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The Art of the Subject Line

The Art of the Subject Line Brad Berens

Last year, in a talk about online writing that I gave to a group of talented undergraduate writers at the University of Southern California, I argued that the most important genre of writing for them to master is the email subject line. I think a lot about subject lines: what makes them good and bad, effective and ineffective, but one thing that has long puzzled me is how little attention many companies pay to the lowly subject line.

For perspective, I turned to Nick Usborne. Nick is a leading authority on the subject of writing for the web, and he wrote "Net Words," a bible for both copywriters and writers of content online. Recently, Nick joined the talented folks at MarketingExperiments.com as a senior analyst. This week, he spared some time to chat about subject lines.
iMedia: Back in the day, I was the editor for all things digital at EarthLink, and in my experience the subject line was always the last thing on the agenda for whatever agency was working on whatever marketing email -- particularly when it came to HTML or rich media emails. This worried me, particularly since the subject line is often a make-or-break component. Do you have a sense of a) whether or not this is as pervasive a phenomenon as I think it is, and b) if so, why it might be?

Nick Usborne: I agree. Many companies pay very little attention to the subject lines in their emails and newsletters. Evidence of this lack of attention can be found in the very basic mistakes so many companies and organizations make.

Why? I can think of five reasons.

1. Lack of understanding.

Many companies pay plenty of attention to the body of the message, and far too little to the quality of the message in the subject line.

To illustrate this point, no offline direct mail agency would rush or hurry the writing of the text on the envelope of a direct mail promotion. Direct marketers understand that the envelope copy is crucial to the success of the whole mailing.

Companies online are yet to understand that subject line copy is just as important to the success of an email or newsletter.

2. Creative pride.

Writing subject lines is all too often seen as boring, uninteresting work. Such a short snippet of text may be seen as "beneath" the talents of the writers involved. Misplaced pride.

3. Lack of process.

Creative and production groups are often under incredible pressure to deliver the next email or newsletter. Because writing and testing the subject line is not carved in stone as a required step in the process, it simply falls between the cracks. A line is written quickly, without enough thought as to its potential impact on open rates and conversion rates.

4. Laziness.

Some writers know how important the subject line is. They also know that others in their organization may not. So they can get away with rushing the job. Pure laziness.

5. Lack of testing.

The first day you test different subject lines and see the results, you'll never be complacent again. When you do the math and see how much money you are leaving on the table with the second best subject line, compared to the best...that's when you start taking subject lines seriously.

iMedia: So what are the "very basic mistakes" that many companies make when it comes to subject lines?

Usborne: The most basic mistakes I see are as follows:

1. Using words that cause the email to be filtered at the gateway, ISP, server or individual account holder level. Do you sell "excess inventory"? Be careful: use of the word "excess" may get you filtered. Do you want to point to a "hot" topic? The same problem exists with the word "hot" and many, many others.

2. Being too promotional. Yes, one can be too promotional. The problem is that your line could end up "sounding" like a spam headline. When spam isn't filtered by technology, it's filtered by the human brain. And the human brain filters based on both the words it sees and the tone of the message. If you are writing subject lines, then you should study spam subjects lines so that you can get a feel for what your own lines shouldn't sound like.

3. Failure to be interesting. Boring subject lines work only when you have a very, very strong relationship with your subscribers. For the rest of us, the line has to touch on something that is important to the reader. You have very few words to work with, so you need to make a careful study of which words acts as triggers for your audience. How do you know which these words are? Through research and testing.

Not sure how to test for trigger words? Use Google AdWords as a research tool. Test different headings for otherwise identical ads, find the top-performing words and phrases and then try them in your subject lines.
iMedia:  On that basic level, how many characters do you usually dedicate to the meat of the subject line? I usually want the meat of the subject line (the product, promotion or company) to be explicit within 60 characters, but with bigger and wider screens becoming more prevalent, I wonder if I'm dating myself with that number.

Usborne: Sixty characters sounds like plenty to me. If you can't get an "open" within the first fifty characters, you're probably not being careful enough with the words you choose.
iMedia:  Recently, we've been experimenting with our own subject lines here at iMedia Connection. We've gone from every subject line being the same (the title of the newsletter plus the date) to unique subject lines. In a few weeks we'll start A/B testing, but right now we're alternating between single-topic subject lines (in which we pick the story we think will interest the greatest number of our readers) and more inclusive, multi-topic subject lines.

I haven't seen the tracking numbers yet, and so I don't know if there will a) be any particular lift or decline in open rate from a unique subject line, and b) don't know if a single topic subject line will be better than a multi-topic one. Do you have any predictions? Regardless of your willingness to play Karnac the Great, do you have a general brief about single versus multi topic?

Usborne: It has been a long time since I tried predicting winners among subject lines. I used to work with a company which sent out over two million newsletters a month. Two days before the publication date we would test between five and seven subject lines, sending each to about five thousand subscribers. Whichever line won would become the line we would use for the balance of the two million.

Here's what I learned. You never, ever know. Over a period of two years, other than by pure chance, I don't think I ever predicted the winning line based on my experience.

