Does the Subject Line Matter Anymore?

I got your attention, didn't I? So of course the subject line still matters. 

But I propose that if your email program needs a "killer" subject line on each and every message to succeed, you have larger issues to tackle.  

As I argued in a recent Email Insider post ("Your Email Program: Time for a Tune-Up -- or a Blow-Up?"), tinkering with your subject lines can be like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It solves a little problem but not the big one that could sink you.

While I don't intend to diminish the value of subject-line testing, improving the foundational elements of your email program, combined with the directional approach of your subject lines, likely will have greater impact than little tweaks here or there. 

Which Factors Drive Subject Line Importance?

Knowing which factors apply to your program can help you evaluate how much your team should focus on subject lines:  



Brand/From Name: If you have a powerful, recognized and trusted brand, coupled with the right "from" name, then your subject lines theoretically shouldn't matter as much as that of a lesser-known brand or poorly executed "from" name. 

Email Program Value: Does your email program consistently deliver value? If so, recipients will be more likely to engage regardless of subject line, because they know they will probably discover something valuable inside. 

Current Subject Line Style: If almost every email you send out is some variation on "Last Chance for Free Shipping" or "Save 15% & Free Shipping Till Friday," then you've created a virtual Catch-22.

These subject lines work and pull people in, just like "Sale" signs in store windows. But successive subject lines will have to work harder to stand out.

Generic content approaches, like "Wednesday's Deal of the Day," or "Top Headlines for Thursday August 26," will have minimal impact on engagement unless you make them more relevant to the email's specific content.

Personality: Do your emails and subject lines have personality like those from Woot  and Moosejaw? Here, humor, analogies and wordplay drive interest and opens. But these subject lines are directional, which is the key and the point of testing, less so than a word here or there in an individual message's subject line.

Triggered/Behavior-Based Emails: A cart abandonment or "Happy Birthday" email is inherently more relevant and valuable to a subscriber than a generic broadcast email.

Unless the subject line is extremely poor, one of these email types is likely to deliver much greater engagement than the best subject line from a broadcast email.

Within a birthday message, for example, testing and then tweaking different directional styles of subject lines will likely produce incremental improvement.

Mobile Email: While many mobile devices like the iPhone/iTouch/iPad show the entire subject line of an email, others such as the BlackBerry tend to show fewer than 10 characters. Here, your brand and "from" name will likely trump what you can do in eight or nine characters.

Previous Customer Experience: People who have purchased from you in the past might be more likely to read your messages. But, rather than just hoping something catches their fancy again, you should put them in a post-purchase email track based on what they purchased and other behavior.

Email Purpose: An email message's role and value help determine the subject line's importance. Transactional emails such as order confirmations and shipping notices often have unexciting subject lines, but have the highest render rates because they are so relevant.

Renewal notices, billing notices and the like are also highly relevant, but creativity can have a big impact. For example, instead of "Your XYZ Magazine Subscription is About to Expire," say instead "Are You Prepared to Lose Access to Exclusive ABC Tips? 

Use of Preview Panes: In the B2B world, many recipients view the top of an email message through their email client's preview pane. Thus, the top portion of the email can support, enhance or even trump the subject line content. 

Cadence: Frequency combined with a variety (or lack) of subject lines can hasten disengagement. Four emails a week from the same retailer, with subject lines that are variants of "20% Off and Free Shipping," may put many recipients to sleep. You need not just a new approach to subject lines but also an email program makeover. 

Do subject lines matter? Yes, they do much like headlines in newspapers. But similarly, I'll read my favorite columnists regardless of the topic, because I know I'll find value.

This recurring connection of value, not just the occasional home run, is what your email program should aim to achieve. 

Until next time, take it up a notch.

5 comments about "Does the Subject Line Matter Anymore?".
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  1. Bill Kaplan from FreshAddress, Inc., August 26, 2010 at 10:28 a.m.

    Well said, Loren! Great subject lines can't save an otherwise poorly executed email program. However, some subject lines will produce greater lift (i.e. opens) than others, irrespective of the strength of your brand.

    Fortunately, performing a simple A/B test on ~10% of your file (randomly selected, of course) is simple to do and will provide you with the information you need to determine which of two subject lines to roll out with for the balance of your campaign. As I've learned from my former MIT Blackjack Team days, there's no way to know definitively what cards will fall next. With a little analysis, however, you can get awfully close, and optimized email campaigns like blackjacks can pay 3 to 2.

  2. John Cason from Mobilization Labs, August 26, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.

    Great comment Bill! Great Article.

  3. Loren McDonald from IBM Marketing Cloud, August 26, 2010 at 10:59 a.m.


    Great point...yes of course testing can provide some lift. My point, however, was to not focus on/hope for that one big hand, but rather ensuring that every hand (email) performs at a higher level. Here are two paragraphs I edited out of the column for brevity:

    The reality is that most render rates (formerly/also known as open rate) fluctuate only 10 percent to 20 percent from the mean. If your average render rate is, say, 20 percent, then on a really good day you reach 24 percent, and, on a not-so-good day, it drops to 16 percent.

    You shouldn't focus on how to hit that 24 percent high mark, or sometimes even a bit higher. Rather, how do you boost your email program's performance consistently to a much higher level? Subject-line tweaking probably won't get you there.

  4. Roger Wilson from The Conference Department, Inc., August 26, 2010 at 11:16 a.m.

    Well, the line drew me in, but my take away is a reminder that opens only make THE difference when all other things are equal; some of the biggest differences in actual sales that I've seen have been a function of the from address or the list; my click-through differences have come from offering links early and often in the copy. Thanks for the reminder!!

  5. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, August 26, 2010 at 5:49 p.m.

    Thanks Loren, The subject line serves one purpose and one purpose only and that get the email OPENED.
    Then another series of events must happen to ensure money passes over to the sender. My free 34 page book "7 Killer Tips To Get Your Emails Read and Acted Upon" explains all of these. People can download it at - Kurt Johansen Australia's Leading Email Strategist.

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