Growing Your List: Improving Engagement

Make your blog’s mailing list more effective with this entry in the “List Building for Bloggers” series. See all the LBB posts here.

In this article you will learn about:

  • Quality vs. quantity.
  • Measuring engagement.
  • The human and technical factors that affect engagement.
  • The role of branding.
  • Subject lines.
  • Focusing your list.
  • Custom fields, segmentation and personalization.

As always, there’s a set of action items at the end you can apply now to improve your next mailing’s effectiveness.

Quality and Quantity

In the prior article, while I focused on increasing your list’s subscriber count (quantity), I also wrote that quality beats quantity any day. It’s absolutely true “ if your list has a bajillion subscribers but only your Mom reads what you send, what’s the point? All the extra readers don’t matter.
In other words, quality counts. And really what matters is engagement ?? how many readers are opening your mailings and, more importantly, how many are doing something you want them to based on that mailing.

Measuring Engagement

The basic metrics to use here are the open rate and the click through rate. While any one mailing will vary from the next, the overall trend over several mailings for these metrics should be flat or rising (flat is OK if you’re growing your list’s volume). If your engagement rate trends start to fall, try to figure out why and take corrective action. Bear in mind that some metrics may appear to be low, such as click through rate, if you send full posts. It is the trend that matters the most, not the absolute value.

The Human Factor

What you want your list to do is be engaged with you and your content, whether that content is editorial (most blog posts) or some kind of sales pitch (the dreaded “email blast”). The key content driver for engagement is relevance “ writing to your list with what they expect to hear from you.

But there are also human factors “ as described in a CopyBlogger post only this week “ that can really help you drive engagement up.

In particular:

  1. Have a call to action “ Tell them what you want them to do (but don’t have 10 actions “ just one, clearly articulated, is a Good Thing).
  2. Be direct “ Tell them (as opposed to asking them) what you want them to do.

Even if it’s just “Retweet this!” you should ask for the reader to engage. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

The other thing to bear in mind is that different people interact with posts in different ways. Some gravitate to images first. Some will skim first. Some will read your post line by line immediately. The detail readers are easy, because they’re going to read anyway. But to get the most engagement from the other types of subscriber you should:

  • Have one or more images or illustrations in your post for the visual reader.
  • Use short headlines and selective bolding to attract skimmers.


An email that doesn’t appear correctly to a subscriber simply won’t drive engagement. If it doesn’t render properly or isn’t easily recognized then it is as if it was never sent in the first place.

Display problems can happen for these reasons:

  • Inappropriate graphic design choices.
  • Form factor and bandwidth problems.
  • Videos and active content.
  • No branding.

Inappropriate Graphic Design

One example and, frankly, a pet peeve: White text on a black background. It’s so dark and broody; beloved of Goth students and heavy metal bands everywhere. And it just stinks for email, because many email systems don’t display backgrounds (especially if your background is an image, not just a plain color). So if the background doesn’t display, your hapless reader is left with white text on a white background. In other words, it’s invisible.

There are other places where graphic designs that work great on the web can just go horribly, horribly wrong when used in email:

Excessive use of external CSS, floating content and scripts. Some email systems won’t pull in styles from your web server. So your font and color choices aren’t used, which can really foul up your email’s display.

Using div tags and CSS to lay out content. Your designer should be working this way for your web site, but the HTML capabilities of many popular email clients are just awful. For best coverage you should use tables to layout multi-column or more sophisticated designs. Your web designer will want to throw up all over this one, but persist. It’s the only way to get the most consistent renderings across the widest possible range of email platforms.

In fact, for the best appearance across the board, apply the KISS principle.

  • Use simple dark colors on light background for your text.
  • Stick with small image sizes, simple layouts, and very basic HTML.
  • Always have alt or title tags for your images.

To see what I mean with the last bullet, try looking at one of your emails with images disabled. You’ll get the idea. Plus using alt tags is good for SEO too!

When Size Really Matters: Phones

Images are essential for readbility and more, but if your reader tries to download your multi-megabyte promotional image on their phone’s email app, the odds are they’ll give up waiting for it. It will be too slow to download and, again, you’ve wasted your time sending it.

Secondly, if the majority of your audience is on a mobile device, don’t send emails with wide pictures or other content that can’t easily fit on the phone’s display. You’re making extra work for them to read as they have to continually scroll or peer at teeny weeny text on their mobile device. The harder you make it to interact with – or simply read – your content, the less likely you’re going to get the engagement you’re looking for. If you have a mix of mobile and desktop subscribers, use an “auto-flow” layout (instead of a fixed-width one) that automatially fits to the size of the screen.

Videos and Active Content

Videos, scripts, flash, forms “ none of these will work consistently in email. In fact, scripts and embedded video players will be regarded as hostile by a receiving email system and not shown, mangling your layout and eliminating the interactivity you were after. Now FeedBlitz can help compensate for some of these issues; for example we’ll create a thumbnail image of your video from your video service if we can. But if you’re relying on an embedded video to get your point across in your email, think again.

