Email communication: Why getting your customers to open an email is not everything

By: Susann Clifton-Smith
Date: January, 2015
File under: Articles

When it comes to communicating changes to products and services, emails are one of the most established communication tools that businesses count on (Roberts & Zahay, 2013). However, with people on average predicted to receive 125 such emails in their work inbox in 2015 (Radicati & Hoang, 2011), a lot of thought and research is put into subject lines that attract the reader’s attention to open an email.

In the light of competing for the customer’s attention, what are the common pitfalls of emails and what are some tips for getting customers to remember emails?

Case study

In a recent project, my client wanted to send two emails with similar content informing his customers of a change to a service that would require the customer to change their password. This service is used by many small to medium businesses, and, hence, it was important that the customers would open both emails as they informed the customer of the upcoming changes.

The subject lines followed some of the frequently discussed marketing guidelines to use headers of 11-20 words (Mullen & Daniels, 2009), straightforward wording, and the avoidance of exclamation marks (Mailchimp, 2014). However, I pointed out to the client that the title ‘reminder’ in the second email subject line could be problematic as it can have a negative connotation and is often associated with an unfulfilled obligation to pay a bill or to do something (Mailchimp, 2008, Roberts & Zahay, 2013).

The ‘reminder’ in the subject line

In order to get some insight into the customers’ views and to identify whether we could receive similar feedback to what is highlighted in the literature, we decided to include a question in our customer research regarding their likelihood to open the first and second email.  With 17 participants in our research project, the data was evaluated only on a qualitative basis. However, the findings underpinned existing research data. All participants would have opened the first email mainly since they recognised the sender as a business that they were familiar with. They further cited that they instantly recognised from the header that there could be implications to their service for which reason they opened to the first email.

When it came to the second email, which stated ‘reminder’ as the first word of the subject line, the customer views were mixed:

While most participants felt an urge to open the email because they recognised that their service provider was going to introduce changes, some customers were unlikely to open the email because they are used to getting reminders and to ignore them: “Reminder: it is that sort of thing. Everyone tends to get a lot of emails every day. It sounds like this is just a reminder and there will be another one,” (participant 3).

Another participant stated that “[m]aybe it is an inappropriate word, reminder from [the business]. I don’t have to do work for [the business].”

Further, as the literature suggests, a participant confirmed that “it’s a negative introductory word, and it expects me to do something. I wouldn’t start off with reminder.”

This negative connotation was expressed by another participant who noted that she would feel “anxious” and as a consequence start searching to find the first email in her email inbox as she was worried that she had forgotten something.

No reminder to remember an email

Although some customers expressed that the word ‘reminder’ instantly triggered a reaction of bad conscience or ignorance as they expected more than one reminder, the second email appeared to have a more lasting impact on the participants. In the second email, participants instantly noted the date when the change to the service would take place: “It basically gives me a timeframe when things are changing which is good.” Another participant added: “It says when the [change] will be commencing. At least you’ve got a date.”

In comparison, despite indicating that participants showed a more positive reaction to the first email subject line, opening the email did not mean that participants retained any information from it. Only 3 out of 17 participants (18%) remembered that they had actually already received the first email at the time when we conducted our research. One indicator to explain this was that “[…] there was no clear call to action” as two participants iterated.  12 people (70%) would have deleted the first email.

Hence, it is the “call for action” (so-called by one participant) that would give the customer a clear indication of what s/he needed to do to as part of the change to the service and that would make both emails more memorable.  In addition, participants were looking for bullet points that informed them of the exact type of changes that would occur.

In summary

Getting customers to open and to remember an email are equally important. Providing information such as dates, call to actions, and information about the service in the email body are the kind of information that makes customers remember and associate emails of similar content with each other. What customers need is not just another ‘reminder’ email, but an email that reminds.



1. Mullen, J. and Daniels, D. (2009). Email marketing. Indianapolis, Ind.: Wiley Pub.

2., (2014). Best Practices for Email Subject Lines. [online] [Accessed 26 Dec. 2014].

3. Roberts, M. (2013). Internet marketing. Boston, Mass.(third edition): McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

4. Radicati, S., & Hoang, Q. (2011). Email Statistics Report, 2011-2015. The Radicati Group (Inc.) [Accessed 24 Dec. 2014].


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