For Business

Email tactics to increase open rates

Try these email marketing best practices to raise awareness of your brand and inspire shopper engagement.


Believe it or not, email has been around for more than 50 years. Though there are now more ways than ever to reach your customers, this old workhorse remains one of the most effective, cost-efficient marketing channels available to most business

Email marketing has an average return on investment of about $40 for every $1 spent, roughly double the ROI of marketing stalwarts like SEO and keyword ads. The time-tested power of email to drive traffic and sales is indisputable, and the number of active email users around the world continues to grow—to an estimated 4.6 billion by 2025.

For more than 80% of small businesses, email marketing is still far and away the number one driver of customer acquisition and retention. It might not be as flashy as a TikTok or as stylish as an influencer, but when it comes to value for your marketing dollar, email simply works—better than any other channel.

A successful email strategy is measured in open rates (OR) and click-through rates (CTR), which average about 17% for OR and 10% for CTR. There are many best practices to get the most from your email campaigns, but as Amazon’s Patrick Mitchell puts it when it comes to things like great subject lines, “There’s always going to be a bit more art than science—but it’s art that you can test.”

As an email marketing manager for Buy with Prime, Mitchell was happy to share some of the expertise they’ve gained from more than a decade of experience in email marketing. Here are some tips Mitchell offered to help merchants get the most out of their email marketing programs.

Know your audience

Email is such a personal channel. Knowing who your customer is, what they react to and interact with, that’s always the first place to start.

Email is pretty mature compared to newer marketing channels - think social - out there, so email subscriber behavior has formed into a relatively predictable pattern.

Experience shows that people don’t have a ton of patience for bad email marketing though. “You have to optimize your digital envelope around your brand story and how it resonates with your customers,” explained Mitchell. “Does your subject line and preheader offer a clear message directed at the customers you’re seeking to reach?”

Get to the point, and make it scannable

Most people don’t read their email. That’s just a fact. You only have a second to capture the attention of someone scanning their inbox. According to Statista, on average people spent 10 seconds reading a brand email. When you’re looking to optimize your results, the most important element is making sure that the value to the customer and the action you want them to take are clear right away.

The first thing they’re going to see is a hero image and a headline. At the top, subscribers should be able to determine if the contents of the email are worth their time. They should know what the point of the email is just from reading that handful of words. “Before you even worry about your supporting body copy, make sure you have a visible headline and call to action (CTA) that creates a compelling story,” advises Mitchell.

When crafting copy for your emails, avoid using overt marketing-speak and spammy words like “free” or “act now.” Most email providers use algorithms to scrub emails for trigger words that are classified as spam. So if a subject line or body content includes overly promotional copy, chances are that the email is routed to the junk folder.

Write a short subject line with a strong action verb, and then test it

For subject lines, shorter is typically better – especially for mobile devices. As a best practice, Mailchimp recommends using no more than nine words and no more than 60 characters for subject lines. Within that first 30 characters, lead with a strong action verb that indicates the next step you want the customer to take. Inboxes are just walls of text, so in addition to great writing, look for things you can do to stand out beyond words, such as impactful ways to use numbers or punctuation…or (gasp) emojis.

In the preheader, which is essentially the first line your customer sees, can increase open rates by 7%. Like the subject line, it’s best to keep the preheader short – a good rule of thumb is between 40-100 characters. Make sure the preheader bolsters the action or adds more depth to the subject line.

A proponent of testing, Mitchell says, “You’re looking for things that break the subject line up in the inbox, so you should be testing what and copy subscribers see.”

Make everything clickable

Businesses sent emails to a diverse audience, and it’s hard to know what any given subscriber is going to tap or click on. While it’s important to have a main CTA, if you have images, inline links, icons or CTAs in your emails, make sure they’re all clickable links—even if they’re all linking to the same place. For example, some people will click on an image instead of clicking on a CTA link.

Make it easy for the customer to get to the next step, so there isn’t a single point of failure.

