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What’s the best subject line you’ve read? How often do you A/B test?

best subject line

Finding the best subject line is both art and science

Working in email marketing it is easy to see how important a great subject line is!  Truthfully there are many things that affect the open rate however most are outside the control of person in creating the email content.

It seems ironic to me that, as the cost for conducting A/B testing drops, we seem to do it less and less.  When is the last time you split-sample tested your subject line?  Would it surprise you to find that often two subject lines that seem the same to the writer often have drastic differences in their ability to get the audience to read an email?

Do you think the best subject line you’ve seen came from insight or testing? Chance are it was BOTH!

It astounds me how few people in Advertising / Marketing have learned any sort of principles of testing.  John Caples’ book: Tested Advertising Methods is one to he best books I’ve read where he, scientifically, tested what worked and what didn’t.  I’d put it right up there with Claude Hopkins’: Scientific Advertising and Eric Marder’s: The Laws of choice.  A few other must reads from old-school  authors that understood advertising testing are:

  1. Julian Simon: How to Start and Operate a Mail-Order Business
  2. Alfred Politz: The Politz Papers: Science and Truth in Marketing Research (This guy was so brilliant at explaining complex issues in simple ways it is scary!)
  3. David Ogilvy: The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising

All of these books are “old” yet are still extremely relevant because they teach the fundamentals of split-sample (multivariate / A/B testing).  Data science is “cool” and does amazing things however data can only be used to find patterns on things that have been created and used.

It is still very important to come up with options that we try-out to see what works and what doesn’t (with the hopes that we can quantify what does and doesn’twork and report more of the former and less of the latter.)  The only failures we have in email is when we don’t learn from the past.

A while back I received an email with the following in the subject line:

There are only two ways to get in…here’s one.

This was a superb example of Clickbait.  I was compelled to read the email (or at least the first paragraph of the email).  This article and video explain some great ways to leverage Clickbait.

Emotional motivation, curiosity, and anticipation are great ways to get people  to pay attention.  I’m a personal fan of asking questions.  It is the equivalent of grabbing the reader by the lapels and getting them to listenand think about your question.

In 1991 Rossiter, Percy, and Donovan published “A better Advertising Planning Grid” (it’s a great read) in which they discuss 8 different types of motivations grouping them as Informational and Transformational.


I’d like to point out that many are negative motivations however most companies simply stress the positives.

Negative motivators WORK!  

In the Marder book I mentioned (which I read nearly 20 years ago) I still recall the motivating copy Marder (an avid runner)  mentioned that “got him to take action” was “What would happen if you could never run again?”

Think about what motivates your audience!  What matters to them?  If you are solving a problem for them, make sure they realize it!

Lastly, here are some general suggestions around writing emails / copy:

  1. Make the content appropriate for audience- relevance, relevance, relevance!
  2. Grab attention in first sentence/paragraph. Asking a question is a  great way to get their attention
  3. Make language active / direct (not passive)
  4. Give them a reason to be interested. What motivates your audience?
  5. Keep sentences short, clear, and to the point.
  6. Use simplest words possible. Use short, concise words that your audience will understand
  7. Make your writing look inviting/fun. If it is “work” to read then few will bother
  8. Close with a bang! Make sure you include a call to action in the closing statement

Lastly don’t forget to Test Test TEST! and then be sure to keep a record of your tests so you and others can leverage your knowledge for future campaigns

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