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.