Increase Your Open Rate—Start at the Inbox

When you open your email what’s the first thing you usually look at? If it’s your trusty inbox, you are in the majority of email users. And you probably scroll through the listings almost automatically—quickly deciding what to open now, what to open later, and what to delete without ever opening. How do you decide? Easy! Your inbox breaks down all of your emails, giving you bite-size clues about what’s in each in an organized list featuring the sender, the subject line, and maybe even a few lines of ‘preview’ text extracted from the email itself. For email marketers, the inbox can be a perilous place, where your finely wrought email is pared down to a few lines of text that can be the difference between being opened and being deleted. Fortunately, you have quite a bit of control over your email’s inbox information. With a little bit of forethought, you can make your email stand out from the crowd.

Screen Caps of Two Inboxes

Screen Caps of Two Inboxes

Get in the Right Frame of Mind

Your marketing goal for the inbox is pretty straightforward: convince your recipient that it’s worth her time to open and read your email. Your tools? Your wits and a few words—a very few words. Your copy must be informative, infectious, and super-short. If you’re the digital sort, think of it as clickbait’s upright older sibling—a punchy, scrupulously honest teaser that entices users to click on your content. If you’re into print, think of it as the seductive slug on a magazine cover that gives readers the unrelenting urge to drop everything to read your story (women’s magazines like Cosmo are great for inspiration). I like to think of the inbox listing as a short text-only ad made up of a headline and body copy. However you think of it, your copy should be an honest reflection of the contents of your email. No one likes to be promised one thing and delivered another.

Anatomy of an Inbox Listing


The sender is, of course, the name that identifies you to your recipients. Don’t confuse it with  your email address, which is an entirely separate thing. The sender has no real technological connection to your email address. Theoretically your sender could be anything or anyone, but in reality it should almost invariably be the name of your organization, like 'Stellar Apple Cider', 'Alice's Tires', or 'Sunnyside Downs Farm'. It should almost never be just a person's name unless you are very widely known (Bill Gates, Taylor Swift, and Hillary Clinton come to mind). Once you decide on the name of your sender, that name should not change much from one campaign to the next. Over time and after a few emails, your sender name will boost brand familiarity with your recipients.

Best Practices to Avoid Common Mistakes:

  • Choose a name that your recipients will recognize as you—most often it should be the name of your organization.
  • Build brand recognition: stick with one sender name for all of your campaigns.
  • Make it straightforward and recognizable for your audience.
  • Limit your length to under 20 characters to ensure the best fit across email applications and user settings.
  • Bonus Strategy: If it's appropriate for your campaign, try adding a personal name to the sender, but always include the name of your organization as well. For instance, 'Maud at Pioneer Bluffs' might work well for my community farm (Maud was the farm's owner at the turn of the last century, and she's always with us in spirit). And the organization is still front and center for recipients who may not know who Maud is.

Subject Line

This is where you highlight the message of your email. Some people might call that message your email’s value proposition. You don’t have a lot of space, so get right to the point. My rule of thumb is to keep it under 80 characters including spaces, that way I’m reasonably sure it fits across the widest cross-section of email apps and user settings. It can be a real challenge to communicate your finely-wrought message in so few characters, but keep in mind that there is other information displayed in the listing that is already working for you. Your sender name is probably your company name, so there’s no need to repeat it in your subject line, and you email’s preheader text (see next section in this post) gives you room for more details.

Best Practices to Avoid Common Mistakes:

  • Briefly state your message/value proposition.
  • Put the important stuff first so if the subject line is abbreviated by the recipient’s email client, the gist of it will still make the cut.
  • Limit your length to under 80 characters (including spaces) to get best fit across email applications and user settings.
  • Put the other fields in the inbox preview to work for you: don’t repeat your sender name, and use the preheader text to fill out the details of your message.
  • Bonus Strategy Tip: Research shows that SLs with numbers in them have higher open rates. For instance, “Save 15% Today Only” might be more effective than “Buy Stuff Cheap.”
  •  Bonus Strategy Tip: Uppercasing the SL improves open rates as well. For instance, “5 Places to Visit Before You Die” might be more effective than “5 places to visit before you die.” (And really, don’t you think it looks better?)

Preheader Text:

This is the preview text that shows up in most email applications’ inbox. By default, it’s the first bit of text in your email, but with a little code magic you can customize text just for the inbox (read more about how to code preheader text here). If your subject line is your ad headline, then your preheader text is your ad copy. Again, you don’t have a huge amount of characters to work with (after all, it’s just a preview), but keep in mind that your goal here is to get your reader to open the email, so you don’t have to get into detail, just give an overview of what your email is about. It should work in concert with what you’ve already stated in your subject line. Keep it short and engaging. It’s hard to add personality to information in so few characters, so when you’re feeling a little cramped for room, opt for information over personality.

Best Practices to Avoid Common Mistakes:

  • Front load the important stuff so that if the preheader text is cut off, the important stuff is featured.
  • Keep it brief. Gmail usually shows about 100 characters and iPhone shows about 140.
  • Complement you subject line, don’t repeat it verbatim
  • If you’re organization name is already in the sender field, don’t repeat it.
  • Put housekeeping items, like ‘view as webpage,’ or ‘unsubscribe here’ links at the bottom—of at least put it after your important preheader text.
  • Bonus Strategy Tip: More and more recipients are checking their email on mobile devices. For those users, the preheader text is especially crucial.