4 Steps to Writing Emails with Drastically Higher Open and Click-Through Rates

email list
Even if your email list is huge, poor open and click-through rates prevent you from spreading the word about your marketing campaigns. Image by s3aphotography via Flickr.

We’ve all been there.

Your marketing campaign is ready to launch, your landing page is up and your sales funnel is locked down tight. You’ve got everything you need, minus one thing: customers.

But, ah, you’re in luck. A smart marketer like you has in their possession what is still the most valuable resource in the world of online marketing: an email list.

You compose a “come on over” message, drop in one or two images, proofread it, click send and then… nothing.

Well, maybe not nothing, but definitely less than you were hoping.

With average email open-rates hovering just around 28% and click-through rates at a measly 4.3%, these are lean times.

But what if you could write emails that get twice the average open rate, and four times the average CTR?

Sound crazy?

Here’s a screenshot of my last five blog email blasts:


In other words, it ain’t crazy. And you can do it too.

To help you capture results like those, I’ve put together four steps to writing engaging emails that will drastically increase your open and click-through rates.

1. Write like a human… to other humans

The number one mistake most email marketers make is writing like a business.

Unless you’re about to announce that you just released the iPhone 7, not writing like a real human to other real humans is killing your open and click-through rates.

In her book Content Rules, MarketingProfs’ Chief Content Officer Ann Handley calls this all-important human element “voice,” which she defines as: “the way your writing sounds when it’s read.”

As Handley puts it, voice is “what the writer brings to words on the page, making it clear that they are written by a human with a certain personality and viewpoint.

Erika Napoletano embodies this principle perfectly. A contributor to American Express OPEN Forum and Entrepreneur Magazine, Erika’s email newsletter – “Useful Sh!t for Working and Living” – covers topics as diverse as authenticity, failure and one particularly interesting mix up with an online dating site.

One of her recent emails opened with this (cheeky) gem:

For three hours every Tuesday, and for the past eight weeks, I’ve stepped willingly into a room to get my ass handed to me. No silver platter, no bow or nice wrapping job. Just straight up, raw ass. Handed to me.

Human to the core!

So, how can you write like a human?

The easiest way is to actually picture yourself in a real conversation and simply write the way you’d talk.

Then read it out loud. If anything smacks of non-conversationality (like the word “non-conversationality”) get rid of it. Keep it simple and keep it natural.

Also, just to be safe, after you compose your email, cross-check it with Forbes’ list of “The Most Annoying, Pretentious And Useless Business Jargon.” Be ruthless and cut any that apply.

2. Pay attention to the only three lines that matter

An estimated 65% of all emails are now opened on a mobile device.

That means, when it comes to open rates, you’ve got just three lines to convince the average subscriber to come inside:

  1. Subject line
  2. The first line of your email
  3. From line

Why only these three?

Because those are the only three lines that mobile devices display.

Here are some screenshots of exactly what I’m talking about:

rsz_image00 (1)
On mobile devices, only three lines are visible to prospects. Click to enlarge.

As you can see, for each device the only three lines displayed are the subject line, the first line from the body and the “from” line.

For the first two – the subject line and the first line – here’s all you have to remember:

  • Keep it short. As you can see in the screenshots above, you’ll get just around 35 characters before most displays cut you off.
  • Make it personal. Yes, use your subscriber’s name whenever possible, but also use pop culture references relevant to your demographics, emoticons and slang (when appropriate). Throw in numbers and data if possible, and above all, ask questions (see #4 on this list).
  • Lead with the benefits. Always start off with your product or service’s single most drool-inducing, pain-relieving, pleasure-producing benefit.

Frank Kern – the self-proclaimed “President of the Internet” – exemplifies all three. Here are the last three email subject lines from his most recent product launch:

  • Aaron! (OPEN UP)
  • Process map (pdf), cheat sheet + live stuff :-)
  • BIG NEWS. (Very cool free stuff for you)

When it comes to the “from” line, make sure your email is actually coming from you, as in, the real you.

Avoid “from” lines that sound like they’re from faceless entities like sales@yourbusiness.com, service@yourbusiness.com, or support@yourbusiness.com. Brian Clark lists this as one of “The Three Key Elements of Irresistible Email Subject Lines.”

3. Make your emails mobile responsive

I already mentioned that an estimated 65% of all emails are now opened on a mobile device.

Even more to the point, 42% of those mobile users delete emails that don’t display on their devices correctly.

