5 Email Marketing Mistakes That Are Killing Your Open Rates

Email open rates suffering? Make your emails as personalized and delightful as good old snail mail. Image source.

Email marketing isn’t dead.

With email nearly 40 times more effective at acquiring new customers than Facebook and Twitter, it is very much alive.

That’s great news – provided your open rates aren’t suffering. After all, conversions are a moot point if your emails aren’t being opened to begin with.

What you can do is focus on what it is that is killing your open rates and then get to work at fixing them. Let’s take a look at five all-too-common offenders.

1. Poor subject line copy

It should come as no surprise that email subject lines impact open rate. In fact, 33% of email recipients open email based on subject line alone.

We all receive tons of emails on a daily basis and many of them remain unopened. Subject lines have to be strong if they are going to jump out at you from the inbox. So how do you write an eye-catching subject line that entices subscribers to click?

Good email subject line copywriting habits

  • Be concise – With so many emails in your customers’ inbox competing for their attention, your subject line needs to be considered and well-crafted. Effective subject line copy is normally quite short in length (generally speaking under 50 characters), descriptive and to the point.
  • Avoid buzzwordsMailChimp recently conducted an analysis into subject lines and found that, as well as the word “free,” the following words should be avoided as they may negatively affect your open rates:
    • Help
    • Percent off
    • Reminder
  • Get personal – Adding the recipient’s name to the subject line is also something to be considered. According to a report by Adestra, personalized subject lines are 22.2% more likely to be opened.
  • Offer an incentive – Your subject line copy should give users a reason to open the email. This can be done by mentioning something relevant, giving them an incentive to open or by adding a sense of urgency. (Don’t get too carried away – copy that’s brash or salesy will turn subscribers off.)
  • Test, test, test – Although these are general rules, the best way to know what resonates with your audience is to start testing. No audience is the same, so find out what works well with your customers by conducting A/B tests.

What not to do (an example of a poor subject line)

Just for fun, I want to share one of the worst subject lines I’ve seen in my inbox recently.
A little context: I’m looking to get a new place and am registered with a few estate agents who regularly send me emails with property details.

Email open rates: Estate example

Although I am 100% interested in the email content, I wouldn’t have known from the subject line. Here’s why it falls short:

  • With its use of all caps and five exclamation marks, the subject line comes across as aggressive, not very friendly and even spammy.
  • The phrase “Bye-bye open days” (in reference to open houses) doesn’t communicate the benefits of opening the email. I actually like open days, so the fact that they are no longer holding them is negative for me.
  • The addition of “(And a house list)” doesn’t add much value as it isn’t very specific to my needs. A better approach would be to communicate how many new houses they’ve added, or if there is a house in my desired location.

A better subject line for this email would have been:

6 new houses in E17. £300,000 – £375,000. Book a viewing for this weekend.

  • The highly-specific subject line leads with the house list, which contains new properties in my search area (the E17 postcode). Coupled with the listed price range (which is in my budget), I’m motivated to open the email and book a viewing.
  • It has removed the negative connotation that “bye-bye open days” invokes.
  • It creates a sense of urgency around securing an appointment by mentioning “this weekend.”

Putting time into crafting good subject line copy is essential if you want your emails to be opened. Consider what the reader has shown an interest in, or add something that is personally relevant.

2. Lack of segmentation

The poor example above would have been much more successful if the sender had made use of segmentation to target my location and price range. If you can’t segment your audience based on interests, location or other factors, then you will not be able to write subject line copy that is relevant to them. This in turn affects your open rates.

MailChimp analyzed the open rates for over 200 million emails and found that segmented campaigns have an average of 14.4% better open rate than non-segmented campaigns.

The aim is to move away from mass email blasts (where the entire list receives the exact same message) in favor of a more segmented approach. This helps marketers send more relevant messages. Your email list could be segmented by:

  • Location
  • Language
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Past purchase behavior
  • Vertical type

There are many other ways to segment an email list and the key is to get started. If you don’t yet have any of the above data on your customers, you can start collecting it by asking customers what they are interested in your autoresponder welcome series.

Email segmentation done right

The example below is the page I was directed to after signing up for the H&M mailing list. They asked me to submit gender and location details – likely so they can segment email campaigns more effectively.

Email open rates: H&M newsletter

If you are able to access purchase data, you might consider sending upsells or cross-sells based on items customers have purchased previously. Below is an email I received from Amazon recently. I was sent this because they knew that I had purchased a book by the same author and thought I may be interested in their new title. I was interested, so I opened the email and guess what? I bought the book.

Email open rates: Amazon example

Multichannel retailer SwayChic implemented a segmentation strategy and saw fantastic results. They ran various tests and customized emails based on their customers’ purchase behavior (one-time buyer, frequent or inactive customer). The result? They increased average open rates by 40%!

The better your segmentation, the higher your open rates will be and in turn, the more effective your marketing campaigns will become.

