Tax & Accounting Blog

Delivering Subject Lines – Best Practices and Real Examples

Blog, Checkpoint Marketing for Firms, Marketing September 17, 2018

Subject lines have been debated since the dawn of the email marketing age. Which ones spark interest the best? Which ones might raise a spam flag? Does character length affect deliverability? Do symbols increase or decrease open rates?

Despite all of the testing and re-testing of subject lines, it appears that subject line perfection remains a mystery to the masses. Let’s see if we can unveil the secrets behind the best subject lines now…

(drum roll please)

The best subject lines are just long enough to describe what’s in your email, giving your reader a sneak peek at the contents. They are descriptive, concise and alluring, and they directly correlate to the content in your message. They should be simple and engaging.

“Don’t sell what’s inside. Tell what’s inside.”

How do you increase readers’ interest in your emails? Share content with them that they will value and appreciate. Content that is relevant to them. Important content. No matter how perfectly eloquent and enticing your subject line may be, if your message does not include information that your readers are interested in, they will not open it.

Right. Now that we’ve gotten the whole relevant-content-is-essential thing out of the way, let’s go back to subject lines. I’ve mentioned that tons of testing has been done over the past two decades on subject line performance. Let’s take a look at some of the most recent results of some of those tests.

MailChimp recently performed a study that analyzed the open rates for over 200 million emails. Open rates ranged from an unbelievable 93% to a bleak 0.5%. Of course, subject lines are not the only influencing factors on open rates. Many additional factors affect how an email is viewed, including the sender and sender’s reputation, frequency of email messages, and the nature (purpose) of the message.

In the study, the types of emails that garnered the most interest were (in order) personal messages, affiliations and timely news. Emails that generated the least amount of interest were musty newsletters, requests for money and “too good to be true” offers.

What worked well?

  • Personal messages and information
  • Timely or time-sensitive news
  • Important or useful announcements
  • Localized messages to a particular geographic region

What did the analysis uncover that was surprising? Even innocuous words can affect open rates. We all know that there is a long list of words that most marketers avoid in their subject lines to steer clear of spam triggers. Unfortunately, that list constantly grows as spammers tend to try as many new tactics as legitimate marketers do. However, the recent analysis of 200 million emails exposed a truly unexpected discovery – three innocuous words had a negative impact on open rates without necessarily triggering spam: Help, Percent off, and Reminder. Who knew?

The Best & Worst Subject Lines Analyzed

Here are a few subject lines from the study that had the highest and lowest open rates (remember, there are potentially other contributing factors involved in the open rates, but comments about why the subject line worked well or belly flopped incredibly are included). If nothing else, this list might give you some ideas of what to try out and what to avoid.

Successful Email Subject Lines

*all names have been changed in the subject lines shown below

Subject Line Open Rate Personal Timely or Time-Sensitive Important or Useful Localized Comments
Preliminary Floor Plans for Southern Village Neighborhood Circle Members 93% Note that it is over 50 characters in length, which means that character length is not as important as content.
Your April Website Stats 92.6% Not descriptive, so it is likely that the sender is well known, as is the purpose of the stats (and is probably a subscription service).
Idlewild Camp – Important Travel Information 90.1% Urgent, useful information, assuming that I am an Idlewild traveler.
Invitation for Murdoch, Brown, Rove & Johnson’s Snow Ball 89.7 Likely from a trusted, known source.
Announcing Paige Elizabeth Sullivan 82.6% Birth announcement, likely from a trusted, known source
MICHAEL DRUCKMAN 1949-2007 77.4% Obituary = highly personal content. Note that the ALL CAPS did not affect open rates.

Failing Email Subject Lines

Subject Line Open Rate Personal Timely or Time-Sensitive Important or Useful Localized Comments
Final reminder for complimentary entry to attend the West Freelands BCI Cluster Conference 2006 0.5% Reminder message. Too wordy.
Tempting August NUSA Specials! 0.9% Possible spam trigger word “special” and use of exclamation point
SALE ends soon – up to 50% off all bras at Kara! 1.9% Possible spam trigger words: sale, % off and use of exclamation point
Help Baylor create the ideal college experience 2.5% “Help” = ignore
Printers World Offers 100% Commission Up Front 7.5% Too good to be true

Repeating and Reminder Campaigns Don’t Deliver High Open Rates

Also, be wary of sending out a repeating or reminder campaign too frequently or with the same subject line and message. Or at least expect that your open rates will be low, and decrease with each subsequent mailing. MailChimp’s study showed the trend clearly with this campaign:

Subject Line Open Rate Personal Timely or Time-Sensitive Important or Useful Localized Comments
Funk n Sandi @ The Roxy on 3 March 8% First email – must not have been segmented or targeted, as it hits some of the key points
Funk ‘n’ Sandi @ The Roxy on 3 March 6.3% Second email – exact same subject line, which didn’t do well the first time
This Sat 3 Feb – Funk n Sandi @ The Roxy 5.1% Third email – slight change, with an increase in urgency, yet even lower open rate
Don’t forget – Funk ‘n’ Sandi this Sat 3 Mar! 3.5% Fourth email – even more urgency, use of an exclamation point, but clearly not segmented or directed to a particular audience

Final Thoughts on Subject Lines and Open Rates

So what should you learn from all of this? If nothing else, know that your subject line must match your message. And that it is not the only contributing factor in an email’s open rate (as indicated by both the failing subject lines and the repeating/reminder campaign shown above).

  • Segment your audience so that your email messages reach the right people and your open rates will increase dramatically. Sending the same message to your entire database is undoubtedly going to affect your overall open rates. What is personal and local to your readers in California who support marriage equality will not have the same effect on your recipients in conservative Connecticut, so how you position the story on the new law should vary based on your target markets.
  • If you have an event coming up, make sure you have something new to say about it each time you send out your reminders, all while keeping your audience in mind. While you don’t want to tease your readers without providing anything of value, you can and should create excitement about upcoming events, special offers, and announcements without decreasing your open rates. Drip campaigns can be extremely effective if done right.
  • And last, but certainly not least, ensure that your content is relevant, timely and meaningful to the people it goes out to.
  • And so on.

I will be posting more subject line and deliverability tips in the coming weeks, right here on this blog. Stay tuned for more!

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