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Search THIS: The Search Match Game

Search THIS: The Search Match Game Kevin Ryan

“…a considerable number of humans, probably a growing proportion, are irrelevant, both as consumers and producers…”
--From End of Millennium by Manuel Castells

The problem with search is that you need people to enter search terms. The other problem with a search engine is that Homo erectus search habits have yet to be reconciled with the algorithmic and paid model architectures. The horrible truth in SEM for an advertiser is that each user defines the advertiser’s world.

Only 12 percent of searches are three or more words, according to a Mondosoft study published in eMarketer’s July 2003 Online Advertising Tactics report. Consider the plight of poor Kelvin Consumer, who just wants to find a warm tropical vacation spot to get out of the cold this winter. Search experience has taught Kelvin that he must use monosyllabic cave man talk to communicate with a search engine.

Enter Broad Match, Exact Match, Phrase Match and Match Driver (the last one sounds like it could be the title of a Kevin Smith film). Search results syncing tools used by Google and Overture enhance paid listing results, allowing advertisers to reach a greater audience. They also offer all but the most obscure searches some type of relevant results. Efficiently using match is a bit tricky. When utilized correctly, match can lead to a more effective experience for searchers and advertisers while providing linguistic credibility to an industry in dire need.  

Enter, the Match Game

Humble Kelvin Consumer isn’t just looking for a flight and a bed. His dimly lit girlfriend, Loraphine, is convinced the passing years have killed any level of romance in their relationship. To rekindle the fire, she wants a “Romantic Getaway.” The “Vacation” which includes some type of “Homey Experience” that’s “Bed and Breakfasty” which offers a “Full-Service Atmosphere” offered by “Big Hotels” and is “Affordable” without being “Norman Batesy.” Some of those “Fun Toys” and “Underground Activities” Loraphine can’t live without might be nice as well.

Kelvin enters seven different combinations of the above terms into his search box and is offered some nasty choices—and not just the ones that are right up Loraphine’s alley (note to fact checkers; go ahead, make my day.)

Eight-thousand-pound search buffaloes Overture and Google are at the forefront of matching. Both have programs with distinctive characteristics that must be carefully understood before beginning to expand or limit keyword lists.

Overture categorizes matching in three ways and offers an online tutorial. Standard, phrase and broad match options allow an advertiser to categorize listings in an add-on format. Standard match is the default program that includes common misspellings. Common is the operative word here, so don’t take misspellings for granted. Phrase and broad match add-ons will allow the advertiser to pick up listings that may include more keywords specific to your audience. Both are based on a simple keyword mapping architecture. With Overture’s interface, adding match options is simply a click away.

Google offers four different types of matching options and also offers an easy to use, plain English tutorial in the AdWords site area. In practice, the matching options are not as easy to implement as the Overture program by virtue of the fact that you will find yourself adding symbols (brackets and quotes) around words to define matching criteria. If you are not careful you could get a lot more (or less) than you bargained for.

Both providers offer the advertiser an option to exclude (referred to as negative terms) certain keywords within a program. There are lots of reasons for not including search terms in an initiative. One example, and the most overused in mainstream press, involves the current Paris Hilton situation online. A six-month chart of the explosive growth of searches for this term looks like an early WorldCom Internet audience increase prediction graph. An advertiser including the brand name for the purposes of filling rooms in France is going to have a tough time competing with links supporting one of the most popular personalities in American culture today.

The real power of excluding keywords is found in separating the “lookers” from the “doers.” By limiting specific terms that may offer click traffic but do not perform from a conversion or desired action perspective, you enable the highest level of targeting and performance management.

How Much Is This Going to Cost Me?

The white whale of paid search marketing is the blank-check budgeting phenomenon. The much talked about, but not often seen, form of advertising in search is based upon the premise of meeting every search demand with dollars. Much to my dismay, I haven’t seen a lot of this.

More smart marketers every day are viewing their search program as an integrated piece of the online marketing pie. That is to say, search, paid or otherwise, performs a valuable function for an online marketing initiative but is, in fact, not the end all be all, therefore undeserving of the blank check privilege.

Preparations for keyword matching are most often accomplished by working closely with the site vendor or your SEM firm. At this point, there is no magic formula for projecting ad-spend for matching. Number of searches for terms and anticipated click-through rates are still the status quo (Google has a traffic estimator), but the providers will have the best understanding of the delicate intricacies involved in projected spending. As with any new program, I recommend setting aside an initial test budget and closely monitoring conversion rates with site side metrics or your favorite third-party serving company.

