How people decide which emails to open

In a typical inbox, people only have three pieces of information to consider when doing a cost-benefit analysis of whether or not to open an email: from name, subject line and pre-header text. That’s not a ton of information to go on. And at a time when people have shrinking attention spans and itchy delete fingers, it’s crucial that you get it right.

So let’s talk about how to make the most of these fields, encourage more of your subscribers to open your emails and avoid the trash bin.

Pick the right from name (it's ok to be obvious)

What’s the quickest way to get someone to ignore or outright delete your email? Make the from name something they don’t recognize. The from name is the first thing anyone looks at when browsing their unread mail, so it’s the first test your email has to pass on its way to Open Land.

Most brands simply use the name of the organization. Or if you want to add a personal touch, you can have it come from a person at your organization as long as your org’s name is also present. For example, our newsletter is sent by our Director of Content Emily Konouchi, but we also include the Emma name so our subscribers aren’t going, “Who in the heck is Emily Konouchi, and why is she emailing me? Delete.”

We personalize the from name, but also include the brand name to make it clear where it's coming from.

The lesson here? Don’t overthink it. You want subscribers to know exactly where the email is coming from.

One last thing. People can and will respond to your from address, so make sure it’s an address you have access to and one where you don’t mind receiving replies.

Write a great subject line (or try to, at least)

The first rule about email subject lines: There are no hard-and-fast rules about subject lines. Every audience is different, so experiment and split test to find out what works best for your subscribers. With that being said, here are a few tips that we’ve found work for us and our customers.

Keep them short. There are a couple of numbers you want to keep in mind when it comes to subject line length. 32 is the first one, which is the number of characters iPhones allow before cutting off them off. And there’s 50. Exceeding 50 characters can sometimes lead to your email ending up in the dreaded junk/spam folder. If you have more to say, then you can always continue your thought in the pre-header (more on that in a sec).

Be clear, but compelling. Your subscribers are only scanning their inboxes, so you don’t want to get too clever with your subject line. It might be hilarious, but you run the risk that they won't spend enough time on it to get the joke. Instead, be clear and specific about the content they can expect to see when they open. That doesn’t mean you have to be boring! You can use the subject line to tease the content so that your audience can’t resist clicking and opening.

Look to your own inbox for inspiration. For example, southern lifestyle magazine and Emma customer Garden & Gun recently sent a mailing with the subject line “A Mississippi Roadside Marvel.” This subject line is great because it says you’re going to see something awesome, but it doesn’t give away exactly what that awesome thing is. It forces you to open to see for yourself. And in case you’re wondering, it worked. The mailing went to 60,000 contacts, and the open rate was nearly 40%!

Looking for more subject line smarts? Here are a few helpful resources:

Spruce up your mailing’s subject line
A handful of tips for optimizing your subject line to get more opens.

Crafting compelling subject lines
Learn the hallmark of a great subject line.

The busy marketer's guide to the holidays
This Emma + Outbrain collaboration contains all kinds of data on which words boost open/click rates when added to subject lines during the holiday season.

Don't skip the pre-header text (it's begging to be customized)

You know that faded gray text that shows up after the subject line? That’s pre-header text, and smart marketers are customizing this valuable inbox real estate to increase open rates. It’s another opportunity to catch the eye of someone scanning their inbox. And the nice thing about it is that it allows you to add content without extending the subject line beyond the cutoff point.

You can use pre-header text to tease the content of your mailing, provide a strong call to action or write a personal greeting. Or, have a little fun with it and add a symbol or emoji if you think your audience will respond to it. As for length, it varies by email client, but we recommend keeping pre-header text under 75 characters to be safe.


Pre-header text is a good place to elaborate on the subject line and give incentive to open.

And just like with subject lines, test often to find out what kind of pre-header copy works for your particular audience. It just might be that piece that takes your open rate over the top.

The big takeaway when it comes to these three fields: simpler is better. Or to put it another way, prioritize clarity over creativity. People are bombarded with emails, are quickly scanning their inboxes and want to avoid risk (aka spam), so be totally clear about where the email is coming from and the content it contains. It’s the best (and quickest) way to get more people opening your emails.

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