Improving Email Open Rates

image of letters sticking out of a computer screenGuest post by Ellen Langhans, Program Manager in the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the Department of Health and Human Services, with contribution from Tim Hudak, Web Analytics Specialist in the Office of Communications at the Department of Agriculture.

How can we get more of our subscribers to open the emails we send?

This is a question that anyone who creates email campaigns for newsletters or other communications is always wondering.

In the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) where I work at HHS we’ve seen some interesting results from varying the subject lines, also known as A/B testing, when promoting our monthly Spotlight e-newsletter.

The monthly Spotlight is an e-newsletter featuring repurposed website content to keep subscribers up to date on actionable health and wellness information. The Spotlight’s content format has shifted over the past year, from using persona-based content (still pulled from the website but delivered in the newsletter by healthfinder’s “Chief Medical Advisor”), to the use of infographics.

The persona-based Spotlight’s open rate (based on a six-month sample in 2012) hovered around 11%, which is in the range of open rates for government. Government industry average open ratios are 10-15%, depending on the source you use, says Tim Hudak, Web Analytics Specialist at the Department of Agriculture (USDA). We weren’t doing badly at ODPHP, but we also wanted to try out a new format of the Spotlight that might generate more opens; since nothing in marketing is ever set in stone, we sent out our first infographic Spotlight in December 2012 and used A/B testing.

A/B testing is a method in which you present content in different ways to different groups of users to find out which one is most effective.

The purpose of this testing was to see if one subject line vs. another would make a difference in open rates.

The first subject line (“Staying Healthy During the Holidays (Infographic)”) put the word “infographic” at the end of the subject, while the other subject line used the word towards the beginning (“Healthfinder’s Holiday Infographic — Tips for Managing Stress & Staying Healthy”). Using “infographic” at the end (the 1st email) generated a 14% open rate, while “infographic” towards the beginning (the 2nd email) garnered a 12% open rate.

For the next five months, we used the word “infographic” at the end of the subject line and had an average 15% open rate. In May 2013, we did A/B testing again. This time, interestingly, the email that used “infographic” at the end of the subject line (“Celebrate Men’s Health Month: A healthfinder infographic”) resulted in a lower open rate–12%– than the email that used “infographic” towards the beginning (“Infographic: Celebrate Men’s Health Month”), which had a 15% open rate.

Overall, the use of infographics has increased our average open rate from 11% to 14%, but we’ll continue using A/B testing to learn which subjects, if any, garner a higher open rate.

Tim at USDA also found there are two factors that can determine if the recipient will open it or not:

  1. The time in which the e-mail was sent to them.

  2. The message subject line.  He focused most of his analytic efforts on time rather than the subject because it is the easiest to influence.

Over the past 3 months Tim grouped and recorded all of his sent bulletins.  He found the most effective times to send emails/bulletins is from 7-10AM and 6-10PM.  And he found the worst times to send bulletins are 12-1PM and 5-6PM– and Friday afternoons.

Previously we sent our persona-based Spotlight at 11:30AM, which may have also had an effect on open rates. We now send our infographic Spotlight for around 1:30PM.

Have you tried anything else, besides changing the sent time or subject line?


7 Replies

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  1. Jonathan Rubin says:

    Thanks for writing this, Ellen. Always happy to hear when other feds use A/B testing.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Ellen. These are great tips. In addition to testing different subject lines and send times, we’ve also experimented with changing the sender name. We’ve found that we get a slightly higher open rate when we use the name of our Executive Director or that of a subject matter lead in our organization that our community recognizes as opposed to just our organization’s name.

    • Tim Hudak says:

      Same for us at USDA. Media Advisories and subject lines that contain “Secretary Vilsack” have much higher average open ratios. Ideally, we will identify other topics that perform better than average as well.

      • Ellen Langhans says:

        That’s an interesting approach, and one that we haven’t yet tried. Thanks for the idea!

  3. Ellen Langhans says:

    A colleague also made the assumption that “a subject line promising an infographic, regardless of placement, was more effective than a subject line that does not mention an infographic.” We haven’t done A/B testing with one subject line that has “inforgraphic” in it and one that doesn’t, but we might try that next.

  4. Prof Nkata says:

    Email subject lines are the gatekeepers of your email campaigns. Here is additional information on the five tips you can use to write email subject lines that get your recipients opening and, ultimately, converting!
    1. Be specific
    2. Localize, Personalize and Target
    3. Build Momentum (…ie don’t email out of nowhere)
    4. Test
    5. word choice and order.

    Other factors to consider include
    1. Check your spam score.
    2. Ask your subscribers to add you to their address books.
    3. Construct a well-structured message, that includes quality content with both text and images.
    4. List Quality
    5. Delivering On Your Promise
    6. Brand recognition
    7. Do your subscribers receive exclusive content that doesn’t appear anywhere else?

  5. Thanks for sharing, the comparison was helpful.