Email open rates: all you need to know

Does this sound familiar? >> You just sent an email to your subscribers, and you’re sitting in your chair, waiting to start hitting the refresh button to watch the open rates roll in…

We’ve all been there. 

Have you heard about marketers who consistently get 60% email open rate and wondered how they do it? What’s their secret sauce and how you can get those kind of results?

Today I’m going to walk you through the anatomy of the open rate. I’ll go much deeper than subject lines, and will show you all factors that are at stake. After reading this post, you’ll have all the tools you need to start reaching more people.

There is a special (& fat) bonus at the end, so be sure to read all the way through.

Anatomy of email open rates

Anatomy of email open rates: subject line, preview text, sender name, send time, list quality, email content. Infographic

Email cover

Here is a hard truth: your email is judged by its cover (or candy wrap, as in this email candy store analogy). Email cover consists of three things: “from” name, subject line, and preview text. Let’s discuss each one in detail.

“From” Name

“From” name is the most important piece of your email cover, even more so than the subject line, because “from” name is the trust indicator.

If subscribers trust your name and associate it with positive things (quality content, helpful solutions, budget-friendly deals) or emotions (fun, helpful, relatable), they will be inclined to open your messages every time. After all, that’s why we always open emails from friends and family first; we trust them.

To make subscribers trust you, you need to deliver remarkable value to their inbox (which ties with the last point of this blog post), and be consistent. If you do that, you’ll create a habit loop where your subscribers will see your name in their inbox > associate it with trust and relevant emotions > open your email.

Email Marketing Habit Loop. Email open rates depend on the "from name" in your emails. If you consistently deliver valuable info, your name starts associating with trust and creates a positive habit loop.

You should also A/B test different combinations of your name to see which one resonates the most with your subscribers. Here are a few name combinations to test — run a series of A/B tests with these to decide which one to go with (I’ll use my own name as an example):

  • Kasey Luck
  • Bold & Zesty
  • Kasey @ Bold & Zesty
  • Kasey from Bold & Zesty
  • Bold & Zesty team
  • Kasey Luck | Bold & Zesty

Subject Line

Subject line is the second biggest factor when it comes to open rates, and that’s why it’s worth every minute of your time.

I believe that writing good subject lines is a mini-art, and I spent months analyzing how top marketers do it and testing their approaches on my own email campaigns.

Here are the attributes that make an email subject line irresistible:

  • It uses conversational tone (as if the email was coming from a friend);
  • It’s direct;
  • It’s intriguing;
  • It’s personal;
  • It includes an exact number;
  • It indicates scarcity.  

You need to make sure your subject line has 2-3 of the these attributes to be effective.

To make this process easier I created a workbook that I’ve included in the bonus section at the end of this article (I’ve used it to write some of my best-performing subject lines).  

Preview Text

The final piece of your email that subscribers see without opening it is the preview text. Treat it as your second subject line and take full advantage of this opportunity to make your email cover more compelling. Here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to preview text:

  • Don’t leave the default text as is
  • Don’t repeat the subject line
  • Do create a feeling of curiosity
  • Do add details to the subject line

Do's and Dont's of email preview text. Preview text affects your email open rate, so make sure you optimize it in every email you send to your subscribers. |  Email Open Rates — 10 Strategies to Increase Open Rates

PRO-tip: The number of characters you get for your preview text depends on how long your subject line is. To make sure it displays the way you intend to, test your email campaign across different devices and email clients (send a test to a few friends on different devices, and ask them to send you a screenshot of their inbox).

Send time

Whether you catch your subscribers at the right time is directly related to whether they’ll open your email. If they’re busy with something else, your email might get buried and forgotten. But if you manage to catch them at the moment they’re thinking about your topic, you’ll hit the jackpot.

Day of the Week

Day of the week will generally affect your open rate, I just can’t tell you how. The truth is, the stats are all over the place when it comes to “perfect send day”, and that’s because different things work for different businesses.

Test each day of the week a few times, and you should see some patterns. At a previous company, our go-to days for sending campaigns were Tuesday and Thursday, around 10am and 4:30pm on both days. Those send times consistently and significantly outperformed all others. Our weekend open rates sounded like crickets, even though those are the off-peak days and have worked for others.

Bottom line: what worked for others might not work for you. Run tests to find what gets results for your brand.

Time of the Day

Think of where your subscribers are and what they’re doing when your email hits their inbox. Are they…

  • in bed, scrolling down their inbox on mobile to weed out the “deletes” before they get to their desk
  • at their desk, doing their morning inbox check
  • starting to get actual work done (i.e. not in their inbox)
  • at lunch break
  • wrapping up the day and doing the last email check
  • at a party and will only get back to inbox next morning, when your email will be buried at the bottom of the “morning pile”

As a general rule, it’s good to catch subscribers in the morning, but not too early if you want them to open your email on desktop (especially important if you want them to take action), but there are many exceptions to this rule.

Kissmetrics produced a great infographic, breaking down the day into zones according to the open rates in that time period. Curiously enough, some of my most effective sales emails at a previous job went out at 10 and 10:30 am, which falls in their “Do Not Disturb” zone.  This proves the importance of TESTING tactics before you trust them.

