We’ve all been there: a new email notification pops up on our phones, and we see we’ve gotten a newsletter from a company we’ve subscribed to. Maybe we click in and read for half a minute before clicking back out again; maybe we leave it unread planning to come back and read it later; or maybe we move it straight into the trash can. What percentage of email newsletters do we open and read all the way through to the end? And, as a business owner, how can you tell what sets those newsletters apart from the ones that have you hitting the unsubscribe button?

Know Your Audience

The one universal key to effective email campaigns is to know the audience of people you’re trying to reach. Who are they, how did they find you, what made them sign up for your email list in the first place? And most importantly, what can your newsletter provide that they need? Your audience might be a narrow demographic of age, location, or industry— or it might have nothing to do with demographics and simply appeal to people based on some common interest you address.

If your audience is chosen by virtue of being members of your organization or clients of your business, then you need to know the content that will pique their interest. You can find this out with a short questionnaire or by inviting comments on social media. This will help you target your content by focusing on topics your audience actively wants to hear about. It’s a good idea to keep a running list of ideas and links, that way when it comes time to put the newsletter together you have a source of material waiting for you. 

Give Before You Take

If the only time your subscribers see your company name in their inbox is attached to the words “sale” or “promotion”, your newsletter open rate is likely to be pretty low. Asking your subscribers for their money or time can only come after you’ve demonstrated you add value to their lives. Provide content they can rely on being worth the time spent to open and read.

Hubspot, a marketing and sales software company, reports that the best newsletters are 90% informative, 10% promotional. So if you’re struggling to fill your emails with content that doesn’t ask your audience to spend money, it may be time to rethink your strategy. Start building that source of interesting content we talked about earlier, and consider reducing the frequency of your emails so each one can pack a better punch.

Look, Feel, and Phrasing

It takes the human brain a fraction of a second to get a visual impression of something, so your newsletter should be easy to engage with, start to finish.

The subject line of your email is the fish hook; it needs to be baited just right to get your audience to bite. Mountains of research have been compiled about how to create the best subject line around, what words to include, what words to avoid, but we think the most important thing is for your subject line to be concise. The ideal length is seven words, around 41 characters in length, and should include either a call to action (CTA) or provide a snapshot of what the reader will gain by opening it. And don’t sleep on the preview text; it acts as a second subject line and therefore a second chance to boost your newsletter open rate.

And when your readers open your newsletter, what will they see? Again, there are many comprehensive guides to making a newsletter visually appealing, but the must-haves are legibility and consistency. Create a style guide that defines which fonts and colors you’ll be using, and use them in every email. (MailChimp and other email marketing platforms can store these for you.) Remember that about two-thirds of emails are read on a mobile device, so be sure to test your newsletter for mobile platforms as well as desktop. Break up walls of text with images or videos. And keep it short— if you have a lot to say, consider writing it as a blog post and linking that in your newsletter, rather than asking your audience to read a long post when they thought they were just getting small chunks of information.

Check In, Course Correct

Hands down, the most effective tool in your pocket as far as optimizing your newsletter open rate is data. Most email marketing clients have reporting built in, but if you’re not looking at the information and using it to guide your strategy, it’s wasted intel.

If you haven’t explored A/B testing through your email client, now may be the time. A/B testing, also known as split testing, is as simple as comparing version A of something with version B. You can send the same newsletter with different subject lines to see which one gets opened more; you can send different newsletters with the same subject line to see which one generates more click-throughs. However you use it, it shows you in real time how your readers are responding to your content, and lets you change that content to target their preferences more accurately. Once you have the data, the only wrong move is not to do anything with it. Altering your strategy to suit your actual reader base keeps you current and relevant, and makes you more likely to stay in your audience’s inbox instead of driving them toward the dreaded Unsubscribe. As long as you keep tabs on what your subscribers want, they’ll be happy to keep opening your newsletters for a long time to come.