[Actionable] Ways To Increase Your Email Open Rates Drastically

by | Oct 17, 2017

This article is divided into three sections for how to increase your email open rates:

Click on the link to jump to that section:


Where to start with list segmentation

Pruning your list

Personalizing for open rates

Hey, listen up.

You’re probably here because of the following:

  • You’ve got an email list
  • You heard open rates are important
  • You looked at your open rates and think they suck

Guess what. They probably do.

But not for the reasons you might think.

If you don’t know your industry benchmarks for open rates you should check them out here.

Before we get really into it, you should ask yourself “Why do I think open rates are so important?

Open rates aren’t super important on their own.

What makes them important is that you can use them as a proxy to show how engaged your audience is and see where your campaign falls apart or loses customers (ex. High open rates but no click-throughs = bad emails).

We’re going to walk you through 3 legit strategies on how to bump up your open rates, which in turn should increase your click through rates and increase your sales.

The TL;DR for this post is: Send more relevant shit to fewer people…

If you understand that, you can stop reading now. If you want to know how to do this, keep reading.

Nothing in this post is a “band-aid” strategy, like switching up your subject lines.

You can spend an agonizing amount of time over your subject lines OR you can put these strategies in place to win in the long term.

Yes, it’s more work, but it produces 95% more results.

Seriously. If you increase customer retention by 5% you can increase revenue by 95%. (Don’t trust us, trust this Harvard Business School study.)

The way you do this is by segmenting, pruning and personalizing.

Here’s why you should do these three things:

1.) Because they work
2.) See reason one

Let’s get into a broad definition of these and why they improve open rates.

Segmenting allows you to create groups of people within your list of who will get your message and the type of message they receive.

You’ll get the same results (often better) as sending something to your entire list BUT you’re far less annoying and you’re sending a targeted message.

Pruning is selectively removing people who are unengaged with your list and avoiding list fatigue. So when you see people are unengaged you can revitalize them with good content (not sales) and fewer emails.

Personalization is the backend mechanics of HOW a certain person gets a certain message. You can control the language/content/merge fields that a certain person sees if they’re a freelancer vs. copywriter vs. editor. Or you can show them similar products they would be inclined to buy. Looking at you, Amazon.

Better Segmenting = Better Emails = Better Open Rates

Segmenting your email list can seem like an overly difficult or unimportant task for small businesses.

But it isn’t and by doing so you’ll boost your open rates, send people stuff that they WANT to open, and ultimately get more sales.

In the first part of this guide we’ll help answer the following questions:

  • What is email list segmentation?
  • What do I need in order to segment my list?
  • How can segmentation help grow my business?
  • When should I begin segmenting?
  • What are the steps to follow to begin segmenting?

What is email list segmentation?

List segmentation means dividing your email list into sub-groups based on information you have about your list.

This could be as simple as buyers versus non-buyers (a very important segmentation!).

Or men versus women (especially if you’re a clothing store/brand).

Segmenting your list helps you understand what your customers are interested in so you can give them exactly what they want at exactly the right time for them to buy.

This is what makes segmenting so powerful.

MailChimp recently did a study sampling 2,000 users who sent 11,000 segmented campaigns to about 9 million recipients.

They compared the results to the same users’ non-segmented campaigns.

The results?

Across the board, the segmented campaigns were much better and had 19% higher open rates, 22% higher click-through rates and 8% lower unsubscribe rates.

For your business, segmenting your email list translates to better customer retention and more sales.

What do I need to segment my list?

There are a lot of segmentation tools out there, but for starters we’re going to keep this easy.

The simple plan you follow beats the complex plan you don’t – every day of the week.

To begin email segmentation you’ll only need three things:

1. Customer data that’s tied to an email address

This can be anything from gender, age or income all the way to the last product bought or favorite baseball team.

If you don’t have this data, we’ll go through how to collect it later in the post.

2. A way to send emails

You’ll need a CRM system or some sort of email service provider to send emails.

3. A segmentation plan

Segmentation can get complex if we don’t plan ahead!

