Subject-Line Absolutes: Are There Any?

by , Oct 16, 2008, 12:00 PM
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I recently attended a conference session on copywriting where one of the speakers was declaring several subject lines don'ts. While she had some good tips, with a consumer-oriented perspective that I appreciated, some of her advice just didn't sync with research and advice that I'd seen and heard before.

For instance, she advised against including your brand name in the subject line, arguing that it was redundant with the "from" name. The audience actually called her on that one, referencing a MarketingSherpa study that said this was a good tactic.

A fair number of the retailers that I track always or regularly include branding in their subject lines, including Cabela's, EB Games, HP, Petco and REI. The speaker's assumption seemed to be that people always read the "from" name and subject line when making decisions as to what to read or delete. That's clearly not the case, since studies have shown that the extra branding boosts open rates. Especially considering that we're heading into the inbox-crowding holiday season, extra branding should help with inbox recognition.

She also advised against asking questions with your subject lines. We always talk about email being a conversation, and what's more conversational than asking a question? I personally think questions are a great way to help subscribers determine whether a particular email is relevant to them and worth their time.

But the truth of it is that it's really difficult to tell what your subscribers are going to react positively to. For instance, last holiday season I took issue with the subject line of a Dec. 17 Alibris email: "Book lover, search Alibris for books you thought you'd never find!" I argued that "Read books that blew the roof off of 2007" (which was the headline in the email) would have been a better subject line. Alibris reached out to let me know that they tested this subject line and that this evergreen subject line works better for them. Who would have guessed it?

And that's really my point: It's very difficult to predict a winning subject line, so you really have to test. You should run an A/B subject line test with every campaign.

Here are some tests to consider:

· Branding vs. no branding. Does additional branding make your email stand out in the inbox or does it just take up space? Test the branding at the beginning and end of the subject line. This branding could also include the name of your newsletter.

· Short vs. long. Many people swear by subject lines of less than 40 characters, but Alchemy Worx'  "Subject Lines: Length Is Everything" report gives us plenty of reasons to test subject lines of 70+ characters.

· Lifestyle vs. functional messaging. Some people buy a product because of its features or low price; others because they want to be fashionable or a trendsetter.

· Informative vs. engaging. You can tell people what the email is about (which largely entails nouns) or you can engage them with questions and appeals to take action (using action verbs and commands).

· Personalized vs. non-personalized. Do your subscribers respond to their name appearing in the subject lines of your emails? Of the retailers I track, only Northern Tool uses this tactic regularly, but it may work better in other verticals.

· Few vs. many interest triggers. For instance, a recent Barnes & Noble email used the subject line "Oprah's New Pick Just Announced." That's two interest triggers: Oprah plus "new." An alternative subject line could have been "Oprah's New Pick: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski," which has four potential interest triggers: Oprah, "new," the title and the author's name.

· Capitalization choices. I see some marketers capitalizing articles and conjunctions in their subject lines, which makes them more difficult to scan. Try different capitalization strategies to make your subject lines more scannable and to create emphasis on key words.


And if you're looking for subject line inspiration:

· Repeat or tweak successful subject lines from your past campaigns.

· Pay attention to the searches run on your Web site and the organic searches that bring you traffic from major search engines. Consider using words from the most popular searches in your subject lines.

· Mine the subject lines of your closest competitors for ideas for words and phrasings. I list subject lines from retailers on my blog daily; you can also pull from other sources like the  Newsletter Archive.

· Take note of headline constructions used by newspapers and magazines, especially in their online editions, which some are now optimizing for search.

Has anyone else had a recent contrarian experience with selecting a subject line -- or do you have testing suggestions?

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