6 Easy Ways to Get People to Open Your Newsletter

Your email newsletter is going to die. As you read this, there are a host of illnesses attacking the health of your regular e-newsletters: competition, RSS readers, SPAM, mobile accessibility, tracking issues, and digital noise – to name a few.

Every year, email open rates decline. In early 2000’s, general newsletters were achieving, on average, 25-30% open rates. Between 2004 – 2007, rates slipped to 15-20%, and now, rates are even lower. The writing is on the wall: this is not an upward trend. If these were the trends of your retirement fund, you would be liquidating close of business!

I mean to scare you. Your organization needs to wake up and plan to get diminished returns from typical email fundraising, recruitment, and messaging next year. But, if you’re hoping to staying alive in this attention economy, try out these 6 concrete ways to improve your open rates.

1. Have a Good < Great Subject Line

The most important thing you put in your newsletter is the subject line. Many orgs spend 95% of their time writing and refining the content that is in the email body – ignoring the fact that constituents decide whether to read or delete based on the 35 characters they see in the subject line. Your subject line can be thought of as the cover of your book. And despite the saying, people always judge a book by its cover!

People judge a book by its cover...and they judge your email by its subject line. Click To Tweet

If you get nothing else from this article please get this, “December Newsletter” is not a permissible subject line! Here are some ideas to try instead:

  • A shocking statistic
  • “New”
  • A celebrity’s name
  • Something topical
  • Something hyper-local (requires segmentation or knowing address)
  • Inserted personal information like the user’s name
  • Value proposition that relates to their needs
  • # of ways this ____ will improve you
  • Rework taglines from cheesy health + teen magazines


One of these subject lines is sure to do the trickIn other words, something that piques readers’ interest and motivates them to open the email.

Below is an example from one of our clients ArtinAction.org. Can you guess which subject line performed best: “Art Teaches Oral Language Skills” or “Art in Action teaches you how to teach art.” Certainly, it is the one that uses simple, direct language in place of fancy, official-sounding verbiage. In fact, the difference between the open rates for these two emails was 4%. Though this percent seems negligible, here’s some context: 4% of a 10,000 person list serve is 400 people. That’s 400 more people who opened your email because you made a simple tweak to the 10 words in the subject line!

2. Test Your Subject Lines

If you’re not certain which subject line will improve open rates (and even if you are!) use A/B testing to find out what appeals most to your audience. It is always important to check your assumptions at the door, and use concrete data before making decisions.

Before sending out an email blast, test out two subject lines with a small portion of your audience (check here to see what percentage you need for statistical significance) Then, when you’ve identified the better-performing subject line, go with that one for your main email blast. The difference in open rate may be something seemingly negligent, but think about the context: for a list serve of 10,000 a mere 1% increase in open rate translates to 100 more people opening your mail. This article talks about how the Obama campaign raised $60 million running a simple A/B test on their homepage. Changing a picture and some text is an easy modification that can have a measurable impact.

3. Don’t look like SPAM!!!!

While you want your subject line to stand out in a person’s inbox, you don’t want it to look like spam. ALL CAPS and !!!!!!!, though eye-catching, will surely get many people to unsubscribe. Also, you might want to refrain from promoting sales in your subject line such as “10% Off New Eco-Friendly Bikes” because that also looks like unwanted solicitation.

It is a good idea to make sure your “From” email address is one that is recognizable and has some personality. Who would you rather open an email from: “[email protected]” or ‘[email protected]”?

Spam sucks! Nobody wants to open your spammy looking email (even if the content is great): Click To Tweet

4. Don’t treat all of your email lists the same way

Many orgs send the same message to their existing, loyal members as they do to their users that sign up while casually browsing the site. To put this in context, it is like sending the same holiday card to your mom, your ex-girlfriend, and a stranger. Yeah, not smart.

Consider separating your lists and sending more recruiting information to new signups and more personal stories along with relevant updates to existing members or supporters.

5. Timing is everything

There is a lot of data on when you should be sending your newsletter. It is more important that emails are sent when they are relevant, rather than staying to a rigid schedule. Data show that weekdays outperform weekends, with Tuesday-Thursdays performing the best. No one likes to check mail during the weekend, and on Monday, people are all in that “back to work” mode. But again, it is important to consider that your audience is unique. Test around with different days and times until you find your audience’s sweet spot.


6. Make sure it works on phones

These days, phones are accounting for about 55% of email opens, and this number is only increasing. Data show that people (at least 96% of them) do not engage with the same email on multiple platforms (Litmus, 2016). This means that if people opened your email on their phone, they won’t open it again once they get back to their desktop.

As such, you want to make sure that your newsletter is optimized for mobile use. Don’t overdo it with multi-media and downloads and links. Keep it relevant and keep it concise. The good news is that you can probably be sending more emails than you normally do. Another insight from the Obama campaign is this: people won’t unsubscribe no matter how many emails they’re sent as long as the cause is worthy.

Email Sending Services

If you don’t already have an email sending service, here are some that might work for you (many of which are free and provide great tracking services). All of these sites charge based on constituent not on a per-email sent.

Mail Chimp – Allows free sending for up to 2000 subscribers and has competitive pricing for medium sized lists.

Constant Contact – This service is good for sending a lot of emails to a smaller group and has a lot of functionality. NOTE that they do not support easy A/B testing.

Vertical Response – Allows not-for-profits to send 10,000 emails per month for free. After that it charges per email sent. They have open rate tracking, email database functionality, email templates and it integrates with SalesForce.com.

Democracy in Action – Similar to Constant Contact but has a robust API that integrates well with a lot of systems and allows a lot more information to be saved with every constituent.