How to improve email open rates

Agata Celmerowski |

One of the most common questions an ecommerce email marketer faces is: “How do I get more people to see my email”? Revenue per recipient might be your bottom line metric, but open rates are still an important leading indicator of how well you’re doing at getting your message in front of your prospective customers.

The first step in improving your email open rate is to take inventory of where you stand today, so you can figure out whether you’ve been getting better on average; getting worse, or flat-lining. Once you know the trends, you can start diagnosing your potential issues and areas of opportunity.

Klaviyo’s recently released Campaign Trends Report is a great tool to help you do just that – it lets you see how different campaigns compare at a glance so you can quickly see what’s different about your best campaigns and apply that to all of your campaigns going forward. If you’re not a Klaviyo user, you’ll just want to compile the open rates and the total number of opens from your last 20 campaigns or so to get a feel for what’s going on. If you’re a frequent sender, you may need to look at more than 20; if you only send once a month or less, you could look at as little as 5.

Interpreting and improving email open rate trends

When it comes to diagnosing what’s going on with your open rate, there are two main dimensions you want to look at: your open rate, which is the total number of opens over the number of delivered emails; and your raw number of opens. Both are important, because if you’ve been cleaning or growing your list regularly, the trend in the raw number of opens will help you figure out whether there’s something in the composition of your list that’s helping or hurting your results.

For both metrics, there are three potential trends you’ll see once you’ve aggregated your results: 1) they’re either generally increasing with each send, 2) generally decreasing, or 3) more or less flat. Keep in mind, your results will almost always be a little choppy vs. consistently going in one direction or the other, so it’s important for you to look at the general trend to figure out what’s going on.

Once you’ve mapped out the trend for both your open rate and your total number of opens, you can get started with your diagnosis. That diagnosis will help you figure out where to optimize your email open rate. There are really only four main buckets that affect open rate:

  • The list of recipients
  • Your sender reputation
  • The subject line and/or from field
  • The day and/or time your email is sent

But there are endless steps you can take in each of these areas, so analyzing your trends is an important first step to ensuring you’re concentrating on the area that will have the greatest impact.

To make things a little easier, here’s a guide to some of the more common reasons why you might be seeing any given combination of trends between your open rate and total opens, and what your next steps should be.

Remember – it’s crucial that you look at your trends across a single list or segment since the population you’re sending to has a greater impact on your performance than anything else.

EMAIL OPEN RATE: FLAT

TOTAL OPENS: FLAT

What it might mean:

Your list isn’t growing much, but you’re sending to a core group of engaged subscribers; or,

Your list is growing, but you’re adding people who are engaged with your content just as fast as you’re losing engagement with previous subscribers.

What to do to improve results:

If you typically use pretty similar subject lines, consider switching it up and AB testing alternates;

and/or

Start segmenting your list based on the date someone was added to see if the engagement of your older subscribers is declining rapidly. If it is, you can start offering this group different content: access to limited products, free shipping offers, or discounts.

EMAIL OPEN RATE: FLAT

TOTAL OPENS: INCREASING

What it might mean:

You’re adding more engaged recipients to your list.

What to do to improve results:

You’re doing well! If you’re not already doing it, you can experiment with your subject line and from field to see if you can start improving your open rate.

EMAIL OPEN RATE: FLAT

TOTAL OPENS: DECREASING

What it might mean:

If you’re in this situation, it means your list itself is getting smaller: you either cleaned it up and started segmenting it at some point in the time period you’re looking at, or you’re losing people to unsubscribes and bounces.

What to do to improve results:

If you’ve recently segmented and/or cleaned your list, you’re most likely on the right path – don’t worry about the decline in opens, and start looking at ways you can test subject lines and from fields.

If you’ve followed up by looking into your unsubscribes and noticed that they’ve been growing, you’ve got a different situation on your hands. Since your open rate is consistent, your content may not be causing people to unsubscribe – it’s more likely to be an issue with how you’re growing your list in the first place. If you’re not explicitly collecting permission to email subscribers, you may see a high unsubscribe rate because people don’t recognize you as a legitimate sender – and that can hurt your long-term reputation.

