excluding the “oops” week): 18.5%

What we will try next . . .

We are going to try two more tactics in the coming weeks and months.

First, we are going to try 2-3 word subject lines again to see what impact that has.

Second, we are going to change our sending email address. We currently use a “role” address — training@ or news@ — to send much of our content and there is plenty of evidence that role-based emails have poorer deliverability. We’ll start using a personal email address soon.

We will also continue to track who opens the newsletter in a given month and who doesn’t, and will try to be more deliberate in how we try to re-engage the non-openers.

What’s worked for you?

I’d love to hear about your experiments! What have you tried, and what’s worked to increase the open rates for your email newsletters? Please share in the comments.

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  • Laney Spann Poye

    I just want to say that I LOVE that you had the courage to slash your list! I’ve been trying to convince my team here to do this for a year
    now. What’s the use of having 25,000 contacts if only 7,000 regularly read it?We separate our mailing into two lists, a “Most Active” and a “Least Active” so we show two different open rates because we were stuck at that 10% ratio. Among our most active, we see a 35-40%, which is much more reasonable. I am all for ditching the unopens that have been unopens for 8 months or more. How do I convince my team of that? (Yes, I know, tune in for the webinar!!)

    • http://www.nonprofitmarketingguide.com/blog Kivi Leroux Miller

      Hi Laney,
      The proof is in your data. It’s all about creating content that is valuable to the people who are most valuable to you! And you are clouding up that picture by including all those people who don’t see the value in your communications. Maybe you can propose a special re-engagement campaign for the Least Actives? Or try to figure out when they are actually active?
      Kivi

      • Laney Spann Poye

        I’ve seen a few NPOs do some really cute “Haven’t heard from you in a while” campaigns that capture the attention of those unopens and encourage them to either jump back on board or unsubscribe. I think it’s well-worth our time to do! I’ve enjoyed watching your newsletter’s transition, and think it’s been a really positive one in a world that grows increasingly heavier in the email marketing content hitting inboxes. (Though I’m an “always” reader!)

        • http://www.nonprofitmarketingguide.com/blog Kivi Leroux Miller

          I agree, some are clever, but some are awful. The “Do you hate me?” ones that consultants use are so lame.

          Glad you are a regular reader! :)

  • http://dwilly.co Kyle Crawford

    Hi Kivi,
    Love seeing such a transparent post on your behind-the-scenes approaches! And I especially liked that rather than cut the inactives altogether, you first made a concerted effort to re-engage them – very smart!

    Here’s the super simple approach I use to increase open rates (tends to give you an extra 30% opens): http://www.futureoffundraising.com/nonprofit-ab-tests/easy-fundraising-hack-for-more-email-opens

    Would love to hear if it works as well for you :)

    Kyle

    • http://www.nonprofitmarketingguide.com/blog Kivi Leroux Miller

      Yep, lots of people are making resends part of their regular habit with call to action emails. Not sure I would do it with a newsletter, but might be worth it every now and then.

      • http://dwilly.co Kyle Crawford

        You’re absolutely right. It’s definitely an approach for strategic moments – like most good approaches, it’d be easy to see it’s usefulness diminish quickly if used too often

  • Cindy

    I’m curious if you still have those “inactive” people in your database, or if you deleted them completely? If you kept them. Why? Are you planning to try to re-engage them once in a while?

    • http://www.nonprofitmarketingguide.com/blog Kivi Leroux Miller

      We plan to remove completely. That way if they want to re-engage, it will be like a fresh start.

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