You need to optimize your emails for mobile. This is what’s known as responsive design: emails whose text and images automatically adjust to the screen size they’re displayed on.

Fast Company’s Co.Design WEEKLY is a perfect example:

Fast Company’s Co.Design WEEKLY mobile responsive emails scale to adapt to different screen sizes.

The good news is that more and more email marketing providers offer responsive design templates – but be careful.

Be sure that you preview and test your emails across a multiplicity of devices and screen sizes before sending.

This point was summarized perfectly in a recent Forbes article:

If you want to reach out to potential customers and increase your email leads, then you need to make the experience better for your audience.

For example, Hostt suggests that you reduce the size of file images, resize images by proportion and make use of clickable CTA buttons.

And while you’re at it, make those clickable CTAs prominent and thumb-friendly – make sure there are no other hyperlinks in the vicinity that users might accidentally click on.

Whatever you do, make sure you’re stepping into the shoes of your mobile users. Make the experience of engaging with your emails seamless – and watch your CTRs grow.

4. Ask questions

If you want to create engaging and click-compelling emails, then you need to engage your subscribers in an actual conversation. In my experience, the best way to achieve this is to ask questions.

Why questions?

Because questions move your readers from passive recipients to active participants. In other words, questions spark engagement.

Even more powerfully, questions create what Bob Sterling, founder of Profit Alchemy, calls an open loop:

The mind cannot stand an open loop. It has to close that loop. So the person is almost forced to make a choice and respond.

By ending an email with an inquisitive cliff hanger, you leave the loop open, which is uncomfortable.

For example, here’s what not to do:

Hi Gary,

Are you still interested in one-on-one coaching for your [niche business]?

If you are, that’s great, because over the next week I’ll be offering my comprehensive [niche business] ebook absolutely for free as well as giving you a sneak peak into my coaching methodology itself.

What’s more, I’ll be offering a complimentary one-on-one session with the first 50 people who sign up through the link below.

So click here to get ahold of all those awesome freebies (and more).



I know this feels counterintuitive, but just ask the question… and then stop.

Hi Gary,

Are you still interested in one-on-one coaching for your [niche business]?



Ironically, the very same reason that you want to “close the loop” with an offer is exactly the same reason your audience will be compelled to respond.

The key is to simply let them. Ask a question and then… leave it open.

I recently sent out an open-loop email for a client who produces high-end, elementary curriculum. All the email said was:

Hi [Name],

Are you still interested in elementary [niche] curriculum?


The open rates were in the mid-60% range.

And the subject line was about as simple as you could get: “Hi [Name]” That’s right, exactly the same as the first line.

Even more wonderful than those open rates, people actually wrote back. A lot of people in fact. About an hour after the emails went out, the client sent me a short note of her own that simply said, “There’s too many responses. Can you help?”

Talk about a good problem.

Let’s put this all together

The proof is in the numbers. If you want to double your open rates and more than quintuple your CTRs, here are four steps to apply to your next email campaign.

  1. Write like a human… to other humans.
  2. Pay attention to the only three lines that matter.
  3. Make your emails mobile responsive.
  4. Ask questions.

Of course, I’m sure I haven’t covered them all – what are your favorite tips? Let me know in the comments.

— Aaron Orendorff


About Aaron Orendorff
Aaron Orendorff is the VP of Marketing at Common Thread Collective, an ecommerce growth agency helping DTC brands scale beyond $2M-$30M. Previously, he served as Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus; his work has appeared on The New York Times, Forbes, Mashable, Business Insider and more. If you’d like to connect with Aaron, reach out via social — he’s a sucker for DMs about content marketing, bunnies, and rejection.
» More blog posts by Aaron Orendorff


  1. Marketing Bees

    I know that a stat of 42% deleted emails seems “scary” but I expected even higher rate, at least based on my experience

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Just under half freaks me out, but what really makes me shiver is that I have no doubt the number is going nowhere but UP as the demand (and expectation) of genuinely responsive email increases.

      I’m super curious to see where 2015’s numbers end up.

      Thanks for the note.

  2. Alfonso

    Very good post, I hope to increase my ratio with your advices,… we will see it in my next newsletters. Thanks

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Alfonso … thanks for the comment.

      Well, thanks for the kind and encouraging comment, those are ALWAYS awesome to get. ;-)

      And totally let me know via Twitter or email (you can sign up for my list over at the iconiContent site) what kinda human and engaging content you use in your next campaign and if the advice helps your numbers.

  3. StartupKevin

    “Write like a human… to other humans” This is gold.

