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Why aren’t members opening your emails?

Written by Molly Talbert | on May 12, 2016 at 9:30 AM
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Getting people to open emails can be a frustrating, fruitless task. Especially when a big part of your job is communicating to members through email -- depending on your industry and the types of emails you send, what’s considered good open rates can look pretty low.

So how do you turn the tides and get people to open your messages?


The art of the email subject line

Subject lines are shown to have a big impact on email open rates. And it makes sense. Just look at your own inbox -- between work, personal and promotional emails, how many messages a day do you receive, each vying for your attention?

In order for you to not only catch a member’s attention, but compel them to open your email, the subject needs to intrigue them on some level -- by highlighting something valuable inside the email, sheer curiosity, or even something visceral and emotional.

Here are a few tips for how to capture your members’ attention with only one line:

1. Keep it short

Don’t hide your message behind too many words. It’s easy to fill your writing with jargon and fluff -- whether it’s a subject line or a white paper -- especially if you’re murky on the message. In order to write a quick, short subject line, you need to know exactly what the point of the email is. What information are you trying to convey and what do you want members to do once they open your email? Get the granular points down, and it will be easier to write a short, impactful subject line.

Real-life example: “Hey” -- Obama for America, 2012.

Ok, I agree, this subject line is a little too simple. But it does pique your interest, right? Especially since it’s sent from the president of the United States. The Obama Campaign revolutionized how campaigns use email and were especially creative with their subject lines -- making their email campaigns incredibly successful.

The goal for most of his emails was to raise money. And what was one of the key themes to his candidacy? Grassroots connections and a high volume of small donations. So, although the subject line “Hey” is unconventional and unprofessional, that’s ok. His campaign wasn’t trying to connect with voters on a professional level -- they were appealing to their human side. That’s why his emails were so successful. Check out this fun infographic from 2012 demonstrating how creative the campaign’s subject lines got.

2. Stay human and speak to your audience

People are really good at spotting spam these days -- if an email even has a hint of robot in it, it’ll probably get trashed right away. Make sure your subject lines have a human touch and don’t look like they were auto-generated or came straight from a template. Appeal to your members’ humor and the type of language they use. If your community tends to be informal, make your subject lines informal so they don’t look jarring or foreign in a member’s inbox.

It’s also a good idea to send emails from a real email address rather than one that looks like this: noreply@company.com. When people see an email address like that, it’s clear that it’s a mass email, making it look less important.

Real-life example: “In honor of Monday…” -- J Crew.

We all get what seems like millions of these messages a day -- somehow you ended up on an email list, but always forget to unsubscribe. I usually just ignore and delete emails like that. But sometimes Monday’s are tough, and I got this email on a Monday morning not long after I got to work. So I opened it. Somehow, in that well timed moment, the email looked interesting to me. Inside, J Crew highlighted a few fun business casual work outfit ideas. It was clever, timed well and the email’s content fit with the subject.

3. Personalize

Dale Carnegie said it best in his infamous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People: “A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

Put members’ names in the subject lines and see what happens. Suddenly, they look very personalized, familiar and important. In fact, your brain has a very specific reaction when you hear your name -- it really is the “sweetest and most important sound.” Personalized emails are known to outperform non-personalized emails.

Real-life example: “Molly, thanks for canceling!” -- Hulu.

This email intrigued me for several reasons. First, it caught my eye because it had my name. Second, it thanked me for canceling my Hulu Plus subscription -- why would they thank me for doing that? I had to open the email and see what the heck Hulu was doing. Turns out that, for only $11.99 a month, I can now subscribe to commercial-free Hulu!

4. Clear goals

Just say how it is. Leave your creativity behind and tell your members exactly why you want them to open your email. Sure, it might not be the most poetic subject line ever, but if you need to convey basic information, this might be your best tactic.

Real-life example: “Own an iPhone for as low as $15 a month” -- Apple. This subject line has no frills, but it works. Apple needed to tell customers about their new iPhone AND realistic payment plans. It’s simple and it works.

5. Urgency

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is a strong motivator, especially in community. Tap into that sense of urgency in your subject lines. It catches people’s attention and also implies they need to open the email right now, otherwise they’ll miss out on whatever opportunity is inside.

Real-life example: “This is it!” -- Middlebury College Alumni Association.

The emails my alma mater send alway catch me off guard -- they’re so familiar and sound last minute! This email was counting down to the last day I could donate for the fiscal year. But I didn’t know that before I opened it. I opened it because it looked like something important was going on, and I wanted to see what it was.

6. Timing

Timing is key for open rates. Depending on the email or campaign, you need to consider time of day, day of the week, or time of year -- or all of the above. How successful do you think an email will be if it’s sent at 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon during August? Probably pretty unsuccessful. Even if you’re still at work, you’re most likely getting ready to pack up and leave. What if you sent the same email around 11 AM on a Wednesday? It may see more success, since it’s in the middle of the work day and right before lunch, when people might have more time to read emails.

Take into consideration the purpose of the email and your audience. Is everyone a working professional with a desk job? Are they all in the same time zone? All these factors will affect when to send the email.

Real-life example: “Your refund is waiting - claim it today!” -- TurboTax.

This is the email that got me to finally do my taxes. It was perfectly timed -- right in the middle of tax season -- and summed up one of the best part of doing taxes -- hopefully getting a big, fat refund. I definitely opened this email and logged into my TurboTax account.


Practice makes perfect

To perfect your subject lines and increase open rates, practice and test. Your members are unique -- that’s why they’re in your community -- so find what works best with your particular group. Have a goal in mind -- the open rate you want and action for members to take-- and experiment with times of day, wording and content to find the key that unlocks that door.

What are your best tips for writing captivating subject lines?


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Topics: Online Community Management, Engagement, Member Experience

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