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8 Simple Steps to Better Email Open Rates


By Allison Gauss

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Email is the bread and butter of digital marketing. While it’s important to have a number of communication channels through which to engage your community, no organization (for-profit or nonprofit) can afford to neglect email.

But the importance and prevalence of email marketing is part of what makes it so difficult. When every organization is trying to woo supporters with email, it becomes that much harder to make yours effective. And the first hurdle (after building your email list) is getting people to open your emails.

Here are eight ways nonprofits can optimize their emails to maximize open rate. Armed with these strategies, you can expand the reach of your message and ultimately bolster support for your mission.

1. Step Up Your Subject Lines

This first strategy is probably the most obvious. There are tons of articles out there with tips on how to write better subject lines. After all, one study found that 33 percent of people decided whether to open a message based solely on the subject line.

A few tips:

  • Change it up. Even regular email series and newsletters should have unique subject lines that capitalize on the most interesting pieces of content. Instead of “Pet Friends Committee – July Newsletter,” try something like, “Runaway Puppy! How Spot found his forever home.”
  • Create a knowledge gap. Humans are naturally curious creatures. Think of a subject line that makes the reader want to know more.
  • Keep it short. Email providers display a limited number of characters. Your brilliant subject line will fall flat if people can only see half of it.

2. Spruce Up Your Sender Name

The way we receive a message has a lot to do with who we receive it from. You probably take criticism better from a respected colleague than from a stranger. The sender name that shows up with your email helps shape how people feel about the message and whether they click on it.

  • Set your sender name to display a specific person’s name. This shows your audience that there’s a person behind this digital message. Be sure to sign the message with the sender’s name.
  • Your sender name can also lead into your subject line. Consider asking a short question or setting up a joke. Readers will be surprised and amused by your ingenuity.

3. Re-evaluate Your Email Frequency

Have you ever lived in a neighborhood where car alarms seem to go off all the time? Sooner or later, you just start tuning them out. The same principle applies to email. If you want people to take notice and engage with your messages, you have to stay in touch without overwhelming them. Experiment with your email frequency to find the right balance.

You should also track what email lists each subscriber is on. Don’t inundate a recurring donor with appeals to become a recurring donor.

4. Time It Right

The time of day that you send an email can effect whether people open it. Think about when your audience is likely to engage with your emails. Depending on your community, it might be early in the morning, early afternoon, or some other time. This is another place to experiment and find your organization’s sweet spot.

5. Clean Up Your Email List

When a marketer wants to improve their open rate, they usually start thinking of how they can coax more people into clicking. But in some cases, it makes sense to start removing people from your list entirely.

If you have dozens of contacts who haven’t opened any of your emails over the past year, it might be time to leave them alone. On the other hand, you can also create one or two emails that directly address their inactivity. In these messages, you can give people the opportunity to unsubscribe or to adjust their mail settings. While you always want more people opening your emails, purging uninterested parties is another way to increase open rates.

6. Segment Your Lists

Another way to approach reviewing your email list is to spend some time studying your audience and segmenting them. This way, you can send more personalized content tailored to their interests and giving habits. At the very least, create a separate list for monthly donors to ensure you are properly expressing your thanks and developing the relationships.

You can also create segments based on…

  • Gift size
  • Donation frequency
  • Preferred programs

7. Try, Try Again

Many organizations resend emails to people that don’t open them. When used sparingly, this can be a great way to reach a greater proportion of your audience. Resends are intended to remind people interested in your content to check it out.

For example, some people may be interested in your message but they are busy when they see the email or they get distracted. A resent email gives them another chance to engage with the content.

8. Optimize Every Variable With A/B Tests

Many of the elements that improve open rates are perfect for A/B testing, which is when you send two similar emails to your audience to see which one performs better. By changing just one detail (called a variable) each time, you can determine which practices work best for you.

For example, you might perform a test in which half of your email list receives one subject line and half receive another. By comparing the two groups’ open rates, you can learn what entices your subscribers to open a message. You can perform similar tests for the timing of emails, frequency, sender name, and more.


Email marketing is a constantly evolving challenge, but with some forethought and smart experimentation, you can improve your nonprofit’s open rates. Look at each email you send as an opportunity to learn about your audience, a chance to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Beginner's Guide to Email Appeals

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