By laying out a plan in the beginning you can think through the best segmentation plan for your business.

How will it help my business?

Segmenting your email list can be a very powerful tool for you business because it allows you to give your customers an extremely individualized experience without being a huge company like Amazon.

Here are the many, interconnected benefits of segmenting:

1) Your open rates will increase

Even if you have the best content in the world – if your emails aren’t getting opened, then you have a problem. With list segmentation you can send more tailored content to specific groups in your list.

For example, imagine you’re a clothing brand having a sale.

A strategy you could use would be to segment your list by gender and then send an email to the men on your list highlighting the best men’s deals and also send an email to the women on your list highlighting the best women’s deals.

This will let you tailor the emails to each group of people and doesn’t annoy one group with a bunch of clothes they won’t wear.

2) Your click-through rates will increase

There are a lot of things you can test with your emails – fancy designs, call to actions, subject lines.

But, overall, what your customers want is content they’re interested in.

List segmentation will help you send your customers what they want to see and engage with.

For example, imagine you’re a craft beer distributor.

You might have a lot of customers that only like a certain type of beer – IPAs, porters, hefeweizens, etc.

You could send your customers a survey for the types of beer they enjoy and keep that data.

Then you could segment the data and send an email about all the different IPAs you have in stock to JUST your customers that want to hear and know about IPAs.

3) Your conversion rates will increase

Take the following craft beer distributor example from before.

Imagine you’re on their email list.

You like IPAs and you get an email describing all the new IPAs they have, as well as 15% off if you buy 3 or more 6-packs.

That is an offer almost guaranteed to convert.

Because the company took the time to:

  • Understand what you want
  • Segment you accordingly in their list
  • Give you an offer relevant to something you want

4) Your unsubscribes and spam rate will decrease

There are two main reasons many people unsubscribe or even immediately mark emails as spam:

  • Too many messages in a short time period
  • The message is irrelevant to them

List segmentation helps to avoid these two problems because by segmenting you are:

  • Making sure the messages being sent are highly relevant
  • Sending fewer messages overall because not every group will get every message

When to start segmenting your emails:

Now that we’ve covered why segmentation is such a good deal for your business – let’s talk about when to start segmenting your emails.

If you’re just starting to use email marketing, it’s never too early to begin segmenting.

Likewise, if you have an existing list and haven’t been segmenting, you will get a huge benefit when you start.

There are two very useful ways we like to segment our emails:

1) Segment people immediately when they join your list

2) Segment people later on using surveys

Segmenting using lead magnets and opt-ins:

Let’s assume you have a site about cooking.

We could segment the people on your list in a number of ways.

Using “tags” with opt-ins and lead magnets immediately when people join:

Many CRM systems have a “tagging” option.

You can set it so if a person enters your list from a certain lead magnet or opt-in form they will get a certain “tag.”

This “tag” is then searchable within the system.

For example, with your cooking site you could have two lead magnets, one for paleo-friendly meals and the other for vegan meals.

Both of these could be “tags” so that when you have new content, you can send the paleo specific content to JUST the people who have indicated they are interested in paleo recipes.

You could also send the vegan specific content to JUST the people who have indicated they are interested in vegan recipes.

Segmenting using surveys:

You can also send your audience surveys to get more relevant information about them and what information they’re interested in.

Sending out a short survey to subscribers on your list is a great way of collecting information that can be used to more effectively segment your list.

You don’t need to ask them everything under the sun, but a short questionnaire with only one or two relevant questions can be very effective.

Most survey tools integrate with your CRM system so when a person on your list fills out a survey, this data is automatically pulled into the CRM!

Where do I start with email segmentation?

Start simple.

Since most small businesses aren’t Netflix or Amazon with teams of developers figuring out artificial intelligence to make sure you get the exact content at just the right time, we have to paint with a broader brush.

It can be easy to go down a rabbit hole of trying to segment subscribers and getting overwhelmed with data you have available.