    I’ve tested many different email headlines.. the one that still gets by far the most opens is “Hey”.

  4. Bevan

    What about regularity: every week, I get xyz company’s email.

  5. Jason Kutasi

    Really good article. Not much was “new” per se, BUT for some reason I’d never thought how important the first line of the email is – particularly as related to mobile. Line #1 = Offer #1. Thx!

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Thanks Jason … and you’re totally right. I get that same feeling whenever I listen to the geniuses over at I Love Marketing (in fact, they often point out that ALL they’re doing is reminding folks and driving home the things we already know … BUT desperately need to apply).

  6. Rabia Saeed

    you think really distinctive here!

  7. Jeff Schultz

    Hi Aaron,

    I think you really nailed on these three points. One other that I think is worth mentioning directly is keeping emails content light. Your example of the simple question email is a perfect example. So is the email that served up this article.

    One of the reasons I trash content distribution emails regularly is too much information! Thank you for keeping the unbounce.com emails easy to open and decide if I should click through to read.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Oh, for sure! I ALWAYS cringe when I get an email — esp. from a content distributor — with more than one CTA. I don’t mind multiple articles for me to peruse, particularly if they use a responsive layout with images. But the original sin of email marketing is TOO much information.

  8. james brown

    You have mentioned here important points. Many times, we’ve heard that marketer asked “why our email ignored or not opened by the receivers?”. I think it’s simple means that first you need to focus on your targeted audience and then, follow all the above rules of an effective email marketing.

  9. Charis

    This is the post which really worth reading. All the points which you have mentioned are very important and most of us really don’t know all these important ones.

  10. StartupCatchup

    Excellent write up and number 3, “Make your emails mobile responsive” is one that really stands out. It’s KEY to getting across to your target audience – no one likes to pinch and zoom anymore than they have to already!

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Actually, I’ve got a couple of pieces coming out on the necessity of mobile responsive emails. One scheduled for MarketingProfs in Dec. and another I’m hoping will go up on Copyblogger in a few weeks.

      Thanks for the encouragement.

      And just know … I’m probably gonna steal that line about “no one likes to pinch and zoom anymore than they have to already!”

  11. Erika Napoletano

    Thanks for the mention, Aaron – it’s always helpful to me to hear why people keep clicking ‘open’ when I send out the blog or blast every now and then :) Cheers!

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Erika, thank you. I’ve forwarded your last few emails to friends who are totally not in the copywriting/marketing world just because your style and insights are so damn rawly and honestly human.

      And thank you for the comment too. I got all giddy when I saw your name pop up … but really, I’m cool. :-)

  12. Sweeney

    Hey UnBounce I love you!

    Not but.. seriously.

    Anyways I feature your content a decent bit in our Friday Reload (http://digitaltriggers.io/category/friday-reload/).

    This one though was GREAT. Perfect amount of science and actionable. Plus some Kern, everyone always likes some Kern.

    Lastly, just wanted to say that #2 has created a HUGE lift for me.

    Take Care,

    • Amanda Durepos

      Thanks for your kind words, Sweeney. :) We’re lucky to have some pretty awesome contributors (like Aaron).

      Thank you for featuring us!

  13. Aaron Orendorff

    Sweeney … nice, a love note! Even if it wasn’t addressed directly to me, I’ll take it.

    Actually, thanks for spreading the content and for those awesomely kind words.

    Plus it’s crazy great to hear that the article is making a real impact! I’d love to hear more about the lift.

  14. connecticut472

    Great tips!
    I agree with you.Thanks for sharing awesome post.
    Best wishes,

  15. Darragh McCurragh

    Thanks for your pertinent tips; these are above-average, astonishing open rates. “… drop in one or two images …” – that is for those who try and get people to open HTML. I usually advise clients to use text mails still and then save the juicy stuff for a visit on their website. I actually try to educate mail recipients that these mails are but leads to a bigger “package” on the websites so that not only do they open them but then, as the beans are not spilt there, move on to the site to get traffic plus, hopefully, get them to further navigate there (and “grab some cookies ;-) …).

  16. bostjan

    I think that the most important part to get higher rates is content itself. No matter what you do, without an interesting content there will be no results.

  17. Roland

    Just today started thinking about using emoticons in message headlines and found this post. I’m writing a blog soon regarding this topic and will reference your blog post. :)

    Also, when creating a website or an email, I think mobile-first as phones become more and more easy to use. In my experience, this proves to bring better results.

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