The Science of Email: This New Report Is Sure to Help You Engage Your Subscribers

If you haven’t changed your email marketing strategy in the past three years, a new report, Science of Email 2014, might shake you out of hibernation.

The report, a joint effort from HubSpot and Litmus, gathers data from over 800 million sent emails in addition to self-reported data from user surveys, and reveals some excellent insights into how to make your emails more successful. The entire report is worth diving into, but we’ve broken down some of the key takeaways below.

With email users growing more sophisticated, content has become crucial

According to the report, people today tend to be more “sophisticated” when handling their email than they were three years ago, and marketers need to understand this shift in behavior if they want their email campaigns to perform well.

First, know that users are becoming more mindful about how they process their inbox. More than half of the respondents (54 percent) report using automatic filters, and a similar percentage also report using a separate “spam” email inbox for commercial offers.

As a result, people are also reading a lot less of their email. HubSpot’s respondents from 2014 reported reading less of their email compared to respondents from three years ago.

“I don’t believe that this indicates that people are using email less often, but rather they are becoming more sophisticated about how they use it,” wrote Zarrella.

There seems to be only one way to reach these increasingly savvy users: provide them with content that they’ll look forward to reading when they open their inbox.

Doing otherwise comes at a high cost; according to HubSpot’s survey, when respondents receive unwanted commercial emails, most of them delete (68 percent) and unsubscribe (58 percent). Less than 30 percent merely ignore the emails.

In other words, without engaging, relevant content, your subscribers are likely to opt out of your marketing. If you suspect that this is starting to happen, try HubSpot’s guide to a re-engagement campaign to wake up your stagnant subscribers.

Focus on the app, not the device

Apart from the sophisticated user’s email behavior, there’s another factor that brands have to account for: how they’re reading their email.

“Overall, when it comes to doing email marketing right, it’s all about your audience,” said Lauren Smith, Marketing Coordinator at Litmus. “Since every audience is different, understanding where your subscribers are opening your emails is key.”

What’s clear from both HubSpot and Litmus’ data is that people are using their mobile devices more and more to read email, but according to Smith, marketers should be tracking the email app that their subscribers use, not the device.

“Many email designers wonder if their email looks good on the iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, etc.,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. Support for mobile email is tied to the application used to view the email, not the device or the operating system.”

For example, just because someone reads email from an Android device, it doesn’t mean they automatically use the Gmail app to open your message—while the Gmail app is the default email app for all Android devices, leading the pack with over one billion installs, the Yahoo Mail app still has at least 50 million installs, and the Outlook app has at least 10 million.

Finding out which email clients your subscribers use doesn’t have to be difficult, however—most email marketing services such as MailChimp and Aweber automatically track this. Dedicated email marketing analytics apps like Litmus can also help you track the devices and apps that your subscribers use.

The anatomy of an engaging email

While there’s no one-size-fits-all template that works for every campaign, the report listed had several pieces of advice for marketers seeking higher open and click-through rates (CTR), including:

Write short subject lines. Keep your subject lines as short as possible. From the report: “As the length in characters of subject lines increased, CTR of those emails in our dataset decreased.”

Use “engagement” words. Including the words include “you,” “thank,” and “download” in the subject line were shown to improve open and click-through rates.

Keep emails short, with a direct call-to-action. According to the report, “[e]mails with between 300 and 500 total non-HTML characters tended to have the highest CTRs,” which means that your emails should be as concise as possible if you want your readers to take action.

Contra-competitive timing. Emails sent on Saturdays and Sundays had higher CTRs than emails sent during the workweek.

“I call this effect contra-competitive timing,” wrote Dan Zarrella. According to Zarella, sending your emails during the workweek might be the conventional theory, but marketers often “run into the problem of everyone sending email at the same time, which, combined with the fact that recipients are most likely busy at work, leads to less chances of your emails being read.”

Personalization. The report found that adding your recipient’s first name in the email subject line may also lead to a higher CTR.

Images-off techniques. “Numerous email clients and apps—across mobile, desktop, and webmail environments—block images by default,” said Smith. According to Smith, many subscribers tend to read emails with the images disabled.

“As a result, it’s important to use images-off optimization techniques, like ALT text and bulletproof buttons, to make sure your email is legible and actionable regardless of whether images are present or not,” she added.

The bottom line

The findings from Science of Email aren’t meant to save a broken email strategy, but they provide a useful compass to get you started on the right path. Keep your audience in mind, deliver content that they love, and any additional gains from this data will just be a bonus to an already solid strategy. For further reading, check out Refinery29’s great post about how they increased their email engagement by over 20 percent.

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Image by Elliott Erwitt, 1966

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