Unlike those huge companies mentioned above, it’s likely you only have a few products or services to offer, so you don’t need to go overboard in determining what is best for which customer.

Before we do any of the set up, an exercise we do with our clients is to think about who their customers are and what data we need to collect to properly segment them.

1) Determine the data you want to collect

Without any data about the people on your list, it’s much harder to segment.

You want to decide:

  • What customer data will help you sell best
  • How you’re going to organize that data
  • How you’re going to collect that data

When you’re collecting data, you want to think about the products you’re selling and what data would help you sell those products most efficiently.

For example, if you’re a clothing brand, you will probably want to know if the person on your list is male or female.

I’ve gotten an email before for 15% off women’s athletic gear from a company I bought shorts from, completely irrelevant for me.

If you sell sports gear, you would want to find out what someone’s favorite soccer team is. Then you could send them highly targeted messages about that team or a coupon for 10% off a player’s jersey.

Start a list of the type of “demographic characteristics” or “interests” you need to know about your customer in order to help them find the right product/service.

2) Gather Information

Once you determine what data you need in order to send more effective emails, you need to find a way to collect and organize that information.

Most CRMs allow you to create opt-in forms, questionnaires or surveys. They can then attach that information to each customer’s record in your system.

This creates the ability for people to tell you what they like (or don’t) and then have that information updated.

If your CRM can’t do custom forms, surveys or questionnaires you can use a 3rd party application like Zapier or Typeform to accomplish the task.

Each CRM handles information differently. Some allow you to tag people when they fill out a specific form (this makes contacts searchable and segmentable by tag). Others have automation sequences or custom fields that can be created and updated.

You’ll need to understand the platform that YOU use, how it works and what is possible. The best place to learn is to read through their help documentation or watch a training webinar about customer segmentation.

Unique forms

To gather this type of information we’ll often use unique forms that will ask one or two simple questions and apply the proper tag and custom fields once the customer completes the form.

Simple surveys

Another common practice we’ll use is to periodically send out very simple surveys asking them what they would like more of or less of in terms of content, products, promotions, etc…

If using surveys or questionnaires isn’t an option you could also send them emails soliciting these types of responses, but this isn’t usually scalable if you have a large number of contacts/customers.

You can also use past orders or their history or engagement with your content to gather relevant information.

What kind of products have your customers bought in the past or which content did they click on? These are questions you can usually find the information to within your CRM.

For example, if they purchased car stereos in the past they are probably very likely to be interested in car speakers.

If they’ve purchased a number of non-fiction business books they would probably be interested in other non-fiction business books or previous books published by the same author.

By knowing what information you need in order to more effectively market to your audience, you can better determine how to collect that information.

People are not opposed to answering a few quick questions to improve their experience.

In fact, if they like your content enough to opt-in to your list they WANT YOU TO IMPROVE THEIR EXPERIENCE.

Just make sure to keep the questions simple, direct and explain WHY you are trying to improve their experience or get to know them better.

3) Create specific content for segments

This is where the rubber meets the road.

Study after study confirms that it is 20 times cheaper to keep an existing customer than it is to acquire a new customer.

The best way to keep good customers around longer is to deliver them the kinds of content, products and experiences they are looking for.

If your customer has a history of purchasing and being into Major League Baseball and you constantly offer them NASCAR products, then they might start tuning your marketing and messages out. This leads to the slow decline to losing a customer.

It’s ok to occasionally offer or combine related products and content, but make sure the content they like is front and center FIRST.

If you’re planning to send a holiday sales email to your customers, don’t send the same email to everyone.

Use the information you have to group as many relevant people together as possible. We know you are not AMAZON and can’t build 100% unique emails for everyone and aren’t suggesting that.

But if your core product offering consists of 5 products and you have a list of 50,000 people, don’t just jam all products into one email and send to all 50,000 people.

The few extra hours it takes you to segment and send will pay HUGE dividends.

4) Send emails

Send ‘em out.

Using the example above, take the time to break your 50,000 subscribers into smaller groups.