Write Right. Right?

The least popular but most important subject matter in SEM is writing good copy. Any SEM analyst or editor worth her salt will tell you copy points and messaging are more important than ever when attempting to make money with matching. The most important aspect of this process would be getting those keywords into your description and message body, particularly with Overture since the keyword match mapping system is designed to “pick up” keywords contained in messaging elements.

Sure, people still use pro-wrestler speak when addressing a search engine, but I am off in a daydream about one day being able to talk to a search engine the same way I chat it up with my American Express concierge. Keyphrase one: “Find me a 1-hour photo processing location that won’t ask a lot questions about my vacation photos.” Keyphrase two: “Find me a place to buy an MP3 player that will not be antiquated in six months.”

These queries may seem a bit implausible, but match technologies may pick up your listing if you sell bleeding edge MP3 players or offer film development. Unfortunately, you may also draw a listing from someone trying to sell you a vacation or an informational on how to interrogate a terrorist suspect while incarcerated in Cuba.

One word of caution: relevancy is key and while these technologies may offer a bit of success, they are in a constant of refinement. In other words, I’ve noticed that editors take a closer look at match listings. To their credit, and for everyone’s benefit, search providers strictly enforce minimum click-through rates. With Google your listing position is predicated upon response rates (relevancy) in addition to dollars invested.

How Relevant Is a Match?

I’ve gotten a lot of emails complaining that match technology is just another neat way for search providers to make some money. I prefer to look at it another way. Given the latitude your average surfer offers a search site in terms of language use, matching offers users a much more efficient experience with more performance-prone results.

If Loraphine’s vacation request is the tip of the iceberg, I am willing to bet Kelvin faces more issues in a day than can be found in the entire self-help section at Barnes and Noble. His search problem is one of semantics in reconnaissance, i.e., how a search site understands (or misunderstands) his intentions and finds them. Kelvin, like many humans, isn’t treating the condition; he is attempting to address symptoms. If more users begin to communicate with search engines on a higher level, the industry will be forced to advance beyond the basics.

Of course, what Kelvin will probably end up doing is sitting at the computer on one of those “find your soul mate” Web sites searching for romance shopping cart style, thereby negating any level of serendipity from what we romantics have come to know as falling in love. That, however, is another rant entirely.

About the author: iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. He is currently Director of Market Development at IPG’s Wahlstrom Interactive where he provides guidance in directional online marketing to Wahlstrom’s prestigious list of clients and sister agency brands. Kevin is also appalled by the audacious notion of online romance.

Swell: Just plain funny
I want to meet the person that writes these subject lines. Not many companies can pull off the following and still have a job. Trust me here. This company takes it to the end of the line, but it is 100 percent spot-on to the creative inside. When these arrive, I cannot wait to jump in and see them. To an email geek like myself, these are a weekly gift in my inbox.

Sample a few:

Piss Off (an offer for wetsuit cleaner appropriately named)
We're Not Drunk (an offer on an intoxicating deal)
We Love The Little Fruckers (new board shorts from Volcom)

Seriously, these email subject lines are the most amazing I have seen. Time and time again, they deliver spot-on creativity with simple emails that match the tone perfectly. Now you might not be able to pull this off, but do subscribe just to enjoy the approach.

J.Crew: Short, sweet, telling, and on brand
J.Crew not only sticks to a solid merchandising plan, but it also does a great job with short, simple, catchy subject lines while creating incentives that make you want to open and dig deeper. What I love is the use of characters that are not typically found in sentences. The company uses "+" in place of "and." It also puts words in parentheses as if they are a secret extra or almost whisper. With only a few words, the subject lines tell the story of why to get in.

The bonus is that they are on brand. J.Crew is a simple, elegant, yet playful brand that works across many demographics of the consumer audience. The addition of just a little playfulness and flair works across the board, even when the frequency gets heavier during e-tail seasons.

Barneys: Fun, different, youthful, mixed-up uses
Before I subscribed to Barneys' emails, I had an impression of the company as being exclusive and upscale. Well, everything changed when I met the company online and started getting its emails. Barneys is still an upscale brand, but it lets its hair down in a way that makes me feel as though the company is fashion forward and future hip, rather than being merely a shopping destination of the Upper Eastside.

