Email Deliverability: How to Improve Email Open Rates

email deliverability

In 2018, we had an email deliverability problem.

We were emailing our full OkDork email list… but getting a low open rate. And lots of reports from subscribers that emails were going into their spam.

A look at poor results in Mailchimp email deliverability
Poor email results on Mailchimp.

We knew our emails were super helpful, and the content was good.

They passed all our quality checks… but the results were awful.

Frustrated, we tried a TON of different things.

Rewriting the copy, experimenting with subject lines, using less images.

Everything failed… until we stumbled upon one strategy that actually worked — active subscribers.

Immediately, the results changed:

  1. Open rates and click rates soared by 2-3x
  2. The reports of spam reduced to almost nothing
  3. Our domain and IP reputation in Google Postmaster Tools went back up

Today, campaign emails we send from all our brands are to active-only subscribers.

Active-only sends improves email deliverability a lot
An active-only send on the Dork list… the metrics are back to great.

In this post, we’ll show you how you can use active-only sending to improve your open and click rates, reduce spam complaints, and keep your email deliverability high.

What is Active-Only Sending?

Most email marketers send their campaign emails to all their subscribers.

But that puts your entire email marketing at risk.

Inbox providers — including Gmail — deactivate old email addresses and turn them into spam traps (source).

And if you’re emailing all your subscribers, that means you could hit spam traps. And the inbox providers will notice you don’t keep a cleaned list.

The typical inactivity period for inbox providers
Typical inactivity periods for old email addresses (source)

The way to prevent your reputation from getting damaged because of spam traps is to send to active subscribers.

These active subscribers are subscribers who have either:

  • Joined your list (to be extra-safe, we recommend joined after a double opt-in)
  • Opened an email
  • Clicked an email

Within a certain timeframe.

We recommend trying both 3 and 6 months active subscribers, and seeing what works best for you. We’ve used both timeframes at different times to optimize open and click rates.

How Do I Send to My Actives?

Most modern email tools allow you to segment your subscribers into active groups.

And you should ONLY email your active group segment regularly.

No more emailing everyone, which can damage your sender reputation and put your emails in spam.

Here’s how to email active subscribers in SendFox — the #1 place for content creators to grow their audience.

Step #1: Create a new email in your Emails dashboard

The email editor view inside of SendFox
The email view in SendFox

Click the “Create” button in your Emails dashboard in SendFox to get into the email editor.

Write your email — or copy and paste your email from a Google Doc, and SendFox will retain all formatting — and click save at the bottom of the screen after you’re done.

Step #2: Make sure “Send to active subscribers” is checked

The active subscribers checkbox inside of SendFox
Keep the box for active subscribers checked

Checked by default, to the right of the list field, is a checkbox for emailing active subscribers.

When this box is checked, SendFox will send your email to only 3-month active subscribers.

These subscribers have opened, clicked, or joined in the past 3 months for the list or lists you selected. This helps keep your deliverability high, and your emails away from spam traps.

Step #3: Test your email & schedule to send

The date and time selector inside of SendFox
Schedule your email only after you checked the box for active subscribers and tested

In your email editor view, you can send test emails.

Use mail-tester.com and isnotspam.com to make sure your email is configured properly, and not using any spam trigger words.

Keep editing and re-sending tests until it’s at least a 9 out of 10 in mail-tester, and it’s rated “ham” (aka not spam) in isnotspam.

And to optimize your open and click rates, follow the guide from our Sumo to schedule at the best time for your industry and subscribers.

After your email has been scheduled, wait about 72 hours after the send before you judge your results.

Especially if an email was sent during a holiday or over the weekend, sometimes subscribers are slow to check their inboxes.

After a few active-only sends, you should see see great changes:

  • Your open and click rates increase
  • Less reports of emails going into spam by your subscribers
  • Improved deliverability scores for your IP & domain in Google Postmaster Tools

What About My Full List of Other Subscribers?

We recommend you email active subscribers most of the time…

But it’s also valuable to do a re-engagement send to your entire list every once in a while.

For our OkDork list, we do a re-engagement email to our entire list every quarter. This includes all those old, inactive subscribers.

In our experience, a quarterly inactive re-engagement email doesn’t damage reputation or cause deliverability issues.

90%+ of our emails are sent to active subscribers, so inbox providers seem to provide us with a little leeway for the occasional “bad” send.

And done infrequently, the re-engagement send is a great way to re-engage old subscribers and increase your active list.

So we don’t forget the re-engagement email, we put it in our calendar.

A calendar with upcoming re-engagement to get more subscribers
The re-engagement email recorded in our calendar

To send the re-engagement email to your entire list inside of SendFox, deselect the checkbox for active sending. Then, schedule your email as you normally would.

Unchecking the active-only checkbox for inactive sends
Do a full list re-engagement send by unchecking to your actives

The stats for your full email list campaign will be lower, and that’s OK.

The purpose of a re-engagement quarterly is so you can bring back subscribers and grow your active audience.

Sending to active subscribers is what we do for all our brands, and it’s made a huge difference.

It’s increased our open and click rates, improved deliverability, and kept us out of the spam.

Here are the steps so you can do an active-only send:

  1. Segment your list to 3- or 6-month active subscribers (joined, opened, or clicked)
  2. Test your email with mail-tester.com, isnotspam.com, or other spam testing tools to make sure your email content and setup is correct
  3. Do a re-engagement to your full list send once a quarter

If you do those things, you’ll see better results than ever before from your email marketing.

Check out more email marketing tips on the SendFox blog.

3 thoughts on “Email Deliverability: How to Improve Email Open Rates”

  1. Thanks for this simple idea!

    I’ll definitely put it into action, even though I’m pretty good at weeding out the inactive subs on my list.

    For the past year I’ve been focusing on improving the quality not quantity of my list – so adding this tactic to the strategy should help improve results even further.

    1. Yes! You’re awesome, Rob. Quality over quantity ANY day of the week. Both for technical reasons (Google will like you more), and because then you’re not wasting any time or energy on subscribers that don’t matter. Crush it, amigo!

  2. Hey David,

    We are also facing the same problem right now. our open rate is very low and we sent to all our subscribers till now. It’s a very good idea to send to only active subscribers. We are going to try this.
    Thank you so much for this post.

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