10 min read

From “Dormant” List to 66% Open Rate, to 48K Subscribers — Here’s How.

Last Updated: August 29, 2016

Today I want to get into all the juicy details for how I got a 66% open rate to 48K subscribers (over 60% that would count as “dormant”) within 24 hours.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided it was time to reactivate the 500 Startups email list.

It’s not a huge email list, because we’re niche and are only looking to target specific, relevant audiences. But it’s decent. About 48K give or take, as I’m writing this.

In my previous post about email marketing, I talked about unsubscribes and tired, beaten lists where all your subscribers are annoyed at you for blasting them with irrelevant content at high (or low) frequency.

This was exactly what I was staring down late last week with our own list.

So I put my thinking cap on, actually whipped out my own Playbook of email scripts (yes even I use it… hey, sometimes I forget what all is in there!), and starting pulling pieces together.

The email I sent to 48K subscribers resulted in a 66% open rate within 24 hours of sending.

I don’t know if I can reveal much more publicly, but this was between a 3X and 4X multiple over the historic open rate for that same list.

The point of me sharing this is not to brag outright (although, dayummmm right?).

The point is that anyone CAN warm up a tired list.

All it takes is the right script.

In the next section, I’m going to share with you the exact script I used to resurrect the 500 Startups email list.

Here goes.

Subject: Changes

Hey there,

You signed up for the 500 newsletter because, well, either you came to one of our many nerd parties, uh… conferences and events, or you hunted us down out of fascination and (self?) interest.

So that’s why we wanted to let you know today that there are some changes coming…

Wait! Don’t worry.

It’s a love revolution.

In the future editions of this newsletter, we’ll be presenting regular roundups of great articles, hand-wavy-yet-fact-based opinions, implementable how-tos and most of all, ET CETERA, from us, our founders, and other good writers.

(Scroll down to see today’s roundup.)

But first, a little housecleaning.

We want to make sure you actually WANT what we are sending, and we want to give you some choices.

So, update your subscription preferences here:

manage your email preferences (Editor’s note: not a real subscription link! Subscribe from the top of this page if you want)

And, check out today’s curated roundup below (not everything makes the cut, JUST THE GOOD STUFF).


500 Founding Partner Christine Tsai reflects on a recent day of service at Solano State Prison with Defy Ventures, an organization that brings together volunteers and inmates for entrepreneurship coaching.

>> 4 Realizations From My Day In Prison <<


Revenue means money. Or does it?

500 EIR Carl Fritjofsson breaks down the acronyms that too many confused founders are hiding behind.

>> How to Talk About Revenue — What VCs Really Look For <<


Ever feel like taking a $25K course on venture capital investing at Stanford, but couldn’t pony up the funds?

No worries, we got you covered. Paulina Szyrmer shares key takeaways from our Silicon Valley investing course in partnership with Stanford Center for Professional Development.

>> Venture Capital is More Art than Science: 5 Secrets of VC Revealed <<


What is it like to sell to Uber? Definitely not as fun as owning a little teeny share of Uber, but possibly the next best thing.

Aircall, a 500 portfolio company who recently raised $2M, discuss the growth tactics that helped them close clients in high places.

>> Growth Case Study: Aircall on One Metric That Matters & Selling to Uber <<


And finally, new funds! In case you missed the news:

Introducing Specialty Tracks at 500 Startups: Beauty and the B2Beast

500 Startups Announces $10M Vietnam-focused Fund

500 Startups Announces 500 Kulfi: $25M India Fund

500 Startups Announces $25M FinTech Fund

This email was lovingly compiled and psychologically copywritten by Susan Su, Partner on the Distro Team at 500 Startups.


How / why did this simple, “roundup” style email work so well and get over 35,000 people to open it?

Let’s break it down.


This email uses a single-word subject line, “Changes.

Now, if you see a subject line like “Changes” in your inbox all of a sudden on a Thursday afternoon at 4 pm, you might be thinking…

HUH???! Am I getting fired? Is this company going out of business? What the heck is changing?

You see, people are at worst afraid of change, and at best very, very curious about it.

“Changes” is an effective “curiosity gap” subject line that makes opening the email an irresistible foregone conclusion: you must find out what is changing.