EMAIL OPEN RATE: INCREASING

TOTAL OPENS: FLAT

What it might mean:

You most likely started sending to a more engagement segment of your list at some point in the sending period. Nice work!

What to do to improve results:

Your next step here is to try to get more engaged subscribers onto your list. Try experimenting with your signup form; subject lines; and content.

EMAIL OPEN RATE: INCREASING

TOTAL OPENS: INCREASING

What it might mean:

You’re firing on all cylinders – great experiments and great list growth!

What to do to improve results:

Keep doing what you’re doing (and if you feel like sharing, drop us a note about writing a guest post for us to share your techniques!)

EMAIL OPEN RATE: INCREASING

TOTAL OPENS: DECREASING

What it might mean:

You may be in the same boat as someone who’s open rates are increasing white total opens stay flat, especially if the downward trend is slight. But if the trend is more significant, then it’s likely you accidentally removed some engaged subscribers at some point.

What to do to improve results:

Take a close at how you recently segmented your list — you may find that you pulled out some number of people who were regularly opening your emails, along with a bunch of people who weren’t engaged. Of course, if you segmented your list because you added another type of campaign to your mix and you’re seeing great performance from the subscribers you cordoned off, this is a moot point – your extra opens are there, just not showing up in your old list!

And in the meantime, it never hurts to focus on ways to grow your list!

EMAIL OPEN RATE: DECREASING

TOTAL OPENS: FLAT

What it might mean:

Your list is probably growing pretty steadily, but you’re likely adding unengaged subscribers. This can harm your individual sender reputation over time.

What to do to improve results:

Double check how you’re adding people to your email list – are they giving you permission? Specifically, do they know they’re signing up for your promotions?

You’ll also want to start taking steps to clean your list, so you can segment out recipients that aren’t responding. Leaving people who are unengaged on your email list might seem harmless, but long term it will hurt your sender reputation – which means your emails won’t get through even to the people who want to receive them.  

EMAIL OPEN RATE: DECREASING

TOTAL OPENS: INCREASING

What it might mean:

This is pretty unlikely, but you could be growing your list rapidly with a mix of people who are engaged and those who aren’t.

What to do to improve results:

Your first step should be to pull out people who are regularly opening your emails into their own segment, so you can keep sending to them while you troubleshoot what’s happening with the rest of your list.

Then, double check how you’re adding people to your list – it’s likely one of your subscriber sources is a channel where people aren’t aware that they’re being added to your email list.

EMAIL OPEN RATE: DECREASING

TOTAL OPENS: DECREASING

What it might mean:

Bummer. Unfortunately, there are several reasons you might be in this situation, and all of them are equally viable. For example:

  • Your list growth may be stunted and existing subscribers may be disengaged
  • You may be fatiguing your list by emailing too frequently with content that isn’t appealing to your audience
  • Your emails may be getting caught in spam traps 
  • Your content may be flagged as spam

What to do to improve results:

Your first step should be checking your bounce rates and spam complaint rates to see if they’re increasing, just so you can better diagnose the issue.

Next, start looking at your behavior as a sender: are you consistently sending the same content? Could you be over-mailing? Did you start sending to different people in the middle of the time period you’re analyzing?

And finally, reach out for help – if you’re a Klaviyo user; get in touch with our success team.

The wrap

Look at your email open rate performance over time, diagnosing the issues and figuring out where you should spend your time to improve your results doesn’t have to be complicated – especially if you have the right tools to help make the job easier (Klaviyo’s Campaign Trends Report is a good place to start, as is this data marketing toolbox). Like with all marketing, the most important thing you can do is test, test, test some more, and adjust course accordingly.

Agata Celmerowski
Agata runs marketing at Klaviyo. She’s been doing one thing or the other with email marketing since 2002, and has a story or two about the things that work well — and the things that definitely don’t.