Saturday, June 28, 2008

You've Got Mail Part 2

I’m a broadcast journalist, so I live and die by my teases and the lead line of every story I write, just like my friends in print live and die by their headlines and lead paragraph. Capture the viewer’s/reader’s attention and you get them to watch/read the rest of the story. Fail to engage them and they change the channel or toss the paper in the trash.

E-mail marketing is no different. Craft a great subject line and the recipient will open the e-mail to find out more – and if your opening is just as enticing as the headline, they may read to the end and maybe even take you up on your offer. Write a bad subject line and they’ll never even get to your opening: you’ll quickly become the victim of the delete button, or worse, be automatically consigned to the spam file.

This got me thinking again about those 43 e-mails I received June 17-25. Which ones had headlines that grabbed my attention? Which ones would the experts say were effective? And which ones were clunkers?

I judged them against advice from two sources: an organization called MailChimp, which actually analyzed the open rates of 40 million e-mails it sent on behalf of customers, and web marketer Michael Bloch of Bloch says there are two different types of e-mail marketing communications: those that require a hard sell (a traditional marketing campaign) and those that require a soft sell (informational e-mails, e-newsletters, etc.). Looking back through my e-mails I could see exactly what he means. For example:

From Pottery Barn (hard sell): Outdoor sale! Save Up to 50%
From the Red Cross (soft sell): Flood relief relies on all of us

Interestingly the folks at MailChimp found that the top 20 e-mail subject lines in terms of open rate (60%-87% opened) were more straightforward and less pushy than the ones with the lowest open rates (1%-14%). They say it’s all in the recipient’s expectations: if you’re a soft-sell organization that builds customer relationships slowly, an out of the blue e-mail screaming "10% Discount! Open Now!" would be jarring. But if subscribers have opted-in to receive special notices and promotions, then they fully expect a hard sell.

Bloch goes on to describe some general rules for subject lines:

*Should be no longer than 51 characters to take into account varying subject line display lengths of different software. I received at least three e-mails during my test time period that violated that rule:

From Allstate: Reminder -- Online Survey from Allstate not fo…
From Home Decorators Collection: Choose From Hundreds of Our Most Popular Pr…
From e-rewards: Get Rewarded for Your Time – A Study About En…

See what he means? I need to know what “Pr” and “En” are in order to know whether I’m interested in opening the e-mails from Home Decorators and e-rewards! Those two e-mails would have been an automatic delete for me.

*Avoid words that trigger spam filters, like free and discount, or punctuation like “!” and “$”. Bloch says that doesn’t mean you can't use them, just don't go overboard. The organizations that market to me must have taken this advice to heart: I encountered only one mention of “free,” one “discount,” and three exclamation points during my test period. However, I can find no explanation in Bloch’s writings for the fact that every e-mail I receive from Prevention Magazine is consigned to the spam file!

*Don't SHOUT (caps lock). It can trigger spam filters and is bad “netiquette.”

*Bloch and MailChimp agree: the use of [COMPANYNAME] as the first word in a subject line seems to help achieve high open rates. If you don't want to take up subject line space, put the company name in the “from” line, along with a human name. That’s what the on-line marketing education organization Marketing Profs did when they sent me this e-mail:

From: Penny at Marketing Profs Subject: Welcome to Marketing Profs!

*Use the person's first name in a subject line if you have that information, followed by a question. I got no personalized subject lines during my test.

*Create a sense of urgency without going overboard, like this one from Borders:

Coupon Inside – Through Sunday

*Describe what the email contains, the reason it should be opened and the reward the reader will receive for doing so. That covers the majority of the e-mails I received, like:

Get Tickets First for Styx with The Outlaws (Ticketmaster)
Chilled Soups & Summer Salads (
Weekly Specials and More at Giant Eagle (Giant Eagle supermarket)
Best Books of June (Amazon)

*Try to stir up curiosity. Here is where the subject lines in my e-mails from Marketing Profs hit a home run – you would hope so, since they’re in the business of dispensing marketing advice! My favorites included:

It’s Time to Socialize, People! (about how everyone – even people you wouldn’t expect – are using social media)

Just Say No! (about saying no to pushy e-mail campaigns designed to drive short term sales)

Shameless Marketing Stunt (about a viral marketing campaign called “Walk of No Shame” for AMP energy drink)

You Tried Hard. I Like You (about how companies – like Avis - that are perceived as putting in more effort are rewarded with more business)

Block also recommends testing subject lines before doing a mass e-mailing. This idea is two fold: you can test your spam scoring by sending to different e-mail services like Yahoo, Gmail and Hotmail. And you can test different subject lines to see which get the best response. One of my classmates laid out the following scenario: you need to send out an e-mail to 200 people advertising a festival where two distinctly different activities will be going on. Before the mass mailing you send out 25 test e-mails with a subject line describing one activity and 25 promoting the other. Which ever subject line generates the most response is sent to the other 150 recipients.

I couldn’t finish this blog post without sharing the two worst subject lines I received during my test – yes, they’re even worse than the ones that were too long to fit:

Plan A Summer Vacation (Pottery Barn). Last time I checked, Pottery Barn did not offer travel agency services!

New England July Connected Living (Comcast). Might work if I lived in Boston, but I’m from Pittsburgh!

Happy e-mailing!


Melissa said...


I bet this came in handy this week for Direct Marketing class.

You're blog's great, thorough, relevant and interesting. Thanks for the content and work that you put into it!

I can't tell you how many email messages I get that break all of these rules!


Anne said...

Melissa --

I'm so there with you! The subject lines that bother me the most are the subject lines that are too long to fit. What the heck? How am I supposed to respond to your message if I can't read the whole thing?

Thanks for reading and responding.


Prof. V said...

Hi Anne -- Great blog with information to be coveted by the marketing set (I do read many of the imported e-newsletter information articles, however, elsewhere). Great job. And good-looking layout, too.

Liked your "Subject Line" information,which we can use in our IMC 616 and 626 courses; thanks.

Keep up the good work with superlative writing.

Like your red hair, too!

Prof. V,
WVU, IMC Masters Professor

Anne said...

Prof. V. --

Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I know that since we've met you've seen my red hair (ha ha) but I will try to post a picture of myself on the blog after I get it cut and tamed tomorrow night (it's wild, too blonde and too long right now to be respectible).

FYI, my boxing gloves are also red...

Heidi M said...


I've been baited and switched! MarketingProfs sent me lots of cleverly titled e-mails (which I usually open and scan) and then sent me a generic "Meeting Request" e-mail. Perhaps you got one too. Tricky. I felt like they broke my trust.


Prof. V said...

Heidi, really! I got the same "Meeting" message from MarketingProfs and was a little mystified. Not cranky enough to send a reply, though (not a good use of my time).

Keep up the good work!

Prof. V

Anne said...

Yeah, ladies, I got one too. You figured there had to be a catch, though, didn't you? Giving out all that interesting and informative stuff for free?

Unfrozen Cave Girl Marketer said...

Hey Anne,

This review of e-mail dos and don'ts is very useful - and amazing when we consider how many poorly constructed or misleading subject lines are going out. I guess e-mail marketers are somewhat resigned to low open rates, and might not be trying super-hard to improve ...