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New rules for sexy subject lines

New rules for sexy subject lines Dylan Boyd

After reading this, my hope is that you will walk away and pull a Justin Timberlake on your email marketing programs by bringing sexy back -- and it all starts with the subject line.

Why the subject line? Well, it is your first line of impact no matter what device or inbox type it hits.

  • It sets the tone.

  • It aligns expectations.

  • It drives significance and importance.

  • It creates engagement.

  • It delivers on the relationship.

  • It is your first level of interaction.

A well-written subject line makes me want to do something. So often we have missed the art of writing a quick, impactful, on-brand, to-the-point subject line.

Get connected. Want to meet up with the companies that are leading email into the future? Check out the exhibit hall at ad:tech New York, Nov. 3-4. Learn more.

The best way to show you who is and who isn't bringing sexy back is to dive into some of the brands that I track closely.

Here are some examples of people nailing it -- and others that need some work on their subject line engagement. We can learn from both.

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.

I lead Growth at Urban Airship, a mobile services platform provider that develops tools for marketers using the mobile channel to engage and retain customers on mobile apps. I lead business development efforts, strategic partnerships and agency...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Dana Kichen

2010, August 23

I certainly agree that these are great teasers and make me want to "see more". However, I think that only plays well when the brand is well known. If a company is building a brand, those subject lines won't mean a thing nor get the receiver to open the email and see what's inside. Also, I thought that too many exclamation points throws the email into "junk". Finally, I have to agree with Alex...iMedia Connection is great at practicing what it preaches! Keep it coming!

Dana Kichen
Desert Sage Seminars
Director of Marketing

Commenter: alex czajkowski

2010, August 23

Maybe it's absent to avoid self-congrats, but frankly the most consistently compelling email subjects I ever see in my in-boxes are on the iMedia Connection emails themselves--including this one! Someone there is really practicing what we all preach! Kudos to them! (sorry for the exclamation marks--BTW I make my guys pay $100 for every one they use in an email--keeps the abuse down).

Commenter: Kimberly Snyder

2010, August 23

Dylan -

I truly appreciate you pushing email marketers to "bring the sexy back".

The Swell examples push the envelope to the edge yet resonate with their core surfing sweet spot like no other.

When reading your post I immediately thought of The Zoe Report as another brand truly "bringing it" when it comes to subject lines like "TZR: The Coast Is Clear" which featured Alexandra Von Furstenberg's Acrylic Coasters. Or another "TZR: How Long Can You Go?" promoting a Rick Owens Full Length Skirt.

I think every email marketer should "bring it" when crafting a subject line or subject line test.

Kudos Dylan,

Kimberly Snyder
Bronto Software
Director of Strategic Services
twitter: kimberlysnyder