How to Improve Email Marketing Readership and Response Rate

For years I have used email marketing to introduce products, generate sales leads and complement other marketing efforts, such as telemarketing, social media and face-to-face selling. While I have had good luck in using email to deliver my message, success is far from guaranteed. In fact, most emails are never opened, even if the reader knows the sender. For those messages that are opened, many are never read completely or never elicit any type of response.

The challenge for any business using email campaigns is improving the open rate and response rate. In large part, success depends not on what you say, but how you say it.

Here’s what I mean. Your choice of word selection, typeface, colors and arrangement of the design elements on the page create an impression on the reader. This first impression determines whether your message is read or discarded.

In designing the layout of your email message, some techniques work better than others. These “other” practices, although they may be effective when designing a printed piece, such as a brochure or print ad, can be distracting and should be avoided.

Here are a few ideas that you should consider when writing and designing your emails. In addition to design, I also have a few suggestions regarding your email list and scheduling of the mailing.

What Subject Lines for Emails are Most Effective

The subject line of your email serves a function similar to a headline of an ad or a news story. What you write determines whether your reader opens your email and reads your message. For that reason, if you want great results, give your readers a compelling reason to open the email, by suggesting value in a benefit statement. Here are some examples:

Which Window Designs Generated Highest Store Traffic

How to Reduce Nighttime Accidents by 15%

5 Reasons Why You Should Redesign Truck Graphics Every 5 Years

What You Should Know When Buying a Banner

Some words or phrases to in your subject line, which can improve the open rate are:


How To,

Reasons Why, and


These words have been effective in direct mail marketing and print advertising. They also work for email.

Keep that subject line statement short and sweet. One rule of thumb is to limit the message in the subject line to about 50 to 75 characters. That’s a tough assignment because you also want that message to be intriguing enough for the reader to want to know more about your offer.

A Word of Caution. Some people make misleading claims in the headline in order to get the reader to open the mail. This is big mistake. The ill will that this engenders will damage your credibility and hurt your chances of making a sale. Make sure that the claim in the headline is something that you can substantiate in the body copy.

Which Typefaces Aid Readability

When I first worked as a copywriter nearly 45 years ago, the rule of thumb was that a serif typeface was easier to read than a sans serif typeface. The rationale was that we grew up reading copy which utilized serif typefaces, such as Times New Roman.

In selecting typefaces for your email campaign as well as for your website or blog, you have a little more latitude. Many feel that sans serif type is more modern-looking and thereby more appropriate for email.

Some of the most readable typefaces to use for emails are the simplest and most commonly used. These include:

  •  Arial
  • Baskerville Old Face
  • Bookman Old Style
  • Calibri
  • Georgia
  • Gill Sans MT
  • Tahoma
  • Times New Roman
  • Verdana

Be careful, when using two or more fonts. In selecting a typeface, the safe bet is to stick with one font. If that is too boring for you, try variations of the letter weight and style.

Many of the more ornate fonts are just too difficult to read, especially script. While some funky fonts can attract attention, often they can distract from your message. These typefaces can also be difficult to read, especially if you use them for large blocks of copy.

When Should You Use Background Color

You have heard that “color communicates”. In most cases that’s true. It is also true that, used incorrectly, color can be distracting. It is especially distracting when dark colors are used for the background in an email.

My advice is that the best background color for an email is white. If you must use a color behind a copy block make it a very light color. One of worst color combinations for email is white copy on a black background.

Which Images to Use

In designing your email, images are important. Just don’t overdo it.  The images should not dominate the layout. So keep them small. For my emails and blog articles, photos are no larger than 72 dpi and 300 kb. That’s more than you need for emails, website and blogs. What’s more, to aid readability when using pictures, provide enough white space around the image so you don’t crowd the copy.

Images should be relevant to your audience and consistent with your message. If your email campaign targets retailers and is about the benefits of a window graphics program in cost-effectively remodeling the appearance of store locations, you should use photographs of retail store locations not gas stations.

Visual & Thematic Consistency

Use colors in your emails which complement your company’s colors on your website and logo. The images and message of the email should also reinforce your branding and marketing themes.

Getting Your Message Across

Before you start writing, make sure that you know the specific needs and problems of your target audience. Then as you are writing, explain to your reader how your offer satisfies those needs.

What they teach you in writing direct marketing copy is to emphasize the key benefits of your offering in the first paragraph. In the subsequent paragraphs, you build up those assertions with argument and evidence.

Note that I used the term benefits, not features. Whatever you do resist the urge to list all of the technical features. If the reader wants to know the nitty-gritty details, they can call you, or email you or they can click on a link to your website.

