The 500 Events team is a production powerhouse, putting on 5 – 6 major content conferences per year. But the party’s no fun unless people show up.

Today we’re going to go behind the scenes on 500 Events’ single most effective conversion channel — EMAIL — and look at how 500 Events has gotten up to 60% open rates on sales emails (not just transactional messages and confirmations).

5 factors influence open rates:

  1. Subject line
  2. Sender
  3. List quality
  4. Snippet Preview
  5. Content

Let’s dig into each of these in more detail.

1. SUBJECT LINE

A campaign’s subject line has the most obvious direct impact on open rates.

Good subject lines:

— have a CTA  in the form of short, action verbs that act as a call-to-action before the recipient even opens the message

— include “hot buttons,” irresistible words like: free, new, instantly, you, and now OR brands or household names that your recipients care about

— are mobile-optimized to be under 40 characters

Mobile optimized campaigns deserve a special shout-out here. 65% of emails are opened on mobile devices first (I know I’m not the only one who swipes down on my inbox first thing in the morning).

While people are increasingly taking action on email directly from their device, it’s still more common for people to use email on mobile as a pre-check for emails they want to follow up on later from their desktop.

But… we get a lot of email, and people forget.

So, if you see a high open rate on a campaign, but a low click through rate where you want a high CTR, consider sending a follow-up campaign targeting people who opened but didn’t take action. You can even choose a send time when people are more likely to be sitting at their desk at home or work.

The subject line will always have the biggest impact on open rates, but let’s look at the other levers that 500 Events uses for its top performing campaigns.

2. SENDER

No one’s going to open your email if it doesn’t make it into their inbox.

Who the sender is can affect how many subscribers even see your subject line hit their inbox, and of course our relationship to the sender has a big impact on whether or not we feel like opening their message.

Here are 3 things to help your email through the filters, machine and human:

1. Send at regular intervals

If people don’t hear from you in a long, LOOONG time, the next campaign you send will likely act as a disengagement trigger — reminding them that they get way too much email, and need to unsubscribe from some (yours).

Even “engaged” subscribers won’t open every email that you send, and are more likely to open every 2nd or 3rd campaign — IF you’re sending at regular intervals. If you’re not, then subsequent messages can seem like random, non-sequential clutter.

Although the conference business orients around date-specific (or seasonal) events, 500 Events maintains an email rhythm by sending at regular intervals leading up to an event, tailoring campaign content and subject lines based on sales goals.

2. Previous campaign performance

Email content is extremely important, not just for the action you want subscribers to take right now but to earn your spot in their inbox for next time.

If your past campaigns made your subscribers happy by being useful, funny or insightful, more of those subscribers will open your next campaign.

If your past campaign looked spammy to the ESP — or was even Marked As Spam by people who were annoyed by your message — then fewer subscribers will open next time, some will unsubscribe right away, and overall deliverability will go down.

More opens = more opens. Send good emails. (More on this below.)

3. Get a reply

Consider asking for a reply to your initial email in order to increase your priority rating in that person’s inbox.

This is a natural fit for the Welcome email.

A non-awkward way to do this is to ask how they’re doing with the product, what brought them to your site, what they’re struggling with, or how you can help them.

Now let’s look at the next factor affecting open rates.

3. LIST QUALITY

At a previous company, we had an email list of over 650,000 subscribers. We sent a lot of well-designed, content-optimized emails at regular frequencies, and had top copywriters iterating on our subject lines. However, our open rates were often less than 1%.

If you amass a lot of unqualified users, whether that’s through paid channels or something else, many of those users aren’t actually going to be very interested in opening your emails, engaging with your company, or buying your stuff.

The Welcome email that goes out to every new 500 Startups subscriber includes a prominent invitation to unsubscribe.

While it can be sad to lose hard-earned subscribers, a big list with a low open rate is just a vanity metric that gets in the way of campaign optimization.

The 500 Events emails are also sent to segmented sub-lists, which allows for more precisely targeted subject lines and regularly results in open rates over 50%.

