Some companies like persistence and the fundamental principles of publishing and keep the subject line the same or similar each time, expecting the brand to carry the title. For functional messages, this makes sense (for example, “Statement Enclosed”). Still, pretty much all the email platforms support some form of subject line testing -- and in a game won on increments, this is the right approach. Is this an art, where success is how you infuse creative interpretation into cause/effect process? Is this a science, where you algorithmically optimize terms by times and frequency, very similar to SEM? Do you have a portfolio of key words that are used for certain type of promotions segments and specific timing factors, and manage it through that process?
I’m a believer that subject lines should be managed like a portfolio of keywords. The real challenge is to find which segments respond to which subject lines. Still, testing infinite versions by segment, timing and intent is a matrix few of us want/can manage ourselves.
The keys to good subject line practices are:
Keep it fresh. Even though you send 100 campaigns+ a year, think of the subject line as a newspaper thinks of its front page. You are only as good as your last headline. You should have a standard set of baseline words and phrases to use, and you build around that. With the frequency we have with email, you can’t realistically expect to be full of cool sound bites every time out, but you should try! Remember, a subject line is typically a three- to 10-word phrase that is meant to 1) get attention; (2) provide notice of relevance; and (3) drive action.
Think algorithmically. It’s all about the numbers. You should have a pattern indexed each year to know what performed, when and why. This will make the production process less of a guess and “touchy/feely” creative decision in the last throes of a campaign.
Search works. Few companies actually know what words and terms their companies have paid to own. For example, Nike = shoes (and every deviation of shoe term there is). Some terms are pretty meaningless for your purposes, but remember that your brand has a connection. What is that connection to? And how do you use that and macro trends to connect email to something they will remember when they have intent to purchase. Search is about persistence, and email marketers should have similar discipline.
Have fun with it. Be creative, but not over the top. There is a fine line between being trendy and creative and being out of brand. Think of it similar to jokes in the workplace. There are funny ones and there are inappropriate ones. Depends on your work environment what that threshold is. Just remember, not everyone has your sense of humor.
Your competitor’s tactics really mean nothing to you. We have much more visibility into our competitor’s practices these days, but trying to make sense of their strategy and reacting to it is a bit of a wasted effort, I think. Matching promotion strategy is key, but subject line matching is synonymous to trying to optimize a comedian. Just doesn’t get the result you want.
As I suggested at the beginning, this is a game of increments and one thing won’t change your wholesale outcomes. Think faster, think more programmatically, and pay attention to what’s happening in the world. The day you find yourself in a marketing vacuum is the day you lose the customer.