Email Subject Lines: The Worst Advice You’re Probably Taking

How believable are these statements about email subject lines? This cold email subject line earns a 34% open rate for a B2B software company: “[first name], quick call next Tuesday?” This subject line earns a 42% open rate: “Time to meet?” If you’ve sent any cold email lately, you’ll be laughing right about now.

How believable are these statements about email subject lines? This cold email subject line earns a 34% open rate for a B2B software company: “[first name], quick call next Tuesday?” This subject line earns a 42% open rate: “Time to meet?”

If you’ve sent any cold email lately, you’ll be laughing right about now. These are two of the worst performing subject lines these days …  based on my personal experience sending cold email, as well as my wider experience coaching B2B sales reps.

Yet, these claims are being made by a sales email automation software provider. In fact, these particular subject line claims come from a respected, growing software-as-a-service (SaaS) company. They’re publishing a guide book of subject line advice.

So are these subject line claims fact or fiction? It matters not. What matters is there’s a fox in the hen house.

Who Do You Trust With Sales Email Strategy?

Where do you/your reps turn for sales email best practices? How are you educating sales reps … or how are they educating themselves on email subject lines? Who do you trust with the email writing portion of your sales prospecting strategy?

Googling templates can be dangerous. You won’t find a better-than-average way to start email conversations via Google. Because Almighty G is everyone’s top go-to source for subject line short-cuts.

Most demand generation, marketing, sales enablement pros and reps are turning to software vendors claiming communication expertise. Yet 95% of folks I meet experience complete lack of success using these tips.

Here’s why: The tips and advice are garbage. There’s no other way to put it and I won’t single-out any one provider.

Yes, I admit, it seems logical … turning to vendors providing sales email automation tools. But most organizations fail to realize: trusting software vendors ensures sending sellers to market with sub-par email subject lines and messages.

In fact, it guarantees:

  • sending them to battle with messages competitors are using
  • encouraging reps to form self-defeating communications habits

You cannot afford to invest in this kind of advice. It’s free but it’s not serving your best interest. It threatens you/your team.

The Truth About Your Software Vendor

Software companies are not communications experts. Period.

No, sales automation and engagement software providers aren’t evil. I get that. Many of these tools are quite handy. But setting email strategy based on advice from software providers is dangerous and foolish. Because they are not communications experts. They are tool experts whose clients need communications expertise … to use the tools.

It’s easy (for SaaS providers) to provide communications advice that won’t hurt clients, but won’t help either. Investing in quality communications expertise for software companies is not part of the SaaS business model. Even LinkedIn has invested in communications expertise to support its larger Sales Navigator clients, investing upwards of $200,000 annually.

Yet many of these sales teams end up knocking on my door… asking for help with communications technique. They often recognize LinkedIn’s communications tips aren’t on par and, in fact, are being handed out to competitors.

Relying on software vendors ensures zero competitive edge. Your tool is great. But your tactics are outdated.

Flawed Logic and Secret Formulas

Here are just a few examples of what sales automation software providers are telling prospects and customers who use their tools. They go as far as claiming to have “secret formulas.”

Catchy, compelling email subject lines will vastly increase your email open rates and engage prospects. 

This is simply not true. Catchy fails terribly. In practice, attempts to compel also fail miserably. What software vendors don’t understand is how readers are numb to catchy, see right through such attempts. They are also spotting anyone who tries to compel them into opening. Catchy & compelling don’t work. This kind of advice is clearly coming from a marketing person.

Effective email subject lines are direct, straight to the point and crystal clear.

Wrong again. Cold email arrives without context. Prospects have not opted-in to receive it. The more specific your subject is about the message contents (and your goal as a seller) the lower open and response rates it earns. From your target’s perspective, they don’t need to open when the subject indicates, “this is a cold email about a subject that 15 sellers per day email me about… to sell me.”

They delete, without hesitation.

Performing email subject lines are personal, directly reference the company or the prospect’s name.

While this is true in a minority of cases it is a disingenuous statement. Truth is, this is an old marketing ploy that also fails to work in most B2B contexts. As time progresses this tactic is trending negative. Using a database merge from your list into the subject line is, actually, a tell-tale sign of spam for humans and machines. Prospects and spam guard tools easily find and mark these subject lines as spam. Again, not in all cases but increasingly across B2B.

Marketing Creep

In most cases, marketing staff write B2B email messages for reps to apply. And/or reps turn to marketing materials, cut-and-paste into emails and press send. Marketing is creeping into sales emails and it’s not helping. For example, calls to action. We are told:

Good subject lines include a call to action.

I honestly don’t know how anyone could take this seriously… yet many folks are. Calls-to-action are inherently marketing-oriented. If you want your B2B sales prospecting email to get opened, and read, do not include a call to action. Using a call to action in your subject is a tired marketing concept, not appropriate for sales.

“RE:” and “FWD:” are powerful when used appropriately.

In other words, tricking your target prospect (into believing your cold email is, actually, part of an on-going conversation) is good practice, “when used appropriately.”

Is there ever a time to trick your prospect into believing your communication is part of something it is not? Only a marketing person could suggest this filthy tactic.

Do yourself a favor: Don’t use this technique. I know many people who do (and are successful at starting conversations through trickery) but be careful of the negative repercussions… including forming habits that, ultimately, will sabotage good communications habits. Use your precious time to start honest dialogues with prospects. Don’t insult their intelligence.

“[first name], quick call next Tuesday?” is effective at earning opens because prospects like to see their name & appreciate yes/no emails.

Truth is, in a B2B context this stopped working for 90% of us about 10 years ago. Most B2B decision-makers receive dozens of pre-mature, cold meeting requests per day. Some receive over 100 per day. If you’d like to signal, “One of the steady stream of sales reps asking for your time to sell you something” feel free to use this subject line and subscribe to this outdated logic.

Remember: You won’t find a superior (let alone effective) way to start conversations by copying everyone else, based on what you found on Google. Avoid turning to software vendors claiming communication expertise. Otherwise, what has your experience been?

Moving Upstream on Cart Abandonment

After speaking at a conference on the topic of email automation for your online store, I was approached by more than a dozen people with the same question: “If someone abandons their cart, how can the store stay in touch with the shopper?” It’s impossible to contact anonymous visitors—their anonymity means you’ve not yet collected their email addresses and thus you have no way to reach them

After speaking at the WooCommerce Conference on the topic of email automation for your online store, I was approached by more than a dozen people with the same question: If someone abandons their cart, how can the store stay in touch with the shopper?

It’s impossible to contact anonymous visitors—their anonymity means you’ve not yet collected their email addresses and thus you have no way to reach them. Perhaps they were just price shopping or researching. Perhaps they were distracted before completing their purchase. Perhaps they didn’t like your site’s shopping cart experience. Whatever the reason, they’ve slipped away, and you’ve been left with the promise of a sale that’s not yet complete.

According to Business Insider, this is the case with 68 percent of shoppers—those who leave their carts before checking out—and about $4 billion in abandoned carts the world over. The good news is they also estimate up to 62 percent or $2.52 billion is recoverable with automated marketing. Does that mean you simply need to give up hope of reaching those wallets and focus on the known visitors? Well, no. It simply means you need to develop a strategy for teasing away those email addresses. It means you need to move your request upstream.

