The secret to high email open rates

How long did it take you to write your last fundraising email? Whatever the answer is, some experts say you should expect to Jp spend the equivalent amount of time writing your email’s subject line.

Devoting so much time to a subject line sounds strange. In a given day, you probably send at least 50 emails and I’m betting you don’t think twice about the subject; line. But if you take the same approach to a fundraising email don’t be surprised if your results suffer.

A good subject line can be the difference between 10: percent of subscribers reading your email and 25 percent. In the world of email fundraising, that’s huge. It can translate into thousands of dollars in contributions.

Knowing how to consistently maximize the potential of your email marketing campaigns by writing powerful subject i lines will pay big dividends. Below are two categories of advice. First, five best practices that apply no matter what the situation. And then six proven strategies that will streamline the process of writing your email subject lines and increase those open rates.

  1. Write your subject line first.

You might have to change your subject line later, but the subject will drive the tone of the email. By starting with the subject line, you’ll ensure it isn’t misleading. Deceptive subject lines often result in high spam complaints and opt-outs.

  1. Keep it under 50 characters

Once your subject line gets longer than this, many email clients (Yahoo is one) will truncate your subject. In general, pithy subject lines that range between two and four words give readers a reason to open your email and don’t bog them down with verbiage.

  1. Find inspiration from like minds.

Subscribe to as many email lists as possible to see what other campaigns and organizations are doing. Another great way to spur your thought process is to scan websites like allows readers to vote on news articles they find interesting. Oftentimes, the articles that appear on the front page have compelling headlines and one of them may spark an idea.

  1. Avoid “spammy” keywords and special characters.

Words and phrases that have been associated with spam can cripple the deliverability of your email. Common words to avoid include: breaking, friend, free, reminder, hot, and click, just to name a few. Special characters that can trigger spam blocks include exclamation points (!), the plus symbol (+), and the ampersand.

  1. Test. Test. Test.

Many email marketing services offer the ability to easily AJB test your subject line. Find a service that has this functionality and use it to tailor the perfect subject line to your audience.

If you’re stuck with an email marketing service that does not offer A|B testing, try segmenting your email list. Randomly select 20 percent of your list. Split that into two, and then test two subject lines. After four hours, use the subject line with the highest open rate for the email to the remainder of your email list.

Six Proven Strategies

Some email subject lines are descriptive of the email content. Others use proven techniques that have resulted in high open rates in the past. The best approach is to combine one or two proven strategies with a short description of the content of your email.

1. Numbers and Counts

The subhead of this section is a perfect example. People don’t read online content, they scan it. Numbered lists, bullet points, and holding all appeal to the innate organization of how online readers prefer content. Example: “4 Facts About Wisconsin Union Protests”

2. Urgency

The half-life of an email is remarkably fast, which is why this strategy is popular with retailers who often send emails daily. If a reader believes they can wait to read your email, it’s unlikely they will return at a later time. Enticing readers with a realistic reason to immediately act is a proven method for higher email open rates.

Example: “Happening Now”

3. Ask a Question

Remember when your teacher would tell you that there are no stupid questions? The key here is to capture the question many are curious about, and then let readers know you intend to answer it in your email.

Example: “Dick Lugar or Richard Mourdock?”

4. Localization

If your email is geo-targeted to a specific city or state, use the name of the location in the subject line. Most are proud of their city or state and are going to want to know why it’s being mentioned.

Example: “Enraging Video from Michigan”

5. Personalization

Many email marketing services allow you to append first names and other data to an individual’s email address. If you want your email to stand out, use a detail about them–their first name or their total donation amount to your organization–as a way to peak their interest. Example: “John, will you stand with Indiana or Obama?”


The best strategy to make an email successful is to focus on an ongoing event, breaking news, or a deadline. Many federal campaigns use the end of the Federal Election Commission’s fundraising quarters and the corresponding reporting structure as a compelling way to ask their supporters to contribute. Many other organizations time their email campaigns around major legislative news. Example: “President Obama signs TARP bailout”

Here’s the bottom line: when writing your next email, make sure a good amount of thought goes into choosing the subject line. The tips and proven strategies above can help navigate that email to your reader’s inbox and ensure higher email open rates. In a world of cluttered email accounts, your email subject needs to stand out to enable your message to penetrate the audience. Success means recruiting more volunteers, gaining additional supporters, and increasing the number of contributors to your cause or campaign.

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