Has My Email Career Really Been A Waste?

Over the course of the years, I have penned a lot of content about the email space, its application to integrated marketing communication strategies, interpretation and application of metrics... the list goes on. In doing so, I have received both positive and negative comments about the context or the stories shared. The feedback provided seems to be on anything from my interpretation of a best practice all the way to the very personal -- like my parenting approach or my choice of careers; I suppose that's what I get for wrapping my stories around real life. We are nothing if we are not a passionate group of marketers -- a dysfunctional family, if you will.

But recently, I saw a comment questioning a statement about a and the correlation I drew between content and open rates. The comment went something like this : "I'm surprised to see that someone that has been in the email space for so many years make the hasty and incorrect connection between content and open rates. If a customer doesn't open the email then they can't see the content - everyone knows it's subject lines that drive the open so maybe you should consider a new career since you've wasted the last 10 years of your professional life."



I could care less about the personal attack -- it was the shortsightedness on the impact that content has on the open rate that worried me and got me thinking. Do *we* as email marketers really think that it is just the subject line the drives the open? Please tell me the answer is no.

Look, I get it. Typically, it is a compelling subject line that is credited for the open of an email message - but it isn't the only factor. Recipients consider a number of things before they open an email (or don't), including some that have absolutely nothing to do with the email at all, like: Do I have time to read this right now, have I recently had a good/bad experience with the brand, has the CONTENT that they've sent to me in the past been valuable? Let's face it, if someone sends you information that you don't want or need, regardless of how much you love the brand, at some point saturation (or frustration) kicks in and you stop opening the email, subject line be damned.

As I step off my soap box, I leave you with this: As email marketers (or just marketers in general), we should be constantly striving to get the right message to the right subscriber, in the right channel or forum, at the right time. All of the elements of the message should be meaningful to the recipient. And while it may be a big undertaking to hit that mark with every email you send, it should be achievable at least part of the time. If not, it isn't just your open rate that will suffer -- and that I would stake my 10+ year career on.

What do you guys think: How important is the subject line to driving the open? Do you think it is less important than it once was? I have my opinions, but I would love to hear yours, too.

19 comments about "Has My Email Career Really Been A Waste?".
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  1. Chad White from Litmus, September 16, 2010 at 10:56 a.m.

    You should consider a new career if you think...
    ...the subject line's main goal is to get subscribers to open an email. rates are a key indicator of email marketing success.
    ...subscribers' give your subject line much weight if they haven't found your email content valuable lately.
    ...CXOs care at all about open rates.

  2. Michael Montsko from Weichert Lead Network, September 16, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.

    Some people are so shortsighted! Great content helps drive higher open rates because customers want to read your future emails. Content is king when it comes to drip marketing campaigns. If your past content is good enough you can even overcome poor subject lines.

  3. Abi Ahrens from Penton, September 16, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.

    Okay, I typically NEVER post comments online (prefer to live off the grid as much as possible!) - but felt compelled in this case.

    I couldn't agree more that content and open response are closely tied. Subject lines are important - but don't forget that email recipients see the from line as well! If they have appreciated the content from that source previously, of course they are more likely to open and read other content provided. It may take an interesting or relevant subject line to raise that email out of the clutter of their inbox, but I strongly believe this is a huge factor.

    Case in point: I work with a product that delivers daily with the same subject line and from line. Each issue receives about triple the click rates than industry standards. This is because it is a well-known and respected brand name. Content is driving this more than ANY other factor.

    Plus, I think of my own behavior with all the marketing-related emails that deluge my inbox. Most get filtered out by my rules, but there are sources that I do not filter because from time to time, there is very insightful information that I don't want to miss. Doesn't mean I read everything, but these sources because of their previous content have already made it past many of my own filtering rules.

    AND keep in mind that spam filters and ISPs are relying more and more on recipient behavior in determining what will even deliver to someone's inbox. Gmail has a beta program that gives a lot of power to its users to filter what they receive (in fact, I may have read about this first from MediaPost!).

  4. Max Vishnev, September 16, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.

    Great article, thanks. I don't think it's an either/or argument. You need consistently strong content to have readers open your emails and to keep the unsub rate low, but you also have to have catchy subject lines to make your email stand out from all of the crap that is flooding everyone's inbox these days.

    Follow up question: In your experience, do you find that a subject line prefix helps or hurts? For example, say you are publishing a newsletter where the topics vary by day of week. Would you prefix the daily subject line with that day's theme, followed by the actual article title? Or is that too much subject line clutter, in your opinion?

  5. Frances Dugan from Permanent General Companies, Inc., September 16, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.

    Many marketers - myself included - sometime make the mistake of thinking the open rate and the success (or failure) of a message is a reflection of the elements of the email or the overall execution of an email program. We think, "Why didn't they open? What did we do wrong? We should tweak the subject next time, or maybe we haven't been consistently delivering timely, relevant content."

