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Fresh Ideas and Expert Advice for Writing Email That Gets Opened and Read

It’s harder than ever to get people to open and read your emails – even the ones they’ve asked to receive. Why? Just consider the competition you face.

CMI’s most recent B2B research indicates 69% of marketers send email newsletters, and 68% send emails with other content.

That means a lot of brand emails in people’s inboxes vying for attention with their work and personal communications.

Yet email remains one of the most important tools content marketers use. Almost two-thirds (64%) say email engagement metrics have provided some of the most valuable insight into their content marketing programs.

It’s time to do a tune-up. To help, I gathered helpful ideas and advice from a few of the experts who presented at Content Marketing World 2021.

Tips one to eight come from Nancy Harhut, chief creative officer HBT Marketing, who gives her best advice for getting your emails noticed and believed. The last three tips (nine to 11) contain advice specific to emails newsletters and come courtesy of Dennis Shiao and Ashley Guttuso. Dennis, founder of Attention Retention, created and writes the weekly Content Corner newsletter. Ashley, director of marketing at Simple Focus Software, creates the Opt In Weekly email. She also organized Newsletter Fest and hosts Screen Share, an interview series with newsletter creators.

1. [Use brackets]

Using brackets or parentheses around a couple of words in your subject line boosts email open rates by 31% over subject lines that don’t use them, according to Worldata, analysis of thousands of email campaigns.

“People scan their inbox. They see lots of words and letters. (Brackets) stand out and people notice. They remember things that are different,” Nancy says.

Think of explanatory, personalization, or timely words to encase in the brackets, such as [webinar], [white paper], [alert], [for you], [now], or [soon].

Bracketed words stand out in #email subject lines because people notice things that are different when they scan their inboxes, says @nharhut via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

2. Keep comparison images close together

Audiences like before-and-after examples, but don’t put the images so far apart that viewers have to work to make the connection. Nancy cites a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research that shows people assume a stronger relationship the closer together the images are.

In this example, the nonprofit Smile Train doesn’t quite get it right, having the girl holding her “before” picture at her waist instead of next to her face:

This ad in Insider Weekly positions the before-and-after images right next to each other for a better effect:

3. Don’t spell numbers

Use numbers in subject lines but don’t spell them out. Our brains crave the ease and order that numbers provide, Nancy says. But don’t write them out. Using the actual number helps the subject line stand out in the inbox and saves on the character count.

Use numbers in subject lines but don’t spell them out, says @nharhut via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

I’m a fan of this advice for an even simpler reason: It follows AP Style for headlines.

4. Say ‘because’

I’ve heard a lot of email advice in my time, but I hadn’t heard this: Use the word “because” because it’s an automatic compliance trigger.

Use the word ‘because’ in your emails because it’s an automatic compliance trigger, says @nharhut via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

When people see (or hear) the word “because” in a sentence, they nod without fully processing what comes next. They just assume it’s logical, according to a Harvard research study by Ellen Langer.

In her 1978 experiment, she had people ask to cut in line on people waiting to use a busy copy machine on campus. Each used a specifically worded request to test compliance:

  • “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” 60% complied.
  • “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?” 93% complied.
  • “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” 94% complied.

That’s why marketers miss an opportunity in emails that don’t include the word “because” as the Direct Marketing Association of Washington did in this email to extend the deadline of its source book. It starts with “As my designer has been down with the flu …”

If they had used “Because my designer has been down with the flu …,” Nancy predicts they would have seen a bigger response.

She shares this example of an email she received and read in its entirety even though she had no hiring plans. It begins: “Because we expect your organization is always on the look-out for top Oracle professionals, we wanted to introduce you to an outstanding candidate.”

5. Capitalize without shouting

In recent years, words written in all capital letters have become synonymous with shouting. That’s prompted marketers to stay away from all caps, lest their audiences think they’re yelling at them.

But, Nancy says, emphasizing one or two important words by using all caps is an effective strategy.

Worldata research indicates an all-cap from address boosts open rates 19% and subject lines with the first word in all caps increases B2B open rates by 14% and B2C by 17%.

Don’t avoid capitalizing words in #email subject lines, says @nharhut. Do use the style judiciously to emphasize one or two words via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

6. Go negative

Though emphasizing gains, benefits, and advantages has its place in emails, Nancy says, think negatively too.