For instance:

5 Products, 50,000 people.

Product 1 – Email 8,000
Product 2 – Email 12,000
Product 3 – Email 15,000
Product 2 – Email 10,000
Product 5 – Email 5,000

Not only will your customers have a better experience, but they will stick around longer, open more emails and purchase more products.

As we know from above, keeping just 5% more of your customers around and engaged can lead to 95% more profit.

Taking just those few extra hours to personalize and custom tailor your messaging to your customers could be the difference between $100,000 in profit and $200,000 in profit from your list.

5) Analyze, measure, and repeat

Sit back and watch the results.

What worked? What didn’t?

Where are your open rates MUCH higher? What didn’t change at all?

This is a never-ending process. Simply because people’s interests over time usually evolve and change. In order to stay top of mind and relevant, you need to refresh the information you have from people.

Perhaps you make it a yearly habit to send out an updated questionnaire or survey to refresh what you know about your customers.

Just because they bought one thing doesn’t mean they only want that. Perhaps they want other products or content but just haven’t purchased yet or don’t realize you offer them.

Occasionally offering other products is a good idea to see what they are interested in.

If possible, each time you prepare to send a new set of emails, you refresh your lists to ensure the right people are in the right groups each and every time.

Tracking the various open, click and conversion rates from different segments over time should serve as a good indication on whether or not you have the right people in the right groups. If those numbers start to go down it might be time to refresh what you know about them by asking or reassessing their past history.

Prune your list for better open rates:

Too many times to count you hear people ask “how big is your email list?”

It’s an easy way to judge the scale of a business/organization. And the mantra for email lists is usually “the larger the email list, the better.” But this isn’t always the best advice.

Most companies are heavily invested in growing their email list – after all, we know the money is in the list!

But the subtle part that’s often forgotten is the money is ACTUALLY in the engaged list.

What I mean by this is it can feel really nice to have an email list of 50,000 people. It means that at one point, 50,000 people said, “I value your opinion and I want you to help me solve my problem!” That can stroke anyone’s ego.

However, the reality is that a large percentage of your subscribers probably don’t open or click any of your email campaigns. (The industry average list open rate is about 25% give or take.)

It isn’t worth keeping anyone on your list who hasn’t been engaged in the last 6+ months. By this we mean anyone that hasn’t opened, clicked of updated preferences.

In gardening, we “prune” by selectively removing plant parts that are no longer helping the plant grow. This practice allows the nutrients in the tree to be re-directed to the place they will have the most impact – the living flowers.

You should do the same for your email list. Throughout the email marketing world, most businesses avoid this process for a number of reasons.

The largest three are:

1) Ego in list size

2) Afraid of it hurting sales

3) Unaware it’s an important process

Let’s walk through a few reasons why list pruning is an important part of your email marketing strategy.

1) Cost

Email service providers usually charge you in two ways:

  • The number of subscribers in your database
  • The number of emails you send

On average you pay $250/mo for every 50,000 contacts and another $250 for every 250,000 emails you send. The more contacts you have and the more emails you send, the higher your monthly costs.

No matter if those people ever open or click your emails. After enough time you’re just sending noise that will never be engaged by those people.

By removing 25,000 inactive contacts ($125/mo) and not sending those people 10 emails that go unopened each month ($250/mo), you can easily save $375 every single month.

Why pay to send an email that no one is going to see?

**Caveat, there are ways to re-engage those people and it will likely cost less than acquiring a brand new lead. So save those contacts somewhere just remove them from your active email marketing list.

2) Higher Engagement with your Followers

The goal of an email list isn’t just to grow an email list. The goal is to have a large number of people engaged with your brand and products.

Your email list is just one way that helps you do this.

Let’s say you send a targeted offer and are using good list segmentations and some people never open or click on your emails.

They aren’t engaging with your brand or that particular content. Either they lost interest in your content/products or have simply moved on to different interests.

If they aren’t interested anymore – what is the the point of sending more info or the same offers?

Either you need to mix up the messages to try and re-engage them with a different product/offering or you need to remove them from that active campaign.

3) Higher open rates keep you in the inbox

Email services like Gmail, iMail and Yahoo like to see high engagement.

The more people engage with your brand emails, the more those messages appear in their primary inboxes and not promotional or spam folders.

Email service providers all look at the number of messages sent to their users and how many of those users interact with (open/click) those messages.

Your emails will be more likely to be delivered to Gmail’s primary inbox if 400 out of 1,000 Gmail users open your email vs. 40 out of 1,000.

Imagine that you and your competitor both have 10,000 subscribers with Gmail accounts. Neither of you has pruned your list so you have a slightly below average open rate of 15%.

If your competitor removes everyone who hasn’t opened an email in 6 months – let’s say they remove 40% of their list – now when they send an email they have a 45% open rate!

Suddenly, Gmail sees that your competitor’s clients are MUCH more engaged than yours and prioritizes their email over yours. That is NOT good for your business.

It might be a tough pill to swallow at first, but it’s actually a good thing to prune your list. This might seem like an oversimplification but it is to illustrate that email providers favor messages with a higher engagement rate over others.

How you can prune your list today:

Step 1: Set a benchmark

First off, you want to check what your current email stats are.

You can’t see how much you’re going to improve if you don’t know where you were to begin!

Take a look at your most recent campaigns and see what the overall open rate, click rate, spam rate and unsubscribe numbers were.

If you are anywhere below or at these numbers with your current marketing you need to take massive action. We don’t settle for average. We want to be that kid in class that screwed up everyone’s bell grading curve.

Step 2: Figure out who your inactive subscribers are

Start with the people who have fully opted out of your list altogether by marking you as spam or unsubscribing.

Some providers like MailChimp will move these people into either the Cleaned or Unsubscribed groups. Neither of these count towards your user/send numbers. But this isn’t always the case with other providers.

Check to make sure your provider removes these contacts or doesn’t count them towards your overall number, otherwise you need to remove those ASAP. Then, pull a list of people that haven’t opened/clicked on any of your emails over the last 12, 6 and 3 months.

In most CRM systems you can sort your subscribers and use date filters to see who hasn’t opened an email in the last ____ days/months.

You should be able to segment these people into a separate list/group.

Step 3: Remove inactive subscribers

Like ripping a bandaid off, this might sting a little but delete those inactive subscribers from your CRM.

You SHOULD, however, save these leads separately in an Excel spreadsheet for marketing in the future. They loved you once, they’ll love you again, but more on that later.

We typically suggest removing all people who haven’t opened/clicked in the last 12 months altogether (minus past purchasers).

Take those people and save them for later. You can always try marketing to them again with custom audiences in Facebook/Google and win them back as a customer.

People that haven’t been active for the last 6 months might fall into the same category as above. This depends on the number of emails you send on a monthly basis.

If you are sending 1-2 emails a week most likely a re-engagement email campaign won’t achieve much since they get so much email from you. If you send fewer emails each month people that have been active for 6 months could potentially reactivated with a win-back campaign.

Those who haven’t opened/clicked in the last 3 months probably either need to be sent less emails, a survey asking what they would like to see more of, or mixing up the messaging/offers.

Chances are that your emails could be filtered and not hitting their inboxes due to your lack of overall engagement or you need to mix up your content strategy.


Like we said at the top of the post, personalization is the backend mechanics of HOW a certain person gets a certain message.

Remember the last time you logged onto Amazon and saw a bunch of recommendations that you HAD TO BUY RIGHT NOW just because they did such a good job of showing you products you’re interested in?

That is the power of personalization.

Or perhaps the reason you binge watched 10 episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix… They know the power of getting you content that you will like into your hands. The same goes for email marketing.

Types of personalization:

We can personalize in a number of ways to increase open rates.

1) Merge Fields:

The easiest change you can put into place is personalizing subject lines and pieces within the text using the person’s first name. It’s simple and effective.

I know, I know, we said we weren’t going to talk about subject lines but this is too easy of a win to pass up.

