Dickens may very well have looked at the results of his A/B testing and declared, “It was the best of subject lines; it was the worst of subject lines.” Trying out different subject lines is a quick and powerful way to boost campaign performance by a few percentage points. But there is another consideration for subject lines besides direct response impact. The subject line – being the first and often only part of a message your subscribers see in the inbox – carries a significant branding impact as well. The words you choose can influence open rate among the 10% – 20% or so who go on to read the email, but also leave an impression on the 80% – 90% who do not open and read the message. When you choose a subject line, consider not only what action you want your subscribers to take, but also how the subject line can help tell your brand’s story among your entire subscriber base.
Here are some comparisons of actual subject lines in my inbox. Each pair is for the same type of message, but the brand narrative they tell is very different. Have a look:
The Confirmation Email:
Emails to subscribers or customers right after they have made a purchase or filled out a form on your site reach them when they are at their most engaged and receptive, so the confirmation email is critical for setting the tone of your brand’s relationship with them.
- Backcountry.com: “Order Confirmed – Get Stoked”
- CustomInk.com: “Shipping Confirmation – Order #1857244”
Both examples do the job, but convey a very different impression of the brand. The language in the Backcountry subject line is echoed by the copy on the website, so the tone remains consistent. CustomInk.com also has a casual tone on the site, but elects to be all business with the confirmation subject line. Neither is right or wrong, but they tell different stories about the brands sending them.
The Last Chance Email
Email remains a staple in marketing communications in part because of its immediacy. Over half the response to most messages come within the first three hours, and nearly all of its impact is recognized within the first day. It’s no wonder then that “last chance” is a popular theme for email messages. But the way the “last minute” message is presented can mean the difference between inciting a shopper to frenzy, or bringing her down from one.
- Container Store: “SPECTACULAR last-minute gifts, many on SALE now!”
- CompactAppliance.com: “Last minute gift ideas with guaranteed 24 hour shipping”
Both brands offer to solve the same problem, but offer to ally themselves differently. Container Store is the coach giving the rousing halftime speech: “Let’s do this!” CompactAppliance.com on the other hand, is more tranquilo, reassuring shoppers, “Relax, you can do this.”
On the one hand, we want to telegraph the scheduled consistency of our newsletters in order to build familiarity and anticipation within the inbox. But we can also use the newsletter subject line to glimpse some brand personality, if that’s appropriate.
- Edgemoor Daycare Center: “Newsletter November 23, 2011”
- Neuvation Cycling: “Newsletter December 16, Spoke Sniffers Club”
The difference between these two approaches is due in part to the relationship each brand has with its subscribers. Most of Edgemoor Daycare Center’s subscribers are the parents of young children who attend the center – as captive an audience as an email marketer can hope for. Neuvation sells cycling products so its newsletters are direct response pieces designed to drive transactions. But the other difference is based on the attentiveness each brand gives to its subject line. Neuvation customizes its subject line for the content within. Yes, it is designed to drive higher open rates, but it also suggests that the brand is willing to go a little further in order to be relevant and engaging to its audience. Taking the easy way out with a subject line can imply to your subscribers that you do not value them enough to put in that extra bit of attentiveness.