Ultimate Guide to Email Newsletters That Get Opened

Imagine a medium that almost 90% of adults use, and that we can all market to.

It exists.

It’s called email, the one medium which has stood the test of time, and remains to this day a great way of keeping customers engaged with your brand.

Graph of the most popular online activities of adult internet users in the usa as of july 2016

Whether it’s an update on what’s happening in your company, news from across the industry or your latest product development, 83% of B2B marketers still use email newsletters for content marketing.

If you’re like me and sign up to all sorts of updates from different brands, ask yourself this: ‘How many of these do I actually open?’

I’d guess that I regularly open about ten a week, out of the 30-35 I receive on a weekly basis.

So, what is it about the email newsletters that I do open?

According to Smart Insights, average open rates for email currently stands at 24.79% but anything between 15-25% is considered good.

What Kind of Newsletter Should You Send?

The first step to creating an epic newsletter is to consider design.

There are some very fancy ones out there, with lots of images, but it’s worth considering whether they are right for your brand.

If you’re selling holidays, for example, then image-heavy might be the right approach, but a financial services company may want to be a bit more restrained.

Featured deals newsletter by groupon

It’s always worth looking at what your competitors are doing too. The tip here is not to simply copy them, but to take what they are doing well and improve it.

If your competitor is a successful brand then it’s likely they know what they are doing, so observe them and consider how what they are doing aligns with your own brand.

For instance, I’m signed up to a newsletter from SaaS Weekly by Hiten Shah, which gives a comprehensive breakdown of the latest news in the SaaS industry.

It’s a simple design that allows the reader to easily navigate through their stories and delivers the information the audience wants.

Another e-newsletter that respects their audience is ‘The Daily Post,’ from the Washington Post. It’s long, comprehensive and filled with well-written content rather than images. It’s not for everyone but it is giving what the subscribers to The Washington Post want, a detailed snapshot of the latest news.

Washington Post - email newsletters

I rarely have time to read it all but it is what I expect from a brand like the Washington Post. I open it every day and have a scan through at the very least.

Aside from design, you should consider what sort of content you want to include in your email. Should you include the latest news from the industry or your brand? Or your best-performing blog post of the week/month?

As Amanda Cook writes on Duct Tape Marketing however, it’s not about you.” 

You need to think about some of the issues or problems your subscribers are facing and how to solve them. Yes, your products can help but be subtle in any promotion.

If your newsletter is full of useful, relevant content, subscribers will not only read it but also share it with friends – instantly increasing your reach.

Essentially, always think about your audience. What do they want from your newsletter? What do they expect? And what you can deliver on a consistent basis?

Daily, Weekly, or Monthly?

If you are The Washington Post or another major news corporation, then you have the resources and more importantly, the relevant content to send great daily newsletters that subscribers want and expect. Most other brands will not have the same level of fresh content each day so deciding how often to send a newsletter is an important part of its success.

There is no magic number here, each business and industry have their own ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to achieving maximum engagement and optimal frequency. This graph from entrepreneur.com neatly demonstrates this point:

Graph of email click rate vs sends per month

(Source: Rejoiner.com)

Though the higher CTRs are at the lower end of the frequency scale, there are lower CTRs spread across the scale.

Once you have enough subscribers, you can segment your list to vary the frequency of your emails. For example, you can segment your list into three groups – Group A, B and C. Assign ‘A’ to receive daily emails, ‘B’ weekly and ‘C’ monthly.

You can then monitor a variety of metrics such as open rates, CTRs and unsubscribe rates. At the end of the testing period, you can select the best performing method. If the results do not meet your expectations, you could tweak the test and give it another go.

One of the other methods is to give the subscriber the option to set the frequency themselves. The guys at Campaign Monitor have a really good way of offering this.

Subscriber signup form for newsletter, blog updates and product recommendations

It’s a really easy-to-use form which offers the subscriber complete control on the number of emails they receive from Campaign Monitor. You tick the boxes you want and fill out your details. The fact that the subscriber gets to choose will only boost their open and retention rates.

Setting expectations on the subscriber sign up page is a good idea, ensuring there are no surprises when emails start hitting their inbox.

Be Inventive with Subject Lines

As we have said before, subject lines are an important element of any email. 33% of recipients decide whether to open emails based on subject lines alone, so it’s important to consider what makes a catchy subject line.

Even though ‘Weekly Newsletter’ may say what it is, it does get boring for subscribers very quickly. Keeping it fresh and relevant to the content will be far more enticing for people to click on.

This is something Linkedin do really well. They send a regular newsletter updating members on the latest news to appear on their site, with subject lines like this one below:

Linkedin - email newsletters

The heading has many of the elements of a successful subject line mixing familiarity (surely you’ve heard of Bitcoin by now) and curiosity, with its unnamed rival. To find out more, you simply have to open the email.

Keep the subject line short, too. There’s no point going over 50 characters because it will get cut off – and that’s just on a laptop or a desktop computer.

On mobile devices, the character limit is even shorter, less than 20.

Bear this in mind when coming up with your killer line, especially when some studies indicate up to 66% of people open their emails for the first time on mobile devices such as tablets or cell phones.

email open rates by device pie chart

In a nutshell, the subject line is just as important as the content of the email itself. They need to work together to deliver results for your business. Make the subject line enticing and ensure the email content lives up to the expectations set.

Like what you're reading?

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Segment Your List

Think about it.

Say your business has a list of 10,000 subscribers, do you think they will all have the same expectations or requirements from your newsletter? It’s highly unlikely.

Segment your list to suit their interests, age, and location. You can go as deep as you like with this. Why not segment them on whether they have a pet or not.

