Email Subject Lines – Be Direct

Jakob Nielson wrote a great article on email usability.  There is a lot of good points but I wanted to focus on his section about subject lines.  As a rule of thumb, if you have doubts on what the subject line should be . . . be direct.

There is a great example in the article of a subject line that the ad or marketing people probably loved.  And with good reason, it’s a witty one liner.  It just sucks as an email marketing subject line because it doesn’t give recipients a clue as to what the email is about.

In marketing and advertising it’s easy to be swayed by our cleverness.  The problem is that almost all email recipients don’t have time for clever.  They get too many communications to want to revel in advertising wit.

Make subject lines to the point and open rates will be better.  Our testing typically shows a 10% – 20% decrease in opens if a question or tag line is used in the subject line vs. a direct subject line that summarizes the email content.  The same is true for subject lines that are too long, so don’t attempt both direct and witty.

Tell recipients what you want to talk about.  The email is the chance to tell them again with more detail.  Finally the web landing page is a chance to tell them a third time and give them an opportunity to act on it.

It might not be flashy, but in email marketing the subject is your first chance to say something. Make sure it sets recipients up for the email’s content, not leave them guessing about what a clever subject line has to do with anything.

Email Marketing: What’s in it for . . . Them?

As a broad guideline, at least 50% of your email communications should have a clear benefit for your recipients.  A higher percentage is fine, a lower percentage will often result in list fatigue and opt outs.

This seems like a simple equation but it gets complicated when email marketers confuse what benefits them and what is a benefit to the recipients.  So here is a sample of “for them” and “for us”:

For Them:

  • Valuable information – This can be research papers, articles, audio or video tips, or directories to other information but it has to be quality content.
  • Product or service discounts – This can be a special offer to the recipient base or coupons but it has to be a legitimate offer that is simple to take advantage of without strings attached.
  • Request fulfillment – This should be a direct response to a request typically resulting from targeted list segmentation.  For example, if a person specifically asked to know when new items come out in a certain product line, then an email highlighting that item is for them.

For Us:

  • Product or service launches – These emails talk about us.  Of course they should be written to highlight the value to recipients, but it’s still about us.
  • Untargeted promotions – A store wide sale isn’t a specific offer to a select list.  Hopefully it will garner recipient’s interest but it’s an open promotion that recipients may or may not be interested in.
  • Events – Events are another step in engaging or closing prospects and benefits us.  Even if your event has valuable information or entertainment (which they all should) and is free, the event is more about us than recipients.
  • Surveys – Surveys are always asking for recipients’ time which is valuable.  We reap the benefit of their responses so unless there is an easily redeemed reward, a survey is for us.

As a general rule, if the email’s primary goal is about moving prospects further into a sales or marketing funnel, it’s about us.  Of course that is what almost every email campaign is about in one way or the other, but we need to provide a give and take.  It’s perfectly reasonable to promote your products, services, or events, just make sure that recipients don’t get flooded with too much about you and very little for them.

Know Where Your Online Marketing Spikes Are Coming From

In analyzing online marketing  results people make two broad-sweeping common mistakes

  • Blaming poor performance on outside factors
  • Take credit for positive performance without verifying the conclusion.

If only these assumptions were true in reality, we’d have nothing to worry about.  We’d cause only good and any negative outcomes couldn’t be helped.  Of course, that’s not true  and in analyzing you online marketing campaigns honesty is critical.

The more prevalent of the two mistakes is taking credit for spikes without doing any research to verify that an online marketing campaign deserves the credit.  This can be a costly error because it’s confirming false data.  If we believe something created a positive reaction but in reality it did not, we waste time recreating that situation even though it doesn’t provide proven results.

Here is an example I ran into recently.  In checking site analytics for a fairly new client of mine I discovered the site experienced a 400% increase in month-to-month traffic.  I instantly assumed that the search engines had indexed new keywords which were driving exponential growth.  I started preparing an analysis of what keywords were performing best so we could further refine the site’s SEO.

As I looked through the search keyword data the numbers weren’t adding up.  The site had much more direct traffic than in previous months.  Upon further investigation I saw that the search engines had not registered the new keywords we had worked on.

I informed the client of the spike but had no clear explanation of why the direct traffic would have shot up.  Fortunately the client did.  They do a yearly event which took place during the month in questions and the attendees for this event were the likely cause of direct traffic as they visited the site after the event.

As much as I’d have liked to take credit for the spike, it would have set our efforts back.  Analyzing the data and seeing that the spike was not a result of the SEO, means that we can’t bask in our genius.  Rather we need to monitor what actually happens when the search engines index the site and see how that effects search traffic so we can see real SEO improvement.

Always investigate any website or email metric spike.  While it’s nice to believe that our efforts were the catalyst, that always needs to be proven by the data.