3. Lack of automation (triggered emails)

Automated emails are emails that are triggered by events such as a purchase or a download. They can also be triggered by:

  • A visitor abandoning their cart with an item in it (triggering a cart abandon series)
  • A subscriber joining a community (triggering a welcome series)
  • A subscriber becoming dormant (triggering a reactivation series)
  • A subscriber purchasing a product that needs replenishment, such as contact lenses (triggering a replenishment series)

These types of emails have been seen to yield 71% higher open rates and 102% higher click rates than non-triggered email messages. This is huge. Triggered emails are not only segmented, but they are also sent in a timely manner. And that ensures that they are relevant to the subscriber.

Email automation done right

The example below is a triggered email I was sent a few days after browsing concert tickets. I had the tickets in my cart, but didn’t complete the transaction. The next day I received this email, with a discount incentive to complete my order.

Email open rates: Stereophonics example

What did I do? I opened it immediately because it was relevant to me and the concert was still on my mind.

Side note: The Stereophonics are awesome live.

4. Lazy list management

Whether you’re collecting bad data, not removing hard bounces or emailing inactive subscribers, lazy list management can affect your open rates. Ultimately, being lazy about managing your list results in one of two things:

  1. People receive email they’re not interested in
  2. ISPs don’t deliver email messages

You guessed it – both of these are bad for open rates.

So how can you be more responsible about managing your list?

Create a permission-based in-house list

43% of email recipients click the spam button based on the “from” name or email address, so it’s important that email recipients know who you are and expect to receive emails from you. And it’s extremely important that you have their permission.

Building a permission based in-house list isn’t difficult. Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Ask permission after a purchase by including a checkbox that encourages users to also opt in to your mailing list.
  • Implement an email sign up form that allows users who aren’t ready to purchase to still give you their email address. The form could be added to your homepage, landing pages or on social media.
  • Offer an incentive in return for their email address. This could be anything from a discount on their first purchase to a free piece of content.
  • Set expectations with email subscribers. Tell them the types of emails you will send and how often they will be emailed.

Below is a good example of a newsletter signup form used by H&M. They give an outline about the type of information they will be sending (offers, style tips and fashion news) and also offer a discount incentive for each sign up.

email open rates: H&M newsletter signup example

They could have taken it a step further and stated how often they will send marketing emails.

Upkeep your list

Once an in-house list of email subscribers has been built, it’s important to manage it effectively. Here are some basics you should know:

  • If a user no longer wants to receive email messages from your company, they should be able to easily unsubscribe or change their email preferences.
  • Unsubscribes should be removed from email lists in a timely manner. This is extremely important, not only for list hygiene but also because of the CAN-SPAM act. Unsubscribes which are not removed could cause recipients to report email messages as spam, or even worse – result in a hefty fine for not adhering to the law.
  • Hard bounces (email addresses that no longer exist) should also be removed from your database. Email lists with 10% or more hard-bounced email subscribers get only 44% of their email delivered by ISPs. And guess what? If email messages are not being delivered, then they will not be opened.

Which brings me to my next point…

5. Poor deliverability and engagement

Another major factor which affects open rates is poor overall deliverability and low engagement with past campaigns.

Deliverability and list management are closely linked. Sending campaigns to a permission-based list is less likely to result in deliverability issues as recipients are expecting to receive emails and are more likely to engage.

ISPs will look at who you are sending to, how often, the number of abuse complaints from sends and whether email is opened or clicked on. All of these factors determine your reputation with your ISP and affect whether your emails are delivered to your subscribers’ inboxes.

Make sure your email gets delivered

83% of the time, if your email isn’t arriving at its destination, it’s due to poor reputation with ISPs.

Don’t fret! There are many ways to ensure your email is delivered:

  • Implement a double opt-in – Asking email subscribers to confirm their email address before they are added to the list will ensure cleaner data and in turn improve delivery rates.
  • Only send to engaged users – Sending to recipients who have opened or clicked through to your campaigns within the last six months will increase the likelihood of emails landing in the inbox.
  • Give recipients access to a preference center – A preference center, where a user can select which type of emails they would like to receive, is a good alternative to only giving the option to unsubscribe. If you have many lists, this allows users to opt out from some emails but stay on the list for others.

Here’s an example of a preference center we use at Yola:

Email open rate: Communications preferences example
Yola’s preference center allows subscribers to opt out of various types of email messages, including promotions, announcements and newsletters.

The key to improving open rates is to send relevant emails to recipients who want to hear from you. It’s as simple as that.

Putting it all together

If your open rates are suffering, your recipient either doesn’t know you or just isn’t interested in the content of your campaign.

Anticipate (and avoid) this by effectively segmenting lists by personal or purchase data. Sending targeted messages in a timely manner will increase the relevancy of campaigns and make subscribers want to open your emails.

Coupled with conscientious list management and a stellar subject line (that you’re A/B testing, of course), you are bound to see open rates improving.

Have you employed any of these strategies in your email marketing campaign? Tell us about your results in the comments below.

— Abigail Waterer


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About Abigail Waterer
Abi Waterer is the Director of Marketing at Yola Inc., a free website builder that helps small business create websites and grow their businesses online. She has nine years of marketing experience working with major consumer brands, non-profits and startups in the US and UK. Specializing in online marketing, Abi has managed new website launches and developed marketing strategies to drive growth.
» More blog posts by Abigail Waterer


  1. Sara Young

    About #1 – the most important thing is to test. I have found my own results to be different than what is normally recommended, and some of my open rates are VERY high.

    And here’s another mistake I see all the time: not paying attention to the profitability of your emails. If your email is selling something, you should track how much money it is making you. Not only the open and click rates.

    • Abigail Waterer

      Hi Sara
      I completely agree, testing is so important. No one audience is the same so it’s important to test different ideas to see what works with your customers. I also agree that conversions and revenue should be tracked, as well as the usual email metrics, open rates, click-through rates etc.

    • Amelia

      I A/B tested subject lines in a B2B email campaign last year and found no statistically significant difference in open rates in any of them. In most cases, I tested a straightforward subject line (ex. Invitation to [conference]) against something that used a subject line tactic of sorts (numerals, recipient’s name, etc.). Any thoughts?

  2. jerome

    Nice one…Thanks for sharing this….

  3. Blaze Arizanov

    The email of H & M Fashion news seems to cluttered, almost like a web page which dilutes the user from taking the action he is supposed to (filling the filed)… Do you think it is a good practice ?

    • Abigail Waterer

      Hi Blaze
      Thanks for your comment. Just to clarify, the H&M Fashion news example is an example of their newsletter sign-up form that’s a page on their website, and is not an email they send. I think it does a good job of highlighting what a customer can expect to receive if they sign up to their newsletter list.

  4. Daniel

    Eliminating or not committing those mistakes in the first place is, to a large degree, paying attention and thinking things through. Regardless, not addressing these mistakes cannot be justified by saying they cost too much.

  5. cheryl slpw

    Abigail some great tips and advice, good work in getting this list together which I will look at using in future email campaigns

  6. Broq

    Great Post.
    Thank you

  7. Marketing Bees

    Great article, I enjoyed reading it!

  8. Luke Guy

    This is great for businesses who collect data from check out. But if you’re a blogger, you’re lucky to get first name.

    But I like your point here:
    -Only send to engaged users
    I have heard of people buying list. Not good! Why? Because number 1, this is spam. 2#, they don’t know you and therefore will not buy from you. I would hate to put my name on a list that I bought, this is yucko!

    Friend, climb that mountain and collect emails like a man (or a lady:)! Your reward will be lots greater anyway. Higher clicks, open rates, and profit.

    So keeping reading these post and give that list value.

    Give your readers something to consume also, like valuable content. Like an eBook you have written.

    Don’t know how to write and create one? Read this post here:

    In this article you’re taught how to create one with no software.

    Also, remember to ditch the pitch in your email. Give value to them people, and soon you’ll see them begging to give their money. Well almost like that:)

    Good post.

  9. Ramsay

    Awesome write up!

    It’s a constant battle of testing and tweaking but I still find email marketing the most rewarding. It’s getting harder though, I think.

    Thanks again for putting all this together.


  10. Sherman Smith

    Hey Abigail,

    Since I’m working to improve my email open rate this blog post attracted me. The on tip that really struck me was how important it is to segment your email.

    As of this moment I’m working to do email segmentation. I want to be more specific to the needs of my list and give them the information and solutions that they’re looking for. This will keep them coming back to my blog and they will be more open to the products and services I promote that i specific to them.

    The subject line is very important when it comes to emailing your list. From my experience if you personalize the email or direct the email to them (using the word you), your email open rate goes up. Plus you want to make sure that the subject line is relevant to their interests just like in segmentation.

    Thanks for sharing these tips. I hope you have a great weekend!

    I found your blog post on kingged.com under the category of Email Marketing

  11. Aruna Devi

    Thanks for the Great info..

  12. David

    Completely agree with these email marketing mistakes.

    I also feel that these are the most common mistakes which most of the email marketers make. Sending emails with boring subject is very much common mistake.

    I never open any email which don’t attract my eyes. I always ignore or delete such emails instantly.

    Email marketers should understand that nobody wants to waste their time in reading boring emails. If you really want to convert them then you must have to send emails with having eye catchy, attractive and promising subject line. Because It is the only line which readers read first.

    So taking care of it can improve your skills.

    I am glad that you have listed all the major email marketing mistakes here so that we can learn them and can avoid them. Thanks for sharing it with us. :D

  13. Mark Branson

    Great suggestions buddy! The one mistake I see is overhyped subject lines. Writing headlines is a fine art and while the BuzzFeed style baited headlines might get more clicks, people forget about the impact on the trust of their brand.

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  22. Rosie Tesmenitskaya

    Really nice recommendation & ideas for email marketing! I have recently creating newsletter for my business. Really Great tips, Thank you

  23. Helena

    Really i feel the “lack of automation” is harm to open/click rates.