Email marketers use open rates as a primary KPI for a reason; emails that don’t get opened have no hope of driving subscribers to action, resulting in a negative ROI.

In most cases, low open rates are a symptom of an underlying problem, so being able to zero in on the source of the issue is a crucial first step toward strengthening engagement and ultimately driving revenue from your email program.

If you’ve seen your open rates start to dip, consider the following elements to determine which is most likely contributing to a lack of engagement:

Subject Line

This is the first and most obvious place to look when you see your opens decline. Competition in the inbox is fierce, so if your subject lines lack excitement, urgency, or clear calls to action they’re likely to be ignored. A/B testing your subject lines is a quick and easy way to glean actionable insights. Test the inclusion of promos, urgency statements, personalization, or teaser language in your subject lines to determine which approach resonates best with your audience.

Timing

One of the first questions our new clients ask us is, “When should we be sending emails?” The short answer is, “It depends.” There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for email timing, so you’ll need to test into the right approach for your audience and vertical. B2B brands tend to get better engagement during business hours Mon-Fri. Ecommerce retailers often see positive results from mailing first thing in the morning (as you might’ve noticed when waking up to an inbox full of promos). Different times work better for different brands, so test send time/day to find your sweet spot.

Audience

Every email list is going to have a certain number of unengaged subscribers: contacts who stopped opening or clicking but haven’t taken the time to actively unsubscribe. This might be the result of decay over time, or from the introduction of new acquisition sources that bring in lower intent leads. For example, running a sweepstakes or giveaway to encourage email sign-ups, or uploading a list of leads from a partnership (both of which should generally be avoided). If your open rates have been waning, it’s time to consider cutting unengaged contacts loose.

Running some simple segmentation can illuminate if you’re in need of list hygiene. Take a look at what proportion of your list has opened in the last month, last 3 months, etc. For a clothing retailer, someone who hasn’t opened in 9-12 months is likely to be considered unengaged; for a product that’s purchased less frequently like furniture or electronics, that window might be 12-18 months. The nature of your business will dictate how narrow an engagement window you’ll want to maintain for regular mailing. Removing any dead contacts after final re-engagement efforts can give your open rates an instant boost and help maintain the overall health of your program long term.

Cadence/Frequency

When marketers see the incredible return they can achieve from email marketing efforts, many fall down the slippery slope of over-mailing, which can diminish engagement over time. Low opens are typically an early sign of fatigue. More isn’t always better, as mailing too often can cause subscribers to become overwhelmed and begin to tune you out. The short-term revenue realized from increased mailing can be sweet, but could cost you the health of your program in the long run.

If you suspect cadence is to blame for your low opens, you have a few options. The first would be pulling back your mailing frequency across the board, which might result in lower revenue in the short term. To mitigate revenue loss, consider varying the frequency of mailing across segments, sending more often to those contacts who are highly engaged with email, and less to those who are not. You can also update your manage preferences page to allow contacts to specify how often they’d like to hear from you.

Content

If you’ve recently made changes to the content of your emails, you might find they don’t perform as well as they once did. Conversely, if the content of your emails is the same with every send (i.e. promo after promo after promo), your users will quickly learn there’s nothing new worth opening for. Regardless of the message, if there’s too much content in a single email, readers are likely to delete before taking action.

Brands should only be communicating with subscribers when they have something relevant and timely to share, and the message should get to the point quickly to motivate action before short attention spans run out. Make sure you’re providing a healthy mix of content for your users. Being promotional is great, but don’t forget to include messages that add value for your subscribers outside of a discount (think new product launches or content that can help your customers get the most out of the product once it’s in their hands).

Deliverability

If you’ve examined all other aspects of your program and still can’t find the source of low opens, there’s a decent chance your messages aren’t landing in the inbox. If emails land in spam, they can’t be seen, let alone opened. The first sign of a deliverability problem might be receiving your brand’s messages in your personal spam folder, but sometimes it’s not as obvious.

There’s a number of elements that contribute to email deliverability, and those elements vary from email client to email client. If you suspect your emails are landing in users’ spam folders, examine open rates by domain to see if there are any particularly low areas that might point to a deliverability issue with one or more inbox providers. You can also partner with a third-party deliverability tool like 250ok or Return Path, which utilize seed lists to give marketers better insight into their inbox placement by domain.

 

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