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This article covers what I've learned from working with hundreds of customers on improving the results that they get from email marketing by optimising the subject line.

Whatever software you use for your email campaigns, these tips are worth reading...

I was chatting to our manager of customer accounts (the legendary 4P) just this evening(why is it that the most interesting conversations happen when you are on the way out of the office?) about what he gets asked about the most and straight away he said customers improving their email marketing subject lines. He then went on to say that I used to “jibber on” about subject lines all the time, after thanking him for the complement I wrote the following blog!

Think about it

Seriously, a well-crafted subject line is one of the simplest things to change, that can have the biggest effect on the success of your campaign. All too often it is the last thing that is thought about prior to hitting send. Think of the time you spend on creating your email marketing campaign, several iterations get batted between you and your designer, then it’s up for approval before tracking codes are added followed by a strict spam check.

Where did you consider the subject line during this?

Because if you don’t spend an equal amount of time on the subject line, it’s kind of like wearing the best underwear money can buy but then wearing a bin liner over the top. It doesn’t matter how good you look in Agent Provocateur no one will see it! So make time to consider the next four points.

1. Make it relevant

Don’t just focus on getting the best open rate possible at all costs, because that’s exactly what spammers do (tut, tut we don’t call that marketing). The whole “re: you email” or “missed your call” are likely to get people to open the email, but what does 100m people opening your email get you? Nothing unless they click through and convert. I'm sure you aren't employing these tricks to that extreme but ask yourself if people are getting what they expect when they open the email.

So focus on telling them what is in the email and match it in to the key messaging, anything else will end in disappointment for the recipient which isn’t good for anyone. I saw a great Tweet the other day, I can't remember who it was or I would credit them, but it was "A subject line should tell not sell".

2. Personalisation

I’m a big big fan of personalising emails, it separates you from everyone else and it is so simple to do. Any level of personalisation will bring a benefit so long as it is relevant.

For example when you get emails from eBay, they always contain your eBay ID, so for a start you know it is actually eBay emailing you and there is that glimmer of recognition when you scan through your inbox making you far more likely to open the email.

Well, you say, that’s great for eBay but I don’t have anything but an email address so how can I personalise?
Fear not marketing types because you have valuable insight, you know the domain they have their email address hosted on, you know when they were added to your list (we’d hope) and you know their previous activity, all this can be used.

Would you open an email whose subject line was “it’s been 36 days since you signed up, have you found what you were looking for?” I would, how about “You didn’t open our last email, would this be of more interest?”

Anything that indicates that you have had a previous dialogue with the recipient will help.

3. Vanilla

I love vanilla ice cream, but if I had it every day I would probably start wanting chocolate. There is nothing wrong with vanilla it’s just that when you have the same thing day in day out you tend to switch off.

It’s exactly the same with subject lines, when was the last time you used a new subject line? Completely new, not just [company name] news – top news story. I reckon it was some time ago that your recipients requested your emails – they asked to get them, they engaged with your brand to the level that they handed over personal information and now they are bored silly.

So take a chance try something new, get everyone in the marketing team (or office depending on the size of both) to pick a subject line then test them out on a section of your list, the best open rate gets a beer. I’ve suggested this to a number of email marketing clients, and the winner is rarely the person who usually writes subject lines.

One of the most memorable and profitable subject lines I’ve ever experienced was a client of ours who sent out an email campaign with [please enter subject line], as the subject line, which did ok – but what really stormed was the email five minutes later “oops sorry about that – need a coffee!. They got the most results from email they had ever had – and sold a few million pounds worth of Spanish property as a result.

4.Testing

Record, Refine, Repeat this is the top rule for any aspect of email marketing – and probably of marketing in generally. Thankfully a lot of email marketing providers have followed Pure360’s lead and testing subject lines is now a doddle, it should be as simple as entering the variants then selecting the sample size.

The big benefit here is that as you are only testing on a sample you can afford to try out some which are on the edge of what you would normally do as a brand, without fear of it costing you reputation/revenues.

So what to do next:

1.    Make the time to think about what is going to get the best results
2.    Ensure it is relevant
3.    Personalise it, everyone likes feeling special
4.    Mix it up
5.    Test on a sample first
6.    Get working on the click through!

I’ve found some great research on subject lines and I highly recommend you check out the Mark Brownlow's piece on Amazon subject lines, Alchemy Worx have also done some pretty in depth research into the subject.

