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Email Newsletter Open Rates: Best Performing

Jul 11, 2016 | e-newsletters | 5 comments

We have created and managed a lot of email newsletters for our clients. We get a good overview of what tactics work well and not so well. This article is a deep look at what email newsletter open rates say about what types of email campaigns do well and why.

The first hurdle is getting your audience to open your email newsletters. The second is to get them to take action on your content. This article looks at the first hurdle – Email Newsletter Open Rates.

Definition of Successful Email Newsletters

First of all, let’s clarify what a successful email newsletter is and how do we measure that. I’m counting any email campaign, whether you describe it as a newsletter, ezine, update or whatever. For the most part, the purpose of email newsletters and campaigns fall into 3 categories:

  1. Awareness
  2. Establishing/confirming expertise
  3. Selling

Of the three ‘selling’ should be the easiest to measure – it’s simply sales.

So how can you measure the effectiveness of the ‘awareness’ and ‘establishing expertise’?

When you look at your email stats there are two important metrics. One is ‘open rate’, the other is ‘click through rate’.

Going Deep on Email Newsletter Open Rates

This is what’s happening behind the scenes:

When your email is opened by a recipient it counts as an ‘open’. Here’s how an ‘open’ is actually measured. The email provider (whether it’s Constant Contact, Aweber, Mailchimp etc) puts a small image in your email newsletters. It’s just 1 pixel in size so it’s not noticeable.

The image is stored on their server so in the act of opening your email, a request is made from the recipient’s email client (e.g. Outlook, Mail, Gmail etc) to the server for the 1 pixel image and that gets registered as an ‘open’. This ensures that ‘opens’ get registered even if the email you’re sending has no images.

So two things can happen here that can cause a mis-read of email newsletter open rates:

‘Images switched off’

If the recipient has disabled images being downloaded on their device (for instance to save on mobile data consumption), they may read your email, but because images are switched off, the server does not registered it as an ‘open’. Which means that your real email newsletter open rates might be much higher than reported.

‘Preview panes’

Have you noticed in Outlook or Mail that as soon as you click on an email it previews the email in the preview pane? But that doesn’t mean you’ve read it, but because the images displayed it’s registered as an ‘open’. Unless you’ve got images switched off of course.

Email Newsletter Open Rates

Because of the potential under-reading of open rates, an average open rate is around 15-17%. A good open rate is over 20%. Open rates over 30% are considered excellent.

The factors affect the open rate

There are just three factors that influence open rates

  1. Who it’s from (sender)
  2. When it’s sent (time of day/day of week)
  3. What it’s about (subject and pre header)

Who it’s from

Thinking about the emails you receive, you scan your inbox and the names you recognise are the ones that stand out and you tend to open those first.

So it follows that if you’re sending to a purchased a list (which incidentally is against the terms of a lot of email marketing providers like Mailchimp, Constant Contact) you will have a low open rate. You probably also have a high unsubscribe and spam report rate too.

A low open rate can also be a result of infrequent emails from you. They’ve forgotten who you are.

High open rates (25%+) come as a result of an engaged list who most probably signed up to receive your email newsletters.

From the stats of all the accounts I look after, I can see that emails from a named person have far better open rates than those coming from a company name. A company name is anonymous and less personal, whereas people make connections with people.

I used to send out email newsletters for my theatre group and I saw a massive increase in open rates when I switched the sender from info@ to vee.smith@. Even though there were obviously many more people involved in our theatre group, communications coming from the same consistent person helped recipients to identify emails and their content.

One way to improve email newsletter open rates is to ‘cleanse’ your list and remove the people who’ve not opened your emails in the last 6-12 months.

When to send

There’s many theories when the best time to send an email campaign is. It depends what industry you’re in and what your recipients are most likely doing at certain times of day and when is best to ‘catch’ them. The only real way to know for sure is to test it and see what works better. It might be completely different to what you think.

For a client in the fitness industry, we decided to split test over Monday Wednesday and Friday and then 7am and 7pm. The results were different from what I expected. I imagined that Wednesday would be a good day as it’s the middle of the week. Her audience has got over the hectic beginning of the week and need a pick me up/inspiration to keep them motivated. I also thought that 7pm would be a good time as the day is done, the household has been fed and the kids are likely in bed, so they’ve got time.

I was right about Wednesday, but wrong about the time. A 7am send was significantly better than 7pm.

Constant Contact has a ‘best time to send’ feature where it works out what it thinks would be the best time to send to get ‘opens’. I tested this out on one my newsletters and wrote about it here. The results again were not what you might think.

Which proves, it’s good to test, even if it’s to confirm your suspicions.

What it’s about

If you’ve got the above two right, then the next factor that can make or break the open rate is the subject line.

When you’re scanning your inbox, you’re probably not aware of this, but your brain is filtering the subject lines and applying criteria of ‘now, later, never’. It’s doing this filtration in split seconds and its decision is based on the subject line. It decides whether that email needs to be dealt with now, later or never (delete).

When you’re composing your subject lines, you need to aim for ‘now’. You don’t want to be classed as ‘never’ and let’s face it, ‘later’ is as good as ‘never’.

What makes good subject lines

I’ve noticed that the best performing subject lines fall into 3 categories

  1. Controversial
  2. Use the first person (I, my, us, ours etc)
  3. How to

Controversional-type subject headings spark intrigue that the recipient feels compelled to open to read on. How could you use something topical that is making the news and weave it to be related to your audience and what you do?

One of my clients has used the current news items ‘Brexit’ in their subject. They related it to how it affected their audience (or working parents). That newsletter got a pretty higher than normal open rate. I did it myself for last week’s newsletter and had similar increase.

Equally, I’ve found that subject titles that talk about the sender’s personal experience score high email newsletter open rates. These kind of subjects start with ‘why I xxxx’ ‘xx things I know about xxx’.

In terms of open rates, my top 5 subjects so far are

  1. My moving story
  2. Celebrating Success
  3. Did you miss me
  4. Why I sacked my web hosts
  5. 3 essential business tools if I had to start again

Notice they’re all about me! I have many many how-to posts but seems like my audience (you guys) are more interested in my personal life!

The best combo?

So it follows if you can combine all three categories (controversial, about yourself and how-to) into one subject line you must be on to a winning subject line and that gets you over the first hurdle of getting your email opened.

The next hurdle is engagement, which I’ll cover in next week’s post.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about your personal experience of being on the receiving end of newsletters… has there been a newsletter you’ve received in the last few days that you felt compelled to open? Why did you open it? Was it the title, time of day or sender that influenced you. And conversely, what made you decide to hit delete without opening?

Please post in the comments below and I’ll do my best to respond.


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  1. Sherry Bevan

    Really really useful content here. I’d not thought about testing the timing of my email newsletters. Pleased to see my open rate fits into the good category (some of the time).

  2. Vee Smith

    Hey Sherry, glad you found this article useful. Testing takes a little longer to set up, but it’s worth doing even if the result just confirms what you’re doing is the optimum.

  3. Julie Dennis

    Delighted to see I’ve just made the excellent category for open rates. Mail chimp has a best time to send feature too based on open rates and mine seems to be 7am. It’s usually the name of the sender that influences me to open the newsletters I receive.

  4. Vee Smith

    Thanks Julie for sharing and happy to see you’re in the ‘excellent’ category. Keep up the good work!

  5. Vee Smith

    Thanks Sherry, I’m glad you find my content useful. It’s so easy to forget about checking stats after hitting send! Keep up the good work and let me know what tips you implement and how that affects your stats.

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