April 15, 2019

Why I Stopped Following Subject Line Best Practices

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I hate reading about email subject lines.

Like their cousin, the article title, subject lines have been discussed ad nauseam in the marketing blogosphere — to the point where attempting to research the topic drowns you in a torrent of competing best practices.

GIF of a Google search for "subject line best practices"

This post is not the all-powerful-ultimate-marketing-secrets-guide to subject lines. It’s a story about how I achieved some dramatic results running a subject line experiment for TechnologyAdvice’s outbound email campaigns.

Given the importance of email for demand generation marketers, these results are something I wanted to share because I think they reveal an effective technique for creating subject lines.

When I analyzed the results of the experiment, one clear pattern emerged: people respond to headlines that show little to no marketing intent and instead vaguely preview the contents of the email.

Let me explain how I came to this conclusion and what I think it means.

The Catalyst

Like most B2B companies, email is a big part of our strategy at TechnologyAdvice. It’s part of our marketing mix at all stages of the customer journey, which means we’re using cold emails to bring people into our marketing funnel.

It’s easy to email people when they already know and like you. If brand loyalty is strong enough, just seeing the sender name can compel someone to open an email. But when people don’t know you, it’s substantially more difficult.

I was using lots of the best practices—value-focused words earlier in the subject line, mobile-optimized length, etc.—but the open rates were abysmal for almost every campaign targeting cold prospects.

I knew the content we had was relevant and that our value propositions were compelling, but I still couldn’t get people’s attention with our emails.

The Hypothesis

There’s a paradox regarding marketing email philosophy. Despite all the preaching about personalizing content and building a relationship with people, marketing emails almost never read like something a person would send another person—they read like something a marketer would send another person.

Marketing emails almost never read like something a person would send another person—they read like something a marketer would send another person.

I realized that everyone I was emailing knew I was a marketer. And because they didn’t know my company, this gave them a negative impression.

So, I began writing subject lines that didn’t sound at all like marketing. I shifted the focus from the value of the content to simply stating what the content was.

My theory was that people are so inundated with marketing messages that they’ve constructed mental filters to ward off unwanted marketing pitches and conserve their attention. The solution was an antithesis of the marketing best practices I read about across the internet.

Here are the tests I ran with this hypothesis in mind.

Test A

Control: Find your perfect software

Test: A Short Video

Context: This email was the first in a series targeted at engaging PPC leads who downloaded one of our buyer’s guides from a paid search ad but didn’t convert into a lead.

Results:

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-10-05-28-am

The test subject line produced a 115 percent increase in opens by promising less and plainly stating what to expect from the email. There was also an element of mystery involved in the test headline, which was a significant factor in why people opened the email.

Test B

Control: Join 4,000 B2B Companies

Test: Free product page for {{company}}

Context: This email was part of a campaign to convince people to sign their company up for a product page on TechnologyAdvice. The first email uses social proof to persuade people to open the email, while the second just states what the email was about.

Results:

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-2-53-34-pm

Again, the test subject line is a recap of what’s inside the email. It’s not flashy—you might even say it’s boring. However, the added personalization from the merge field coupled with the allure of something free for your company conveys the offer inside the email without sounding too aggressive.

The percentage increase is more modest here (45 percent) than in Test A, but it’s still significant.

Test C

Control: Explore the TechnologyAdvice Library

Test: An Introduction

Context: This was the first email we sent to the audience segment that knew nothing about TechnologyAdvice. The test subject line implies that the sender is interested in making the recipient’s acquaintance, rather than beseeching them to read a piece of content.

Results:

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-10-18-13-am

These stats further reinforce the idea that people don’t want to be spoken to like prospects or members of a target market. What appeals to people in this sample of technology buyers is an understatement of what’s inside.

Also Read: Remember: B2B Leads Are People, Too

The subject line “An Introduction” gives little detail about the contents of the email (it even implies that the copy will be talking mainly about the sender), but it preserves the mystery that compels people to open emails.

The Implications

So why do people respond in greater numbers to copy that offers plain descriptions instead of value propositions?

I believe there are two reasons.

1. People are inundated with marketing

Most marketing is either poorly conceived or irrelevant, so people start ignoring it to preserve their sanity. This concept is similar to banner blindness, which explains why people ignore website elements that resemble ads.

The Hustle has experienced rapid growth using creative headlines.

There’s no good reason to think this wouldn’t happen with email. The fact that there are more than five million blog posts about subject line best practices is part of the problem. If email marketers collectively adopt the same techniques, then those techniques will become ineffective—just like the techniques used before them.

If email marketers collectively adopt the same techniques, then those techniques will become ineffective—just like the techniques used before them.

2. Short, descriptive subject lines build anticipation

Each of my test subject lines plainly communicated what to expect in the email while leaving room for curiosity. The most successful test, “A Short Video,” outlined the type of content someone would find in the email without providing any details of that content.

There was no teeth-grinding, neck-bulging declaration of value. This is similar to the email marketing strategy Loot Crate uses.

Screenshot of Loot Crate website showing merch from Bob's Burgers, Marvel comics, and Breaking Bad, among others.

Loot Crate is one of several companies that more or less sells mystery in a box.

This works because people love being surprised. In fact, there’s a chemical in our brains called dopamine that anticipates surprises and rewards. It’s why people buy baseball cards, subscribe to Loot Crate, and mindlessly scroll through social media news feeds for hours.

An email subject line is an excellent medium for piquing someone’s curiosity. It’s all that most people see before they open an email, so if you add just the right amount of mystery, people will be intrigued. Hugely successful email newsletter companies such as the Morning Brew and the Hustle use the same strategy.

TechnologyAdvice can help.

Like I said, this technique isn’t the end-all-be-all of writing subject lines, but it is a tactic that helped me gain more engagement from marketing-wary cold prospects.

If you’re also struggling to get people’s attention, we can help you get in front of the people who want to hear from you. When you run a lead program through TechnologyAdvice, we guarantee to give you 100 percent accurate and up-to-date contact information for each lead, or we’ll replace it for free. We also provide you with free sales and nurture consultation at no additional charge.

Contact us today to get started, or visit our Partners page to learn more about our demand generation services.