I’ve clicked on this email in my inbox a few times, and when I finally opened it, I was like, here is something new and interesting going on in email marketing.
What’s done right, in my opinion:
Today I fielded a quick question (recommended character length of a subject line) that ended up being a rather productive exercise in creating a subject line.
- What is the goal of this email?
- Who are we addressing
- When, in the line of communication, has the recipient gotten this email
- Is there anything from the recipient’s point of view, that is new or remarkable about this email (besides the offer)
In our case, it was a new communication to a new segment of members- so a first kind of welcome to the site email.
Branding & Targeting
After making that a priority, we then juggled the very real initiatives of Branding vs. Targeting. That is, do we talk about us, or do we talk about you. You like it when we talk about you, but we have some goals in talking about us:
- please whitelist us
- please enable images ongoing
- please remain subscribed
That’s the reasoning for talking about us, but what about talking about you? Because our studies and learnings have shown clearly that when we address you by name, talk about how we know you, and otherwise serve you very timely relevant communications, everything is rosy. The subject line is key in that it’s the initiative to open the email.
But it is a balancing act, and really, can we do both at once?
The third element, my marketer friend reminded me, was getting the offer in the subject line. So now we are juggling 3 balls in the air: branding, targeting, and the offer (in our goal: 35-50 characters).
When talking about the offer, there are so many caveats. For one, it really triggers spam filters and Postini, namely, to refer to it as a “sale”, “deal”, or “offer”. Common punctuation, like $ or %, also makes the subject line spamworthy. The subject line is heavily weighted in the email’s overall spam score.
How do you avoid this? Well the following advice takes this into account, but in a rather devious manner.
Be creative! This goes in with targeting. Who *are* these people. Can you figure out a way of making the recipient special, showing your hand to a degree, in targeting them, and also communicating the offer in the email? I’ve seen report after report that shows that clever subject lines, eye-catching, engaging and funny, get seriously higher opens and clickthroughs than straight-up, no-nonsense, deal-hustling ones. So it’s a lot more work, and you may have to pull in various people to brainstorm, but believe me, it’s worth it. And, if you don’t believe me, feel free to test.
Cinco de Yelpo: Yelp has cornered the marketing in funny creative content, and they’ve nicely dovetailed it into branding. Note no targeting.
updates from Kim: Anna you have... This is a transactional message from GoodReads site. After the ellipses was in the email body copy, which Gmail shows. Personalized, no branding. The From Address was the only branding.
Anna: Membership Discount Extended ... to change your subscription eHarmony also used the From Address solely for branding, personalized and included the targeting reason in the subject.
The Perfect Chair for Summer + Shop Mother's Day! Almost a desperate plea for taking an offer, any offer. no personalization, little branding (from address) and no targeting.
Interop: the 3 Billion Electric Bill points for cleverness- despite being in publishing and not retail, I’m impressed with this interesting content. Not targeted or branded, but funny enough- and I did open it up!
- 4/29 –
Give Mom Our Favorite Gifts Cute, funny, nice and short. Probably the right voice too, for Mother’s Day. The branding is in the From Address, and the reason is clear- impending mother’s day- in a clever way. This really stood out in my inbox- amongst all of the dollar signs and % Off.
- 4/28 –
Suit it up for summer with our innovative swimware Mix & Match Tool Eddie Bauer just gets garbled up with that long-winded subject line. I’d tighten it up and make it snappier. I can see the ingredients for a clever subject line, but it’s just half-baked.
My review of notes & takeaways continues, from the 2008 MarketingSherpa Email Summit. One of the most rewarding moments was seeing one of my client’s reactivation campaigns in a presentation- which was a surprise- as an example of good design, for taking into account image suppression, and as an example of an email in Windows Live. The talk was by Elias Haslanger of Dell. In the past, I’ve written about Dell emails with images off- here’s a sample of one, which excels in various ways.
From his talk, these are his recommendations on managing image suppression (full slide set here):
- Email template remains intact with images off
- Action-oriented alternative text with clickable images
- Include click-to-view link at top
- Creative should balance text and images
- No background images
- Use images with discretion
- Keep it under 70K
- Test on all ISPs (webmails, clients, etc.)
Things I would add:
- Simple layout: limited images, limited bullets as images, and spacer GIFs (blank images used for layout)
- Simple, direct alternative text (lately companies have been putting whole paragraphs in there!)
- Use of HTML colors and background colors to convey brand and design (instead of relying solely on images)
- And something I learned in this talk- putting two text-only offers in the header, to push sales even if images don’t load
I received two versions of the KodakGallery email campaign that Elias snipped for his presentation, in Gmail and Yahoo. Note the differences, and various strategies we’re using:
- We also have a “add to address book” and a “click to view HTML”- both of which are redundant with Gmail (currently – 02/08), but in the Yahoo version you see that it’s necessary.
- We have colored background boxes to set apart some of our layout.
- Branding, and relevant offer content all in the preview pane
- We make a choice either to put headlines in images for font control, or use text, and alternative text. We’re still grappling with balancing design and image suppression requirements
- We could improve- like Dell has- and remove the link underlining with CSS (text-decoration: none) and using ASCII marks for bullets (“-” or “<" or other interesting, available ASCII characters)
- With images off, it looks like we haven't created alternative text for that main banner image, and we could add a descriptive, but it is usually a landscape, or cityscape photo. Read on for Elias' comments on this piece.
In all, our preview pane content is broken up and shown in text, which conveys a teaser to our content and an intriguing reason to either approve our images or click through to view in a web site.
In the talk, Elias used our email to show how Windows LIVE displays a "safe/unsafe" mode to messages and the link to view in a web page, as well as "add to address book." Another, thing I've seen lately, in an eHarmony email (sorry I've deleted it!) is to target your customers by their domain and email them specifically asking to be added, and how to do it.
