How do you get an email opened?

The subject line is NOT the most important part of the process…

“… I know the subject line is a great one, but the last letter they sent to us was useless so I’m not reading it!”

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Jun 9, 2022

Just how important is the subject line?

Almost every week I see another blog post from a marketing expert telling us all about the best subject lines for emails, or the best formula…

“101 best email subject lines to get your emails opened…”

“Use this email subject line formula to supercharge your open rates”

…because anyone who gets an email goes through a process when they decide to open it or not… and reading the subject line is not the first step in that process (it’s not even in the first 3 things).

I call these steps that everyone goes through when they open an email “micro-steps” and if you understand them, you can use these micro-steps to improve your own email open rates.

The Micro Steps of Opening an Email

Whenever you receive an email, you go through a process deciding whether you’re going to open it or not.

Sometimes, you open it straight away… other times it sits in your inbox, waiting and waiting…

…but you always follow a process of micro steps to decide what to do…

  1. At a time of your choosing you want to check your email
  2. You grab your device of choice, open the email program and click  “get new email” if it’s not already been loaded in
  3. You look at the inbox and see a new email is there
  4. You look at who it’s from – and then maybe you open it. If you don’t…
  5. You look at the subject line… and then maybe you open it. If you don’t…
  6. You look at the preview line… and then maybe you open it. If you don’t…
  7. …it sits there waiting for you to either return (and go through the process again), delete it without opening, or move it somewhere.

…but these steps are the same every single time…

If an email is never opened, was it ever sent in the first place?

The purpose of every email sent is to get opened. Why else would it be sent?

…but if you don’t look at each step of the journey, and see how you can ‘optimise it’, then you’re not giving the email a chance to be opened.

...and if all you do is focus on your subject line, you’re missing out on all the other things you could be doing.

So let’s step through each of these ‘micro’ steps and see what you need to consider, both for the email in question, but your approach to email generally.


The first thing to consider is when you send your email, both the day and the time.

Mobile devices have ensured that some of the old theories that marketers understood don’t apply… people can pick up their phone and check email at any time.

…and this is born out by the latest research which indicates that there are no real ‘hard and fast’ rules when it comes to what’s the best time to send your email.

Ultimately, it’s down to you, your business and the type of customers you have – Fortunately, Mailchimp does give you some tools to test this – A/B and Multivariate testing your send time will help indicate if there is actually a best time to send your email.

(n.b. If you’re on the free Mailchimp Account, unfortunately you can’t ‘schedule’ emails to send at a point in the future.)

Another key thing to consider is about automated emails – if someone fills a form in on your website and is expecting an email response then the sooner it gets sent, the better. As the gap increases between signup and received, the open rate will reduce – which is why you need to set up any emails like this to be sent ASAP.

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Device and Program

You also need to consider how people view your emails… as this will potentially have an impact on send time, and thus your open rates.

If the majority of people are using mobile devices, then send time may have less of an impact, whereas mostly desktops would suggest a ‘work-day’ window.

The one area that knowing the device people use to read your emails is helpful is the design element… but that happens after the open.

Getting in the inbox

So once you’ve an idea of when to send the email, the next step is actually getting it there (and not into the spam folder).

This is all about deliverability and something I’ve written a whole article on – it’s one of my “Mailchimp Fundies” series.

I’d advise you go and check it out as there are multitudes of quick tips on things you can do… but if you want the top tips…

…if you follow these guidelines, your email is more likely to get into the inbox

OK, you’re in the inbox… now what?

Everything so far is potentially stuff you may have come across before and have hopefully adopted… but now we get into the 3 micro steps that we all take when we see an email in our inbox and these have a massive impact on opening too, and yet sometimes aren’t given as much focus as things like email deliverability.

  • Who – the name of the sender
    There are hundreds of articles about subject lines and ‘the best 101 email subject lines’, but when you think about it, the subject line is actually only the second thing that people look at when they have an email and are deciding whether to open it or not.
    The first thing EVERYONE does is look at who the email is from… and then make an assessment about the likely contents of the email.
    If it’s from someone you know and you’ve a good idea of what’s in it, you’ll open it – e.g. an email chain from a friend discussing if you want to go out this Friday.  That’s the type of email we all open automatically.
    So if you want to be in this group, then you need to ensure your reputation is a good one. I’ve got one person I’m subscribed to who just sends sales messages every day – and the emails don’t get opened (and I’ve unsubscribed unsurprisingly).
    Use the first email you ever send (your welcome email) to set the tone and then try and keep the content and value as high as you can – it’s much more important than a great subject line.
    p.s. don’t be afraid to change the send from name (and email) occasionally as this can mix things up and ‘interrupt’ what people are doing.
  • The subject line
    I won’t go into subject lines massively here as, to be honest, they’ve been covered at length in multiple places around the web and I can’t do them justice here…
    …but that doesn’t mean you can ignore them as they do matter… and for many who don’t get the “proceed to go and collect £200” treatment due to their name, the combined name and subject line is a powerful open rate increase combo.
    I can think of many “lists” that I receive emails from where I look at the name, think “that’s from a list newsletter, but there stuff is usually good” and then assess the subject line to see if it’s something I want to read.
    So don’t scrimp on the subject line – and make sure you use tools like A/B testing to get a better feel for your audience.
  • The preview line
    Nowadays, most email programs don’t just give you the name and subject line, they also show the first few lines of text too – and they impact your open rates as well.
    I, along with others, consider this the ‘second’ subject line – another opportunity for you to persuade someone to open the email.
    Mailchimp used to have a preview banner in their design section, but now have the preview line in the main email send settings, which makes it easier to put some good stuff in there…
    Don’t however, leave it blank if your first few lines of text in the email aren’t relevant – and don’t leave a blank preview line in with ‘boiler plate’ text and the “View this email online” text that many standard headers have at the top – it’ll look very unprofessional (check out the Information Commissioners Office – the UK’s GDPR ‘cops’ – who should really know better!)
    Use the preview line tactically to sell the email’s open and build on some of the intrigue that you might have put into the main email subject line.

Opens matter (duh!) when it comes to email

As I said earlier, if an email doesn’t get opened, was it ever sent in the first place? An unopened email does you no good and does the recipient no good either (because if they never open it, they’ll probably delete it!).

Applying some thinking to how an email is opened, and not forgetting things like the impact of the first email ever sent and that the reputation of the sender is of primary importance, will give your email the best chance to fulfil it’s destiny and get opened.

So do worry about the subject line of your email… as it does matter if you get the things before it right… but in actual fact, you should probably be concentrating on those other things, especially your reputation as a sender (both to get the email into the inbox, but also so someone wants to open it because of their prior experience with you).

Remember, an email wants to get opened, it’s part of it’s destiny… and you have the power to affect whether it achieves this or not.

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Robin Adams

Robin Adams

Robin Adams is a business owner who is passionate about helping businesses build effective marketing systems that work and don't waste money. Having a lifetime of Marketing experience (he's got a degree in Marketing before there were degrees in Marketing!) and having worked for big and small businesses and both client and agency side, he understands not only the theory, but the systems that are required to underpin everything.
51% marketer and 49% Chimp, Robin is the main man behind and the Mailchimp Answers Facebook Group - the world's biggest Mailchimp User Group. Connect with him on Linkedin.

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