Easy Steps to Improve Engagement

Having focused on what can bring engagement down, let’s look at what can bring it up.


One aspect often neglected by bloggers is branding their emails – all that work on the site design and then no effort for the email subscriber. Such a wasted opportunity! Use your logo or masthead banner in your mailings. Make the effort and finish the play. Let readers who select your email in a preview pane know it’s from you in the first few seconds. It’s appalling, to be honest, how many bloggers offer email subscriptions but haven’t gone to the effort of doing something as basic as a logo into the email. What a waste.

Secondly, set the envelope settings to identify yourself or your company as the sender. Use the name that your reader would know you or your blog by. For example, use “Crochet Corner” instead of “Phyllis Q. Knitting-Needle” if your subscribers know they’re subscribing to the “Crochet Corner” blog.

Thirdly, make sure that the email address you use to send from and get replies sent to is real and read by a human. Yes, you will have to filter out of office replies that come in, but you are looking for engagement here. If someone replies to your email and it disappears into the ether what are they going to think of you? It’s not only a missed opportunity to start a conversation, they probably now think you’re kinda rude. Who wants that?

The Subject Line

A compelling subject line is invaluable. So don’t clutter it up with, for example, the name of your blog, especially if you’re using the name of the blog as the sender. They don’t need the redundancy and you’re wasting space. Your subject line – usually your blog post’s title – should be catchy and well under 100 characters if possible. Remember, you are not your audience, and your message has to stand out and hook the reader quickly. If the point of your email subject line is too wide for the inbox’s subject line column, it’s done you no good. Be brief and to the point in your blog post titles. If your mailing system can’t change subject lines, get that fixed.

Subscribe to your own mailings

I know you don’t want to read what you just wrote, but you should subscribe to your own mailings. That way you experience what your subscribers experience. If you don’t like it, dollars to donuts they won’t either. Fix it!

Focusing Your List

Custom Fields

Counter-intuitively, one of the ways to improve engagement is to reduce the size of your list. You can do this up front, by requiring extra data from the new subscriber, such as demographics (city, state, zip, gender, name etc). Most email services like FeedBlitz call this extra data “Custom fields.”

Requiring custom fields adds “friction” to the sign-up process, but it also means that those who complete it are more committed to you and your content. You sacrifice some list quantity growth for a more engaged audience that you know much more about.


When you mail, most automated mailings go to all the readers, and for bloggers that’s fine. But with demographics you can segment your list, targeting a subset of your readers for the offer or invitation. For example, suppose you’re speaking at an event in Texas. You want to invite folks who live in Texas and maybe Oklahoma, say, but there’s very little point inviting anyone from the north east. In fact, you’ll probably annoy them. Segmentation solves this problem, as long as you have the data.

Only mailing a small portion of the list, i.e. sending the email only to those for whom it might be relevant, is a great way to get increased engagement from that section of the audience. It will also reduce complaints and unsubscribes all around. If you have a CRM (customer relationship management) system you can import data from your CRM and link it to your mailing list, so you can tie data you already know about the user to your mailing system. For bloggers, you can automate this to a degree by offering multiple lists from your blog and applying tag filters.


With data you know about the user comes the ability to turn a bland, cookie-cutter mailing into a special, personalized one. You could insert the recipient’s name, for example, or switch what you send them based on custom field data. This is pretty advanced for most bloggers, to be fair, and so if you’re interested in figuring this out in FeedBlitz terms, see this knowledge base article.

Your Action Items

  • Subscribe to your own list.
  • Check your sender name is appropriate.
  • Make sure the sending / reply-to emails are real.
  • Graphic design checks.
    • Verify your logo, banner and other branding are in the emails.
    • Ensure your email design works without images (foreground and background).
    • Determine whether your email template need simplifying.
  • Post content changes.
    • Keep subject lines crisp.
    • Add direct calls to action in each post.
    • If you use video a lot, check how it appears in your emails.
    • Don’t use scripts or forms.
  • Consider and plan any custom fields.

For FeedBlitz Users

  • Subscription forms are at Newsletters – Forms Subscription Forms.
  • Set sender name and email addresses at Newsletters – Settings – Envelope Settings.
  • If you don’t have a template now, set one up quickly at Newsletters – Settings – Easy Email Design Editor.
  • Then set up more complex designs (or simplify them!) at Newsletters – Settings – Advanced Email Design Editor.
  • Custom fields are managed at Newsletters – Custom Fields.
  • Tag filters are at Newsletters – Settings – Content Settings – Tag Filters.

Next Up

Here Be Dragons: Spam. What it is and how to get your emails delivered properly.

About List Building For Bloggers #LBB

Written by Phil Hollows, the FeedBlitz Founder and CEO, List Building for Bloggers (#LBB) is a series of posts to help you make the most of your blogging by harnessing the power and capabilities of email, the universal social network, with your bog and social media communications. No matter whether you’re a novice or a more advanced blogger, there will be something for you to learn, apply and benefit from in this series. Click here to read more about #LBB

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