A few years back I started building an email list for one of my blogs. Rather than run a traditional manual newsletter as you might to promote a business, the email list was a way to let readers receive the latest blog posts via email.

Now, I’ll admit it. I’m not a huge fan of email newsletters (and we’ll talk about why “everyone needs an email list” is terrible absolutist advice in an upcoming post). But I’ve written countless newsletters and marketing emails for clients and employers over the years. I’ve managed newsletters, and planned and tracked campaigns. And I knew enough that I wasn’t happy with the stats I was seeing for that blog’s email list.

I’m a big believer in testing and running experiments. So that’s the approach I took here. And I was pleasantly surprised by the immediate results — my open rates about doubled (and that improvement has been consistent). So, while I’m not saying you would see the same results or that you should do similar, I wanted to share the simple change I made.

Some Background

In this case, we’re talking about an RSS-fed blog. It was all automated. When I posted to the blog, an email was scheduled to go out automatically at a certain time.

I’d done a fair amount of testing and tweaking in the past couple of years. For example, I tried different email schedules to test different delivery times. I also tested using general subject headlines announcing new posts from the blog’s name versus having the email subject be each post’s title.

I found very little difference in email delivery times or posting days (which affected email days). And much to my surprise, the more general subject lines saw better open rates for me than using the post titles as my subject lines.

Your mileage may vary on any of these things of course.

But even with that testing and with a purge of old subscribers who hadn’t been opening emails for a while, I was rather unhappy with the resulting open rates.

The “daily” emails (sent any day a new post went live on the blog) were still seeing only a consistent 12-15% open rate. Weekly digest subscribers had an open rate of 16-18%. As for clickthrough rates, daily campaigns saw a pathetic 1-2%, and weekly campaigns saw around a 4% average rate.

There was a lot of room for improvement on both fronts.

The Current Situation

For nearly two months now I’ve been testing my latest round of changes. And here’s an update on those stats:

  • Daily campaigns now have an open rate of 24-30%.
  • Weekly campaigns now have an open rate of 36-41%.
  • Clickthrough rates for daily campaigns are now 4-7%.
  • Clickthrough rates for weekly campaigns are now 10-11%.

I’m pretty happy with these results, especially for a blog where the emails are largely about promoting content and getting more eyes on it.

I don’t want to focus on the clickthrough rates though. I expected significant improvements there because I used to include full posts in emails, and now I don’t. Instead, emails are much shorter, and there are multiple links to the latest post (for dailies) or links to several posts (for weekly digests). Because subscribers have to click to view the full content, of course those rates were going to increase.

What’s more important is the change I made that increased open rates so those subscribers would have anything to click on in the first place.

What I Did

Rather than automating the emails from RSS feed, instead I now manually send updates when new posts go up.

What this allowed me to do was create a totally custom subject line for every email — somehow tied to the post, but more actionable or enticing than a post title itself might be.

That’s it. A custom subject line made a world of difference.

As a bonus, this lets me make the emails themselves more useful, or it lets me again entice someone to click by giving a better summary of each post than its first paragraph or so might be when people are checking posts directly in their emails.

I wasn’t sure this would work out well for me. The idea of manually writing and sending emails still doesn’t delight me. But in this case, for this particular site, the results have been worth it, and I intend to continue for the time being. And getting into the habit of writing these short post-promotion emails has gotten me to spend a little more time writing and sending more traditional newsletters as well, giving subscribers content blog readers don’t all receive. And, as an added bonus, those newsletters have significantly increased the number of private emails I get — a chance to better connect with my readers and learn about what matters to them.

The Takeaway

In the end, the important thing is to experiment. Track your stats. And test new strategies. Give them a few weeks to a few months so you have some trends to follow to help you make longer-term decisions.

Manual emails for blog subscribers might prove helpful for you too. Or you could see far better open rates with another strategy. Your audience isn’t mine. Your posts aren’t mine. Know your market and what you’re using your email list to promote, and you’ll be able to come up with a strong plan all your own.

If you run an email newsletter and you found a minor change led to significant improvements in either your open rate or clickthrough rate, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I’m always open to new ideas to experiment with.