So instead of “Hey you HAVE to check this out!” the subject line would be “Josh, you HAVE to check this out!”

Several studies have shown that adding this little piece of personalization can increase open rates 20-40%.

This is because when we see our name in an email, it grabs our attention. It can feel like the email is coming from a friend.

As long as you got a first name from someone who opted into your list, this is EASY using merge fields feature in your CRM.

This draws each contact’s name from your database and inputs it wherever you placed the merge field.

But don’t stop at just their name, if they are previous customers you can use things like their city name or company name within the email copy to make the overall message feel way more personal.

2) Stay on Message:

Do you remember your favorite clothing brand as a teenager?

Would you still go out and buy something from there today?

I don’t think so.

People change, trends change, fashions change, seasons change, everything changes.

Knowing this simple fact helps you appreciate those people on your email list that open, click, and engage with your brand and content.

As for everyone else, something changed. Maybe it was your brand, maybe it was their preferences, or an extremely small meteor came rocketing down through the stratosphere and hit them on the head while they were walking into Starbucks.

I don’t know. My money’s on the last one.

Knowing that people will eventually change is important.

While they are interested in what you have, make sure to keep them interested by sending them what they’re looking for.

If they are into women’s workout clothing make sure you offer them primarily that.

It’s okay to sprinkle in some additional things like accessories or streetwear but keeping the main message and focusing on their interest is key. If you start sending things too off-the-mark like men’s suits you can be sure they’ll tune you out real quick.

For a small business, this could mean creating 5 or 6 unique emails to send to your list. Each would lead with the primary type of product/service those subscribers are interested in. You would also sprinkle in some other products perhaps towards the bottom.

This will lead to higher engagement as they seek out the products they like the most. If they connect with some of the other products, great you can start sending them information around those products as well.

From time to time it’s good practice to ask them what they would like to see more/less of. You can either do this with a survey or, depending on your system, can audit people that clicked on a certain category or product.

Sometimes people purchase things for others and end up getting email after email for children’s clothes because they made one purchase. But if you looked at their click history it might tell you they have never clicked on children’s clothes but instead women’s apparel.

This is one way to personalize what content you send to people based on their viewing habit or preferences.

3) Similar Price/Category:

Another way to personalize their experience to to pull in their past purchase history. If they buy a lot of items for the home that range in price between $10-$40 you can offer them other products in a similar price range or category.

It would be off the mark if you started sending them offers for $4,000 patio sets, but not a stretch if you sent related $30-$60 home decor items.

Using either price or product categories allows you to expand their interest, raise their average order rate and possibly price without being drastically different or “off message.”

4) Send Times/Days:

In an ideal world you want to send to people when they are most likely to purchase or take action. Throughout the day, people tend to check email for a variety of reasons.

Here’s a good article on when people are most likely to take certain actions: https://blog.getresponse.com/best-time-to-send-email-infographic.html

This isn’t set in stone, so it is worth testing on your own.

One way to optimize for people’s preferences is to send emails at the desired time but in their local timezone.

Most CRM will allow you to send email in the customer’s local timezone. This requires that you queue up any emails you want to send well in advance (24+ hours might be needed to send at the appropriate times). We call this the “sledgehammer” approach since not all providers can do personalized user send times.

If you can, send emails to people based on their past open times and not just their location that is ideal.

This way you ensure that you send them the most relevant messages at just the right time.

In our experience this isn’t a function of the most common email providers but can be achieved with more advanced services like sailthru.com.

Compared to the sledgehammer this would be the “scalpel” approach.

It is HIGHLY effective because people build habits around just about everything – including their email. If you can hit them right around when they check their email, then they’re extremely likely to open and engage.

Next Steps

There you have it, three strategies that you can begin to implement TODAY for your business.

Now what are you going to do about it?

New information is useless unless you apply it.

There was no point in you reading all the way down to the end of this article if you just intend to click on through to the next one and never take action on it.

Leave us a comment below – how are you going to use these strategies for your email list?


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