Can we improve our email subject lines (and article/blog headlines?)

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MailChimp’s study of email open rates — and subject lines — is worthy of your attention.

I know. I’m guilty of not exactly practicing what I preach. That is, for email (and other marketing initiatives) you should test the options. Try A, then B, and see whether one works, or doesn’t.

The only justifiable reason I can offer for this failure is that the content here is always new. It isn’t like I have a standard letter or message that will be rolled out to 100,000 people.

Certainly, dynamic testing has its place. Google does this frequently in evaluating new advertising and search engine algorithm formats. We don’t see the tests generally because with a huge audience and constant activity, Google can achieve statistically valid samples with tweaks to just a tiny number of readers. These approaches don’t really work for a blog that has a few hundred readers a day. The sample is too small; the A/B results would lack statistical significance.

So it goes for email and subject headers, when we are doing one-off or small list mailings or daily blog feeds.

Yet, can we do better? Surely, there are best practices.

A few days ago, I noticed through social media an article purporting to offer seven great email header tips. They seemed alluringly logical, but I didn’t bookmark the piece. I know, of course, we should stay away from wording that sets off the spam blocks including some of the classic marketing push words such as: Free or URGENT.  But what about other strategies?

Is short better than long? Should you ask a question? Can you personalize the message/heading and create a true sense of urgency without using the dreaded “urgent” word?

I’ll give you the opportunity to be overwhelmed with possibilities by inviting you to Google: “Best email subject lines.” (If you receive results in Croatian, my apologies — it seems my Google browser is currently stuck on the country designation for that Balkan country.)

If we give credence to Google, MailChimp (one of our email service providers, which provides a free basic email management system for small lists), has first place.

Here’s the advice:

For this study, MailChimp analyzed the open rates for over 200 million emails. Open rates ranged from an amazing 93% to a dismal 0.5%. Many factors affect how an email is viewed, such as frequency, sender, and the nature of the message. Personal messages are at the top of the interest scale, followed by affiliations and timely news. At the other end of the scale are stale newsletters, requests for money and offers that are too good to be true.

Three Words to Avoid

An unexpected discovery in our analysis was the negative impact of three innocent words. Email marketers are familiar with words such as “free” which are generally to be avoided in emails since they tend to trigger spam filters. We identified innocuous words that won’t trigger a spam filter, but will negatively affect your open rates. They are: Help, Percent off, and Reminder.

Localization Helps

Personalization, such as including a recipient’s first name or last name, didn’t significantly improve open rates. Providing localization however, such as including a city name, did improve open rates.

Newsletter Half Life

Newsletters tend to start with high open rates, but experience some reduction over time. The challenge to the newsletter writer is to keep the content fresh. Repeating the exact same subject line for each newsletter accelerates the drop in open rates. While it is important to establish continuity and branding of the newsletter, ideally each new campaign should provide a clear indication in the subject line of what is inside this newsletter that is of interest.

Subject Line Length

Our analysis confirmed the email marketing rule of thumb, that you should keep your subject line to 50 characters or less. One exception stood out. For campaigns whose subscribers were highly targeted, the readers seemed to appreciate the additional information in the subject line.

The “From:” Line

The “From:” information can be as important as the subject line. As a best practice, the “From:” and subject line should work together. Use the “From:” line to indicate and make clear who you are as the sender. As much as possible, this entry should concisely convey who you are and should remain consistent over time. Save any humorous phrases or concepts for the subject line.

Promotional Emails

By their very nature, promotional emails tend to not perform as well as emails where the reader has a high level of emotional affinity or expects valuable and timely information. Within the category of promotional emails, the same basic rules apply. Keep the message straightforward and avoid using splashy promotional phrases, all capital letters, or exclamation marks in your subject lines. Subject lines framed as questions can often perform better.

List Quality & Frequency

Two additional factors that are difficult to track, but can have a big impact on open rates, are list quality and frequency. When readers know what they’re going to receive, they’re more likely to open. So these high-quality lists of engaged subscribers tend to see the best open rates. If you start with a good list but send too frequently, open rates drop quickly.

There’s more, including some samples of “best and worst” email subject lines. 

Will you follow the advice? Probably you’ll be like me; picking up a few ideas here and there but not systematically implementing a testing strategy. This I understand is reasonable if your list is very small, content varies and you think you have a lack of time. However, the best approach with anything repetitive (to different audiences, of course) is to test, test, and test some more.

There. I’m not practicing what I preach, though.

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