Your copy should stress the benefits of your product or service. It should answer the primary question in the reader’s mind: “What’s in it for me?”  In the field of fleet graphics or building graphics, you need to explain what your company can do for the prospect that your competitors can’t do.

Get to the point. In writing your first paragraph, employ Rudyard Kipling’s six honest serving men in crafting your message: who, what, why, when, where and how. Your first paragraph should provide answers to the most important questions that a reader may have within a few sentences.

Keep Your Message Simple. Avoid industry jargon, technical terms and acronyms. As one editor instructed me, describe your proposal in simple, easy to understand terms, in a way that you would explain something to your mother.

Your narrative may focus on your company’s proven track record of manufacturing and installing major graphics programs. Major graphics providers should emphasize the financial strength of their organization which means that they have the wherewithal to stand behind their products and correct problems.

If your company has won any national design awards, you should explain how the program was developed and what it accomplished for the client. Case studies are effective in telling your story. When I worked for one large fleet graphics company, I developed several direct marketing programs, which utilized testimonials.

To highlight the primary benefits of your offer, use subheads, bold copy and bullet points. Break you copy up into short paragraphs of just a few sentences each to aid reading.

Many emails are too long. Writing good email copy is similar to writing good ad copy. You need to rewrite the email over and over again until your prose is condensed to poetry.

How long should your copy be in explaining the features, benefits and advantages of your offer? That depends on the product or services that you are trying to promote and the complexity of your offer.

After you write your email, have a friend or colleague proofread it. This will prevent misspellings and grammatical errors.

Don’t Forget the Call to Action

After your prospect reads about the benefits of your proposal, what do you want him to do? Do you want him to call your company, visit your website, request more information or have a salesman call?

Whatever your objective is, make it easy for the prospect to respond with multiple calls for action. You can call attention to your call to action, in a number of ways. You can use a bold typeface for hyperlinks. Or you can incorporate a brightly colored response button.

Throughout your message you provide several hyperlinks. Multiple calls to action give the reader many opportunities to respond, which can improve your response rate. Just as in selling, remember the ABC rule:

Always Be Closing.

What Makes the Best Email List

The best mailing list is one that you compile, manage and own. A list, which is a collection of existing clients, business contacts from industry events, website inquiries or potential customers qualified from phone prospecting, is certainly better than a list of names that don’t know you or your business.

The advantage of list that you own is that you are free to use the database for other applications such phone prospecting, direct mail or scheduled follow up sales calls. It also provides you with the flexibility to build detailed account profiles, which you or your sales people can use as part of pre-call planning. Creating your own list also allows you to segment the database. That way you can tailor your message to specific audiences.

The other option is to rent a list. When using some rental lists, the list owner typically controls the mailing. Generally, you will have limited if any access to the prospect information.  What’s more, with some list rentals you have no idea how the lists were compiled.

How to Schedule Your Emails to Maximize Your Results

Timing is critical when sending a sales email. This applies to the day that you send an email, as well as the time of day that an email is sent. Let’s start with the worst and best days to send an email.

The three worst days to send messages are Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Friday isn’t much better. Here’s why. The start of the week is often hectic. It’s the day that people are getting back in the swing of things. It’s also the day that the boss is most likely to dump a ton of work on a subordinate’s desk.

Fridays are usually busy too. It’s the day that people try to clear off their desks so they can start on the weekend with nothing hanging over their heads. Sending a business e-mail on the weekend is always a bad idea. Weekends are when people recharge their batteries and devote time to friends and family. The best days are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Now for the worst and best times of the day to send emails. Forget about sending messages early in the morning. That’s when most of messages are sent. When your prospects in-box is full, a high percentage of his or her emails get delated. Sending e-mails after business hours is also a wasted effort. Most emails are opened later in the working day. For that reason, the best time to send an email blast is mid-afternoon, about 2:00PM.

Why You Should Measure Your Results

Many different factors affect the effectiveness of your email message. There is only one way to know what works and what doesn’t. Test, Don’t Guess. If you use an email service, such as Constant Contact, you can easily record how many readers open your emails as well as the response to your calls to action within your message.

A technique used years ago in direct mail marketing was to send out two mailings, which were identical but for one variable, such as the headline, color of the envelope or the response card. Using a sample size of 1000 for each mailing, direct mail marketers measured which variable pulled the best response rate. You can use the same split mailing technique for email marketing.

The most important variable to test is your offer in the subject line. That’s the front door of your promotion. If the prospect doesn’t open the email, your message is lost.

What’s important is that you track all of your results. If something works, continue to do it. If it doesn’t, try something else.

Good Luck Selling!