Marc Munier

Published 16 September, 2009 by Marc Munier

Marc Munier is commercial director at Pure360, and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can hook up with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

11 more posts from this author

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Tim Watson

Tim Watson, Email Marketing Consultant at Zettasphere

This is a nice summary of some of the important elements. Test, test, test is the bottom line for sure.

We run multivariate tests of subject lines, content and design. What is so very clear is that the email must be relevant to the subject line and the subject line relevant to the reader you want to engage. Avoid sending in the first place if you don't want to engage them.

From tests I've seen great open rates and click through rates but the subject line was not appealing to the audience that was the the ultimate objective of the email. Result was the wrong type of clicks and a measured drop in performance of 24% compared to the champion subject line.

Another classic mistake is to make a good subject line and then not back it up with a matching headline in the email or worse still, put the information relevant to the subject line hidden away down the end of a long email.

almost 7 years ago

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Katie Martell

Marc - my favorite quote from this post is "Because if you don’t spend an equal amount of time on the subject line, it’s kind of like wearing the best underwear money can buy but then wearing a bin liner over the top."

I'm with NetProspex - B2B lead search - and we utilize email marketing for a large portion of our marketing mix. I'm with Tim (above comment), that testing is the bottom line when looking to improve results, but above all, keeping your message targeted, relevant, and human.

Also love this quote "but what really stormed was the email five minutes later “oops sorry about that – need a coffee!. " It's email marketing but it's an extension of human connection - the look and feel of emails should reflect not a cold, corporate message in the inbox of your audience, but an inviting, engaging way to connect with them. Great post!

Katie Martell

NetProspex.com

almost 7 years ago

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Sara Kmiecik

Great post! I especially enjoyed your ideas about personalizing emails. My company is always trying to use new ideas like that for our email marketing clients. By personalizing emails in their campaigns, our clients will show that they are a trustworthy source and in tune with their customers needs.

almost 7 years ago

Marc Munier

Marc Munier, Commercial Director at Pure360

Thanks for the kind words, Katie/Sara, it's always great to hear from marketers that the problems we are trying to address are the right ones.

Tim glad you are onboard, now if we could only agree which platform was best. ;-)

Thanks again

Marc

almost 7 years ago

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Allen MacCannell

I have found open rates really do go sky high when you send a "correction" minutes after the first email...but it was mostly a result of an honest mistake, not a cynical plan on my part. :-)

almost 7 years ago

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Mark Ellaway

Hi

Great article. I've found salesy subject lines just don't work very often and always end up in the spam box.

almost 7 years ago

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Nelly

Hello Marc,

i have one question concerning testing. What is according to you the minimum email quantity to test 2 to 3 objects.
Openning rates is exactly what we are currently working on, but i feel our data base is not consistent enough (circa 40 000 @)

Thank you

Nelly

almost 7 years ago

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Services Web Montreal

I have the same question as Nelly, what is the test number of variables?

almost 7 years ago

Tim Watson

Tim Watson, Email Marketing Consultant at Zettasphere

Hello Nelly,

I can help you with some guidance here. The number of people in each test cell depends on the response rate and the change in response rate you want to look for.

This is common sense, you can imagine that if you have a doubling of response rate the number of people in the experiment is less than you need to detect a change of just 1% in your response rate. Small changes need more people to avoid the change being just random variation.

Let's take some real numbers.

If your control open rate is 15% and you want to statisically detect a difference of 10%, ie that you have an improvement to 16.5% then the sample size needs to be 5,000 people per test cell. This is for a 95% confidence level.

Tim

smartFOCUS Digital.

almost 7 years ago

Marc Munier

Marc Munier, Commercial Director at Pure360

Tim's response is comprehensive and accurate however I would take a less mathematical view

When optimising subject lines you can test on quite small segments - in your instance I would say that testing 5 or so within 10k, then picking the best performing one for the rest of the list would pay dividends.

Its an iterative process, you should get better over time at picking subject lines that work for your message and your audience, because of this the more variations you can test within a single campaign gets you that much closer to the best subject line possible.

Hope this helps

Marc

almost 7 years ago

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Nelly

Thank you very much for your answers Marc and Tim, it becomes clearer what we could do / test :-)

almost 7 years ago

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