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Un de r th e sk in of op en ra te s

January 2013

Content s

About this document Executive summary 

1. 1.1 1. 2 2.

Outside influences The customer relationship Customer circumstances The importance of the From name

The importance of the subject header 3. 

3.1 Length 3. 2 Content 3. 2.1 Personalisation 3. 2. 2 Urgency 3. 2.3 Be contextually relevant 3. 2.4 Dont stretch the truth 3. 2.5 Symbols 4. 5. 6. 7 .

The preview panel Day and time of send Testing and results Further reading and useful links

7 . Conclusion

(Strategy Director) Published: January 2013 // Written by: Steve White


Abo ut t his d oc ument

Intro paragraph

This document is intended to outline the process that I would advise when working to establish your optimum opening rate in what is an increasingly difficult email marketing landscape.

Abo ut t he aut hor


I have worked at Red C Marketing for approaching a decade and have managed email programmes for a whole host of different clients from a number of differing sectors including home shopping, travel, retail, insurance and leisure.
Steve White (Strategy Director)

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Executive summary
My inbox is becoming increasingly busy, increasingly noisy and I simply dont have the time to open and digest every single email I receive. I have messages relating to work, emails from friends and family and of course, emails from retailers and businesses (not all of which Ive opted into, I may add). Marketing focused messages are always going to have to work harder than messages from bosses, clients or loved ones, so email marketers need to do all they can to ensure that they give their emails the best possible opportunity of being seen and opened.

The factors that influence whether someone opens or chooses not to open an email are vast and can often be quite complicated. Some factors are even outside of the influence of the marketing department. For example, the relationship you have with that email recipient and their circumstances will both have a major impact on whether they open your email or even consider opening it. However, the good news is there are several factors that can be influenced and managed by email marketers, just like you and I.

Outside influences
Engaged Live Relationship Non engaged Holiday Lapsed Preoccupied Customer circumstance Not in market Missed it

1. Outside influences
There are many factors that influence whether someone chooses to open or not open an email, some of which cant be influenced by email marketers or by a single email message.


1.1 The customer relationship

One factor that is going to influence your opening rate, arguably more than any other, is the relationship your brand has with that email recipient. Some email recipients will open and engage with your emails each and every time you send one, simply because theyre engaged with your brand and email programme. However, at the same time there will be email recipients who are non-engaged and itll take a great deal of persuasion to convince them to open or engage with the email, no matter what the content or key message happens to be. 7

The From name, the subject header, the preview panel and when you send the email can all greatly influence what percentage of your base actually interact with your email marketing message. Given the influence these factors can potentially have over the success of your communication, they each need to be given a great deal of respect and focus in terms of how they are managed. The key challenge of any email marketer is establishing how each of these variables can work together in the most effective and efficient manner, in order to achieve the most advantageous results. Its only when you determine this formula that you can be content that youre achieving your optimum opening rates.

