Test Your Way to Success: 11 Tips for Your Email Subject Lines

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When I was in charge of marketing for a B2B media company, I saw thousands of email subject lines. While we had developed best practices, we always knew we would have to test our way to success. So, when an email marketing ninja says “it depends”…in many ways, they are telling you the truth. Your market and customer base have unique needs no matter what you read or are told.

Bottom line: we have to be great with email open rates as we compete for mindshare in the inbox. Here is one of my favorite “inbox” screen shots from my buddy Eric Wittlake: a bunch of media companies filling the inbox with the same offer.

bad-email-subject-lines

We’re doing a Round Table Thursday, August 23: How to Write Email Subject Lines That Convert, and we’d love for you to join us. It’ll be totally focused on subject lines.

Here are some of the things we’ll cover. These are my eleven favorite tips for your email subject line strategy (which is technically your “email open rate” strategy)

  1. Optimize your subject line for the mobile inbox first – Do I need to tell you how big mobile is? You are probably reading this post on your iPad.
  2. Clear subject lines are the name of the game now — More people clear out their inbox with their mobile phone than ever before. Here is my slogan: “Be clear or get cleared out.”
  3. Be relevant – My buddy Matt Heinz once told me, B2B buyers don’t consider something intrusive if it is relevant. I get tons of email, but if you can hit me with something I care about, I will open the email.
  4. Scalable personalization – Segmenting your database to deliver a personal message that still scales. I once received a message: “Join 25 marketing experts just like you.” I opened it.
  5. Localization – I was talking with the Michael Lodato from Network Hardware Resale who said they increased open rates by 5% by just mentioning the local weather. I got really excited about this tip and saw all the possibilities. I used this concept on a couple mini-email campaigns and they worked. When the lottery reached $350 million, I wrote a long effective one: “If you aren’t in line buying lottery tickets right now, join us for…”
  6. The “From” line – In my old media company days, we had certain brands that converted dramatically better than others. In other words, the open rates for our trusted brands were fantastic and the open rates on our lesser known brand names were much worse. Email experts will tell you the From line can get you deleted pretty quickly.
  7. Numbers/lists – 875 million ways to get your emails opened. Lists still work. I wanted desperately to move away from lists since the concept is so ridiculous right now as every blog post, tweet, etc has a list. We tried, but the numbers spoke for themselves.
  8. Test and test and optimize – I know I already mentioned this, but I actually can’t message it enough. T-T-O or “always be testing” – The best email marketers have patience because they know the drill.  Their open rates will get better over time.
  9. Don’t send once – This isn’t a subject line tip per se, but everyone is busy and the email may get buried. Feel free to send again, and if you want to add a little something to the subject line to recognize that fact, that’s okay.
  10. Follow your competitors – This is not a crazy tip. You can learn a lot about what is working for them that you may want to test. They typically hit the same target market, so let them do some work for you.
  11. Make it actionable – Tell the email reader what he/she is going to do or get. Again, people typically delete more than they open.

Again, join us to have fun talking more about email! Tuesday August 28, 2012 11 am – noon, PT  (2 pm – 3 pm, ET).

 

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  • http://www.salesverge.com Elise

    In my experience with email campaigns, the subject line is just as (if not more) important than the content inside. Getting an individual to first be interested in what you are sending them is a constant challenge.

    I (like anyone) hate getting spammy emails that don’t really give me any real offer! One thing that generally works well for us is to include the contact’s first name in the subject line if that’s something you have on file. We’ve seen very high open rates using this technique.

  • http://www.haadvantage.com Carter Perez

    Great ideas on subject line strategies. The weather suggestion was a new one for me.

  • Craig Rosenberg

    Carter: the weather suggestion was new for me too. It makes you think about all the types of cool ways to use personalization and localization to get opens.

    I used another variation to the lottery email subject line I mentioned above in a sales email. I sent: “Buying lottery tickets or talking to Craig? I would choose lottery tickets too” This person hadn’t called me back in ages and responded to the email.

  • http://www.iGrafx.com Guedo Fanony

    Thanks for the tips! These are great. Some of them I had forgotten about and will definitely bring back into the fold. On number 9, are you suggesting re-sending the same message? Should you just segment out the people who didn’t open and then send again with a new subject line? What kind of opt-out results do you get from something like this? Thanks!

