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MarketingSherpa recently had a bit of a short stub about factors that influence open rates. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be too big about providing real insight about what you can do to make these factors work in your favor. That’s where Stunt & Gimmick’s comes in. I don’t want to say we’re “growth hackers”, because I hate that term, but we defenitely come from a hacker culture. That’s why we’re going to share some of the hacks and tweaks that’ll turn these 12 open rate factors from “Oh $#!T” to “Oh Yeah!”.

Factor: Recency to online interaction.
Hack: People are more likely to open emails when they’ve just had contact with you. So for fucks sake set up some sort of user tracking and transactional email service. The number of websites that don’t utilize any kind of tracking is simply astonishing. Listen up, people: Google analytics isn’t enough. You need a system where you can connect individual users to emails. The best thing is, if you do it right, you don’t even need to have any kind of login/signup process to do it. Just offer something for free. Ebook? Knick-knack? Whatever. Once you have their email, you can quietly deposit it in a cookie (or HTML5 local storage, if you’re down with the web 2.0) and have all the touchpoint data you need. Then it’s a short hop, skip, and jump to integrate it with an automated email system that sends them relevant emails whenever they complete a certain action. Double Secret Awesome-Sauce Bonus Tip: you can coordinate wordpress post categories and tags with automated email. Just sayin.

Factor: Recognition of the sender.
Hack: This one should be a no-brainer, but so many people still fail to get it right. Send emails from the same sender name every single time. EVERY SINGLE TIME! And for the love of god, please personalize it. No one likes getting emails from “info@” or “no-reply@”. If you don’t have a communications person, make one up. Come up with a cutesy name. Send all your emails from “Ashley, the email girl”, and sign them! We had one client whose open rates went up 3% JUST BECAUSE THEY CHANGED THE FROM NAME. 3% can be a lot of new eyes reached if your mailing list is over 1000 people.

Bonus Tip for B2B: Some friends of ours at Spinnakr had a great blog post about using email marketing to prospect and engage early leads. In order to boost name recognition for what are essentially cold B2B emails, make contact with your prospects across social networks. Follow them on twitter, join their LinkedIn groups, respond to their questions on Quora, and just really get in their face (in a positive and helpful way). Apparently it works.

Factor: Subject lines.
Hack: There has been so much written about subject lines that I’m almost hesitant to jump into the fray, but I’ll add a couple of pointers anyway:

  • Specific is better than vague
  • Numbers are better than words
  • Questions are better than statements
  • Alt-codes (google it) can be awesome, if used sparingly
  • If you know your users’ history, use it. Segment by interest group. If you don’t, I have no sympathy for you

Factor: Urgency.
Hack: Let me share a story with you. A few days ago, I was riding the train with my fiance, and she got an email from The Loft (her favorite store) that said “Tonight Only Save an Extra 60%”. She deleted it immediately, which puzzled me as she had just gotten a gift certificate to The Loft and had been shopping for a new business dress. When I asked her why she didn’t want to take advantage of making her GC last longer, she off-handedly mentioned that The Loft sends these emails every day, sometimes multiple times a day. All of a sudden, all that extra urgency they packed into that email subject line backfired. Moral of the story: don’t cry wolf. If every single one of your emails is “OMG OPEN IMMEDIATELY LIMITED TIME ONLY YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS THIS!”, your customers WILL wise up, and they WILL resent you for it. Use urgency for things that are legitimately urgent, and occasionally for things you want extra attention to. If you’re sending out more than one or two “URGENT!!!!!!” emails a quarter, you are failing at email marketing.

Factor: The “look” of the email.
Hack: I am not a designer, so I don’t design. And as much as I’d love for a beautiful piece of long-form writing to grab attention, it just doesn’t. So your emails need to look good. This isn’t rocket science. How do you get your emails to look good? Well, if you have a budget somewhere between “nothing” and “$0”, just use one of the stock templates from MailChimp. They look great, have proven track records of conversions (though I wish MailChimp would release conversion metrics for their various templates), and will save you a massive headache. If you want something custom, though…well, unless you have a legit budget, the answer is don’t do it. A good email template that isn’t going to break across multiple clients and is easily editable and is mostly headache-proof will cost you at least $500. If someone offers to do it for less, tell them to take their cheap bullshiat back to whatever scum-hole they crawled out of, because they will do a terrible job and your customers will hate you for it.

So what do I mean by “good” template” First, make sure there is plenty of whitespace. Remember, most people have graphics turned off by default, so layout will impact them much more than pretty colors. When you do get to colors, use them sparingly, and use them to 1) connect the email to your brand, and 2) to call out items of particular importance. Preview panes for email clients vary in size, but here is a good run-down. And again, remember that anywhere from 25-75% of your readers will not see your amazing graphic design. LAYOUT, people!