As far as I am concerned, the only way to know which is the best subject line, or even the best approach, is to test a range of options every single time you create a new email or newsletter.
iMedia: Earlier you said, "The first day you test different subject lines and see the results, you'll never be complacent again. When you do the math and see how much money you are leaving on the table with the second best subject line, compared to the best...that's when you start taking subject lines seriously." Can you give us a sense of scale by this? How much money? Are you talking about A/B testing or something more complicated?"

Usborne: In testing subject lines I have seen one line outperform another by close to fifty percent. (In that instance, the subject lines were very, very close in both tone and the words used, which only goes to show how important testing is.)

So, let's do some simple math here on an email to a modest list and a reasonable priced service.

Send out an email to 100,000 people. And let's say you want them to sign up for a subscription service priced at $34.95 a year.

If you get a two percent conversion rate, your revenue from that email will be $69,900.

If you get a four percent conversion, as a result of a better subject line and higher open rate, you'll gross $139,800.

Now let's assume that each subscriber stays with you for an average of three years.

Now think about sending this email, or one like it, every month.

And now think about what happens when you test five subject line options and find that one of them outperforms the others not by one percent but by fifty percent.

What are you looking at after three years? You're looking at a difference in revenue that can add up to hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars.

This is worth keeping in mind the next time you just scribble out your best guess at a good subject line.

Nick Usborne is a Senior Analyst with MarketingExperiments.com and an editor of the Marketing Experiments Journal. The Marketing Experiments Journal is focused on just one task: to find out what really works online. A free subscription to the Journal brings you their latest research findings, twice a month.

With digital billboards, schedules are similar to those used by TV and radio stations, where advertisers change their message to coincide with a particular product/service.

"This allows advertisers to present timely and relevant marketing messages that take advantage of the technology and the 'always-on' reach and frequency that is the traditional strength of outdoors," said Friskney. "In addition to managing schedules, software such as what we offer provides 24/7 monitoring and reporting of a digital billboard's performance. It also automatically controls brightness levels and provides proof-of-performance reports for operators and advertisers."

Advertisers are finding these digital billboards very attractive, noted Mike Ribero, CEO of Reactrix, a Redwood City, Calif.-based interactive out-of-home advertisement and entertainment media company.

"Consumers are able to interact with brands in an environment that's totally branded," Ribero said. "It combines the best of both traditional linear media and interactive, allowing groups of consumers to form a consensus around a brand. People can be part of the advertising experience in a way they can't anywhere else."

One of the earliest and most successful digital outdoor campaigns was launched in Canada in June 2006 by Digital View and Pattison Outdoor Advertising for Nike Canada to kick off the World Cup. Digital signage of well-known soccer players was created and broadcast throughout popular shopping malls in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Consumers were encouraged to select, via text-messaging, one of five Nike soccer videos that rotated on the screen. Text messages were routed to an SMS receiver device controlling the output of a digital signage player; the chosen video was then played in full audiovisual mode. The program was able to track the video's popularity by counting requests; consumers were reeled in by getting return messages. They were encouraged to visit a dedicated website and opt-in to receive other Nike news via SMS.

Some recent innovative campaigns:

The global internet media company rolled out an interactive ad campaign at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport that ran 24/7 from July to the end of August. Large-scale projections encouraged traveler participation. The campaign featured breaking news on travel deals. In two airport concourses, projections displayed real-time travel deals offered on the company's website. In another concourse, real-time travel deals were spun on Travelzoo slot machines when consumers engaged the 8'x 20' ad. At yet another concourse, travelers could star in their own ad -- they were projected into two huge interactive plasma screens that utilized immersion technology.

Image courtesy of Sophia Wallace

Life Takes Visa
Launched by Reactrix, consumers were able to "paint" with different colored blobs of virtual paint on an interactive mat. It not only encouraged user-generated content, by a multi-user, cooperative interaction with the brand. Users ranged from casual passers-by to artists creating detailed imagery on the 6'x8' displays. Ribero said this type of interactive display allows brands to place media in locations where media has never been deployed before. 

"It's comparable to a digital campfire -- a larger-than-life display format allowing consumers to immerse themselves in the media and interact with brands, and each other, in a way that's similar to how they would in real life," Ribero said. "In fact, it's so intuitive, it's even clear to pets how to participate."

While the proverbial future looks bright, there are some potential roadblocks. Cities and counties nationwide are taking a closer look at content as more ads go digital and there may be increased regulation as local governments feel pressure from concerned constituents.

Joe Marchese, president of Camarillo, Calif.-based Archetype Media, which develops next generation brand advertising platforms, wonders how ads will become part of the landscape they interrupt and whether someone will find a way to automate what's aesthetically pleasing from one community setting to the next.

"Building successful business models for tomorrow's digital outdoor advertising will mean first, and last, evaluating how to improve the entire eco-system you are attempting to enter," Marchese said. "The billions will follow."

But the key reason why digital will boost the outdoor market is, said James, "the sheer, naked creativity it offers. It will be totally different from outdoor in the past and will make creatives, media planners and ad agencies think quite differently about the medium. But there will not be one single way of using it -- digital is not homogenous."

