How to send good email – opens, clicks, conversions

Main illustration: Mark Weaver

A badly-written email is about as effective as a love letter addressed “To whom it may concern.” Don’t waste your time writing them.

There are some basics to writing emails, some simple rules that you can follow to maximize the chances that your email will be opened, clicked, and ultimately convert.

The basics of email open rates

A good email open rate is regarded as anything above 20%, depending on your content. Open rate is a crapshoot at best. It relies on a mail client preloading a single-pixel gif, which varies depending on everything from the mail client, to whether you’re in the address, to the browser Gmail is loaded in.

With most modern email clients giving a generous preview, it often means that an email can be read without being “opened”, regardless of how you even track opens. Like I said, a crapshoot.

You can achieve a good open rate at any list size. If anything, the larger your list grows, the more likely it is that people are opening, unless you’re scamming people into subscribing. So, in this regard, if your open rate takes a nosedive it should be cause for concern, and not simply something that happens as you expand.

Readers slip away over time

However, reader fatigue, like activity churn, is a reality of growing a list of subscribers. Someone who hung on your every word six months ago might feel, 24 emails later, that you’re repetitive, or losing touch. The email marketer’s equivalent of the sophomore slump. There is no easy way to combat this, the tactic is “Stay Relevant”, but there’s no quick hack for that, no matter how often people try.

Some tactics will improve your open rate. Subject line and “from” fields are your best weapons here. Hillary Clinton’s campaign team have achieved excellent results with simple and personal subject lines such as “I’d love to meet you”, “What did you think of last night’s debate?”, and one of the most successful, “Dinner?”.

Other quick hacks include things like interesting characters in the subject line, changing sender for emails to break from monotony, or tweaking time of sending. But remember, over time all marketing strategies result in shitty click-through rates, at first they work, then they don’t.

Understanding email click-through rates

Along with reader fatigue, there is also click fatigue to consider. Whilst email click-through rates are infinitely more accurate than open rates, there is no universally acceptable rate, as there are too many ways to link. There are, thankfully, good guidelines.

Firstly, your first and second links account for the vast majority of your clicks. The obvious conclusion of this is that you never bury your call to action as the 7th link down the page. So don’t bury your links. The exception here is newsletters or digest emails, where the links are clicked evenly, and they are all the exact same call to action i.e. go here, read this. Secondly, a digest style, with predictable link locations, has a far higher click-through rate than scattering links inline.

Email format matters

Make the links in your email obvious

Thirdly, a common cause of poor click-through rates are non-obvious links. As shown below, a weak style on a link halves its click-through rate. So make sure your links are obvious and favour clarity over beauty. Your job is to get clicks, not become a master of subtlety.

How to get them to click

Lastly, the piece that everyone forgets is that none of this stuff matters if you haven’t convinced your reader of the value in doing something. The single biggest problem I see in emails that software companies send is that they maintain an undying focus on themselves and their product, rather than on their customers. It can’t be about what you want to say, it has to be about what they want to know.

Marketing legend Drayton Bird advises that at the end of every sentence, ask yourself this: “What would the reader want to know next?”, and base your next sentence on that.

You can quickly see how an email will perform by trying it on a customer or reader that you don’t know. Read it out to them verbatim. If they’re not interested, then it’s not interesting. If it’s not interesting, it won’t work. If it won’t work, don’t send it.

Sending bad emails shrinks your mailing list, and wastes everyone’s time. Try harder.

If you’d like to know more about sending good email, we’ve written extensively on this topic in our book on customer engagement.

The original version of this post was based on data supplied by Elizabeth Yin and the team at Launchbit.

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