Optimizing Your Email Marketing Subject Lines

Think, for a second, about how you organize your email inbox as a personal user.  If you’re like the majority of email users today, you probably skim through the huge number of sales messages and newsletters you receive in search of personal correspondence – stopping on these “mass market” subject lines only if something special catches your eye.

As a personal user, this behavior makes sense, given the huge number of subscriptions and mailing lists most people tend to sign up for.  But if you’re the business that’s sending these messages, the thought of the vast majority of your recipients breezing past your finely-crafted missives may be more than a little frustrating!

So what’s a business to do to get its messages to stand out amidst its recipients’ cluttered inboxes?  For starters, write better subject lines!

The subject line of each message that your company sends out is just about the only thing your recipients have to go off of when determining whether an individual message is worthy of their time.  As a result, your subject lines must be compelling, yet informative – quite a departure from the hasty subjects many companies tack on to the complex, sales-oriented messages they’ve created.

If you want to get more eyeballs on your email marketing messages, you’ve got to do a better job of writing subject lines that compel recipients to open them.  Here’s what you need to know about optimizing your email marketing subject lines:

1 – Understand subject line best practices

First of all, it’s important to recognize that not all subject lines are created equally.  As with every other type of copywriting, email marketing subject lines have their own sets of “do’s and don’ts” that should be ignored at a marketer’s peril.

Specifically, the most-opened email subject lines tend to:

  • Contain an obvious benefit for recipients – According to Marketing Sherpa research, the three types of email subject lines with the highest open rates include those that promise a discount, offer a free product/trial or that mention a familiar brand name.  This isn’t surprising, given that much of online marketing revolves around making the benefits of your company’s products or services obvious to potential customers.
  • Be short – Typically, short subject lines have much higher open rates than their longer competitors.  And given that most users’ email programs display only 38-47 of a subject line’s total characters, it makes sense to get your message out as quickly as possible when it comes to subject lines!
  • Include your company’s name – Since most email users are plagued by inbox clutter, it’s not surprising that subject lines which include a company’s brand name tend to be opened more frequently than generic subjects.  Keep in mind, though, that this effect will only be observed if consumers respond positively to your brand!

Compare your past subject lines to these recommendations and note where you’ve veered away from accepted industry best practices.  If you utilize an autoresponder to deliver regular follow-up messages, change any subject lines that don’t conform to these standards.  Or, if you typically only send out broadcast messages, adjust your future subject lines to reflect these guidelines.

2 – Study popular subject line templates

Of course, comparing your past email subject lines to industry standards can feel like comparing your amateur marathon times to a Kenyan runner’s.  Sometimes – especially if you’re new to the world of email marketing – it can be difficult to determine how exactly to apply the recommendations described above if you’ve never had much success with this promotional technique.

So if the best practices described above seem overwhelmingly confusing to you, another approach to consider is the study of popular subject line templates.  By adapting – not outright copying – the subject lines that have worked for other businesses, you can jumpstart your own success in this area.

For a few subject line examples to consider, check out the following resources:

Give some of these strategies a try, but keep in mind that what works for one industry or business may not work for your unique company.  By using these templates as a jumping off point, you can dramatically cut down the amount of time needed to improve your email marketing results.

3 – Split test headlines amongst your particular audience

Finally, when it comes to identifying the most effective subject lines for your company, the only true way to improve your email marketing skills is to pit different subject variations against each other using split testing.

As with website split testing, email subject line split testing allows you to send out broadcast emails using two separate subject lines in order to test which variation results in more message opens or internal link clicks.  Depending on your particular email marketing program, the exact split testing protocols that are available for your use may vary.

For example, the MailChimp program allows you to send split test variations to a small percentage of your overall list and wait to message the rest until a winner has been chosen from your split test.  This helps to ensure that the majority of your list receives the most effective subject line possible.  Other programs simply broadcast to your entire list using two subject line variations – generating message data that can be used to inform future message subjects.

The reason that this process is so important is highlighted above in Steps #1 and #2.  No message subject guideline or template will work equally well across all industries – so it’s not unusual to find that what kills in one industry falls flat in another.  A short, punchy subject line that works well in the health and fitness niche might not translate as well to the home crafting industry, which is why it’s so important to generate your own primary data based on your unique audience.

For best results, combine all three of the steps above.  Start by understanding what makes a subject line effective and then apply this knowledge to proven message subject templates that have been modified to suit your industry.  Finally, split test different variations of these message subject lines and use the information you glean from your tests in terms of open rates and internal clicks to make future email messages as effective as possible.

It’s a lengthy process, to be sure, but it’s one that stands to make a major difference in the overall effectiveness of your email marketing campaigns!

Image: bburky

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