Interactivity is a fast emerging opportunity that digital provides. James noted that film advertisers, for instance, are booking specially constructed bus shelter sites incorporating buttons that people press to get information on a film, watch clips or check out actors' bios.

"Consumers via Bluetooth and infrared can point mobile phones at specified poster sites to download video clips, music samples, podcasts or money-off vouchers for the product being advertised," Alan James, CEO of the U.K.-based Outdoor Advertising Association, said. "Increasingly, outdoor is being used as a conduit for digital messaging, extending its reach into other technologies."

Meanwhile, WatchFire's 2007 digital billboard advertising forecast said that shifts in outdoor advertising will increase revenue for outdoor advertising companies.

A few key trends noted in the forecast:

One board for many advertisers: As more digital billboards spring up across the landscape, they'll allow multiple advertisers to share the same billboard, multiplying revenue from an individual billboard by eight-fold.

More sophisticated selling strategies: Exclusive category sponsorships, unlimited copy changes and automated database-driven updates will be important selling points; potential premium offerings will help advertisers maximize outdoor advertising ROI.

Improved digital networks: These will eventually be on a par with radio/TV advertising. With traditional static billboards, advertisers with time-sensitive offers wouldn't consider outdoor advertising. Digital billboards will change this.

Creative ad testing: Since advertisers will be able to change content/creative almost instantly, they can easily test creative techniques and adjust their billboards to get the most for their ad bucks.

Advertisers will demand digital: Outdoor advertisers will eventually insist that their outdoor advertising company offer digital alternatives as they realize that the medium is one of the few remaining ad vehicles to reach the masses with no way to block or pre-empt the message.

MINI Cooper: Daktronics, a Brookings, S.D. company that both designs and manufactures digital billboards and large-screen video displays, created 5'H, 33'W interactive digital billboards posted in Chicago, Miami, New York and San Francisco this spring to help brand the MINI Cooper automobile. Slugged "MINI Motorby," the campaign featured personalized messages aimed at MINI Cooper owners as they drove near the billboard. According to Daktronics' California Regional Sales Manager Ed Wasserman, owners had to go online to the MINI USA website and register for the personalized messages. Once the owner registered, MINI USA sent a special key fob that identified the car's owner to the billboard. When the driver came within 500 feet, the key fob signaled the display, triggering the projection of the personalized message.

Image courtesy of Daktronics, Inc.

Ford Taurus: This car campaign offered a different twist from MINI Motorby. Tray tables on select airlines featured the Ford Taurus, including safety features and an interactive game. Created by Brand Connections Sky Media, a marketing and media company, three different ads were rotated among airlines, including one with a quiz for passengers. Ads (created by JWT Team Detroit) were positioned so that window, center and aisle seats each had a different ad.

Aisle seat ad

Middle seat

Window seat

The results

Overall site:

  • 220 percent increase in returning visitors

  • 17 percent increase in visits

  • 20 percent increase in gift card sales (all data compared year over year, March 2010 vs. March 2009)

Social media promotions:

  • 400 percent increase in Facebook fans as a result of the April "Pucker Up" contest

Online fundraiser tool

  • More than 200 fundraisers booked within the first month of launch, providing more than 100 percent ROI in less than 30 days

Club Veg members

  • 70,000 new members subscribed on Souplantation.com in the month of January, resulting in more than 1.3 million members to date

Fresh Ideas blog

  • More than 4,000 comments were received within one week in response to a St. Patrick's Day contest called "Eat Your Greens." Prizes included two sets of 10 complimentary meal passes for blog readers and additional prizes for Facebook and Twitter participants.

Lessons learned

Test, test, and re-test: We wish we had allowed more time for testing. For this project, we had just over a week for internal testing and a week for client testing to work through any defects. Ideally, we should have planned for two to four weeks just for internal testing.

Reallocate budget: We intended to save time and money by keeping the Flash map on the locations page as is. In hindsight, we wish we had reallocated budget for this to completely rebuild it in .NET using Google Maps for an overall better solution.

Where do we go from here?

Keep it fresh: We will continue to keep the content fresh and relevant to give the users a reason to keep coming back for more.

Grow Club Veg: This will be an even bigger push in 2010 focusing on more acquisition tactics in addition to maintaining customer loyalty.

Optimize: We will continue to evaluate and act on our analytics results to optimize the site.

Rebuild catering: This is our next big enhancement for Souplantation.com. We are really looking forward to this project after seeing such great success from the fundraiser application.

The first 100 days of Souplantation.com were an amazing success. We always knew the fans were loyal to the brand, and now users have a reason to indulge in Souplantation.com and return for seconds and even thirds.

Jeannie Fratoni is creative director and co-founder at Red Door Interactive.

On Twitter? Follow Jeannie at @jeanniefratoni. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

A trusted advisor to companies of all sizes and a respected voice within the interactive media industry, Dr. Brad Berens has enjoyed a wide-ranging career that features storytelling as an organizing theme. These days, he divides his time among...

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