While the company can play the serious card from time to time in the subject line, it is always a little more party in the back. It employs a mix of copy styles, some of which call on useful basics borrowed from the text messaging vernacular -- ALOT OF EXCITEMENT WITH CAPS AND EX!!!CLA!!!!MT!!!ON PO!!!!NTS. Now, while I do believe that the exclamation is something that is both over- and misused in email subject lines by many brands, it can work if you don't use it as a subject line staple each and every campaign. Really -- not everything is that exciting.

Piperlime: Balance and simplicity
What appeals to me about the subject lines from Piperlime (the online-only shoe store of the Gap Brand companies) is their balance. While I have never seen a subject line go more than 65 characters, I have witnessed the opposite of going down to fewer than 10 characters. This approach to using the subject line for the purpose of the subject and effort is great. Use what your mamma gave you, I say, and stretch the length up, down, back and forth so that it works for you. Don't fear brevity; it is not the size but the word-smithing that will win over time.

Offer testing seems to be very important to Piperlime, and I appreciate the commitment to the changes in voice, tone, and offers. If you aren't testing, you aren't trying. There are definitely some winners in this line-up that beat others by miles. Those are keepers not to be used too often so that you don't tire them out.

Columbia Sportswear: Connecting with the audience
Columbia has been back in the game this past year with its commitment to the subject line. Commitment, you ask? What could the company be committing to? Well, if you scan the subject lines, you'll find the brand not taking the typical retailer route of save X or save Y. Rather, it's leading with the relationship, content, and value. It is an awesome road to take when you are in a position to do so. Take a look at other major manufacturing and distribution brands, and you will see that they often lead with positioning over discounting.

Why? Well, they have this massive revenue source call the channel. These retail and e-tail channels need the room to compete and discount. If a manufacturer leads with discounts, it can dilute the brand value while at the same time pulling fish out of the river upstream before those that rely on you to feed their families can fish.

The Body Shop: Clearly a promo-focused channel
I can honestly say that when I see an email arrive in my inbox from The Body Shop, I know exactly what I am getting into. Now that is a plus, as it allows me to rapidly understand what is inside, but it's also a negative in that I might not be interested and delete it immediately. You need to give a little more to entice people into opening, even with a clear promo subject line strategy. Sounds like I am flip-flopping a bit, right? Well, when you build a program up over time and don't mix it up every once in a while, the subject line can become a little expected. However, if your audience is only out for the deals and you have proven that over time, then stay the course.

Teavana: Icons in the subject line
What I always appreciate from Teavana is how it has replaced the constant ecommerce "!" with icons in the subject lines. (OK, the below example shows one "!", but look at how many brands always use them.) These icons grab my attention as they are symbols that we do not always see in our inbox. Teavana not only uses these odd symbols but also uses other characters like "::" and "+". They not only make emails easy to read but also add some character to them.

Something worth trying for sure. What does concern me a little (although I have not seen a problem yet) is that the messages could be perceived as junk or spam by some email filtering programs. If you are going to experiment with unusual characters, I suggest you test them out first in test accounts or using Pivotal Veracity or Return Path. Using them is a cool idea, but delivery to the inbox should override novelty every time.

Starbucks: Throwing in the kitchen sink
What stands out to me about Starbucks is that it seems to be trying everything. This tells me that the brand has a focus on offer testing and a commitment to growing a mature email marketing program. Its messages are concise enough to quickly read and understand while being complete enough to give you clear expectations on what you are in for when you open them up.

I am quite positive that I have seen only the tip of the iceberg (or iced latte) here when it comes to emails in my inbox, as I would not be surprised if Starbucks is testing multiple subject lines across all demos. The company is one to watch for ideas when it comes to subject lines. A little creativity topped with a fair dose of business goals. A win in my book.

Now that we've looked at the good, let's review some subject lines that need help and discuss what we can learn from them.

TI Las Vegas: Is your name so nice you need to use it twice?
The real estate in a subject line is prime real estate. There is no reason to take up valuable character counts by using your brand name in the subject line. We can tell who sent it by looking at the "from" field, so why use it again? As you can tell from the examples below, it is a consistent practice with this email program, and someone needs to tell the brand to break the habit, as it is not doing its program justice. This strategy also distracts from the offer itself (as TI Las Vegas uses email to get heads in beds and not necessarily to build a relationship).

I would wager here (all in) that the brand is not doing much testing with its subject lines but rather just hoping that the depth of its list will resonate with enough people to meet the goals. This program needs a little nudge in the right direction, and it has a chance at a winning hand.

