Want Higher Open Rates? Try a Cartoon.
Article and cartoons by Stu Heinecke



Personalized cartoons can greatly boost e-mail open rates. Click the thumbnails below to view four quick examples.


"Now is ordering sandwiches. Is anybody writing this down? Let’s hurry up and order our sandwiches first!"


E-mail marketers talk about CRM, conversions, engagement, social media and more, but none of these things matter if recipients aren’t opening and reading what you send. Without a powerful open strategy, newsletters, drip campaigns -- indeed, your entire sales funnel -- can quickly fall flat, so what’s a savvy e-mail marketer to do?

      Return to basics. Magazines and newspapers have been conducting readership surveys for decades, so what do they find pulling top marks for readership and retention? Cartoons.

      Cartoons are almost always the best read and remembered part of any publication they’re in, so it makes sense they would be just as effective at generating interest, opens and readership in e-mail.

    In fact, cartoons can be even more effective in e-mail, because they can easily generate viral pass-along. Years ago, I had a conversation with the founder of Classmates. In those early days, the fledgling company had a rapidly growing database, but no communication with their members. I suggested sending a monthly page themed around a personalized cartoon users could re-personalize and forward. The result was a 130% open rate, stemming from repeated openings and forwards.

      While cartoons are not likely to generate a 130% open rate for your e-mail campaign, they can boost open rates and create a high level of engagement across regular deliveries. But you’d better know what you’re doing.

      David Ogilvy and other direct marketing experts have long claimed, “Humor doesn’t work,” which in itself is rather funny considering what we know about cartoons, but they did have it partially right. Just like when you tell a joke on-stage, if you don’t know what you’re doing, humor can easily backfire.

      Fortunately, I have been putting cartoons to the test for nearly thirty years. The magic they exhibit in magazines and newspaper readily transfers, resulting in a long line of record-breaking campaigns and long-standing controls for many of the world’s biggest, most sophisticated direct marketers. Here are a few simple rules to help you maximize your results.

1. Humor = Truth: If you think about it, humor always reveals truth. When we laugh at something, we often find ourselves thinking, “Huh, but it’s true, it is like that,” or, “I know someone like that,” or, “I’ve been through something just like that.” That’s the magic of humor; it reveals truth, which creates agreement, which makes it highly persuasive. The bonus is how powerfully drawn people are to cartoons. It’s critical to grab their attention quickly, establish rapport and create a powerful point of agreement if you intend to move your audience to respond. It’s also important to be able to step back and understand the psychology of humor, so you can effectively direct the outcome of your campaign.

2. Steer based on the underlying truth: You’ll either be choosing a cartoon from an established image bank or having one created for your campaign. So you’ll need to steer your choice of cartoon based on its underlying truth -- and how that relates to your product, service or offer. The cartoons at the top of this article illustrate the point nicely. The group spying your order of sandwiches would be perfect for a promotion from a deli to surrounding businesses. The message: “if you’re going to have a lunch meeting, the last thing you should have to worry about is the food.” A lot of people feel stuck in their dreary jobs, and they should find the chicken-suit-lady cartoon especially relevant and endearing, which makes it the perfect involvement device for an offer from a staffing company. The sales chart cartoon speaks directly to the business results we all desire from our selling efforts. The sousaphone cartoon makes a great comment about the frustrations we all share when sitting through unproductive meetings. Can you see how it would be a powerful way to start an e-mail offering a solution to the problem?

3. Make it about the recipient, not you: The most common mistake marketers make with personalized cartoons is focusing on their identity rather than the recipient’s. In all of the examples above, there is no mention of brand or offer, just a singular focus on the recipient. And in every record-breaking campaign I’ve ever been involved with that uses cartoons, the focus has always been on the recipient’s identity.

4. The recipient always comes out on top: This is a pretty obvious point -- you don’t want to send thousands of personalized insults via e-mail to your prospect base. The difficulty is, the humor we’re most familiar with -- the type we use with friends is often biting and inappropriate for campaign use. The solution is to make sure the recipient is always paid a backhanded compliment, while one of the characters in the cartoon takes the fall as the butt of the joke. Can you see that in all of the examples above? The committee members are spying on you so they can copy what you do to keep up with anything and everything you do, even if it’s just ordering sandwiches; the chicken-suit-lady is in a frustrating position and looks to you for sage advice; the executive borrowed a symbol of your success to adorn his wall; the committee is about to honk out a song on a set of sousaphones, but before they roll it out, they want your opinion.

5. It’s got to be funny: Another obvious point, but one that is often missed by marketers. Readers are attracted to cartoons because they’re funny. If your cartoon has no gag, you will disappoint your audience, who will in turn, disappoint you. I remember a mailing once sent by a printer, featuring a cartoon-like illustration of a mailman remarking about an exploding mailbox nearby, with the caption, “Looks like another HOT mailing for John Smith!” Hmmm. Do you see anything funny there? Actually, this piece illustrates how, by focusing on their own identity (their mailings are HOT, not yours), the advertiser endowed the cartoon with all of the appeal of a smelly sock left in your mailbox.

      E-mail can be such a powerful platform for marketers, but only if your audience is paying attention. You could be using the latest sales automation solution on the back-end along with the best social media strategies for greater visibility and pass-along. But none of it matters if no one is opening and reading your e-mails. With so much attention focused on new-tech solutions, it’s interesting to see how a simple cartoon can elevate a campaign to cult status. Recipients become fans, and fans can become fiercely loyal supporters and clients, much like the enduring readership of The New Yorker, thanks in large part to cartoons. That’s a pretty powerful bonus when all you were looking for was a few more opens.



Stu Heinecke is author of Drawing Attention, a new book that explains how to put the magic of cartoons to work in marketing, advertising and sales promotion. He is also a published cartoonist, Hall of Fame-nominated direct marketer and President and founder of CartoonLink, a marketing service based on the use of cartoons in various media.





This article contains personalized cartoons.
What name would you like to use?
First Name:
Last Name: