Mission Impossible? Creating Extraordinary Email Subject Lines


Today’s post is a long but important one.  It concerns email marketing and how to get the most out of it by Andrea Scarnecchia of Lyris HQ.

Mission Impossible? Creating Extraordinary Email Subject Lines Print E-mail
Email Marketing
Written by Andrea Scarnecchia
Wednesday, 18 August 2010
Mission: Creating Email Subject LinesGreetings, email marketers. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to convince busy email recipients to open your email. You have two seconds and less than 50 characters to do so. Failure to complete this mission will result in dismal campaign results, overblown budgets and unhappy bosses. This message will not self-destruct in 5 seconds, but your subject lines may suffer severe casualties if you do not follow these instructions and read our tips on creating extraordinary email subject lines that even 007 would be proud of.

Today’s marketers are tasked with what feels like an impossible mission – to improve email marketing results without additional resources, time, or money. Thankfully, there’s a simple way to improve your email marketing campaigns immediately – optimizing your email subject lines. Taking a few steps to refine your subject lines can turn a mission impossible into a mission that is possible – and you don’t need a computer keyboard that also doubles as a high-powered jetpack to do it. By making use of personalization, creating a sense of urgency and testing campaign results, you’ll have all the tools necessary to turn your subject lines into powerhouses!

1. Personalization

Personalization within the subject line is a powerful tool to entice a recipient to stop scanning and start double-clicking to open your email. But personalization can be much more than simply inserting a name in the subject line. Yes, “Cathi, we have a special offer for you”, is certainly more likely to get Cathi’s attention than an email without her name in the subject line, but it isn’t the only personalization technique that has the potential to yield impressive results.

  • Purchase History: Many marketers have achieved email marketing success by using a recipient’s purchase history as a personalization technique. For example, if the recipient recently purchased a DVD of the Will Ferrell comedy Stepbrothers, an email subject line touting, “A Will Ferrell Comedy Sales-a-thon, Today Only!” sent to that customer may be enough to prompt them to check out the offer and perhaps even complete another purchase.
  • Purchase Timing: Another way to personalize an email subject line, especially for inactive subscribers, is to indicate the amount of time that has passed since their last engagement. Something as simple as, “It’s been a long time – come back and enjoy free shipping on us”, shows people that you realize they haven’t been interacting with your business, and you’re reaching out to them with a special offer to get them back.
  • Abandoned Carts: Some etailers with integrated Web and email analytics actually alert potential buyers to items that were left in their shopping cart, with an invitation to revisit the site and complete the purchase. This is a fantastic way to turn an abandoned shopping cart into an opportunity to close a sale and build a stronger relationship with a customer.

2. Urgency

Imagine that you’re reading this article and you start feeling hungry. There’s a good chance you’d stop reading, then step out and grab some lunch with the intention that you’ll finish reading the article later – whether or not that actually happened would depend on what went on after lunch. But what if I told you this article would only be available online for another 5 minutes – would you finish reading it now?

If you’re like most people, the idea that something is ending or limited may be enough to motivate you to take action more quickly. The idea is the same for email subject lines. Creating the need to take action immediately or soon is likely to generate higher open and click-through rates. Here are a two tactics for creating that sense of urgency:

  • Date/Time: There’s a reason why you see email subject lines that tout phrases like, “Today only“, or “Available only through July 22″. It’s because they work. Email recipients are moving through their inboxes as quickly as possible, and are consciously or subconsciously looking for any possible reason to bypass an email now with the intent to look at it later … and later may never come. Subject lines that create a sense of urgency based on a time-limited offer encourage people to pay closer attention and consider opening and taking action on the email immediately rather than putting it off to review at another time.
  • Limited Supplies: Another urgency-based tactic that savvy emarketers use is that of scarcity. By reminding people that supplies or offers are not unlimited, you increase your chances of compelling them to open and act on the email sooner rather than later. Email subject lines that use the “limited supplies” tactic may look like the following:
– $450 off any Complete System – Coupon expires after 500 Uses
– Only 12 Spots Left, Register for the XYZ Conference Today
– XYZ Brand Sunglasses Available on Closeout; Current Stock will NOT be Replenished

3. Testing and Measuring Results

Smart email marketers understand that one of the best ways to improve subject lines is by performing ongoing A/B testing. A/B testing is an extremely cost- and time-effective way to improve your email subject lines and your email campaigns. In A/B subject line testing, you keep your email creative and copy the same, except for the subject line. In essence, you are pitting one email subject line (Subject line A) against another (Subject line B) in order to see which one drives more desirable results.

For example, let’s imagine that you’re a marketer wanting to perform an A/B test on an upcoming email campaign promoting your online store’s Oscar Winners DVD Sale. The email content and creative for email A is the same as the email content and creative for email B, with one difference: the subject line.

Email A Subject Line: Oscar Winning DVDs at Matinee Prices
Email B Subject Line: All Oscar Winner DVDs on Sale Now

After the email subject lines are written, it’s time to test. Select a small but meaningful percentage of your entire mailing list – say around 20% – and send half of them Email A (with subject line A) and the other half Email B (with subject line B.) Then consult your email analytics.

Which email garnered a larger number of opens? Which created the highest percentage of clickthroughs? Did one convert better than the other? When you’ve identified the email subject line that helped you come closest to achieving your goals, select that version of the email and send it to the remainder of your mailing list. And if you find that neither email performed up to your expectations, go back to the drawing board for a new set of subject lines to test with another subsection of your larger group.

4. Testing Tactics

A/B testing can be used to test a variety of different subject line approaches and offers. Email marketers can test tried-and-true subject lines against hot-off-the-presses newcomers, and can see whether negative or positive subject lines perform better. Marketers can also challenge assumptions related to personalization, and can identify whether people are more responsive to specific or general offers.

  • Challenger vs. Champion: There’s a good chance that after running and measuring a variety of campaigns you have an email subject line or two in your back pocket that you count on. It’s the subject line that is practically guaranteed to create impressive open and click-through rates – in other words, it’s your subject line champion. But even champions need a challenger every once in a while.

    Consider an A/B test that pits your champion email subject line against a newcomer. You never know … today’s newbie subject line may be the champion of tomorrow’s email campaign. Don’t get stuck in the “not-broke-don’t-fix-it-rut” or your email marketing may get stuck too.

  • Negative vs. Positive: Consider the following two subject lines:

    Subject Line A: Embarrassed by Your Pitiful Movie Collection? Stock up Now
    Subject Line B: Show Off Your New Movie Collection – Stock up Now

    Both have the same level of personalization and the same call to action. The only difference is in the tone of the subject line. Subject Line A is somewhat negative while Subject Line B is more positive.

    Don’t assume that negative email subject lines are automatically going to perform poorly. Remember, your email recipients are driven by emotion just like all other human beings. Fear and worry are extremely powerful emotions that can yield surprising results. Sound crazy? Don’t tell that to the marketers who sell us deodorant so we don’t stink up the elevator at work, or anti-spam technologies so our computers aren’t infected by viruses that render all of our files useless and blow up our computers in the process.

  • Personalization vs. No Personalization: Personalized email subject lines always garner higher open rates than emails without personalized subject lines, right? Not necessarily. Don’t assume that personalization always reigns supreme. Take the time in your email marketing to occasionally test personalized versus non-personalized campaigns. Even if you simply confirm that you were on the right track, it’s still worth the minimal effort to perform a reality check.
  • Specifics vs. Generalities: A final tactic that many email marketers use to improve subject line effectiveness through testing is to see which creates the best results – a subject line that gives specific details or one that offers a more vague description. For example, consider the following two email subject lines:

    Subject Line A: All Romantic Comedies are 15% Off through Saturday
    Subject Line B: ‘Til Saturday, Save Big on Romantic Comedies

    The essence of the two subjects is nearly identical, but Subject Line A provides a more specific idea of the offer, while Subject Line B merely alludes to the fact that special offers are available. Similar to personalization, don’t automatically assume that one will perform exponentially better than the other. Take the time to test and let the metrics – rather than your assumptions – guide current and future campaigns.

Bringing it All Together

Extraordinary email subject lines can be as elusive as spies if you don’t know how to capture them. Thankfully, there are steps that you can take to move them out of the shadows and into the inboxes. By personalizing email messages and creating a sense of urgency within the subject line, you’re increasing your chances of higher open and click-through rates. And with some stealthy testing and analysis, you can determine the true winners from those that are mere imposters. Take these tips with you into your next email mission, and you’ll make strides toward increased email marketing success.

About the Author
Andrea Scarnecchia is the vice president of marketing at Lyris where she is responsible for advising others on the use of metrics to deliver results from email and online marketing campaigns. As a data-driven marketer, she has been using data to advance marketing initiatives for over 17 years.
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Talk soon.

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