There are myriad possible tactics of this strategy, but the path you choose depends upon your business, your product and the tools you have for implementing your ideas. No matter which path you choose, be prepared to A/B test like a madwoman until you’ve found the top three triggers and use all three. Don’t settle for just one approach. Meet your potential customers with the sign-up tool of choice—which means giving them options. Let’s look at some ideas. I’m going to call these interrupters, but I’m pretty sure I’ve borrowed the phrase from someone brilliant:

Interrupters can be any sort of dialogue, window, link or button interrupting the user’s shopping excursion and redirecting them to a simple (usually pop-up) form collecting only their email addresses, for instance:

  • Interrupt the product-browsing session with a tool enabling them to upload a photo of a room they are decorating in which they can drag and drop their selected item into place. It doesn’t have to be a perfect UX, just provide them with a rough idea of how the Egyptian vase they added to their cart might look next to their lime-green sofa.
  • After the first product has been added to the cart, interrupt with a message such as, “Wow! That’s a great find! We can save it in your cart for as long as you like. Let’s give your cart a name. Please type your email address.” You could extend this process with a dialogue after each product, displaying different messaging or, go for funny, and provide humorous commentary. Be sure to also provide a checkbox for prevent the message from displaying again.
  • Provide an online calculator allowing them to figure out how much of a product to buy. Let them use the calculator and then offer to save their work using just their email address. You could also offer to email their calculations or illustrations to the address they provide. We used this approach on our personal profiler – they can use the profiler online all day long, but if they would like to print their profiles, we will send the PDFs to their inbox.
  • Offer to send them links to download the installation instructions, case study, or watch a video.
  • Offer to save their cart when they click the browser’s close button.

Be sure you are interrupting your shopper with something of value. Popping up a subscriber window might be a bit annoying on its own, but a subscriber window with an offer of free shipping on the order they are building is going to win some favor.

According to a CouponCabin.com survey, 73 percent of U.S. adults are more likely to shop online where free shipping is offered, and, further, 93 percent of online shoppers said they would spend more if free shipping were offered.

Resist the temptation to interrupt visitors with a long form, or even your regular check out form, or you risk adding to your abandonment rate. Also, be sure to pass the information you collect directly into their account page—don’t make them provide you with their email address again if they continue the checkout process.

Interrupters can easily become annoying, so go slowly and don’t get greedy. You want to be able to capture as many anonymous visitors as possible, but there’s also great potential to drive shoppers away at the same time. It’s a delicate balance, but well worth the effort. Remember, there’s $4 billion dollars out there, and some of that can be yours.

It’s Time to Move On

Until now, you’ve been happy with your email-automation vendor, but lately you feel as though perhaps something is missing … Email automation is a wondrous thing and I’d be lost without it—as would all of my clients—but like most relationships, both parties must maintain dialogue, work together and compromise when necessary or you may find you’ll drift apart. What may have started out as your dream partner, over the months or years has become less ideal

Until now, you’ve been happy with your email-automation vendor, but lately you feel as though perhaps something is missing …

Email automation is a wondrous thing and I’d be lost without it—as would all of my clients—but like most relationships, both parties must maintain dialogue, work together and compromise when necessary or you may find you’ll drift apart.

What may have started out as your dream partner, over the months or years has become less ideal. And because you dread restarting the vendor search, you continue to work with a solution that no longer meets your needs and thus hinders your progress.

Customers and vendors should be fired when the relationship no longer brings the same value to the table it did when the engagement began. Not every company is a great fit for your business, be that one who buys from you or one who sells to you.

Many of us started out with the bare minimum—iContact, Constant Contact, or the like—but as our companies grow, so must our software. Sometimes the software company will continue to develop new features, but those are not released at the speed your demand develops, or the features they release are not in the direction you need. It’s okay to want for more, and when working with email automation, we all want more.

Spider Trainers recently outgrew our email-automation application. We had been with our vendor since they were a mere upstart, and we watched them grow to become a fine solution and start challenging the industry leaders, but they weren’t developing the features we needed. So, despite the gargantuan effort it would take to convert all of our lead-capture forms, update all of our inbound content, port our lists, and recreate our campaign workflows, in the end, we felt those efforts would be worth what we would gain in features that aligned more closely with our needs.

When I say gargantuan, it truly was—and a month in, we’re still nowhere near finished making the transition. What’s more, as an agency, it’s not just our content and assets, it’s also that of the clients we have moved with us.