    What we need to remember is that sometimes, **it's not about us.** Thank you for pointing that out.

    DJ Waldow (@djwaldow) recently penned a tweet that caught my eye and illustrates this point. He said, "I sometimes feel bad about deleting an email marketing message w/o reading. I know how much time/effort/thought goes into them"

    I'm not arguing that analyzing response and conversion rates in an effort to improve your email program is a bad thing. But keep in mind that even email marketers don't have time to open/read/click/convert on every email.

    (For the record - I agree that content impacts open rate. Duh.)

  6. Robert Greenberg from Calise and Sedei, September 16, 2010 at 11:17 a.m.

    Let's take a lesson from the world of finance on this one: "Past performance is not a guide to future performance and may not be repeated." But it often is...and people receiving your email know it!

  7. Jeff Loechner from MediaPost Communications, September 16, 2010 at 11:18 a.m.

    Kara, you are so right. Two additional points... first, it is the expectation or anticipation of content that can influence open rates, and the subject line along with the from address can guide that expectation. Secondly, the concept of the subject line as all important is rooted in 20 year old technology when email reading software ONLY downloaded the subjects, as the connections were slower ... now most of us see the subject and the whole email or a preview or a few lines even on our phones of every email. So content DOES matter even for first time messages from previously unknown sources.

  8. Kara Trivunovic from Epsilon, September 16, 2010 at 11:22 a.m.

    Thanks to everyone for their feedback so far - I'm glad to see that this guy was more the exception than the rule - certainly that was my hope!

    Max - in my experience it very much depends on the message itself and the content the recipeints have come to expect. In some cases including a static prefix on the subject line with a variable subject following (that reflected message content) worked well - in other situations I've seen static subject lines excel. In still other situations it is a variable subject line that consistently drives the behavior. But in every situation it isn't the subject line alone that should be credited for the success - and it remains very situational.

    In Frances's post above there was a reference to a tweet from DJ Waldow about the guilt he feels when he deletes an email without opening it. While that is probably true of most email marketers (I feel the same way DJ) I doubt most consumers give it a second thought. It has more to do with what is happening with their day - specifically the day the look at the email sitting in their inbox - that is going to drive the engagement or not. While we would all love to have more control over compelling the behavior, sometimes it is just out of our hands.

    However, a great subject line, a powerful brand presence and consistently terrific content completely support the cause!

  9. Christopher Donald from Inbox Group, LLC, September 16, 2010 at 11:43 a.m.

    Yeah, don't believe everything you read. Content of newsletters has a considerable weight to it when deciding to open the email. If previous newsletters were targeted with valuable content the recipient will continue to open them regardless of the subject line.

    Can subject lines alone make people open an email? Of course, but if the subscriber has become disengaged because of past poor content, even a great subject line won't help.

    The recipient has to be engaged with the sender for regular opens and interactions to happen. Don't pay too much attention to the idiot naysayers who obviously don't have a clue.

    Cheers, Chris

  10. Naeem Kayani from RealPage, September 16, 2010 at 11:58 a.m.

    Email render rate – open rate is tracked when image is loaded. Simply image to text ratio of the creative can considerably influence the “open rate”. Is this not Email open rate 101?

    Let see, I get an email from Dell and when I open the email, the images are disabled but I can still see the product features and price point in text. Well, I am not interested so I decide not to enable images. I open the email but this behavior is not tracked. Let’s take a different example, I get another email from Apple which is all images, I open the email and see nothing. I am not given a choice like Dell so I have to make a decision if I want to see the contents I have to enable images which will change the open rate. The decision to should I enable images or not is not only influenced by the subject line, but also what my past experience has been with the Apple brand, their email program, etc.

  11. Jordie van Rijn, September 16, 2010 at 12:05 p.m.

    Hi Kara,

    The main thing here is: Interestability. How interesting is your e-mail? There is a mix of things that determine why someone is interested in your e-mail and former content & the subjectline are certainly in the mix.

    I think that a subjectline which score better in opens and clicks might not always be better. If they don't deliver on the promise and hurts the future motivation to convert.

    As for the Noob comments, everybody was a beginner at first but that doesn't mean they are excused for being unfriendly.

  12. Luke Glasner from Red Pill Email, September 16, 2010 at 12:40 p.m.

    I think that using a recognizable sender name has a big influence on email "opens", as much as the subject line. Emails from senders that the reader does not know are usually considered spam and deleted. Several studies show this, but a more recent one reported by eMarketer was "Types of Email Considered Spam by Internet Users..." from June, 2009. In that chart/study, Email Senders who are unknown to me, was the fourth most common reason cited to consider an email spam.

    On a side note, I would certainly not consider your 10+ years in email a waste, I believe you have helped a lot of fellow email marketers through your own content - and that content is why I read the Email Insider Series here on media post.

    Usefully there is more than one factor that leads to an open for me, I recognize the from name - MediaPost and use the Identifier you mentioned above (Email Insider) and know that I will want to read this email based on the quality of the content I have gotten from this newsletter in the past.

