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!

What’s On the Minds of Email Marketers

I lead a chat session with attendees of eM+C’s Retail Marketing Virtual Conference & Expo late last month and enjoyed the dialog and all the questions raised. It’s clear that even though email marketing is a pretty well-established channel, it’s still not fully understood – or utilized – by the people tasked with generating higher response and revenue from it.
 

I lead a chat session with attendees of eM+C’s Retail Marketing Virtual Conference & Expo late last month and enjoyed the dialog and all the questions raised. It’s clear that even though email marketing is a pretty well-established channel, it’s still not fully understood — or utilized — by the people tasked with generating higher response and revenue from it.

Two questions came up repeatedly (perhaps you struggle with these issues, too, and will share what you’ve learned or offer other questions that challenge your program’s success):

1. What can email practitioners do to keep up with their brethren on the social marketing side, who seem to get all the attention and new resources these days?

Just because social marketing hasn’t killed email (all the dire predictions are well dismissed by now), it doesn’t mean that email marketers can rest on their laurels. You have to continue to innovate and improve the experience for subscribers. Email marketers must prove that the channel can grow revenue in order to get more funding and resources.

First, the solution is in smart segmentation, intelligent content strategy and the discipline to match message cadence to the needs of different subscribers. Automation and triggering technology is readily accessible from most email broadcast vendors. Be careful, however, because just sending more and more messages won’t build long-term revenue opportunities. (It might generate revenue in the short term, which is why too many marketers fall into that trap.)

Email marketers must send more of the kinds of messages that subscribers value — e.g., post-purchase offers or reminders; information that helps to make renewal decisions; or tips on how to improve productivity, lose weight this summer or look good in front of your boss (or kids). Try the following three ideas for improved results, higher customer satisfaction and more executive attention:

* Segment and customize content that’s regularly consumed on mobile devices.
If you don’t know what this might be, ask your subscribers! Optimize your mobile rendering by trimming out images and unnecessary links. Streamline your content by sending shorter bits of info more frequently than one longer message.

* Treat customers and prospects differently. They have different relationships with your brand. Even simple segmentation can make a huge difference in relevancy and response — and lowering spam complaints.

* Send fewer generic messages and product announcements in favor of custom content based on customer status, product ownership and recent activity. For B-to-B marketers, acknowledge products customers already own, and celebrate things like anniversaries and renewals. For B-to-C marketers, sitewide sales can be effective, but only if they’re perceived as being somewhat unusual and unique. Customize sales for key segments of your audience, even if that means just changing the subject line or which content is at the top.

You can’t earn a response if you don’t reach the inbox — something that’s becoming increasingly harder to do. Mailbox providers like Yahoo, Gmail and corporate system administrators are using reputation data pulled from the actual practices of individual senders to identify what’s welcome, good and should reach the inbox versus what’s “spammy,” unwelcome, and should go to the junk folder or be blocked altogether.

This creates both friction as well as opportunity. Email marketers must keep their files very clean, mailing only to those subscribers who are active and engaged. And to be welcome, they must create better subscriber experiences. Sender reputation is based on marketers’ practices and is the score of your ability to reach the inbox consistently and earn a response.

2. How do I break through the clutter of the inbox?

The inbox isn’t just more crowded, it’s fragmenting, becoming more device-driven and crowded. Only the best subscriber experiences will break through. The number one mistake email marketers make is forgetting about subscribers’ interests. It’s not about sending out “just one more blast” this week in order to make this month’s number. Do that too often and you’ll soon find your file churning and possibly all of your messages blocked due to high spam complaints (i.e., clicks on the Report Spam button).

Focus on building long-term relationships with your subscribers. Change your metrics to measure engagement and subscriber value, not list size or how many people bother to unsubscribe. What drives the business is response, sharing and continued activity.

Defy internal pressure to abuse the channel by sending only what’s relevant. Work hard to customize content and contact strategies to meet the life stages and needs of each key segment. Ensure that your email program contains content that’s right for the channel. Don’t duplicate with Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Make each channel sing with some unique and powerful value proposition. If you can’t think of one for each channel, then you probably don’t need to be in that channel after all. Tie your business goals to subscribers’ happiness and success. They’ll reward you with response, revenue and long-term subscription.

Thanks to all who participated in the virtual event and my chat session! For everyone, let me know what you think and please share any ideas or comments below.