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78% open rate - Find out how we did it

Most of us who do any kind of regular commercial email communication – whether it be selling a product or service or strictly content-based (like an e-newsletter or digital edition alert) – know that those 45 – 90 character subject headers have the greatest impact on whether or not your email actually gets opened.

Given the importance of ‘Subject’ it is critical that you build testing it into your email plan. Even if your subject line process seems to be working effectively, without testing it you have no way to know if you’re leaving un-opened emails on the table (so to speak).

There are actually a great number of things that you can easily A/B test. Here’s a few to get you started:

  • Character Length – short vs. long
  • Content – question vs. clear offer
  • Promotional text "Free" vs. "Discount" 
  • Date Reference – when the offer is ending

You get the idea…. 

Here’s how we got a 78% open rate

For one of our clients, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), we created the digital edition (digimag) of Currents, their monthly print newsletter.

We also managed the digital alerts that notify subscribers that the latest issue is available. The purpose of the digimag is to inform all San Francisco Residents – whether they pay the water bill or not – about the service and system improvements that the SFPUC is making. We keep that in mind as we build out our alerts email program. Here’s what we did for the Jan/Feb 2013 issue.



1: Wash: First a general alert

For the Jan/Feb 2013 issue we selected the Subject: “Are you ready for the next big one”? An important question for San Franciscans and the main cover line of the issue.

  • Total Open Rate:  26.4%

2: Rinse: We sent a 2nd alert and added a test layer 2 weeks later

One of the benefits of a bi-monthly digimag is that it affords us the opportunity to remind subscribers to read the issue. Another benefit of the platform is that we are able to clearly see the content that is of most interest.

We take a small subset of about 2,000 names and divide it into an A segment and a B segment. Based on the content that appears to be of greatest interest we build ‘Subject 2’. Below are the tests we conducted and the results. 

  • Test A: Who works a 10-hour shift underwater? 23.0%
  • Test B: Diver works 10-hour shift underwater      26.1%

The simple change from a question to a statement raised the open rate by 13.4%. Based on the results of this test campaign we rolled out “B” to the list.

3: Repeat: We sent a 3rd alert 2 weeks after the 2nd

We sent a 3rd email to our “A” and “B” test groups. Below are the tests we conducted for ‘Subject Header 3’ and the results.

  • Test A: How can you keep our catch basins clean? 16.8%
  • Test B: FREE Water-Wise Evaluation 22.4%

Clearly in this alert, recipients are much more interested in the prospect of receiving a FREE benefit than they are in the question. The FREE benefit raised the open rate by 33.3%. Based on the results of this test campaign we rolled out “B” to the list.

Here’s something that you may not expect:

You might expect that we would roll out 'Subject 2' and 'Subject 3' to anyone who hasn't opened the email and you would be correct in that assumption.

But you probably wouldn’t expect that we would send it to everyone – even those people who have already opened it once. Why? Because it’s likely the entire issue was not read by the recipient and these alerts are timely reminders to read the rest of the content they may have missed.

Try it. You may find in your case that "3 strikes you're out" is the outcome. In the case of the SFPUC "3 times is a charm". The total open rate for recipients of the Jan/Feb 2013 issue alerts was a whopping 78%. Of course, that's not the same as unique opens but consider that, on average each recipient opened 2.5 emails.

Lessons Learned:

  • Test your subject lines, even minor tweaks from a question to a statement can increase open rates

  • As marketers we need to remember that every email recipient is asking the same question: “What’s In It for Me?’. Our FREE benefit answered that question and we were rewarded with a 33% increase in the open rate.

  • Multiple alerts can work if you are driving people to content or a time-sensitive offer

  • More emails allow you more opportunities to message to your audience. In this case, 2.5 emails per recipient were opened.  That allows you more opportunities to educate and motivate your members, subscribers, or buyers.