Email Marketing: How to Refresh + Optimize Your Copy to Drive More Opens and Conversions

I had one job:

Get more sign ups.

If I didn’t get enough sign ups, I’d risk losing my budget. Without a budget, I couldn’t connect with the community. I couldn’t fundraise. I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I was hired for.

When I questioned why we didn’t have an email communications strategy, I heard something along the lines of “This is how we’ve always done it.”

But how could we expect better results without trying new things?

That’s when I launched the department’s first newsletter.


From that moment on, no matter my job title, I’ve always wiggled my way into email marketing through the years. Creating consistent communications for nonprofits. Cleaning up out-of-date email designs for clients. Crafting enticing subject lines and call-to-action buttons.

Even now, as a full-time podcast writer, I always find my way back to email. I love when I have the opportunity to optimize client welcome series and refresh email funnels.

After 7+ years of email marketing experience, I have a thing or two I want to share. I figured, why keep what I know about email marketing a secret?

This post is for the DIY email marketers who want to show their list some love and improve open rates.

The key to better subject lines

You don’t need to make a list of 12 subject lines and spend hours refining them. The answer to better subject lines is easier than you think: step into the readers’ shoes.

When I started my first newsletter, I was terrified of sending a typo or having the format look wonky. I’d always send myself a test before I published the message.

The first time I sent a test, I didn’t open it on my computer (where I had been staring and glaring for the last 7 hours). Instead, I opened it on my phone.

With those fresh eyes on my mobile device, what I saw was NOT pretty. I skimmed right past my own subject line.

You got it: my subject line was so bland, so boring, even the creator herself couldn’t bring herself to click on it.

I had an epiphany right there.

If I wouldn’t tap on this subject line, why would anyone else?

I realized I needed to look at my subject lines through the eyes of the reader, not the writer.

Your turn: would you open your last email?

Send yourself your last marketing email. Head to your phone’s email app and see how you feel. What are your first impressions when you see the subject line? Are you overpromising? Too salesy? Cringey?

Pay attention to how the words make you feel. Chances are, if you feel even a glimmer of something, your email subscribers will feel that TIMES TEN.

  • Feel slightly annoyed? They’ll delete it.

  • Feel bored? They’ll scroll by it.

  • Feel slimy? They’ll unsubscribe.

Fine…one message might not make the difference for your subscribers. But having yucky feelings over and over again absolutely will.

Take a look at your email funnel and assess your subject lines one by one. In time, you might find you won’t have to send a test email at all. You’ll step right into your clients’ shoes and edit with them in mind.

Snappy pre-headers: how to encourage more opens

Pre-headers often feel like an afterthought. Who’s spending any time paying attention to pre-headers anyway?

With so many emails coming our way on a daily basis, we’re all getting really good at filtering out the noise, taking less than a second to decide whether to open or delete. Your pre-header is an opportunity to improve your chances of connecting with your audience.

Show them how much you value their relationship by making these two adjustments to your pre-headers:

1. Confirm you’re using the correct merge fields and client data.

One sure-fire way to lose client trust is not checking your data or merge fields. The amount of times I’ve seen “Hi [First Name]” instead of “Hi Karonica” in a pre-header or body of an email is disappointing.

How will your clients feel valued if you don’t even know their name? Adjust your subscription forms to collect first names. Triple check your merge fields to get it right.

2. Keep it short but specific.

There may technically be a ton of room for longer pre-headers (up to 250 characters in some cases), but think about how often you’re reading the whole thing. If you don’t read an entire pre-header, neither will your subscribers.

Besides, you’ll rarely see more than a few words, especially if you’re reading from your phone.

What I see a lot of clients do is use part of the intro as the pre-header, but that’s usually not where the magic is. “How are you?” has a time and place in a pre-header. Just not every single message.

Steal from yourself. Use a powerful line from later in the body of your email to encourage opens. Or ask a question you’ll answer when they open the message.

4 questions to help you improve your email content

1. Are your messages easy to read?

Everyone is busy. Sharing clear, easy-to-read content isn’t about dumbing down your information. It’s about respect. It’s about being kind to your readers and cherishing your time together.

Here’s how to make sure everything is easy to digest:

  • Keep paragraphs short and skimmable. Ideally 1-3 sentences tops.

  • Break things up with bullet points. Numbered lists and bullets are your BFFs.

  • Cut out jargon or fancy vocab. I’m as big of a word nerd as the next writer, but there’s no need to go over the top.

Not sure if your messages are easy to read or not? Copy everything into the Hemingway app. You don’t even have to create an account. Aim for grade 8 or lower.

Why should you aim for grade 8 or lower? So you can make reading easy on your reader and share accessible, easy-to-understand content.

2. Does each message deliver on its promise?

Make sure your content matches what you’re promising in the subject line. Don’t promise 10 tips and send me to a blog post to see the rest of the tips. Promise 3, share 3, and link to the remaining blog content.

Not sure if you’re underdelivering on your promise? Read your email again. Bold or highlight exactly where the promise is kept. If you can’t find anything, you need to adjust your subject line.

3. Are you using clear calls-to-action (CTA)?

Think about the next step you want your audience to take after reading your message. Where are you leading your audience? What’s your goal for your email?

You don’t need to hyperlink every seven words to get more clicks (please don’t). Include 1-2 buttons or a CTA in your P.S. note.

4. Are you serving more than you’re promoting?

Serving your audience means entertaining, educating, and inspiring them. If every other email is only selling your services, you’re putting your relationship with your subscribers at risk.

How are you serving and providing value to your subscribers? Find a balance between serving and selling. After all, the purpose of selling is to serve others.

Optimize your emails with fresh eyes

So often we write our emails and send them, without asking what we could do to improve. If it’s been more than six months or a year since you looked at how your emails are performing, set some time on your calendar to step into your clients’ shoes and read your emails through their eyes.