Nordstrom: Use your profile/preference center to target
This will not be the first time I talk about how Nordstrom does not use the profile data it asks for to send the right emails. When you register for the company's emails, you're taken to a nice preference center that asks your gender as well as what emails you might like to get. I am quite certain that either the system is broken, not enough people have unsubscribed or complained, or I am not aware that I am a cross-dressing man who needs a new blouse and a pair of shoes to match.

If you scan the above examples of subject lines, you can see that they are all gender targeted. Now this is perfect if you are using your profile data. If Nordstrom were, I would say it is nailing it. But instead, it continues to drive nails in the coffin of my relationship with the brand. I have unsubscribed multiple times and used different email addresses to re-subscribe, yet I've never had the pleasure of it working out for me. If you are blowing it with an irrelevant subject line, you might as well not be sending your subscribers email at all.

Flowerbud: Who is Mark?
One thing that always confuses me is when brands don't send email from the company but instead from the CEO. It does not happen as often as it used to, but Flowerbud (whom I love) always sends the email from the CEO. Now, I know Mark and have talked to him over the years, but I would bet that 99.9 percent of the company's list has no clue who he is when they opt in and get an email from him.

Using something other than your brand name is not a good tactic -- unless you are Tony at Zappos, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, or Steve Jobs from Apple. But even then I would tell you to steer clear of it.

Also, the company has a tendency to use the same subject line over and over. Hey, maybe it works -- but it just gives me a little flash of Groundhog Day when I get to thinking, "Didn't I just see this email?"

Salomon and Quiznos: Why me?
Many studies have shown the impact of personalizing a subject line with your name. While great in practice, it is not something you should do over and over again. Maybe using it sporadically is a good thing to grab the attention of someone who might not be engaged in opening your emails. Likewise, it makes sense if an email is truly personalized when you open it. But don't use personalization for personalization's sake.

If you are going to use data simply for the sake that you have them, you are not using personalization or data right. Instead of placing it in the subject line every time you send an email, try mixing it up and placing it in the body of your email. Use it to create something special in the content that is targeted to me, or back off from using it altogether unless it is truly something just for me.

Think of that first time you walked up to the door to pick your first date. Sure, you were nervous, but you had spent months learning everything about her, gaining her trust, and learning what her buy signals were. You were armed for success then, just as you are now with your subscribers. The fact remains that even when you ring that door bell (or knock, in the polite kid's case), those first few words uttered out of your mouth sets the tone for the rest of the night. Did you nail it? Did you say the wrong thing? Heck, did she decide to call it off and not open the door?

Pan to the other side of that door. There you are, waiting for him to get there. Heck, you were ready three hours ago, changed outfits twice, and made sure that everything was perfect. You are engaged, willing, gave him the OK (aka, the opt in) to come by and take you out. Will he deliver on your expectations?

Just a step shy of being a psychic, you have to read and anticipate the first step with your email subject lines. You are not going to nail it all the time -- no one does. But you have to be consistent with your intent, true to your brand, and earn that response credibility.

Are you Eddie Haskell or the Beav? Listen, Eddie was a poet laureate of his times. Strive to bring people into the idea of the message with the simple one liner. It can be deal related, humorous, or to the point -- but no matter your approach, make sure it delivers on the open.

Overall, here are a few tactics to steer clear of when crafting subject lines:

  • Using your sender name (in the "from" line) as a repetitive part of the subject line.

  • Placing your domain in the subject line. Often a trick of spammers and not something any of us are going to take action on.

  • Worrying about length. Sure, a quick easy-to-scan subject line is a favorite (35 characters or less), but many tests have shown that testing and mixing it up can drive better success.

  • My personal feeling: Avoid using my name in a subject line. I know it can be good to see sometimes, but it really feels like a spam tactic. I know you sent me an email. Instead of personalizing the subject line, recognize me with content and copy in the email once you have my attention and the open.

  • Using double "!!" or the "!" at all. It feels like we have seen an increase in retailers using this in subject lines as of late. And is anything really so exciting to elicit one or even three exclamation points?

In the end, there is not a perfect subject line or one that wins all the battles. It comes down to thinking about your business goals, the desires and needs of your subscribers, the relationship you have with them and then test, test, test. The best part about subject lines (and also the Achilles heel) is that they are never done and can always use some new approaches.

Dylan Boyd is VP of sales and strategy at eROI.

On Twitter? Follow Boyd at @dtboyd. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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