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4 Reasons Your Email Open Rate May Be Low

WRITTEN by: Jess Link |
categories: Content Marketing

Nov 2013


You’ve probably been there. You’ve carefully crafted your email content, painstakingly collected customer email addresses one-by-one, updated your burgeoning Excel contact spreadsheet, wrestled your email template into submission, selected just the right images, sent yourself a dozen test messages… and finally, finally it’s time to hit “send” on that big e-blast.

A few days later, you check your results and find out that the number of people who actually opened your magnum opus – or “masterpiece” for those who never read Charlotte’s Web – is disappointingly low.

Low “open rate” (the term for the percentage of unique people who opened your email campaign) is a common problem for marketers (both in the b2b email marketing sphere and the consumer). But first, what is “low,” and what is “normal?”

Silverpop’s “2013 Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study: An Analysis of Messages Sent Q1-Q4, 2012” reported that the overall average open rate across industries was 19.7% in 2012. Silverpop’s data reveals that nonprofit organizations averaged a 17.2% open rate, and consumer products organizations averaged a 23.8% open rate on their email campaigns.

Warning: Bunny Trail

Even though it’s tough to get your company’s email marketing noticed in your prospects’ inbox, data still shows that email campaigns are an effective source of information for people making purchase decisions. A 2012 original research study launched by Upward Brand Interactions entitled, “How We Interact,” examined technology’s role and impact on our everyday life. Our study revealed that email continues to be one of the most consumer-preferred ways to learn about new products or services. For business users, email is an even more favored form of content. When seeking information about a problem or need, 25% of consumers listed email as content they might consult, but 37% of businesspeople said email would be a primary information source (following behind search engines [60%], websites [43%], and review websites [38%].)


Our technology habits reinforce the importance of this content form. The average person sends 14 emails per day. 61% of consumers use email frequently on a daily basis, and 85% of consumers use it at least a few times a day. The implication for marketers is that email continues to be a valuable and efficient content form to inform customers about new products or services. And because both consumers and business users spend a considerable amount of their digital energy engaged in emailing, the inbox—whether it be on a mobile device, tablet or laptop—is a good place to get in touch with your target.

So, back from the bunny trail. Now that we know average open rates and why email still represents an important part of your marketing mix, here are four reasons your open rate may be low… and ways to fix it:

Reason#1: You’re sending too many emails.

Hubspot Inbound Marketing Blog author Anum Hussain reported in his post, “Email Marketing: How Much Is Too Much?” that 69% of U.S. email users have unsubscribed from a business or non-profit email because the organization sends too many emails. (I know I have.) The sweet spot, perfect number of emails is going to vary widely from person-to-person and company-to-company. Here are a couple ideas to help you determine how often to email your customer database:


  • Segment your list and test different frequencies. Try A/B testing and send a higher frequency of email to half of the list than you do to the other half. Look at the open rates and click-through rates on each after a period of time to see which frequency has better engagement rates.
  • Just ask. People like it when brands shoot straight with them, so have the boldness to simply ask your customers how often they’d like to hear from you. This could be done simply with an online survey – or a question they answer during the email list sign-up process. 


Reason# 2: Gmail is cordoning off promotional emails.

In May of this year, Gmail introduced “tabs” that effectively siphon promotional emails into a separate tab. (See pic below).


The three tabs are titled: Primary, Social and Promotions. And Gmail does its best to guess which of your emails are promotional and sidelines them into the third “Promotions” tab, effectively keeping them separate from the primary back-and-forth messages you receive. Initial data reveals this may not be a fatal blow to marketers who are trying to reach customers on Gmail. One reason for this is that the tabs are only visible on a browser view – the tabbed categories aren’t visible on most smartphones. Another interesting reason that Gmail tabs may not be marketers’ kiss of death is that customers are often in a more open mindset to read a promotional email when they click the “promotions” tab – because they are consciously making the decision to view special offers or marketing messages at that time.

Reason #3: Your subject lines are terrible.

A good subject line can dramatically increase the likelihood that your email will be opened. Set aside some time to craft a good one. Some things to keep in mind: subject line length, making it descriptive enough to tell recipients what your message is about, and avoiding sounding too spammy. There are a wealth of resources to help you learn how to write more effective subject lines. This blog post by Constant Contact is a good place to start. Again, do some A/B testing and try different subject lines on segments of your email contact list to see what works better.

Reason #4: Your emails are getting caught in SPAM filters.


Many of your email contacts may not even see your email because it is being automatically filtered into a SPAM folder. How do you avoid this? There are a number of different factors that may contribute to a message being flagged for SPAM. You might be using “high risk” words in your message that trigger recipients’ SPAM filters. If you don’t have a clear “From” name and real “From” email identified on your email campaign, this could also trigger a SPAM filter.  Subject lines can also trigger SPAM filters if the message seems to “spammy.” MailChimp produced a great guide to avoiding SPAM filters, and often your email marketing platform will have a built-in “Spam Test” to give your message a score and suggest ways to optimize it for better success before you hit “send.”

Bonus Reason: Your emails aren’t mobile friendly.


The number of people who open their emails on mobile devices has grown explosively in the last couple of years. Litmus reported that in quarter 1 of 2013, 43% of emails were opened on a mobile device. Have you tested your email on a smartphone before sending to the full contact list? Does it look ok? Is it readable?

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