  13. Scott Muggli from Warner Connect, September 16, 2010 at 6:19 p.m.

    Your use of the word "shortsightedness" is the nugget here that deserves the most attention. The subject line IS obviously the most important driver for an open rate the very first time... especially if it's a little spammy. It is shortsighted however to think of an open rate as "the goal". The true goal is to make a lasting connection with your subscriber, help them see the value of the relationship and drive them to convert -- not just to become a customer, but to become an engaged customer, one who will forward the email, follow you on social media and ultimately share / recommend your brand to others. Now there's a metric worth reaching. So how do you reach that type of status? Excellent content. Period. Keep up the good fight.

  14. Brian Rock from Network Ten, September 16, 2010 at 8:01 p.m.

    If you consider an email as a one-off communication the critic might have a point. But as Kara notes that's not always the case.

    I'm no email expert, merely a user. Based on a sample of one:

    An interesting subject line from someone I don't know may get a response, or not. If I'm busy I just delete it, or open it quickly to see if it's worth coming back to.

    A less-interesting subject line from someone I know who I have good experiences with - and this includes a history of good content in previous emails - will often still motivate me to check it out.

    Also bear in mind that many email clients allow the user to see the email in a separate window. Both my work and home email clients do this, and sometimes I don't notice the subject line, but will respond to something I see in the body of the email.

    For me the typical order of priority is source > subject line > body > free time to look at random stuff. Weightings vary.

  15. Mitchell Lapides, September 16, 2010 at 9:27 p.m.


    I couldn't agree more with your comments. At the tip of analyzing email open rates, yes, it's the subject line (and, of course, the From Name and preview pane) which drive the open for that particular email. If, however, the subscribers have ever opened an email previously, the content (its quality, relevance, value, etc.) is yet another critical factor to maintaining that open over time. After all, what leads to inactivity in an email list - studies indicate that often it's that the content is[, overall,] no longer relevant...the operative word being "content."

    Turning back to your question about subject line, we see subject lines absolutely have a specific impact, as when A/B tests are conducted, differences are experienced, so subject line does affect open rate. As you say, though, much more also affects it, especially how much else is going on in your life the moment that email arrives.

    Keep up the thoughtful posts!

  16. Debbie McNeill, September 17, 2010 at 2:48 p.m.

    I couldn't agree more. I know I judge first on past performance of content value from the sender and then consider if the subject line is of value for me at THAT moment. Cheers to a great article and rebuttal.

  17. Jean-paul De clerck from Conversionation, September 17, 2010 at 6:43 p.m.

    Hi Kara, first of all: how are you doing? Comments can be fun, can't they? What a wat yo start the weekend :)

    I think we all know by now that a subject line is important. If not, I wasted 15 years of my career. But the comment you got obviously comes from a black and white thinker, many like that in the marketing space I fear.

    Of course whether an email gets open, read etc. is, among many other things but more and more a matter of content.

    As far as I know there is such a thing as a preview pane, sadly enough often with blocked images. But people by now are wise enough to know what they trash or preview. If I get the newsletters from MediaPost I activate the images (too much of them BTW) and then, like most people, I skim the content.

    With the promotional mails it's the same thing. When they are from a trusted sender often without ever looking at the subject line. Why do I trust I sender or, maybe better, value him. When the content he sends me suits my needs of course. Moreover: I think it's only a matter of time before emails with poor content will even reach the inbox.

    But OK, I'm a marketer. Let's look at the "consumer". My wife! She looks at the subject line. Why? Because first of all she uses Hotmail (no preview pane) and second because she is only interested in good promotions. But again from trusted senders - and I can tell you these promotional mails can often weigh on the family budget ;)

    You know: the things is marketing isn't black or white. It all depends. So giving a simple answer that fits all like your commenter did is living by the "holy book of email marketing". As far as I know, no one wrote that.

    And finally: of course we want our emails opened. But if they don't get opened we sometimes have to think, after all the testing and improving and surveying, beyond email. In the end: my customers don't want to know about open rates. They want leads, sales, viral spread or good old customer retention.

    Just some random thoughts. Enjoy the weekend.

  18. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, September 19, 2010 at 9:01 p.m.

    Gosh, this is the most response I have seen for awhile for a Media Post blog post. Congratulations Kara, you have hit a nerve. Email Marketing is essentially about three things. 1. Your List 2. Your Relationship with your list 3. Your Offer. Improve in all three areas and watch your response rates accelerate. Cheers Kurt - Australia's Leading Email Strategist

  19. Vikky J from B2B, September 21, 2010 at 9:12 a.m.

    According to the industry standards, It is proven that subject line influences open rate, Content(Offer) decides the click rate or leads. However there is no software in the world today to track 100% opens accurately. By default the latest mail clients blocks the images used to track opens. We simply assume that actual opens are two times of tracked opens.

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