Subject Lines in Sheeps’ Clothing: A Go or a No?

I’m sure you’ve seen it, if not used it yourself: Marketing emails wearing a friendly disguise, boasting “RE:” or “FW:” in their subject lines, usually with a real person’s name in the from line rather than a publication or company name. Obviously, the objective is to give the recipient a sense of familiarity. But is it worth the risks?

I’m sure you’ve seen it, if not used it yourself: Marketing emails wearing a friendly disguise, boasting “RE:” or “FW:” in their subject lines, usually with a real person’s name in the from line rather than a publication or company name.

Obviously, the objective is to give the recipient a sense of familiarity, or curiosity about whether this is a correspondence they were previously involved in, thus hopefully prompting an open.

I can tell you that in my three years copywriting for the Target Marketing Group’s marketing department, I’ve used subjects like these several times, as have most of my colleagues—and to be perfectly honest, we’ve seen impressive results as far as response and conversion rates.

Many marketers feel strongly that this method is simply too dishonest, erring on the devious rather than the clever side of crafty. Integrity and ethics are never negligible factors in what we do, even when a high open rate seems like the most important goal.

After some consideration, our marketing department decided to stash away the “RE”s and “FW”s for a while. Still, I thought I’d check out the stats for a few of these emails, to see if it was at all possible that the benefits outweighed the risks. Here’s what I found at a glance:

Subject 1
Re: Your Direct Marketing Day @ Your Desk Registration

Subject 2
Re: 2014 email marketing plans

Subject 3
FW: Reasons to register

Registrants:

340

Registrants:

336

Registrants:

15

Open rate:

28%

Open rate:

18%

Open rate:

21%

Unsubs:

372

Unsubs:

309

Unsubs:

90

Spam Complaints:

6

Spam Complaints:

7

Spam Complaints:

4

The first two examples were used in promotions for free virtual conferences, while the third promoted a paid workshop. You can see that the open rates were rather good, especially the first of the three. You wouldn’t know from the table, but I can tell you that these registration numbers were among the highest of any email in these events’ respective campaigns.

Now for the bad news: Example No. 2 had the highest number of unsubscribers and spam complaints in its campaign by far. Nos. 1 and 3 were not the “winners” in this respect, but certainly too close to the top to be in the clear. We also received a small handful of, shall we say, colorfully phrased (so colorful they’d have been bleeped on network cable) criticisms from offended readers.

So, what’s the conclusion? Does the fact that all of these emails were huge successes purely in terms of conversion mean that a large majority of recipients were fans, or at least not bothered by the tactic? Or are those unsubs, spam complaints, or simply the principle of the thing too significant to handwave?

As of now, I treat them as I treat wasabi: Use sparingly and with extreme caution. I’d love to hear what you think, or if you’ve done some testing with it yourself!

5 thoughts on “Subject Lines in Sheeps’ Clothing: A Go or a No?”

  1. Good article. We’ve tested this approach with a number of email campaigns. However, we tend to use them when we send a re-mail to people who didn’t open or convert from the first mailing. We’ll then place a short blurb at the top of the email just as a gentle reminder to take a look at the offer below. It has worked very well at times. “I totally agree with your assessment: Use sparingly and with extreme caution.”

  2. I’d recommend doing a 50/50 test for conclusive, apple to apples results. For example, sending to random half of your list with the subject line of “Re: 2014 email marketing plans” and the other half with “2014 email marketing plans” . . . and then examining the results.

    Personally, I do find the use of “Re:” and “FW:” very deceptive. I will normally mark these as spam or unsubscribe (depending on whether or not I signed-up or not). Congrats, your subject line got me to open your email, but it was for the wrong reason.

  3. Thanks for sharing. Do you have results of a true A/B split with the only difference being use of the “FW:” or “RE:” copy element on the subject line? That is the only way to truly evaluate the lift of the technique.

  4. I think it depends on your audience, market and the rest of the offer … in other words – test, test, test. (FYI – We’ve had good success when using this technique, but we don’t utilize it frequently.)

  5. We only use FW: and RE: when it’s for real. Never as a gimmick. Other than newsletters, emails come from a real person. Although we don’t do it often–we tend to do it when we’re sending out a new untested message that might not fly with our audience. So far unsubscribe rates are the same as the split test and generally in the 0.10-0.20% range.

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