Decision to open email

Length From name Preview panel

Content Urgency


Subject header Contextually relevant

Time and day of send

Manageable influences

1. 2 Customer circumstances 2. The importance of the From name
The changing landscape of email marketing has led to the From name being an increasingly important factor when it comes to open rates. Email recipients are more time precious than ever, scanning emails quickly on their mobile device or racing through overflowing inboxes on their desktops or laptops. Also, with the growing number of people using mobile devices to interact with their emails, the From name is increasingly influential given that subject headers can be cut down to just 8 or 10 characters on some devices. Like the subject header, the From name needs to be prominent and have instant stand out. There are differing views as to the best way of achieving this objective, influenced by both the type of message and the email recipient. For an email list of engaged customers consistency is certainly advisable as it would be nonsensical to experiment with the From name when youre generating positive engagement levels. I would advise that you stick with whatever From name has become recognisable to your loyal and responsive customers. Why change it and risk your email not being recognised in your customers inbox? However, we have seen drastically improved opening rates when we have experimented with the From name for large scale mailings that consist of both customers and prospects. For example, for a financial services client we conducted several tests regarding the From name as we wanted to establish what the impact would be if we were to introduce a persons name. We conducted the test on our monthly incentive driven newsletter over the course of several months and the results were remarkable. By simply adding a forename to the company name i.e. forename@ companyname.co.uk, we witnessed an uplift in opening rate of 41% and a 31% increase in click throughs. However, although I have experienced some positive results by making the From name more personable I certainly would steer away from departmentalising From names, as they have a tendency to look like spam. Ive been amazed in recent weeks as to how many reputable businesses are using generic From names such as sales@ companyname.com or deals@companyname.com. However, these are not the worst offenders, some businesses even use email addresses that are not only unrecognisable but are also incredibly unfriendly. In the past Ive seen noreply@companyname.com and donotemail@ companyname.com, which Im sure serves the purpose of not generating reply emails but I doubt this generates any warmth towards the message, or indeed the brand.
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Intro paragraph One area that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manage is customer circumstance. There are hundreds and thousands of different reasons why someone might not open an email and most of them cant be influenced by an email marketer.
Its a sad state of affairs that no matter how much testing and refinement you build into your email programme there are always going to be reasons that are out of your control that could lead to your well crafted email not being opened. For example, we have no control whether an email recipient happens Copy to be on holiday when your email message arrives in that inbox. Although that person obviously has the opportunity to engage with that email message on their return, how many of us adopt a relatively ruthless filtering system when were faced with a bulging inbox? In a similar vein just think about all those disturbances or events that have the potential to sidetrack you from sifting through your email inbox. A knock on the front door, a telephone call, Little Jimmy asking Whats for tea? or screaming the house down after falling over and grazing a knee. If any of those scenarios were to happen you could have lost your opportunity of an open! Another key reason as to why an email recipient might not open an email is if theyre simply not in the mindset to buy or respond. It is of course possible to influence that customer into opening with a persuasive subject header but there will be times when that email recipient simply wont open no matter what you do. For example, if your email recipient has just suffered a financial setback such as a faulty washing machine or an unexpected bill has just hit them then the content of your email message will have little bearing as to whether they open or not! Although it would be extremely difficult to eradicate these outside influences entirely they could be nullified a little by distributing emails to your email recipients on days and times when historically theyre most likely to open and engage (See 5.) Once youve accepted that there are always going to be reasons why an email recipient might not open or even consider opening an email message you can concentrate solely on influencing those factors that you can manipulate, test and control.

3. The importance of the subject header 3.1 Length
Historically, the view has always been the shorter the better with the consensus being that a subject header should be no longer than 50 characters. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it is close to a universal rule that simple messages which can easily be digested are the best way to take advantage of increasingly short consumer attention spans. The other reason is more of a technical one, email domains often limit the number of subject line characters that are displayed in the inbox. AOL, for example, only allow 38 characters before they are cut or shortened. The character limits AOL: 38 Hotmail: about 45 for their initial line (using word wrap) Yahoo!: 47 Gmail: 130 Outlook: 255 characters The growing reliance on mobile devices affects this trend too as their smaller screens display even fewer characters. So imagine, youre a swimwear specialist and youre announcing a sale on a new line of bikinis. You certainly have a few options with your subject header. You could, for example, be highly detailed and ignore character length: Colourful new beach bikinis are now available in a variety of shapes and styles, and are fifty percent off for a limited time only! Although descriptive, it does suffer from several fatal flaws. Just look below how these subject headers would show up in the following platforms: AOL: Yahoo: Colourful new beach bikinis are now Colourful new beach bikinis are now available i 11

Intro paragraph There are thousands upon thousands of blog articles, white papers and discussion
documents that have been written on the subject of crafting the perfect subject header. I think this is a clear indication as to the complex nature of this task. Every marketer worth their salt has a view and everyone has an opinion. So this is my turn, Im going to announce to the world what makes the perfect subject header. Is it the length? It might be. Is it the content? Almost certainly. Is it the use of personalisation? Well, possibly. Each of these factors are important and each of these factors will have Copy an influence on your opening rate, and Ill detail why shortly. However, theyre not the most important thing you require when youre developing a strategy for the perfect subject header. The most important thing youll need is time. You have to give yourself time to test, test and test again. What might work in one industry might not necessarily work for another. The latest white paper from your well respected email service provider might very well give you some great pointers, but I guarantee you that each of their recommendations will not necessarily work for your database. You need to invest in time and it is only at this point that you can comfortably say you are on the way to the perfect subject header. However, as indicated there are several factors that will certainly influence the success of your subject headers and each of them should be tested.