Plus, I have found that really short, even 1-word, subject lines are working incredibly well these days. Sometimes long ones do too. You have to try it and by “try it,” I mean, send yourself the email as a test and FEEL the emotional reaction that bubbles up.

This is the most UNDERESTIMATED way that email marketers, and copywriters in general, can “figure out” whether a message is destined to be opened


1. Apply “curiosity gap” to your subject line.

Ask yourself, what would generate a “MUST CLICK NOW” feeling if you yourself were to receive this email?

2. Try a VERY SHORT / one word subject line.

We all know about “Hey” during the Obama campaign, which I personally think has run its course because so many “email marketing blogs” have outed it. But there are many others if you get creative.


I try to be funny. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t, and often times it’s even funnier that way.

On my original sales page for the Email For Startups Playbook, I thought I would be really clever and title one of the page sections “Insert Social Proof here.”

It was my way of poking fun at the overly template-ized way that copywriting and online marketing are done today.

Well, a lot of people wrote in angrily — yup angrily! — and said, You can’t even bother to replace your template text, what kind of marketer are you???

It was a joke, people! But as they teach us in grade school, a joke’s not funny unless it’s funny to EVERYONE.

So the thing with using humor is that it’s important to be natural, and not to OVERwrite your humor, to “lay it on thick” as they say.

Humor tends to disarm people and make them a little more warmed up and open to what you have to say.


1. Apply humor sparingly, and always use a LIGHT hand.

2. When in doubt, send it to yourself or a friend and see if it makes sense in the world outside your own head.

3. Self-deprecating humor, as long as its not awkwardly self-deprecating, can go a long way as it is almost “victim-less”


This is similar to using humor, but a little bit different.

The main point here is that you want to disrupt the mental and emotional pattern that people are in when they receive your content.

For example, if people are receiving your email in a WORK context, as with my email, then you will go AGAINST THE GRAIN and stand out from all other communications they receive in that inbox, by being casual or humorous (or using words like “nerd parties”).

If people are receiving your email in a play or home context, then look at the majority of the other communications that they receive in that context (Banana Republic sales promotions? News digests? internet marketing “get rich quick” courses?) and go against THAT grain.

Whatever it is, slant against it.

The key to successfully using pattern disruption is to understand EXACTLY what mental and emotional context people are in when they receive your email.

You can understand your recipients’ context by understanding:

  1. What inbox they are using. Is it their personal? Work? The one “just for marketing stuff?”
  2. What state of mind they are in when they access it. What time of day is it? Is it a work day? What are they probably doing at 4 pm when you send it?
  3. Zooming in on their individual context as much as possible, and being “Orange” if everything else is “Black.”


This one is so simple, so obvious, and yet broadly overlooked.

You see, images are so pretty. And for their creators, they can be a source of pride and joy.


BUT, remember the Number One Rule of Marketing?

It’s not about YOU, it’s about them.

Pretty images may be nice, but if they are blocking your email from achieving a 99.5%-PLUS deliverability rate, then they are not working for you. Those images should be “fired” immediately.

If your email doesn’t get delivered, it doesn’t get opened. If it doesn’t get opened… well you know the rest.

Additionally, even if you are getting high deliverability rates, images larger than 300 to 350 pixels (by my experimentation) are almost always a trigger for Promotions inbox or even the Spam filter.

Finally, Gmail — and other providers — will “truncate” (or cut off) messages that are larger than 102KB in size. And yes, the biggest culprit in making emails bulky is IMAGES.

What happens if your email is truncated?

You can’t track opens (it typically cuts off the tracking code at the end of the message), and your end-of-email CTA may be hidden.  

Not good.

If you doubt this, or if you are really attached to those images (or perhaps you are selling physical products via ecommerce), then try an A/B test with text only and see what works best.

Remember, never trust the “email marketing experts” 🙂


Ok that’s all for today kids. I’m beat and ready to go lay down for a little while.

In case you are too, and want to skip all this book-learnin’ and go straight for the shortcuts, please be my guest:


Or, check out these additional free and ample resources on email marketing:

Email for Startups PART 1: Email Marketing Fundamentals [Webinar]

Email for Startups PART 2: The Next-Level Rules of Email Marketing For Startups [Webinar]

Before You Acquire, Reactivate — How to Reactivate Your Dormant Email List (Includes Scripts)

7 Little Known Techniques in the NEW Email Marketing


500 Global Team