email marketing subject lines that work

Email Marketing – a few home truths

Don’t bother – you’re probably wasting your time when it comes to email marketing subject lines.
A very good copy writer I know sent me an email recently, pointing out that even though us marketers have long been obsessed with creating subject lines that get emails opened, they’re pointless.
Well, not quite pointless – but certainly overrated. I agree.
“Wait”, I hear you cry – “what do you mean?”

“It’s a metric we all measure – we always have. email marketing subject lines
We have a whole column in an excel sheet, for goodness sake, dedicated to open rates and subject lines – we even have graphs…”

Obsessed with subject lines that improve open rates

My copy writer friend’s point was that it’s easy to follow the pack and become obsessed with subject lines –  because they drive a reader to open your emails.
But that’s not true.
If you’re doing email marketing right the subject lines are irrelevant.
Let me say that again…


If you’re doing email marketing right, the subject lines are irrelevant.


If you’ve got the relationship you should have with your list, then your open rates are simply a reflection of how happy your audience is to get an email from you.  That is all.


What’s it all about, Alfie?

To quote my esteemed copy writer again –

“Open rates are all about what it says in the FROM field, not the subject line.”

And here’s where we get back to the basics – if you are sending useful and relevant emails, your reader will welcome them. They’ll be glad on some level to see your name in their inbox – regardless of the subject line.
How do we know this? Well, we have a client who came to us last year with a list of over 80,000 ‘subscribers’ and an average open rate of 11%. To us, once we looked at the database and the content that was going out in the emails, it was clear that the existing email marketing was pretty much a hit and miss affair. Basically someone wrote an email about something they wanted to sell – and sent it out to everyone.

List Segmentation – get personal

So – we started with segmentation of the list. We refined their customer personas so we could understand how to personalise content that mattered to every reader when they received it. Then we set about creating an email marketing strategy that meant we got rid of over half the list immediately. We started sending different content to different groups of customers and prospects. We tested sending more emails, less emails, short emails, long emails…

That client now has a list of 110,000 (built up by our digital marketing strategy) and that list is made up entirely of inbound prospects, and customers who have actively opted in to the list. 
They also have an average open rate of 31%. Some emails achieve 78% open rates. How’s that for relevancy? And we’re still working on improving that.
More importantly, their revenues are up by 11% year on year. And we’re talking about a £6million+ business, so 11% is enough to buy a few extra donuts…donut stacks email marketing

Back to email marketing subject lines

What’s all this got to do with subject lines? Well, I can tell you that after months of split testing and hundreds of sample subject lines, there is one rule, and one rule only. 

Don’t give too much away. If you tell the reader what the email contains, they don’t need to open it. If you pique their interest, however, with a tease, you don’t give them a choice. They have to open it to see what it is you have for them.
This only works though, if you have worked hard at building a relationship so that they WANT to open your emails. There are specific ways you can do this.

“Don’t miss the deadline tomorrow”

You’ll have to open it to see what that deadline is for, won’t you?
Your subject line’s job is not to describe your content, only to get the email opened. Then it’s over to the content and the relationship you’ve built to drive an action that contributes to your business objectives.
And that’s another story. I’ll tell it to you some time…


PS. Thanks to Mark Creaser of Ideal Result for the inspiration for today’s blog.