Hotmail: Colourful new beach bikinis are now available

However, the subject headers biggest flaw is not that its a little too long for some platforms, its major problem is the subject header hasnt recognised the character issue, as it isnt using those all important first characters as effectively as it could be.

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3.1 Length (continued) 3.1 Length (continued)
In 2008, Alchemy Worx analysed 646 subject lines across 205 million messages and across a number of different sectors. The results of this research unearthed several interesting trends. Firstly, it supported the view that shorter subject lines work harder when it comes to opening rates. However, what was just as interesting was that longer subject lines, despite poorer open rates, actually generated better click-through rates when compared to the shorter subject line. If you think about this logically then the findings made by Alchemy Worx make complete sense. Shorter subject lines are indeed more likely to be more ambiguous than longer subject lines and therefore should attract a greater volume of opens because of its relative intrigue. However, although you have the volume, are you attracting the right openers? Are you in fact eliminating those who may be in the market for your proposition by being so ambiguous? The research suggests this is exactly the case. They discovered that more detailed and lengthier subject lines generated better click-through rates, suggesting that although they didnt necessarily generate volume, they did generate quality. By detailing the emails proposition in the subject header you are giving email recipients the opportunity of buying into the proposition at open stage, making the decision to click a less considered step.

Intro paragraph Its absolutely crucial that you front-load your emails message with
the most compelling part of your proposition. For example, the most important element to this proposition is that youre offering your customers a whopping 50% off a range of bikinis, so surely this has to be at the forefront. So the subject header should be something like this; Today only: get 50% off bikinis! All styles, all colours, all ready for summer.


This works so well, because even when AOL or Hotmail cuts the subject header the customer is fully aware of the sale and the timing of it: AOL: Hotmail: 12 Yahoo!: Today only: get 50% off bikinis! All Today only: get 50% off bikinis! All styles Today only: get 50% off bikinis! All style,


Gmail:  Today only: get 50% off bikinis! All styles, all colours, all ready for summer. Thunderbird:  Today only: get 50% off bikinis! All styles, all colours, all ready for summer. Outlook:  Today only: get 50% off bikinis! All styles, all colours, all ready for summer. With a limited amount of time to surf your AOL inbox, which email would YOU choose to open, if you happened to be in the market for a bikini? Today only: get 50% off bikinis! All or Colourful new beach bikinis are now

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3. 2 Content

Intro paragraph Although the opening rate of an email can be influenced by the length of the
subject line, it is undoubtedly its content that has the greater influence. I could have two subject headers of the same length but due to their content and structure they would differ in performance. Subject line 1. This weekend only at your local ABC store, special savings on televisions! Subject lineCopy 1. Special savings on televisions at your local ABC store this weekend only! Without fully understanding the brand or the emails audience it would be difficult to predict which of these subject lines would generate the best opening and click through rate. However, it does illustrate the point that content and structure are more influential to the success of a subject header than its length.

Although we have seen similar results in other industry sectors, its important not to overdo the use of name focused personalisation. It is now being used by many retailers (and spammers) meaning something that was once quite novel and interesting has now become a little ordinary. However, as email technology becomes more advanced there are increasingly more interesting ways to add relevancy and personalisation into your subject headers. For example, we have conducted several experiments in the home shopping and retail industries where we have acknowledged the customers relationship with the brand. On both occasions we have identified email recipients as being non-engaged with the email programme and weve made reference to it in both the subject headers and the emails content. We tested this approach against a non-personalised approach over the course of 6 weeks. Re-engagement email 1 <Forename> we miss you! Main programme email 1 Just in... great fashion for the beach. Open now! Re-engagement email 2 Come back <forename> and have 15% off Main programme email 2 Got a special occasion? Have 15% off the perfect outfit. Re-engagement 3 Let us treat you <forename> with 20% off Main programme email 3 Hurry up to 20% off in our Summer Spectacular.



3. 2.1 Personalisation
Subject headers are no different to any other form of marketing, the more relevant and personal you can make your message, the better the results tend to be. Over the years Ive conducted several experiments across several industry sectors proving exactly that. For example, we recently tested the impact of personalisation with a financial service client, who distributes in excess of 3,000,000 email messages per month. The results were remarkable considering the relatively simply test that we implemented. By adding the forename to the subject header we saw an incredible opening rate uplift of 36% and a click-through rate increase of 37%. <Name> Your car renewal is due xx/xx/xx | Get king-size Cashback offers | Extended Great British Sale! vs Your car renewal is due xx/xx/xx | Get king-size Cashback offers | Extended Great British Sale!

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3. 2. 2 Urgency
Creating a sense of urgency in your subject line can also improve the response of an email, especially if its combined with a relevant offer. It is human nature not to want to miss out on something, so exploiting this in the subject line will undoubtedly create uplift in response. Littlewoods creating that all important sense of urgency Subject header: Sale still on 7th June dont miss out! River Island incentivising their customers with a time-limited free delivery offer Subject line: Enjoy FREE delivery until Friday shop our new arrivals Lakeland creating a sense of urgency Subject header:  Be quick! Great deals on kitchen and home solutions from Lakeland 16

3. 2.3 Be contextually relevant

Relevancy is something every email marketer should invest in and establishing ways in which to do this will always lead to positive results. For a number of clients, we do our very best to include references to current affairs and popular culture.


For example, during the UK riots of August 2011 Swinton reacted by sending emails to both their consumer and business customers asking them whether they had been affected by the riots. The subject headers were timely and relevant and generated exceptional open rates, especially considering that the emails were sent to live customers, lapsed customers and prospects.

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Dear <Sample>, Following the shocking events of the past few days, we want to offer these words of reassurance. As a Swinton Commercial customer, you should be covered against looting, fire or other structural damage. Business interruption and damage to stock will also be covered, if you have included this on your policy. Therefore, if you have experienced damage to your business property and stock as a result of the UK riots, we urge you to contact us as soon as possible, so we can help you process your claim quickly and efficiently. You can call us on 0845 120 2734 9.00am-5.30pm Monday-Friday and 9.00am-1.00pm Saturday. King regards

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Important Customer Information; Riot damage 32.1% opening rate

Important Customer Information; Riot damage 63.5% opening rate

Im absolutely sure that 63.5% of those who received the Swinton Commercial emails werent actually directly affected by the riots. However, given the nature of the troubles, we would have generated opens from recipients who were just interested to see what we were saying about a huge national news event. This is crucial, as generating incremental opens and clicks is what will eventually lead to incremental sales.

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3. 2.3 Be contextually relevant (continued)

Weve also used other more light hearted events and news stories as stimuli for highly contextually relevant emails for Swinton. Each of which have generated extremely positive open rates (and have even won a DMA award!).
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3. 2.5 Symbols
Over the last few months Ive witnessed more and more retailers experimenting with symbols, like stars and hearts, within their subject headers. In the past, the use of symbols has been frowned upon as there were concerns around deliverability. However, as email deliverability becomes more of an issue around IP reputation rather than content, more retailers are introducing symbols into their subject headers as they strive for stand out in the inboxes of their email recipients. Examples:

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Dont miss out on the latest Swinton offers simply add swinton@swinton.chtah.com to your address book or contact list to ensure our emails always go into your inbox

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3. 2.1 Personalisation (continued)

The results were quite astonishing as the re-engagement programme outperformed the main email programmes open rate by 222%. Its this level of personalisation which retailers have to incorporate into their subject headers in order to stay ahead of the competition. Simple <forename> or <surname> personalisation wont be enough moving forward, as that level of personalisation will become increasingly the norm. Demographical data, customer behaviour and transactional data will all have a part to play when it comes to developing subject lines that have the ability to stand out in increasingly noisy inboxes.