Today, marketers have hundreds (yes, it really is hundreds) of vendors from whom to choose and features numbering in nothing less than thousands. It’s not likely you would be looking for a vendor having the most features, just the vendor offering the features on which you place the most importance. That’s why hundreds of options can exist; each of us has our own set of priorities. Companies aligned with your priorities narrow the field substantially, and companies aligned with your budget narrow it even more.

Our most important feature requirements might mean less to you, but we needed a solution providing more in-depth visibility pre-engagement, engagement depth (how were our prospects and leads using our website and content), and post-engagement. In order to get these things, we had to give up some things, and that’s the relationship compromise.

Although we vetted more than a dozen new vendors, we did finally make a choice and one that I’m happy with. I’ve had a few fearful moments, but the new software is—for the moment—what we need, and one with a roadmap aligned with our planned growth. I know there’s a good chance someday I may need to move on from this relationship too, but as in life, I’m going to get while the getting’s good.

Oh, and because I know you’re wondering, our new vendor is SharpSpring.

The Demotion of the Open Rate

For years, marketers have been tracking open rates and using this stat for everything from choosing the best time to send to validating the deliverability of a particular email-automation vendor; and well, everything in between. With more and more email being opened on mobile devices, Gmail caching images, and fewer recipients choosing to download images (perhaps accounting for as much as 40 percent of your audience), the open rate simply isn’t what it used to be—not that it was ever all that accurate

For years, marketers have been tracking open rates and using this stat for everything from choosing the best time to send to validating the deliverability of a particular email-automation vendor; and well, everything in between. With more and more email being opened on mobile devices, Gmail caching images, and fewer recipients choosing to download images (perhaps accounting for as much as 40 percent of your audience), the open rate simply isn’t what it used to be—not that it was ever all that accurate.

Charting a high open rate does not necessarily equate to clicks or conversions, but this has always been true. You might have written the most fabulous or enticing subject line and enjoyed a very high open rate, only to have failed to deliver the message and lost in the long run.

The Mobile Effect
Mobile devices are lowering the dependability of the open rate for some analysis, too. Most people scan emails on their devices and save only those they wish to read or act upon later. Emails that don’t answer an immediate need, or that are not relevant, may be deleted prematurely and without much recipient consideration. Even with responsive designs, the recipient is less likely to take advantage of an offer on a smartphone than on a tablet or desktop device, it’s simply easier to engage on a bigger screen.

Open Rate Increases
Gmail’s new image caching system automatically downloads images, and, for those recipients using Gmail or Google Apps, this can further affect your open rate tracking—your open rate will likely increase. The first open will be tracked correctly by most ESPs, but subsequent (repeat) opens by the same recipient will likely decrease. Unique opens, like opens, will become more accurate.

As with Gmail and Google Apps, iPhone and iPad devices download images by default. If you’re tracking your stats year over year, this increase in open rates by Gmail and iOS users will affect your ability to accurately assess your campaigns.

You may find that your open rates increase, but click-through rates do not, resulting in lower click-to-open rates.

Best Time to Send
Some email automation systems, such as Variant4, are able to send messages at the same time as the last open from the recipient, and this can be useful, but determining the right time to send based upon open rates alone will be misleading for the reasons stated earlier. When possible, opt for the previous engagement time, since if the open occurred on a mobile device, the click or conversion may have taken place later from a desktop device and that actually represents the better time for future sends.

Ensuring your content is on the mark is more important than ever as this is the driving force behind clicks and conversions (and not opens). Getting your audience to engage will gain you future priority placement in the inbox rather than a continued relegation to the promotion tab of Gmail.

Still Some Value
As undependable as the open rate has become, it does still represent some value—especially for segmentation and A/B testing of subject lines, for instance. Show caution when basing your conclusions on open rate alone and take the necessary steps to validate your finding through other supporting metrics.

Design Wins
As more email providers download images by default, we as marketers make a major win in the design arena. No longer will we have to design text formats and forfeit brand recognition. Our emails will be displayed in the manner in which we had intended all along.