Find your frequency sweet spot

You should test the cadence of how often your customers want to receive emails, and what sort of saturation and frequency works best for your brand. Finding the sweet spot for delivery is very much a moving target, and can shift over time.

If you’re in retail or ecommerce, customers tend to have higher leniency, particularly if you’re offering them value. If you’re giving them offers or making them aware of new products, there’s a higher level of patience and tolerance with a heavier email schedule.

As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to send a customer an email every day. You likely want to be in their inbox about once a week. If you’re continually trying to maintain a consistent brand relationship with them, there’s going to be a sweet spot. It’s a bit of a guessing game until you start testing. “Once a week is a safe place to start, and then try twice a week and see how people react,” advises Mitchell.

Keep in mind that this only applies to marketing-based emails. Anything related to a transaction or to supporting a purchase or customer service is acceptable at any frequency because some type of confirmation is expected.

Getting personalization right

Personalization always tends to drive higher engagement, but bad personalization is the fastest way to lose trust with a customer. It all comes down to data cleanliness. You don’t want a database with missing pieces of information, or where the data is poorly formed or structured.

Let’s say you’re sending out an email to thousands of people and you only have last names for some subscribers. When you build the email, the last name of those subscribers appears in both the first and last name fields, which might not go over well with some customers.

A good way to counteract database gaps is to prompt customers at different stages in their lifecycle to ensure that their data is correct. That might come through a signup form when they’re initially signing up, or through progressive profiling, where you offer them a carrot like a coupon to give you accurate, updated information.

How much should you spend on email marketing?

On average, marketers report spending 7.8% of their marketing budget on email, and research suggests that mid-sized businesses spend around $1,000 per month on self-managed email marketing.

From a cost perspective, finding opportunities to build your contact list through other marketing channels (such as social promotions) can help make email marketing more cost effective. As email is further down the funnel and often cheaper, you can put a lot of dollars into search and social advertising to attract customers to your brand.

Mitchell suggests spending more on attracting people into your funnel, so that you can leverage your contact list to keep customers engaged. “After you know who your customers are, and they’ve opted in by giving you their email address, that should be the primary way you communicate with them.” Email is relatively cheap, and it tends to be one of the strongest forms of maintaining your customer relationship and driving traffic to your site.

Building out an email list from scratch

One of the easiest ways to start building your email contact list is offering a coupon for a discount. Giving shoppers 10% off on their first purchase can increase the likelihood that they’ll consider making a purchase. Coupons and discount codes are effective ways to capture email addresses, while also potentially driving more sales.

You can also build your list by offering gated content to a position paper or event on your site. Use a simple opt-in form for the customer to register as a way to grow your subscriber base.

According to Mitchell, “Whether you’re capturing emails at the point of sale, event registrations, or promotions, it’s important to keep the opt-in component visible and obvious. After you’ve captured customer email addresses, the next step is to pay off on the value the customer is expecting.”

Experimenting with promotional banners on your website with a persistent CTA to register for some form of value exchange can also be an effective method for building your list.

One pitfall to stay away from is buying a list from a third-party. Mitchell was pretty adamant in his advice against this tactic: “Buying lists gives me hives. It just doesn’t work. And it can be illegal.”

Tend to your subscribers with care

Email subscribers don’t grow on trees. You have to maintain and curate your customer database. According to Mitchell, “If you let it sit for too long, your field is going to go fallow. If you over message, you’re going to drown it and your crops will fail.”

It’s a delicate balance and it takes a lot of care and effort to make sure your customers are getting relevant and timely messages. If you lose customers through high unsubscribe rates, it’s really difficult to get them back.

As you grow your email marketing program, start by getting to know your audience, experiment with subject lines, images, and copy to find your sweet spot, and then maintain your subscriber database so that you can personalize your communications with customers.

Sometimes it’s not the flashiest content that’s the most successful, it’s the content that the customers tell you they want with their clicks.

Buy with Prime offers a way to deliver a familiar and convenient experience that customers trust directly on your ecommerce site. Learn more about Buy with Prime.

Kelby Johnson