  • Craig Rosenberg

    Guedo: one thing I heard today on our event today (link below) from Andrew Kordek was to be upfront with your opt-ins how much email they will receive from you. I love that advice.

    Anyway, people are busy and I rarely act on the first email. I am a firm believer that you should send more than once. For example, webinar invitation sends should go out 3x. Spaced, but 3x. I mean evite reminds about my friend’s birthday parties and I actually APPRECIATE it. It’s all about relevance and value, if you are sending them something they care about, then they don’t mind being interrupted.

  • Craig Rosenberg
  • http://www.mybusinessintegrated.com Chris Kiersch

    On our B2B sends we noticed a 9% increase from after switching the client from Campaign Monitor to Act-On, and we changed the from line to the sales rep who was assigned to the account. Changing the from line isn’t something I have ever heard people testing. Does anyone test the from address?
    Cheers, Chris K

  • Craig Rosenberg

    The “from” line is a huge deal particularly with the competition in the inbox. Many organizations a/b test “from” lines, but it is certainly a completely under-rated optimization. Sounds like you reaped some serious conversion benefit.

  • http://www.bradleycorp.com Steve Thielke

    I am finding that sending the same email more than once just with a different subject line to people who didn’t open the first one is very effective. Sometimes that particular subject line doesn’t resonate with that person and you need to try something else. Everyone is very busy and you only have a brief moment to capture their attention so it needs to work for that person. I have come to accept that you just can’t get everyone but 50-60% open rates in a B2B market is pretty darn successful

  • Craig Rosenberg

    Steve: Love it…thanks for providing the data!

  • http://www.invigrasales.com Stacy Gentile

    Everyone talkes about A/B testing and Best Practices this and that, but what you never see…and I mean EVER…is a three ring binder in an organization that gives you context and history from all of this testing. It for the most part still resides in the brains of a small group of people. When they move on or get hit by a beer truck, all of that knowledge is gone. Companies need to creat Knowledge Centers and have the stuff easily accessable and have it in a form that is easy to understand.

    • http://twitter.com/dizzerdee Dawn Casias (Bulls)

      Great point Stacy! With companies who are emerging into the automated marketing world the task is usually assigned to a group of folks who have other jobs within the organization. One thing that we do is to keep a simple agenda from all of our marketing meetings so that we don’t repeat mistakes or duplicate efforts.

  • Tim

    Good stuff here. I too have found that having the “from” line be from an actual person as opposed to a generic or corporate name improves the read rate. I also think the personalization in the way the email is written makes it much more readable.

    I also agree that being clear is critical. Straight and to the point, with “WIFY” (What’s in it for you) in mind when you put the subject line together.

  • http://www.lumina.com Nick Kretz

    Great tips! Glad to see that I am already applying most of them in my email marketing work. If anyone is investing in email marketing, I highly recommend following the guidelines listed in this blog posting.

  • Nuala

    Interesting that so many recommend resending the email. I typically don’t do that for our monthly newsletter. It’s a strategy that works for our webinar invites so I’m going to give it a try this month.

  • http://twitter.com/JacobkCurtis Jacob Curtis

    #12 respect if a user wants to be unsubscribed.

    And I absolutely agree with optimizing your subject line for the mobile inbox first.

    Also I heard that mentioning the person’s name in the body or subject line should be avoided? But this leads us to #8 which is Test and test and optimize to see what works best for you and your conversions

  • Jeff

    Good tips to know and go by. Don’t get discouraged when your first email campaign didn’t yield the results you were expecting. As #8 says keep testing! Some of these are no brainers but sometimes you just need to be reminded so you don’t forget. Thanks for the tips!

    Jacob added a good one too, respect those that want to be unsubscribed. You definitely do not want to keep bugging them. That will only hurt your company.

  • Dani Calvert

    Great information here – I hadn’t thought about following our competitors but that’s a great way to see trends and find some inspiration. I think that respecting those that want to be unsubscribed is also so important – companies definitely don’t want to develop a reputation for pestering people.

  • Greg Palmer

    Completely agree with Steve’s tip above regarding completely changing the subject line when sending subsequent emails.

    I also really liked #5. Not just localization, but getting creative in general, is a great way to catch someone’s attention. Coming across that quirky/fun email subject after sifting through the same boring emails all day can make all the difference.

