Earlier this week, we shared a ranking of the “open rates” for marketing email by industries, interests and the size of the company sending the email. Open rate is the metric that represents the percentage of recipients who open an email sent as part of a marketing campaign or email distribution. (It ignores the “undeliverable” email.) With this article, we move on to something more challenging: How do you improve your open rates? And how important are open rates? The following is from Rex Hammock, founder and head helper of SmallBusiness.com.

I’m not an email marketer. But I am a marketer who uses email. And like most small business owners, I am a marketer who also does hundreds of other things for which I have no expertise. Fortunately, my trial and error approach has provided me with just enough experience to pass along some non-expert suggestions on improving the open rate of your email marketing campaigns.

1 | Remember that “open rates” and “subject lines” aren’t the reason you started a business.

Serving customers and creating a business that is viable and meets your goals is the reason you started a business. If you focus first on making your email reflect all the positive things your customers like about you and your company, people will open your email—even if you forget to type in a subject line.

2 | Follow these commandments: Help, don’t hype. Serve, don’t spam.

Email doesn’t work if you think of it as promotional fliers you’re sticking under windshield wipers in a giant parking lot. You are sending email to what most internet users consider to be an intimate and treasured spot: their inbox. You must earn your way into an inbox. You must provide consistent service to be invited back. If your email is spammy and all about how great you are, email marketing rejection is going to be very frustrating for you.

3 | Write subject lines like the ones you consistently open.

Email subject lines are one of the few things where experts seem to agree and follow a similar practice. It can be boiled down to this: “Don’t hide your eyes, plagarize.” I don’t suggest stealing subject lines from others. I suggest “being inspired” by them. Be inspired by the last month of your email inbox and trash folder. Do an inventory of the marketing email you opened, and, likewise, you didn’t. Review the ones you opened and those you trashed. Write subject lines just like the ones you opened.

4 | Do the math.

If improving an open rate is your goal, here’s an easy way to do it. Review the past year of mailings to the same list. Get rid of all the names that never opened your email. Bam! Better open rate. However, you may want to review all the “never open” people on the list for a special email campaign that invites them to rediscover the magic found in your mailings. (Better yet, you should set up an “automated” way to accomplish this, a topic for a future post.) You may discover the problem is related to a filter that is inadvertently sending your emails into spam. If you don’t hear back from the people who aren’t opening your emails, remove them from your list and watch the laws of mathematics make your open rate go up instantly.

5 | Don’t believe experts or even non-experts: Test for yourself.

Most email marketing platforms include “A/B” testing. If your’s doesn’t, I suggest switching to one that does. It’s a feature that gives you the ability to test two (or more) subject lines with a first wave of mail released. After a set time (I use four hours), the email with the best-performing subject line is the one applied to the remaining list. We typically send 20% as a test and 80% with the winning subject line. In my experience, the test line winner is rarely the one I think is going to be. But then, I never claimed to be an expert.

Coming soon: What is the return on investment of marketing with email?

Photo: Thinkstock

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