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3. 2.4 Dont stretch the truth

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With each of my clients I always maintain that our subject headers cant over promise in an attempt to inflate the opening rate. Its important to maintain a sense of honesty as misleading or tricking a customer into opening an email could ultimately destroy trust, damage your brand or even drive your customers away.
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The subject header doesnt just have an influence over the opening rate, it also influences all key performance indicators. So there is very little point in generating an excellent open rate by stretching the truth if youre then going to disappoint your openers and ultimately turn them off from clicking through.

4. The preview panel

The preview panel is another factor you need to consider as this is becoming more influential in determining your emails opening rate.

4. The preview panel (continued)

Rule 3. The third rule we adopt with all our email clients is to incorporate an HTML line which sits just above the email design. By doing this it give email marketers another opportunity of outlining the emails proposition. The key to preparing this line of html copy is ensuring that it can work not only in conjunction with the subject header but it can also work in isolation. The preview panel is already a hugely influential factor but it is only going to increase in importance. Not only has Gmail introduced a preview panel but there are rumours both Hotmail and Yahoo are planning to make their preview panels the default inbox setting too.

The reason why the preview panel is having such an influence is email recipients have the ability to make a judgement without actually registering an open and more importantly not seeing the emails complete proposition. For example, if a recipient happens to be using Outlook as their email platform, which has preview panel on by default, they literally could base their decision as to whether they open or dont open by simply looking at the top 2 to 4 inches of the emails design. As marketers this presents us with a challenge, as not only are our opening rates being skewed but we are having to make that top section of our email design work incredibly hard. However, as difficult as this sounds, it is achievable with some pragmatic design and by following 3 simple rules. 20 Rule 1. The golden rule when it comes to designing email for the preview panel is to ensure youre establishing the emails proposition or key message in that top 2 to 4 inches. If your recipient is scrolling through their emails using the preview panel then they can be left in no doubt as to what youre offering in basic terms give them everything they need to make an informed decision. Rule 2. You give yourself the best chance of generating an open by designing your email with a good proportion of its content being HTML text. The reason for this is more and more email platforms, like Hotmail and Outlook, have their images turned off by default. For each of our email clients we ensure we utilise HTML text for key areas of the email design such as headline message, letter copy, navigation and call to action. By doing this we give ourselves the best chance of convincing our email recipients to fully engage with the email.

5. Day and time of send

Does the time you press send and the day you distribute an email actually affect the response rate? The simple answer to this question is: it depends. What works for one email marketer might not necessarily work for another and at the very least, your market place, your customer set and whether you sell B2C (Business to Consumer) or B2B (Business to Business) can be hugely influential. There have been many studies conducted and data collected on the best time to send emails and these studies can help influence your email strategy. But although this information can provide a foundation of knowledge there is no better strategy than tracking your own send results and using this to determine your optimum send times. During my research I came across a very insightful and interesting article in the 60-Second Marketer from Jenn Abecassis, who listed both the positive and negative aspects of sending email on each day of the week based on her experiences.


Monday Pros: Office work has not filled inboxes yet. Cons: People are in work mode and wont be focused on non-work tasks. Best Practice: Send emails late Monday morning, after people have cleaned the weekend spam from their inboxes. Tuesday Pros: People have organised their week, and can find personal time for emails. Cons: Emails poised for a weekend response may be too early. Best Practice: Use Tuesday for emails that request action during the working week. Wednesday/Thursday Pros: People are planning their weekends and gearing up for personal time. Cons: Time during the working week is running short, and requested action may be pushed back to the following week, or even forgotten about. Best Practice: Focus leisure and weekend notifications during these key weekend planning days. Friday Pros: Studies indicate fewer total emails sent compared to the rest of the week, increasing visibility among the myriad other messages. Cons: People hurry to leave the office early, and may not take time to view non-work related emails. Best Practice: Send emails early in the day to give consumers more time to take action. An unopened email from Friday will fall to the bottom of an inbox on Monday, and is often discarded. Weekends Pros: People check emails on weekends, too, so weekends may have untapped potential. Cons: A weekend email may seem overly-intrusive to some people. Best Practice: If possible, try to avoid Sundays and focus on Saturdays, which may have a better response rate.