4. SNIPPET

Your email’s preview snippet is a second chance at getting your subscribers interested enough to open your email.

Two common mistakes I’ve seen with the snippet:

1. Forgetting to replace the default text (i.e., in Mailchimp, “Enter a preview of your email message here”)

2. Repeating the subject line, using words that take up characters but don’t convey meaning

The preview snippet is a second headline, and it’s important. 500 Events typically sends 3 – 10 test messages that the entire team checks across a common devices and ESPs to make sure every piece is optimized.

TIP: The number of characters you get for your snippet can depend on how long your subject line is, so testing campaigns across devices and ESPs is essential.

The last factor influencing open rates is one that we forget about because it comes after recipient clicks to open. But, content has a big impact on email open rates because subscriber trust and engagement are cumulative.

5. CONTENT

The 500 Events emails have been uniquely effective at getting people to share email content and to actually look forward to the next campaign (according to recipient feedback), as well as register for events.

Let’s look at a recent email announcing Founders’ Weekend, a founders-only event coming up in January.

Pictures of the PRODUCT

Most event emails feature a standard combination of speakers’ headshots and logos. We’re so used to this template that we can recognize an event blast just by its’ image gallery.

The Founders’ Weekend email campaign takes a more a “fun-forward” approach that features pictures of the product experience: Giant Jenga, food trucks, a cool girl DJ (that’s our Jess Erickson, by the way), pillows ready to be hurled at other people, and a logo for the 500 Distribution team that’s doing an AMA at the conference.

(Click here to see the full campaign)

Speaker head shots are essential for an email promoting a conference, and though you don’t see the usual grid of faces here, headshots still appear in the main email image:

Here, the speaker head shot image doubles as a unique and shareable “Product” image, sometimes getting forwarded around entire companies and shared on social media.

Header Image

A lot email campaigns — especially for events — don’t utilize the header image.

Not every email has to use a header image, for example text-only internet marketing style emails can be very effective without the extra formatting of a header image or newsletter template.

But if you’re sending a newsletter or sales newsletter, you need to use all the real estate you can get.

DON’T: header image that just shows your product or event’s logo

DO: Image that conveys key benefits. In this specific case, that’s: location (vegas), exclusivity / scarcity (founders only), time span (a weekend), and style and brand (500 Startups, yo!).

The header image you see here was the result of over 30 iterations that took up one entire afternoon of part of the team’s time. This were more than just back and forth about an image; it was an ongoing discussion about how to brand founders’ weekend.

Your header image is the first thing people see when they open your email.

GOOD header images…

1. Convey key information like this one

 

2. Are memorable and shareable like this one

 

3. Send brand signals like this one

 

CTA Button

500 Events takes a “hamburger” approach to the CTA button:

The call-to-action itself, “Join the WolfPack,” is sandwiched between a quantity-limited deal and key logistical information affecting the reader’s decision to sign up.

The CTA button appears twice: right away at the top of the email, and again after an introduction with the event’s key info and selling points.

Text

The purpose of email is to convey information (duh!), but the irony is that people don’t read.

However, even if you have to keep your words brief (generally recommended unless you’re a masterful long-form storyteller), you can use other text elements to shape your funnel.

Repetition

The FW email repeats the same key product information in 4 different ways:

  1. bright red headlines
  2. paragraph text
  3. bullet point
  4. sidebar with pictures

Every content zone says the same thing in different ways.

Hyperlinks

Finally, 500 Events emails limit outgoing hyperlinks. Note that in the FW email, none of the images are linked, and no random videos or funny references are linked (though there would have been many opportunities.)

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We’ve just covered 5 factors that influence email open rates, and shown you a few ways that the 500 Events team hits email open rates almost twice the industry standard.

Email marketing is one of the most powerful, lowest cost ways to engage users and convert customers. But, subscribers have to open your emails before they can do any engaging or selling.

No matter what tactics end up working best for you, here’s one rule of thumb for any campaign:

If you wouldn’t open your own email, why would anyone else?