Subject Lines for Left and Right Brains

by , Jun 14, 2007, 2:00 AM
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Price has relatively little effect on customer satisfaction, according to ForeSee Results President and CEO Larry Freed, who recently completed the Spring 2007 Edition of the Top 100 Online Retail Satisfaction Index.

“While price is important to consumers, our research consistently shows that improving satisfaction with price is not the most strategic method of improving overall satisfaction, loyalty and financial performance,” said Freed. “For more than 90% of the retail sites measured, site experience and brand image will have the most profound impact on satisfaction overall.”

In light of that research, it’s interesting that the top online retailers’ email programs use promotional subject lines the vast majority of the time. An examination of nearly 2,000 subject lines from emails from 94 major online retailers that were sent during February, March and April found that 72% of them were promotional in nature -- that is, they were price-focused. I flagged subject lines as promotional if they included key words like “sale,” “save,” “savings,” “coupon,” “offer,” “deal,” “% off,” “free,” etc. or listed any prices.

I did this research in response to a blog post by Kevin Hillstrom, the president of MineThatData, which used subject lines from the Subjectivity Scanners of my AM Inbox posts to determine that nearly 60% of retailers’ emails competed on price in October and February. I thought the number was actually higher, since I have a bias toward highlighting less promotional subject lines in the Scanner. That turned out to be the case.

Commenting on the results of his research, Hillstrom asked, “Did we cause customers to demand rock-bottom prices, or are we simply responding to the fact that customers won't purchase online unless there is a huge incentive to do so? In our modern era of commerce, do we simply have nothing better to offer the customer than a low price?”

Based on the results of ForeSee’s work, the answer to that first question is apparently “no.” While ForeSee’s research is focused on customers’ satisfaction with Web shopping, it’s reasonable to assume that email subscribers are similar in their motivations. So it would appear that online retailers are training subscribers to expect constant deals rather than focusing on other aspects of the relationship.

I think Hillstrom’s second question is just as vital, and I think the answer there is also “no.” There is definitely more to offer customers than a lower price. Bringing perspective and context to your products, providing timely and relevant information on a related topic, and delivering targeted product offers based on purchase histories are all more personal and engaging relationship-building techniques.

Measuring how promotional retailers’ subject lines are is a good barometer of where the industry is in terms of graduating from traditional direct marketing to relationship marketing. It would appear that we still have some ways to go down that road.

However, things look a bit better if you take into account the usage of what I’ll call hybrid subject lines -- that is, those that contain both promotional and non-promotional elements. On a volume basis, approximately 9% of emails in the sample used hybrid subject lines, reducing the number of purely promotional subject lines to 63%. More than 39% of the retailers in the study had used at least one hybrid subject line during the 3-month period.

Some examples of hybrid subject lines include:

Home Depot, 2/12 — American Standard Gift Card + Weekend Project of the Month

Orvis, 3/9 — FREE Wader Tote and Small Stream Trout Fishing Tips

Petco, 2/18 — Email Exclusive: FREE shipping + See Our Spring Fashion Show

RitzCamera, 2/17 — Photo Tips, Photo & Review Contest, & President’s Day Sale!

Spiegel, 4/28 — Stylist Advice: The Secrets to Creating Your Own Look + 20% Savings!

Sephora, 4/10 — Gorgeous Gifts for Supermoms + Free Sample

While I would definitely argue that more retailers should be appealing to subscribers through non-promotional means, you could certainly make the case that hybrid subject lines might be more effective because they appeal to both the rational and emotional parts of the brain. I would urge marketers to try hybrid subject lines and see if they are more effective than purely promotional or purely non-promotional subject lines with their subscribers.

Next week I’ll reveal other results from my subject line research, including retailers’ usage of free shipping offers and urgency. Stay tuned…

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