Factor: Word count.
Hack: Ok, this one is actually absolute bullshit. Why? Because how is your recipient going to know the word count of your email until he opens it? This may be true for click rates, though I strongly doubt it, but it is definitely a non-issue with open rates. Even with click rates, I think it’s more of an issue of correlation and not causation. People aren’t clicking on your email less because it’s long. Your email is long AND people are clicking on it less because you are bad at email marketing. Just a quick example: I recently sent out a concluding email for the Stunt & Gimmick’s side project, The CES 2013 Party List. The full email can be seen here. The whole thing clocks in at 1,698 words, which is hefty for a blog post, let alone an email. Open Rate – 39.9%. Click-through Rate – 11.7%. Not the best numbers we’ve ever gotten, but certainly no slouch either. This on a mailing list with several thousand people. There’s not really a “hack” for this one. Just write interesting emails.

Factor: Emails that are passed on through forwarding (FW:) open at higher rates.
Hack: Now we get to the fun stuff. This is social engineering at it’s best. If you’re using a decent ESP, tracking who forwarded what to whom should be trivial. So what do you do? Offer incentives for forwarding. There are three great ways to do this, each of which can be their own blog post, but I’ll give a summary:

  • Intrinsic Motivation: Intrinsic motivation refers to people’s innate ability to reward themselves for taking a positive action and punish themselves for taking a negative one. This is probably the most powerful motivating force on the planet (more so the punishment, as people are VERY loss-averse), and if you can tap into it, you are GOLDEN!. So how do you tap into intrinsic motivation? By asking nicely, or by scaring them shitless. For the first one, try things like “Like this email? Forward it to a friend!” It’s simple, it’s direct, and people respond. To tap into loss-aversion, you can go with “Don’t let friends think you’re out of the loop. Share!” (that’s a bad example, but I’m 1300 words in and still have half a list to go.)
  • Semi-Intrinsic Motivation: This is not technically a “thing”, but I’m making it one right now. What do I mean? Well, besides being motivated internally, you can be motivated by external factors like cash and prizes, right? But what about using external motivators that are really absolutely worthless…except that they instill a sense of pride or achievement? Welcome to gamification, one of the hottest buzzwords in marketing for the last several years. The principle is simple: you provide an external reward, like a badge or a leader-board, that ultimately means little but engenders a strong passion for wanting to win in your audience. Make sharing into a game, keep track of who shared the most, award badges, have a weekly round-up, whatever. If you can automate this process, you can turn up the dial on your sharing tremendously, and watch your open rates skyrocket at the same time.
  • External Motivation: People share, they get free stuff. It’s as simple as that. Award one Company Buck for every forward and let people trade them in for cash and prizes. Or offer them a credit on your service, if you’re a SAS company. Or award a prize to the subscriber who forwards the most. It doesn’t have to be a big prize, either. People will go nuts over a pair of cheap sunglasses if all they have to do is click a button.

Factor: Subject/Body Agreement.
Hack: Lets say I offer to sell you a primo El Camino for a great price. You’re all jazzed as you hop into your aging T-Bird and drive over, leaking noxious fumes and oil the whole 30 miles to my house. You get there and…see a rusted out Toyota on cinder blocks. Not only is your mullet all in a tizzy, you’re probably going to knock some of my teeth out. And who even knows if your bird is going to survive the drive home? It’s the same with emails, except with less Bud Light. If your email subject and your email body don’t match, people will get mad. You might get sent to the spam box more than a few times, and with responsive inboxes becoming the norm, if you’re spammed once too often, you can kiss your email marketing good-bye. So pay attention, this is important: If you write a check in the subject line, your body copy had damn well better be able to cash it!.

So what exactly is the hack here? Turn your subject line into an extension of your body copy. Asking open-ended questions or ending a sentence fragment with an ellipsis that is continued in the body copy will get your open rate up at least 5%, and sometimes 10%+.

Factor: Time of day.
Hack: I hate talking about time of day. There is no magical time to send emails. The 5AM drop is dead, and there’s a nuclear arms race going on to see who can drop an email into your inbox earlier, so that by this time 2014, it will have come full circle and people will be sending emails at 8PM to be #1 for your morning read. But all is not lost!

The typical answer here is to segment and run split tests on your email marketing to see when the optimal time is, and that’s fine if you have a couple of months. But you know what? People tend to check email at the same time as they check their social media. And most social media data is pretty readily available. And millions of people tweet on a daily basis. Use that information. Find hashtags and topics that your subscribers are into, and see when the most activity happens. THAT’s when you want your email to hit their inbox.

So there you have it. Put it all together, and you have an email campaign that will blow you away. And remember, hacks are not a replacement for serious strategy and foresight. Sure, “growth hacking” is all the rage these days, but it’s mostly a sham. Real growth takes time, and a lot of hard work. There’s no magic bullet, and no amount of tricks will overcome a poorly-planned or executed campaign. So get out there and start practicing. Seriously, get outta here. I’m tired of looking at you.

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