  • http://www.taos.com Dave Gross

    I have always beleived in the subject line being the key in catching attention and to try and be creative and specific when it comes to this area. If it looks like a spam, walks like a spam, and eats like a spam it’s not going to be opened.

  • http://www.relationsfabriken.se Niclas

    50 character is the longest subject you will ever write. And it has to be personal. Ok tricky… But great tips. Thanks.

  • Lisa

    I’m interested in how brackets [] have been converting… Also looking to test a person’s name in combination with company name in the from line for our content marketing strategy.

  • Cory

    Craig good article. I am interested in length of subject lines. In this thread I’ve seen someone mention 50 characters as being the most you should even include in a subject line. Thoughts?

    Also on point 9, are you saying it’s ok to resend with the same subject line if no action was taken the first time? If yes, what’s the point of diminished return?

  • Cory

    This was a helpful post and I’m looking forward to the series. With regard to the response by Chris K., we are also in the process of re-engaging with customers that have not received any communications from us since they opted-in months and in some cases years ago.

    Any recommendations on best practices for talking with these contacts? Should there be an acknowledgement of the silence and ask them to opt back in?

  • http://overnitecbt.com thomas craft

    Thanks for this article. I have always personally had issues in this area and a lot of this article was actually new to me(sad to say). I will effective immediately start to implement some of these suggestions!

  • Bobby Holt

    I’ve probably sent out over 100000 emails to clients and what I’ve learned is that whether they open the email is based on a few things. One, your relationship. If they know you, they will be more likely to open it. Second, have a catchy and eye opening email subject. If you have something to offer them value wise, say it in the subject, it is way more likely to be opened.

  • Mike Compeau

    Some “don’ts” are always useful too–
    * Send the email from a person, Greg, Jillian, Randy, Steve, Heather, etc. — not from “Sales” and certainly not from “Info”.
    * Mobile is 30-40% of site visits and probably 90% used for first view of email for some segments today. Yikes. Keep that in mind before writing a LONG email subject line. (The “from” better be someone they know…)
    * Remember to use the old “inverted pyramid” approach from newsprint days: get the MOST important info/offer up into your TOP one to two sentences instead of trying to be too clever before “unveiling” your brilliant offer. You’ll lose ‘em.
    Great article!

    • Zachary Winnie

      I think you might want to clarify your first point: I’m all for sending a personalized email—say from your CEO Greg—but I wouldn’t send these emails from his/her personal email account or have it set up for replies to go to his email. There are some cases where you’d want an email from “Info” too—like if a customer wanted more info about your product, you can have an automated email come from an Info@ email account.

  • http://twitter.com/matthewmilad Matt A

    All the time going into creating the email is wasted if no one opens the email. I don’t always trust that the unopened number by Act-On is always accurate, because it is always so high. I thought our subject lines were good, but maybe they could be better.

  • http://twitter.com/dizzerdee Dawn Casias (Bulls)

    Be clear or get cleared out – great phrase! Know who you are – Know what you do – Know who you are targeting – know what they want to know and then tell them why they need you. all in 50 characters or less ! Think of it as marketing haiku Love the idea of localization! I am going to try it on Tuesday – I’ll let you know if the open rate improves! Good article AND comments.

  • http://twitter.com/pepper__shaker Todd Holbrook

    Sometimes I have a hard time getting our top executives to open emails even sent INTERNALLY. I’d say these tips could even apply to them. One fix was to make things clearly actionable (Tip 11). I agree that even busy clients/executives are more likely to open an email if it has the promise of something more.

  • Zachary Winnie

    I’d suggest going A/B testing to figure out what email subject lines work best for your audience(s). There is a bit of playfulness and discovery associated associated with subject lines, so there’s no hard and fast rules per se, just guidelines like these listed here.

  • Briar_Picchietti

    Be clear or be cleared out – what great advice. I have always opted for a subject line that is a teaser but am going to re-think this for the next campaign.

  • http://twitter.com/kdelucia22 Kristen DeLucia

    Thanks for the great article. I’ve always struggled with writing subject lines since I tend to be wordy and have a weird sense of humor. Sad to say our top performing subject line was when we accidentally sent a blank message and had to resend it with an apology. Has anyone else had similar experiences with subject line gaffes?