When our email went on the huge screen, I didn’t recognize it as one of ours, and instead was just focusing on those darned bullet GIFs. Then my colleague elbows me, a couple of times, and pointed at the screen. Finally I figured out it was one of our campaigns, and we were joking that through the segmentation we could tell Elias’ recent un-responsiveness to our email campaigns. After the talk, Elias mentioned that what stuck out for him in this campaign wasn’t the management of design and image suppression, but our subject line.
Small Victory: Subject Line Testing
Sometimes you have a good idea, and sometimes you just have to test. We setup this very low-cost campaign with recycled content, a newsletter, and then tested about 10 different subject lines on a sample set of the total drop. The highest performing was the one shown above “Is it something we said?” (My submission was, “Hello? Tap, tap, tap”… too subtle perhaps.) then we dropped the rest of the campaign with the winner. Elias said, “This subject line made waves- people were forwarding it around.” Better words couldn’t have been heard! We replied that we were pretty amazed at the metrics that we got back from this campaign, as we basically hadn’t been expecting much, and these segments were generally write-offs. So it just goes to show that the “long tail” can have big rewards.
First, he showed the chart on “taking the temperature” on email marketing, and it showed, year over year, a stagnation of “rosy” chart, and that basically problems have gotten more intense for email marketers.
Stefan then flipped to a slide showing something we all know- “newsletters still work”- for acquiring leads, essentially.
He displayed an odd report on the percentage of false positives on the spam filter, that predominantly (61%) were flagged by a single ISP, and a huge dropoff when classified by up to 3 ISPs. ISPs examined: Hotmail, AOL & Yahoo. He finished by saying that “the score does not tell you the entire story, you should monitor ISPs.” Interestingly, this is more a concern for B2B than B2C.
I was pleased to see the analysis of opens and clicks across segmented, versus unsegmented lists, and that sometimes the difference is 2:1 more efficacy for highly segmented lists.
On copywriting, and subject lines, Stefan quoted Ann Holland that “subject lines are getting shorter”, and they are getting ‘short & punchy.’ Essentially, “the first twenty characters are going to get looked at,” of the 45 characters suggested.
The most interesting report displayed, of course, the eyetracking chart, and renewed advice to move the template around to get- move the template around periodically (every 3 campaigns) to make users click on non-content, or less interesting or focussed panels, such as sponsor ads.
He lent advice on landing page optimization: remove navigation, and surprisingly enough, repeated page testing raises the efficacy up to 400% more. 400%. Amazing.
Last slide was a review of email marketers and their judging their inside, ASP or ESP vendors and how they are “good to great.” Turns out full service ESPs win out on that category, and with 60% email marketers with ESPs “able to handle complexity.” Basically- they’re worth the expense!
Interesting quick talk, in a very crowded hall, but deemed useful by my neighbors.
I’ve been thinking about subject lines lately. Chad White over at RetailEmail lists the inductees into the 2007 Hall of Fame, and at a client site yesterday we had a brainstorm session on 10-subject lines, which brought to mind some of the funnier, more unfortunate subject lines that have gone out in the past (basically, never use “Ho” in a subject line!).
We setup our test, as the following: Define X number of subject lines, take 20% of the mailing list and divide evenly and randomly. After two days, whichever subject line performed best, use for the 80% rest of the mailing list.
The issue came up of: who writes subject lines? Normally, you’d think a copywriter would be the basic choice. But the reality is, that like HTML coding for emails, writing that darn short snippy inbox teaser is also an email marketing specialization.
The benefits of copywriters:
Writing is one of those skills that look easy if you’re doing it right. But to help out those that have never written for a living, here is a list of good writerly traits that give them a leg up on us normal laypeople.
- Control of style
- Control of voice. This is why I love blogging and hated technical writing, I couldn’t squash the “I”!
- Good grammar and punctuation
- Ability to write as others read- this is a fine point, but I see it often with amateur writers (and myself when I’m lazy), which is to write as you talk and not as others read. It “sounds good to me,” but if you don’t have the same cadence and pauses, idioms and jargon, it’s impossible to understand.
- Word choice. My sister wrote resumes for a while, and on her wall she had a printout of all of the synonyms commonly used in her field. The list was pretty awe-inspiring, as we all have written resumes and know that you need another word for “management,” etc.
At one client, we got a new copywriter and that quarterly review, noticed our open-click ratio went up across all campaigns, lining up nicely with her hiring date!
If you aren’t a copywriter, and stranded with the task, do this simple exercise: ask various people you know to say the words out loud back to you. Awkwardness in phrasing, and misunderstandings become all too apparent. Ask the person you’re reading to, to tell you what they think is in the email. This will highlight any disconnect that may happen before you send it out into the field. Especially if you notice a decline in time of clickthrough from opens, then you know there is a disconnect between what the subject line offered, and what the recipient saw, once opened.
Why email marketers end up writing subject lines
There are so many elements of the subject line, mainly the history of email campaign performance and CAN-SPAM regulations, or other spam avoidance tricks, that come into play with subject lines, that if a copywriter isn’t used to this environment, could be really frustrating for them.
- The limit of the inbox length- 100 characters for starters
- Brand recognition, getting the sender name out in front, but matching the from address to a degree
- Avoiding spammy words
- Trends in punctuation
- Competitive subject lines (would a copywriter subscribe to the competition’s emails?)
- Marketing focus, last minute shifts of offers and terms
- Subject line testing, going with the best performing, sometimes at the last minute
What’s the solution? I tend to think that getting a copywriter to understand the limits of email subject lines is an easier task than teaching an email marketer to write well. Note: do not use this blog as an example of good writing!