Although Jenns points make perfect sense and I can see the rationale behind them, they are based on her own individual experiences and not on your market or customers, so basing your email strategy on it would be a risk. It is entirely possible for you to be left surprised by your own test results and for them to contradict everything that you thought might have been the case prior to your testing this is exactly what happened to me during some testing I conducted in 2009 with a home shopping client.



This experiment lasted several weeks and the results were significant. Historically, we had always distributed our emails on a Thursday or Wednesday. However, after conducting a 6 week test it was clear that Friday, Saturday and Sunday were by far the better days to send our emails. In fact, there was a 49.5% uplift when distributing email on a Saturday when compared to Thursday.

6. Testing and results

The From name, the subject headers length, its content and the time you send your email will all undoubtedly affect the performance of your email. However, there isnt a secret formula that guarantees success. There isnt a one size fits all solution. Im afraid the only way you can optimise the performance of your emails first impression is to test. However, before you delve into a robust programme of testing you should consider and analyse your previous subject headers and see if you can identify any trends that might have driven an increase in open, click or conversion rates. These learnings might not give you the definitive answer but they will give you some clue as to what you might want to test moving forward. The first step when it comes to email testing is to divide your data up into test cells. Personally, Im not a massive advocate of the classic A/B test as I find it doesnt give you as much flexibility as an A/B/C/D test does. Make sure that the cells are randomly split as you need to ensure there is no bias. 24 In addition to that you need to make sure the split email creatives are exactly the same, except for the subject header or From name. It is also vitally important that the tests are sent out at exactly the same time and on the same day. Any deviance in this, even a couple of hours, will undoubtedly result in the results being skewed. Subject header length, copy style, tone of voice can all be tested using a simple testing matrix, as can incentives and brand names. For example: Cell 1. Brand name and more than 40 characters Cell 2. No brand name and less than 40 characters Cell 3. Brand name and less than 40 characters Cell 4. Hold out group

6. Testing and results (continued)

However, the results from a single test might not necessarily be conclusive and it would be dangerous to take these results and assume that they would be suitable to run for the whole programme. Tests need to be run over a series of campaigns. When determining the successful subject header it needs to be judged on your most valuable metric e.g. revenue, downloads or registrations. It most certainly should not be the opening rate as although it might drive more openers, it might not necessarily drive the most demand.


7 . Conclusion
Achieving optimum open rates is no easy feat, but it can be done as long as the right influencing factors for open rate success are established and made to work together effectively. The key factors that need to be focused on include the From name, subject header, preview panel and timing of when an email enters an inbox. In addition, it is also important to be mindful of the outside influences that can dictate the success and open rate of your email. These include customer relationships, a factor that can be split into engaged and non-engaged, and managed to some extent by tailoring subject headers. The second, more complicated, outside influence is customer circumstances an area that has just too many variables to be completely overcome. However, it can be marginally managed by distributing emails on particular days and times that are known to have better opening success rates for your target market. Then, once you have worked on your opening rate key factors and considered the outside influences, it is time to do one final thing: test, test and then test again. Unfortunately, there isnt a secret formula that optimises the performance of all email programmes. The only way to guarantee a successful opening rate is to monitor and test factors such as subject header, copy style and tone of voice, and then identify any trends that have driven an increase for that unique email. Of course, the results from a single test are very rarely conclusive; multiple tests are often necessary over a series of email campaigns. Yes, this may be a long and laborious process, but one that is necessary to achieve the opening rates you desire.

8. Further reading and useful links

Returnpath www.returnpath.net Goodmail www.goodmailsystems.com Email marketing council blog www.spammcop.net



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