7 Ways to Woo Customers Through E-mail Subject Lines
Frequently, marketers find the perfect formula that piques a consumer's interest and makes her open an e-mail. Still, many messages flail and spin their way into the spam or trash folders, never to be viewed again—let alone opened, read and acted upon.
So what's the magic e-mail subject line formula? There isn't just one, experts say. But they provide plenty of tips to help marketers find their own voices:
1. Consumers Really Care About the Marketer's Brand: The 'From' Line Needs to be a Sender They Know and Like
"From" lines are more important than subject lines, says Simms Jenkins, CEO of Atlanta's BrightWave Marketing and EmailStatCenter.com and author of "The Truth About Email Marketing." "From lines are generally going to be your brand or your product or your service," he says. "Whatever people opted in for should be your brand. ... I think the from line is kind of the subject line's big brother, if you will."
Agreeing, Donnie Kajikawa, senior marketing strategist for Little Rock, Ark.-based Acxiom, adds that recipients also have to recognize that sender's name.
Some of the worst examples Jenkins says he's seen in his inbox recently include known companies distributing messages via an unknown sender, who perhaps is the marketing manager using her individual e-mail account, and some that literally come from "nobody" or are inexplicably blank. "That's the kiss of death," Jenkins claims.
2. Run Tests First and Often
Aaron Smith, principal of Seattle e-mail marketing firm Smith-Harmon, says marketers can run tests the day before, or hours before, sending a message to a full list. He explains: "One of the most frequently used and effective tests is to run head-to-head tests of different subject lines against a small subset of the mailing list ... then checking to see which subject line is generating the most opens and using that winning subject line for the main mailing."
Use small test groups for small lists and bigger groups for larger lists, Jenkins says. "If you have a million people in your database, you're going to want that sample size to be probably 10,000 to 20,000," he says.
Even experts find unexpected results. Jenkins chose to follow his own advice and check his e-mail prowess rather than preserve his pride by continuing to go with his gut when distributing his quarterly e-newsletter, The BrightWave Report. His gut said specific subject lines worked better.
"A specific subject line for BrightWave Marketing would be 'E-mail ROI Stats: White Paper on Deliverability and More' versus a general subject line, 'The BrightWave Report: Q2 E-mail Trends and News,'" Jenkins says. "We found that the general, 'BrightWave Report: Q2 E-mail Trends and News' performed better, in terms of generating opens and clicks, than the more specific one."
But some marketers do allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security.
"Don't adopt the mind-set of 'It works, so why fix it?'" Kajikawa says. "Test routinely." So what if open rates are holding steady? They can always get better. "As a best practice, routinely test subject lines to optimize response rates; marketers can test subject lines more easily than any other e-mail component," he adds.
3. Consider the Audience
No need to have lightening bolts hit consumers over the head if they've already opted in for e-newsletters. Soft-sell articles and tips to this audience, Kajikawa says. "Stay clear of offer-oriented subject lines, and keep subject lines straightforward and consistent," he advises, citing this distribution: "QuickBooks Newsletter—May 2008."
But the consumers who've asked for special offers and promotional e-mails expect to be wowed. "For that reason, a subject line that describes the offer makes more sense," Kajikawa says, citing a more forceful: "Introducing QuickBooks 2009. Savings inside."
4. Reveal Message Contents Immediately
Believe it or not, subject lines aren't about selling products, Jenkins says. That's the message body's job.
Kajikawa seconds: "Don't treat [the subject line] like an advertisement and sell what's inside, but rather describe the key value—from the reader's perspective—of the e-mail."
5. Consider Word and Character Count
In subject lines, word and character counts add up quickly.
While some studies show the magic number can top 70 characters because targeted audiences expect relevant, specific, detailed messaging, Kajikawa remains aligned with the experts who believe shorter is better in the mobile message-viewing era. So place key marketing messages at the beginning of the subject line, in case the end is cut off.
Smith says mobile devices grant recipients a view of three to eight subject line words.
"Personally, I think the number of characters is much less important than the words used and how they are structured together," Smith opines. "Along those lines, a useful technique to convey more than one message in the subject line is to use the plus symbol to join two messages together." For example, "Snowshoes, Nordic Skis and More + $4.99 Shipping for REI Members."
6. AVOID USING ALL CAPS, CLICHES LIKE 'FREE' AND 'SALE,' AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!
"It's essentially shouting," Jenkins says. "People don't call you on the phone and shout immediately when you say 'hello.'"
Although spam filters may not block this content, Smith suggests marketers consider whether recipients will be offended.
7. Break Rules Sometimes
Smith says marketers who are conscious of how consumers perceive their brands can have a little fun. He points to a Barneys New York campaign "that would hardly work for anyone else, but fits Barneys' quirky luxury image perfectly: Louboutin! Louboutin! Louboutin!"
Smith offers another example: Pottery Barn used capitalization sparingly with the subject line, "Up to 75% off during our SALE!"
Basically, Smith adds, marketers who remain true to their brands and how consumers perceive them can navigate the way through subject line struggles.