The time when you send emails to your subscribers list affects your open rate. Here is an infographic Kissmetrics created to summarize the open rate stats they collected. One thing to keep in mind: always test tactics before fully trusting them, as different things work for different businesses. | How to increase email open rates - a list of strategies

Full infographic.

List Quality

Although it’s not as obvious as email cover and send time, your list quality also determines your open rates. This is why open rates for bought lists are not very cheerful (high list quality implies that everybody intentionally signed up for the email list). There are more dimensions to list quality, such as list size, its age and warmth, as well as the segmentation level.

List Size

Generally, the bigger the list, the lower the open rates. A possible explanation might be that smaller companies have more personal relationships with their subscribers. It’s also linked with the next point, as bigger lists tend to also be older (because it takes time to build a large email list).

List Age

If a person signed up for your list a long time ago, there is a higher chance that they:

  1. changed their email address;
  2. lost interest in your brand / offer;
  3. forgot who you are and why they signed up in the first place.

These factors increase bounce rate and decrease open rate. This doesn’t mean you need to delete all of your old subscribers, of course; there still might be quite a few die-hard fans in there.

However, do expect open rates to be a bit lower as your list grows older. You can make up for this effect if you grow your list fast, as new and engaged subscribers will offset the effect of the unengaged ones.

It’s also advisable to clean up your list every 6 months by deleting subscribers who haven’t opened a single email from you in that time frame. “Losing” subscribers in bulk can be scary, but it’s the right thing to do, like extracting your wisdom teeth. Deleting inactive subscribers will reduce your costs, increase engagement level, and send a positive signal to ISPs (improving your chances of avoiding the spam folders).

Nurtured vs. cold subscribers

Nurtured subscribers are warm leads — they are well familiar with your brand and engaged with your content. Cold subscribers don’t have a clear reason to stay subscribed — they either stay “just in case” you throw in something interesting or they just don’t bother to unsubscribe.

Of course, it pays to have more subscribers of the first kind. They don’t just drive up open rates; they actually take action, which is the real reason we care so much about open rates.

List Segmentation

Emailing a highly targeted segment of your list will result in higher open rates and stronger engagement, because your message will be highly relevant to recipients. Niche lists will always outperform more general lists in terms of open rates, but they also have a lower number of subscribers, so it’s a balancing act between keeping your lists (or segments) focused, but not too small.

According to a study done by MailChimp that measured stats across 11,000 segmented campaigns to ~9 million subscribers, segmented campaigns have a 14% higher open rate than their non-segmented counterparts.

If you can segment your list and send a more relevant campaign to segments, do that. Yes, it requires extra work, but it will pay off with higher open rate, higher click rate, better engagement, and overall higher list quality.

If you’re wondering how you can segment your list (even if you only collect names and email addresses), check out the free bonus package I put together below:

Email Open Rates — All You Need To Know To Increase Open Rates on Marketing Emails


The last factor that affects open rates is one that we forget about because it comes after subscriber opens the message. But ultimately, content has a huge impact on email open rates because that’s what your subscribers judge you by over time. Content is a tool for building trust and long-term engagement.

If you consistently write amazing content for your email campaigns, people will actively wait for your newsletters and open them almost regardless of their subject lines. I know I have newsletters like that in my inbox. They are written by people who consistently produce content that actually has an effect on my life and business, so I feel like I would miss out if I didn’t read their messages.

Here is a good rule of thumb by Jacob McMillen: don’t send emails you wouldn’t want to receive. It’s a simple concept you need to remember if you want to enjoy high open rates on the regular.


Resend your email to the “didn’t open” list

I recommend using this technique only for emails that are really important, where a slight change in the open rate can really make a difference.

After a few days of sending the original email campaign, replicate it, write a new subject line and send it to people who didn’t open the original email campaign. (I’ve included a video tutorial for how to do that at the end of this article.)

This tends to add about 10% to the open rate, which might be just the push you need when making product announcement or sending final sale reminders. The re-sends also tend to have a slightly higher unsubscribe rate than regular campaigns, but I don’t sweat about that too much. As long as you don’t re-send too often, it’s healthy to have people who are not interested unsubscribe. This will keep your list more focused and engaged (and will increase your open rates!)

Ready to take your email game to the next level? Here are a few bonuses to guide you along.

So, now you know everything that goes into your open rates. After I discovered and applied each of these principles, I saw a pleasant jump in my open rates and overall engagement of my email list.

I want you to have the same results.

I’ve given you the roadmap, but I also prepared a few bonuses to help you further:

  1. Email subject line workbook that guides you through the process of creating a killer subject line (and includes examples from the experts)
  2. A guide with 7 smart ways you can segment your email list, even if you’re only collecting email addresses
  3. A video where I show you how to clean up your email list step-by-step (plus how to re-send your newsletter to the didn’t open list)
  4. Finally, a checklist version of this post for easy keeping (send it to your iPad or Kindle for easy reference)

To get all the goodness, enter the bonus section by signing up here.

Free download: Email subject line workbook that guides you through the process of creating a killer subject line (and includes examples from the experts) A guide with 7 smart ways you can segment your email list, even if you’re only collecting email addresses A video where I show you how to clean up your email list step-by-step (plus how to re-send your newsletter to the didn’t open list) Finally, a checklist version of this post for easy keeping (send it to your iPad or Kindle for easy reference) |  Email Open Rates - 10 Best Tips to Improve Marketing Email Open Rates