DDS: Improving Your Open Rates

The dirty work behind improving your open rates

By: Ashley Mulder

When the results from the CRAM Digital Data Survey came back, the overall average open rate was a minimum of 17%. Industry standards for media are closer to 22% and above, which means many of us have some work to do. 

Subject line testing might be the “easier” topic to cover when discussing how to improve open rates, but there’s a much less glamorous reason likely contributing to your below average open and click thru rates … poor data hygiene and sending practices. While it’s easier (and more fun) to think of how the cat emoji can help lift your email send, your innovation in feline graphics will fall short if the dirty work and a hard look in the mirror isn’t done on your database and sending practices. Here are 6 ways to improve your data hygiene and sending practices to bolster your open rates.

1. Remove unengaged contacts

If you aren’t purging your data regularly, you likely have contacts on your list bringing down your open rates. Segment your database by those who haven’t opened an email in the last six, nine, or twelve months. Take a look at what removing those contacts will do to your newsletter sends. If you can afford to remove those who haven’t opened an email in six months, do it. If you’re concerned about advertiser minimums, perhaps be a little less aggressive and remove those who haven’t opened in nine or twelve. If you’re keeping contacts on your lists that haven’t opened in a year, you’re sending to a dead email. Don’t hang on to the dead weight any longer.

2. Establish a re-engagement campaign

A major purge as suggested above isn’t necessary if you are regularly sweeping unengaged contacts off your list. Set up a workflow in your database of 2-3 emails with catchy subject lines like “Was it something we said?” or “Don’t go!” to any contact who hasn’t opened an email in 6 months. If the contact doesn’t open any of those emails, remove them from your database. If a contact happens to open an email, despite not opening any other emails from you lately, this is your shot to sell them on why they want to stay on your list. Take the time to highlight the great content they’ll miss out on or give them the opportunity to receive less emails from you. This is the perfect time to hard sell them before they go back to un-engaged land.

3. Don’t add lists from third party sources

I’d love to say this doesn’t happen anymore, but it’s still occuring. While the effort may be well-intentioned …  if it’s not your contact, a contact you acquired through your own form or event, it shouldn’t be added to your database. You can’t account for other companies data practices and consumers are becoming less-tolerant of companies not invested in protecting their privacy. Don’t affiliate yourself with that type of practice and don’t send to a contact you haven’t established a relationship with firsthand. A third-party contact is far less likely to engage with an email than someone you acquired firsthand, so don’t spend the energy loading in bad, low quality data.

4. Don’t trick users into signing up for your emails

With email as the significant driver of a company’s ROI, you have an invested interest in consumers opening your email. It’s not in your best interest to get a newsletter sign up by happenstance (i.e., burying an email sign up in an unrelated form or default checking all 20 of your newsletters on a form). Not only is a contact likely to become disillusioned from the onslaught of receiving 20 newsletters they signed up for ‘incidentally’, but also the practice of defaulting checking boxes is not GDPR compliant and will likely become illegal. Keep your focus on the consumers that want your product, not the ones you tricked into it.

5. Maintain a healthy email schedule

Your contact doesn’t see you as unique departments: editorial, sales, marketing, etc. Therefore, companies need to be mindful of how many promotional emails a consumer is receiving a month. (Best practices say to stay within 2-3.) In order to maintain that type of control, company email priorities have to be aligned. There may be a huge event one month that will require hitting pause on third-party emails during that time. Or, a big subscription effort will have to take priority over a contest at times. Whatever the case may be, limits should apply. Consider establishing an email calendar each month and review accordingly to keep a handle on your companies outbound communication.

6. Be consistent

Particularly when it comes to your editorial email products, consistency is key. Consumers are creatures of habit. If you’re sending your newsletters at one time one day, and another time the next, it’s hard to incorporate your newsletter into their regular routine. Be mindful and stay consistent. Or better yet, if your database allows, let the user personalize their send times themselves.

Some of these are quick adjustments, others will take time. However, all are necessary to improve your open rates, which in turn lead to bigger ROI. Want to talk more email? Email me at

The CRMA Digital Data Survey was conducted by the City Regional Magazine Association and Twenty-First Digital in December 2019. Twenty-First Digital is a full-service audience development agency that works directly with publishers, brands, and media companies on their digital strategy and audience development efforts.

All CRMA members were asked to complete a survey that provided Twenty-First Digital with metrics that were then used to create averages and trends within the CRMA. From there, the data was presented to each member, outlining where they stood in comparison to similar publication sizes. If you have any questions regarding the conduct of this survey, please email

BLOG TWO: Improving Your Click Thru Rates

Improving your click thru rates, becomes possible in large part by building upon the very practices that were discussed in our previous post on improving open rates found here. Using those core practices as our baseline, we can now augment those practices with some additional strategies to building engagement specifically as it pertains to click thru rates.

Why do click thru rates matter?

It’s an established industry benchmark of how much value consumers are placing on content we serve them in email. However, how we measure engagement is changing. Click thru rates may be the industry benchmark now, but it might not always be the most relevant indicator of how a consumer values your contact. For example, have you ever received an email where a pop up notice comes on your screen that says something like ‘17 Dogs Found In Houston Airport’ of which you dismiss never to think of again until later that day a friend says ‘Hey did you you see that story about the dogs at the Houston airport?’ Why yes, yes you did! So, in reality that email very much provided value to you, but that isn’t evident had you measured value on clicks alone. So while click thru’s might very well be the current benchmark of choice, be mindful of other measurements that can help measure engagement in an evolving world like time spent or heat mapping.   

Improving engagement

Putting clicks back into the conversation, with the assumption that is our current best benchmark of engagement, here are a few ways to improve your engagement rates.


Good engagement begins with good segmentation. Segmentation