When it comes to email marketing, Alyssa Miller often uses herself as a case study to determine which emails clients will open – and which ones they won’t. As Baker McKenzie’s global manager of marketing technology and training, Alyssa has noticed she will spend hours on websites like Self and Prevention clicking on all the links.

Why? Because the headlines catch her attention:

Seven Foods You Should Never Eat for Breakfast
Why Red Wine Gives You Headaches
Does Drinking Soda Really Cause Diabetes?

Okay, so we work at a law firm, and it’s not like they teach headline writing in law or business school. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use proven techniques for writing headlines that pique a reader’s curiosity – tricks that I reveal in this post.

Aside from the importance of catchy headlines and self observation, Alyssa has learned a few things about the ideal frequency, length, imagery and distribution of email campaigns during her 10 years managing our firm’s email marketing tool.

For this post, I talked to Alyssa about how to get more people to read our email campaigns and whether she really avoids Prevention magazine’s seven black-listed breakfast foods. I know I’m guilty of eating at least two of them, but Alyssa assures me that she avoids all seven. I’m not sure how much we can trust someone who only eats bananas and almond butter for breakfast, but here we go nonetheless.

1. Survey your audience.

Ever wonder what your clients want to read about and how often? Ask them. When Alyssa started producing the firm’s alumni newsletter five years ago, she sent it out quarterly with six to eight stories in each issue. After a few years of reviewing the analytics, she noticed that people tended to read the first few stories but not those farther down on the list.

So Alyssa sent out a short survey asking those who hadn’t viewed the newsletter in at least six months whether they still wanted to be on the alumni newsletter distribution list (otherwise known as an “opt-in survey”). If their answer was “yes,” she asked what types of topics they were interested in and how often they’d like to receive the newsletter.

Based on the responses, Alyssa started sending out the newsletter every month and limiting the content to one or two stories with news about notable alumni, alumni events and local office information. “The survey indicated they wanted to receive more custom news rather than information that we repurpose from our firm’s website, so we try to draft original content,” Alyssa says.

After she made these changes, view rates of the alumni newsletter rose from 60% to 80%.

2. Become friends with analytics

Aside from surveys, you can also use metrics to find out what topics appeal to your audience most. If, for example, you send out a newsletter with six stories each month, you can review which articles got the most clicks going back three to five issues and then use that information to give your readers more of what they want in the future.

“Most people who send email campaigns look at their view rates but not their click-through rates,” Alyssa says.

Although it can be daunting at first to wade through months of metrics, every click tells you what a reader likes. That’s why Alyssa recommends learning as much as you can about how to benchmark your open rates with industry standards (20% is the average for professional services) and how to boost your statistics.

3. Be chunky.

It’s not every day that someone tells you to “be chunky,” particularly when you’re trying to avoid eating cereal for breakfast. But for email marketing, it works. This means organizing your content into bite-sized pieces so it’s easy to scan. Think bullet points, glance boxes and short paragraphs.

For newsletters, it means listing a brief synopsis of each article with “Read more” links instead of putting the full articles on the main page. It’s not only less overwhelming to your readers because it reduces scrolling, but it also creates links for each article, which enables you to track which parts of your newsletter readers are clicking on most. Yep, we’re back to metrics.

Being chunky also makes content less daunting for those reading it on their smart phones – an important audience considering that 50% of all emails are read on mobile devices, according to a 2016 IBM Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study.

The good news is that since the launch of our rebranding in December, all our email marketing templates are now mobile responsive. “That means you put your content into one template and it changes to render perfectly no matter what device you’re viewing it on,” Alyssa says.

How’s that for service?

4. Choose striking imagery.

Maybe 10 years ago clip art and images of businessmen shaking hands were all the rage, but the world has moved on. Gone are the days when you should be using pictures of currency in your finance newsletters. Let go of the literal and go for the metaphor. “Look for images that are colorful, sophisticated, and not literally representative of the topic,” Alyssa says. Here’s an example of imagery she chose for a LinkedIn webinar promotion:

linkedin training materials

When searching for your own imagery on iStock or ThinkStock, here’s a cool tip that will help: Put “abstract” into the search field along with your topic, as in “banking abstract” to get more creative results. I had never heard of this trick before Alyssa told me about it. When I tried it, the search returned much slicker images.

5. Clean out your distribution list.

I know, I know, you inherited your contact list from the person who had your job before you and the person before that person and beyond. It’s ballooned to 10,000 contacts, and you don’t have time to go through it. It’s like we’re asking you to organize your garage or storage unit. I can hear the groans from here.

But here’s the thing: Cleaning out your distribution list is the number one thing you can do to increase your view rates. At least that’s what Alyssa claims. “It’s a manually intensive process but it’s worth it,” she says. “You end up with a smaller, more targeted list and you’re no longer sending content to people who don’t want to read it.”

To perform this task, first buy your favorite candy (okay, maybe your favorite alcoholic beverage).

Second, review your distribution list and put the people who are regularly opening your campaigns to one side. Third, look for people who haven’t opened any of your campaigns for a specific timeframe, such as one year. Take a deep breath (and a bite of candy or swig of drink) and delete them from your list. Finally, send the rest of your contacts a brief opt-in survey, and use their responses (or lack of response) to determine who else to delete.

“People tend to think that bigger is better, but that’s not the case with email marketing,” Alyssa says. “Think about the email communications that you receive. Do you read the ones that aren’t relevant to you? No.”

6. Send your campaign early in the week.

Email marketing services like and Mailchimp have made a science of finding the perfect time to send email campaigns. According to their research, the best time to send your campaign depends on your content, audience and intent. For example, do you want your audience to just read your communication or respond?

The best time to distribute informative newsletters or blogs is at the beginning of the week (Monday through Wednesday) between noon and 4 pm. The best time to send emails you want readers to respond to is toward the end of the week, either early in the morning our late at night (from 6 am to 8 am and 8 pm to midnight). Email marketing researchers explain why in this infographic.

Given that many of our firm’s email campaign audiences are based in different time zones across the world, the precise time isn’t as important. But Alyssa has noticed that emails sent earlier in the week do get higher open rates.

“It’s good to know the general rule, but you’ll learn more by looking at your own reporting to see when people are viewing your campaigns the most,” she says.

Yep, there we go again talking about metrics.

Extra credit: A/B testing.

For those overachievers out there who have already cleaned up your distribution lists, chunked up your content and made it a habit to select striking imagery, there are other techniques you can use to find out what will make more readers open your campaigns.

One is called A/B testing in which you divide your distribution list into two separate groups and set up your campaign one way for one group and another way for the second group, such as by using different email subject lines for each. Then you can see which campaign gets a higher view rate.

As much as we try to make email marketing a science, it’s a lot of trial and error. So play around a little to see what works. “We can always get better at finding out what people want to read and using data to figure it out,” Alyssa says.

Amen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to grab some green juice and a breakfast sandwich.

Note to readers: This post was written while I was conducting writing workshops for the lawyers and business services professionals at Baker McKenzie, where I wrote and edited the law firm’s thought leadership content for eight years. In the post, I rely on examples from Baker McKenzie communications and refer to the firm in the first person because I worked there at the time of writing.

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