How to write emails that get opened

Build Your Audience
Published on March 3, 2013

At this second, how many unread emails do you have in your inbox? Ten? 40? Over hundred?

It’s not uncommon to be overwhelmed with emails these days. Every day we communicate with our teams, our readers, and our friends and family over email. And while email is still the most direct and consistent way to communicate, if your inbox is so full of unread or starred emails you’re most likely going on a deleting rampage just to have to the peace of mind of empty inbox, right? I know I do.

The whole Inbox Zero strategy does helps you stay above water when your business involves a lot of back and forth, but doing that can mean certain unappealing or seemingly unimportant emails go straight to the trash.

If you want to beat the odds and increase your staying power in your reader’s inbox, you need to make sure you’re creating valuable content and communicating in an engaging and exciting way. While there are hundreds of ways to do this, here are a couple of my tips to writing emails and headlines that people will actually want to read:

Be useful

Your entire email needs to be useful to the reader. If you aren’t positive the email will help the recipient, then don’t send it. If you know your content is useful it becomes much easier to write a compelling subject line.

Remember that you will probably be contacting this person many times. You may fool them with a clever subject line once, but if your content isn’t excellent, they won’t get fooled again.

Make sure your content is useful and accurately described by the subject line. After all, you are going for long-term engagement.

Be personal

Go take a look at your inbox. Pay attention to the emails that you actually want to read.

Seriously. Do it now.

My guess is those emails came from friends, co-workers, or family. Now start to look at what those subject lines have in common. Here are a few things I noticed from my own inbox:

  • Short and to the point
  • Use simple, common words (no buzzwords)
  • Only the first letter of the first word is capitalized
  • Have very limited punctuation

As an inverse to that, the emails that I don’t want to read (because they are just hard sales emails from giant companies) are long, use buzzwords, and are written in title case like this: “Upgrade To Next Generation Mobile App Analytics with Google Analytics.” Wow. Thank you Google for giving me a perfect example of what not to do right as I am writing this article. So convenient.

Now you may think it is great to personalize the subject line with the recipients name, but tests show that doesn’t really increase open rates. Probably because truly personal emails don’t have that. Would you add your friends name to the subject of a personal email? Probably not. It just reads like another marketing trick.

Avoid spam filters

Your subject line doesn’t really matter if it never gets read in the first place. That’s why it is really important to avoid words commonly found in spam emails. While I’m certain you aren’t talking about certain pills and offers to collect millions from a Nigerian bank account, you may accidentally use words like “free” that can land you in spam filters anyway.

Generally a single use of a word like “free” won’t land you in a spam folder, but if you have two many words like that, they can add up and get your email penalized.

MailChimp also tells us that words like Help, Percent off, and Reminder will not land you in a spam filter (by themselves), but tend to decrease open rates.

To test if your emails will be caught by spam filters you can try these services:

Ask questions

If I hear a question asked that I know the answer to, my default response is to reply with that answer. I want to be helpful. So when Ruben Gamez of Bidsketch sends an email with the subject “Are you charging enough for your services?” It stops me scanning through my inbox because I want to answer. Yes, I think I am… but could I be charging more? That’s an email that is going to get opened.

On numbers

A lot of marketers recommend using numbers in your subject lines like this: “6 tips to…” Just fill in the blank. So many people use this technique that is strongly associated with marketing and sales copy. Have you ever written a useful email to a friend or coworker that used that format? Probably not.

That’s not to say you can’t use it, but just be careful.

Additional reading

Nathan Barry

In previous careers Nathan has been a designer, author, and blogger. After learning the power of email marketing he gave up a successful blogging career to build ConvertKit. Outside of work Nathan spends his time playing soccer, woodworking, and chasing after his two little boys.

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