6 Email Marketing Hacks to Increase Open Rates

Joseph Cole is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub and a writer for those who do good. Leveraging ten years of experience in the nonprofit world as a program leader and fundraiser, he proudly writes for both nonprofits and for-profits who serve the nonprofit sector. Connect with Joseph at freshideacopywriting.com.


Do you have an email newsletter that’s flat-lining? Are you experiencing abysmal open rates? Harrowing click-through rates? It’s time to revamp your e-newsletter and get it back on its feet.

1. Use an ESP.

You may love Outlook. You may even live in it some days. But for email marketing, you simply must let go of it. While brilliant at one-on-one communication, Outlook fails terribly with email marketing.

Here’s why:

  • Emails from Outlook look plain, or worse, awful.
  • Your emails can be blacklisted.
  • Your emails are likely to find a home in your recipients’ spam folder.
  • You’ll get the bouncebacks and auto replies from all of the thousands of emails you’ve sent out.
  • You can inadvertently break any one of the CAN-SPAM laws.
  • You won’t be able to look at who’s opening or clicking on links in your emails.

On a similar note, if you currently send out your newsletter as a PDF attachment, please… PLEASE… stop. There are many things wrong with this approach, but suffice to say, most of your recipients will not open these because viruses are notorious for traveling in email attachments.

So, the first way to boost your open rates is to start using an Email Service Provider (ESP) like MailChimp, Emma or Constant Contact. A proper ESP is normally low-cost (if not free) and offers in-depth analytics, list management and CAN-SPAM compliance features.

2. Make your layout mobile-responsive.

The mobile platform is being used by so many people, it’s almost a guarantee that most of your recipients are reading your e-newsletters almost exclusively from a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet. Because of this, you need to design your email newsletters first for mobile reading.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind while designing your email:

  1. Use a larger font (try 16 pixels).
  2. Use a Sans Serif font (like Arial or Helvetica).
  3. Write one or two sentence paragraphs (three at the most).
  4. Make sure there’s plenty of space between your paragraphs.
  5. Use buttons for your calls-to-action instead of links in the text.
  6. Use photos and other graphic elements. Write what your audience wants to read.

3. Write enticing subject lines.

Subject lines are arguably the most important part of the entire email because they’re what prompts the recipient to open the email. Your subject lines must have strong emotional pulls, either the positive emotion of an old friend stopping by to say hello or the negative jolt of a child drowning, yelling at you for help.

At first blush, it may seem manipulative to write subject lines like that, but would you fill up their inbox with the information they really don’t need to read? In other words, why would you waste your time and the time of your recipients by sending take-it-or-leave-it emails?

You’re on a mission to change the world for goodness’ sake. Your emails should reflect the emotional depth of your reason for existence.

4. Write provocative header content.

This is the preview text that email clients show below or next to the subject line. Instead of telling the recipient what’s inside the email in this section, tell them what they’ll get out of opening the email. Will they learn something? Experience something? Help someone? Can they signup for something?

The answer to the “What’s in it for them?” question is what you want to put here.

5. Write to your recipients more often, but with varied content.

Almost every client I take on is nervous about increasing the frequency of their email communications. When I ask them how often they send out their e-newsletters right now, almost everyone says they publish one every month. I don’t buy it.

Honestly, the once-a-month e-newsletter is as mythical as leprechauns.

What really happens with these e-newsletters is they’re sent out once every two months at best. This infrequent contact almost ensures low open rates. I recommend sending at least twice a month or more. But how do we keep our recipients from throwing us into spam or unsubscribing? Send a variety of content in your e-newsletters. There are so many ways to engage with your recipients with email.

Get started with these ideas:

  • Send a survey or poll.
  • Send event announcements.
  • Send a testimonial.
  • Send a news alert.
  • Send a personal letter from another supporter.
  • Send a link to a video you’ve made.
  • Thank sponsors or donors who’ve made significant contributions or matching challenges.
  • Send an invitation to attend a webinar, download a white paper or an infographic.

6. Keep your emails to 250-500 words, single column.

The length of your emails needs to be proportionate to the frequency of your emails. If you send more often, write fewer words. Less often, write more words. While I recommend the one column approach because it’s more friendly to mobile devices, if you decide to place more sections within the newsletter, separate them with headers, lead copy and use a “Read More” button.

Also, use subheadings in the body of the email. Break up the body text with subheadings that draw the reader further down into the content. Write them so that if the reader only read the subheadings, they would understand the message you’re trying to get across.


[BONUS CASE STUDY] Write the stories and information your recipients are looking to you to provide.

Discovering what your audience is dying to hear from you may not be as difficult as you might think. If they’ve subscribed to your newsletter, or have given to your organization, you can assume they’re interested in your mission. Take a moment and brainstorm every type of information surrounding your mission that you can think of. By doing so, I’ve been able to raise the open rates for a nonprofit client of mine.

The client’s mission and work are exclusively in India. The president wrote the newsletter and would often talk about the various meetings he was involved in, the decisions they made, the needs they had and some descriptions of their programs.

So, the first thing I did with their content was to stop talking about them. Instead, I researched the political, societal and health issues facing the average Indian. In the new e-newsletter, I shared the official opinion of the nonprofit on those issues. If they had a program involved in those issues, I showed how their programs were making an impact.

Open rates went up every month by 15%. One email newsletter (not a fundraising email) even brought in a $5,000 donation! The donors now had an Indian news source from a nonprofit they trust, and they responded with continued support.

The sad reality is, your audience doesn’t always want to hear about your organization.

They want to hear about your beneficiaries, the world your beneficiaries live in, and all the forces that affect your beneficiaries’ lives. So, give ‘em what they want and watch your open rates soar.

nonprofit apps

Joseph Cole

June 9, 2016

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