Email Newsletter matrix graph of demographic, purchase data, behavioral and technology

Once you have broken down the subscriber list, you can then tailor the variations of the newsletter to each segment and boost your open rates, improve retention and generate more revenue.

Studies from the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) suggest segmented emails generate 760% more revenue than unsegmented emails, so a small tweak like this could have a huge positive impact on your business.

Inform Rather Than Promote

It’s tempting to use your newsletter to simply promote your brand and products to your own subscribers. Avoid this.

It might work in the short term by creating a spike in revenue, but longer term your subscribers will start dropping off like dead flies, your open rates will plummet, and your email engagement will freefall.

I might be being a little dramatic here, but it really is important to fill your newsletter with quality content that your subscribers want to read. They know your brand and that you sell great products already. That’s why they’ve demonstrated loyalty.

What they are signing up for is information, whether it’s the latest news on the industry or insider tips on how to best use your products.

A good tip is to go with a 90-10 formula. If your email is 90% information and 10% promotion, then you have the balance right.

Doing it this way, you are effectively making the 10% more powerful because you’ve given the email more authority based on all that quality content.

You are also building a premium reputation for your brand, which is invaluable.

Focus on the content

A lot of newsletters can have too much going on. It’s understandable as companies want to tell subscribers everything that’s happening, including all the latest deals, news, and products.

It can result in messy, hard to follow emails with the reader not knowing where to start before giving up.

Before each newsletter, decide on where the focus should be – it could be one major piece of news or the top 5 blogs from the past week.

Think about the design too. Minimal templates work well with newsletters because they are tidy and uncluttered. Do you really need more than, say, 3 images?

A really good example of a well-designed, focused email is from Tom Fishbourne’s Marketoonist newsletters.

focused email by Marketoonist

(Source: Hubspot.com)

The great thing about this email is the design. It’s fuss free, with a fun image in line with the brand personality, a couple of paragraphs introducing its latest blog post, and a few more options below.

By focusing on the content, the reader is more likely to click through to carry on reading Tom’s post. The newsletter has done its job, getting the subscriber onto his website.

Use a Primary Call to Action (CTA)

Your email newsletter will likely have multiple CTAs but they should not all have equal billing. Pick one that you really want your subscribers to click on and the rest can be ‘if you have time’ CTAs.

There’s nothing wrong with telling your subscribers what you really want them to do.

This one from Hipmunk.com has one objective, to promote the video.

Hipmunk newsletter product update with CTA button at the bottom

The primary CTA ‘Watch the Video’ is orange, in stark contrast to the white and blue background. There are other smaller CTAs but the subscribers are left in no doubt as to the point of the email.

Images Should Have Alt-text

Now, this is the nitty gritty part. The detail.

Quite often, when I open emails the images don’t open as they should do. It’s no great embarrassment to the brand – a lot of people do not have images enabled on their email.

However, since images are often used for CTAs it is important to have a backup plan by using alt-text for your images.

This is easy enough to do with any email program and it will make a difference to CTRs and future open rates.

HTML v Plain Text

This will be a shock to many of you. Plain text emails have a better open rate than HTML emails.

That’s right. Even though people say they prefer HTML images, their actions say that they actually prefer plain text emails.

People are opening and clicking through more on plain text emails than on HTML emails. According to Hubspot, this is down to three factors:

  • Filters set up by email providers that divert commercial emails from users’ main inboxes.
  • Email client limitations. For example, Gmail will not automatically show images from unknown senders.
  • Users preference for digestible formatting. Plain text might be perceived as less of a time commitment to read, or perhaps people really don’t care for design in email.

HTML emails have a 25% lower open rate than plain text versions, which leads to a 42% higher CTR for plain text emails.

So should you ditch HTML/image led emails altogether?


People will get tired of ‘personal,’ plain text emails from a brand carrying the same message, so mix it up. Ensure the content is relevant to the format. If you have a top five blog post or latest news feature in your newsletter then HTML is still the way forward.

If you have an announcement or a special message from the CEO then plain text format can be very effective in terms of CTR. Utilize all the weaponry in your armor.

Test – Always

How can you know whether your email newsletters are really working? By testing them out.

I touched on this earlier in the frequency section but the truth is you can test any component of your newsletter. By segmenting your list, you can do this really easily. It’s called split testing.

For example, you might want to see if a particular color works best on the primary CTA, so you send one segment the color red and the other orange, measuring the CTRs after a few days. Another test you might want to do is subject lines – which one has the highest open rates?

This doesn’t have to be time-consuming and is a cost effective way of making constant improvements to your email performance.

With the pace of technology, you’ll never be short of new things to try out or make little tweaks to here and there.

Make it Easy to Unsubscribe

This may seem paradoxical, right? You want to keep your subscribers, not lose any.

However, there will always be a portion of subscribers who will want to leave or get bored of your emails and stop opening them. If they do not unsubscribe it brings your email rating down and increases the likelihood of emails ending up in spam.

By letting them unsubscribe you are keeping your email list healthy.

handwriting of the word Unsubscribe


That’s the ultimate guide to email newsletters.

Following the advice set out in this guide will help you generate higher open rates, better CTRs and ultimately, more revenue for your business.

It isn’t rocket science. There’s no ‘genius’ solution behind it. Respond to your subscribers, give them what they want and they’ll reward you.

Target your lists interests, keep the content relevant and ensure the frequency is consistent once you’ve figured out how often you should send your newsletters.

Pay attention to the detail, especially areas like subject lines and alt text for images.

And don’t forget to test. Testing is the most reliable way of finding out what works for your email newsletters.

Good Luck!


Like what you're reading?

Download our FREE PDF with our 21 different subject lines from Curiosity to Urgency!

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