[Question Marc] How do we get more people to open our email?

Image of a person with a question mark on a chalkboardI recently received this question from a reader in South Africa:

Just a quick question.... Do you have any resources or help that can ensure that we get more people to read our mails? We have an extremely low rate of about 11% at the moment.

My answer: Getting more people to open your email

The best way to get effective with email is to: test, test, test. The industry calls it a "split test," sending one message to 1/2 your list, another to the other 1/2.

I wouldn't make them two dramatically different emails. If you change the entire email, it's hard to isolate the tweaks that your particular readers respond well to. So send each half substantially the same email and just test little changes to see what works best.

Since getting people to open your emails seems to be an issue, try tweakingthe subject line. Send some with the current subject; send others with a question or "Did you know [something of interest]?"

Once you get more opens, you can test "calls to action" to see which links people click on.

For a fairly recent study on open rates and click rates in emails, check out this post on MarketingProfs.com.

What say you?

If you'd been asked this question, what would you have said?

Tell us in the comments!

About Marc A. Pitman

Marc A. Pitman is the CEO of The Concord Leadership Group, the author of Ask Without Fear! and director of The Nonprofit Academy. A coach to leaders around the world, Marc's expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences and has caught the attention of media organizations as diverse as Al Jazeera and Fox News. Marc’s experience also includes pastoring a Vineyard church, managing a gubernatorial campaign, and teaching internet marketing and fundraising at colleges and universities. He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80’s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family! You can connect with him on Google+, on Twitter @marcapitman, and like "Ask Without Fear!" on Facebook.
To get his free ebook on 21 ways to get board members engaged with fundraising, go to https://fundraisingcoach.com/21-ways/


  1. Something to consider when doing your testing is how you entice folks with your subject line. I just read Dan Pink's most recent book, To Sell is Human, and he addresses this topic. He cites research that identified two reasons people will open an email: 1) Curiosity; and 2) Utility.

    In other words, folks are more likely to open an email if it piques their curiosity, or if they know it has some usefulness. And, according to this research, the two operate independently of one another. To quote him: "Utility worked better when recipients had lots of email, but curiosity drove attention to email under conditions of low demand."

    But, he adds, don't combine the two. The subject line should be either "obviously useful" or "mysteriously intriguing." He also mentions specificity, which helps open rates. In other words, "Help us reach our fundraising goals!" is probably not going to be opened as much as "4 easy ways to help us reach our fundraising goals!"

    • Thanks Geoff!

      Thanks for translating Pink's ideas for nonprofits!

      Would utility be even more successful if it were utility for the READER rather than for the nonprofit?

      • Yes. Utility for the reader, rather than the nonprofit would be better - I rather quickly came up with a less-than-great example. As the expert in such things, how would you perhaps re-craft my subject line to make it more about the reader than the nonprofit?

        A slight tangent: if, on the off chance, you can perhaps point any good examples of nonprofit video that is about the audience rather than the nonprofit, I'd be curious to see. I easily grasp the mantra of "speak to your audience" in a business to business context.

        I'm trying to understand how this might work for our nonprofit clients who are asking us to produce video for them. Usually, folks are asking us to tell THEIR stories with video, rather than using the medium to speak directly to the audience.

  2. Charity Water does a great job of creating videos that speak directly to the audience. Check out their YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/charitywater.

    Marc - Thanks for the shout-out for Reliant Studios!

    • Awesome example, Mike! That video was totally great and something that can serve as good inspiration. Thanks a lot for sharing. If you have any other favorite videos for nonprofits, I'd love to know what they are.

      Here's one I saw recently. I think it's gone semi-viral, so you've probably already come across it. Maybe a touch on the long side, but I watched it from beginning to end:


      I suppose you could classify this as "audience-driven."

  3. Geoff,

    That's an incredible example of what a nonprofit can do with an iPhone. Part of our job as a production company is teaching nonprofits when it makes sense to hire the experts and when it makes sense to produce a video yourself. This is a great example of "cinematic gold" that anyone would watch somewhat regardless of the production quality. It's also kind of a "peak behind the curtain" showing an experience that people don't get to see every day.

    I could actually list ten reasons why this video is effective. But I'll stick with one: It has a full story arc (challenge, struggle, resolution). They presented the CHALLENGE that Rosie is homeless and might have puppies. Then they allowed the STRUGGLE to unfold... it was hard watching Rosie's first reaction to being trapped in the cage (which made you empathize with her more). Then we weren't sure if Rosie was going to show us her puppies or not and they told us an hour passed before they thought of a solution. And finally the story comes full circle as they discover a solution using puppy sounds and the story has RESOLVE as Rosie takes us to her puppies.

    So if you are working for a nonprofit and you come across heartwarming moments in your line of work, carry a small video camera with you all the time. An iPhone can be a great tool for capturing the moments and sharing them online.



    • Your comments are spot on. We are actually a video production company ourselves, working mostly with nonprofits. We, too, always tell folks that DIY video is perfectly satisfactory if it communicates in a way that resonates with the audience.

      I was simply asking about other examples because it's good to know what our peers are doing! Cheers, GB

What would you add?