“People are two times more motivated to avoid pain of loss than to achieve pleasure of gain,” she says. So, for example, test a negative phrase such as “Don’t pay extra. Register today” against the positive “Save $200 through the early bird rate.”

7. Rhyme at the right time

Nancy doesn’t advise writing entire emails in rhyme. But she does suggest using well-written rhymes in the right places, such as subject lines, calls to action, or titles and headlines.

She cites research from Matt McGlone that found people who read two sentences with the same meaning are more likely to judge the rhyming version to be more truthful. Rhymes are easier for the brain to process. Because those rhymes feel “right,” the readers assume they are. (He speculated this rhyme-as-reason phenomenon might have affected the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial when lawyer Johnnie Cochrane said: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must quit.”)

Nancy illustrated the rhyming effect with these two examples for webinars on the same topic. The first reads: ABM Learnings and Best Practices: The NEW Clear & Complete Guide to Account-Based Marketing

While the other promotion read: Without Sales, ABM Fails.

8. Proofread

Yep, that important step made Nancy’s list. She points out that while email readers will still understand the text even if there’s a typo, the lack of attention to detail can indicate a bigger problem.

She used this typo (receive is misspelled) in an email from BMW to illustrate her concept. If the car company cuts corners with emails, what corners did they cut or overlook on their expensive cars?

Nancy’s tips work for most kinds of email a content marketer might send. Now, let’s get into the advice Dennis and Ashley shared specifically for email newsletters.

9. Ask one question first and always

Does this content serve our readers?

If the newsletter or piece of content in the newsletter doesn’t deliver what your ideal customer wants or needs, don’t send it. If you hold to that rule, your recipients are more likely to look forward to seeing your email newsletter in their inboxes and want to read it – no matter what the subject line is. It’s about building trust with your audience, Ashley says.

To make sure you’re serving the reader first, Ashley recommends devoting 90% of the content to helpful editorial material and limiting anything promotional to just 10%. She points out that a promotion in a newsletter could be a call to consume other content – it doesn’t have to be a pitch for a product.

Does the content in your #email newsletter serve your reader? If not, don’t send it, says @GuttusoAshley via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

10. Give it a voice (and a face)

Dennis endorses the advice from MarketingProf’s Ann Handley to “put the ‘letter’ in the newsletter.” Craft each newsletter as if you were writing a letter to a friend.

Craft every #email newsletter as if you were writing a letter to a friend, says @DShaio with a hat tip to @MarketingProfs via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

Yes, he says, this advice applies to both B2C and B2B brands. And, he says, it works especially well for subscribers who may be early in their process and not ready for a standard nurturing email campaign. “If you provide them engaging content, then you can build that trust that earns that sale down the road,” he says.

He shared this email from Branch, a SaaS company in the subscription economy. The email comes from Alex Bauer, the company’s head of product marketing. It starts with a unique note from him – not a repurposed blog post – along with examples and resources.

Click to enlarge

Ashley recommends adding a human or mascot picture to the email sender’s profile instead of the company’s logo. She says she always enjoys seeing Taco, the Trello mascot, pop up in her inbox.

Add a human or mascot picture to the #email sender’s profile instead of the company’s logo, says @GuttusoAshley via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

11. Enable a two-way conversation

You’ve probably heard the advice to use a person’s email address, not an automated “do-not-reply,” to send your emails. But don’t stop there. Make sure to read any replies to that email address and respond to subscribers who took the time to send you a note.

Ashley recommends asking questions in your newsletter and inviting people to simply hit “reply” to respond. It’s an easy way to get audience input. In a newsletter earlier this year, she posed a question about whether readers would be interested in participating in a Newsletter Fest event. The massive response from people hitting reply prompted the company to host a week-long virtual event. Event-specific emails garnered 60% open rates because the audience felt invested in the idea from the very beginning.

Stand out in the inbox

Yes, there’s more competition in the inbox. But you can stand out and get read. Craft more noticeable subject lines, don’t make your readers work hard, send only relevant content, and create a conversation. Follow this advice to create a deeper connection to and trust in your brand among readers. And that leads to better results for your business.

Want more insight from these and other Content Marketing World speakers? Register for an on-demand pass to get access to session recordings through Dec. 31, 2023. Use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute