My Inbox Knows the Season Better Than the Weather

The famous poet Percy Shelley once wrote, “O wind, if winter comes, can spring and a million emails using flower puns and references to April showers be far behind?”  I’m pretty sure that was the quote anyway. Or it should have been

The famous poet Percy Shelley once wrote, “O wind, if winter comes, can spring and a million emails using flower puns and references to April showers be far behind?” I’m pretty sure that was the quote anyway. Or it should have been.

Ladies and gents, break out your Vivaldi, Spring is officially here! Though the weather here in Philly hasn’t quite gotten the memo, my inbox makes it unmistakably clear. As is the case for any distinct time of year or holiday season, marketers love to use springtime as inspiration for subject lines and creative. Some of them we’ve all seen and used before, but some are as colorful and refreshing as the season itself.

I took a quick peek through my own inbox as well as the trusty Who’s Mailing What! database to find a few stand-out spring-themed promotions. Check out my bouquet of fresh spring pickings, in no particular order. (You can see images of the emails themselves in the media player at right.)

From: Brighton Collectables
Subj.: Adorable Spring Charms
Why I like it: The subject’s straight-forward enough, we get exactly what it says on the tin. Once I opened, it’s the cutesy rhyme and clean but eye-catching pastel “Easter egg” design that had me chirping. In the original email, the egg basket charm actually opened and closed as well.

From: ZOYA
Subj.: Fill Your Easter Basket With ZOYA
Why I like it: Another spin on the “fill your Easter basket” idea, this is another email I just really like the look of. This is definitely my kind of Easter basket, and just looking at the colorful display would tempt any polish fan to stock up on spring shades. And of course, a good coupon code is always hard to resist.

From: FeelGoodStore.Com
Subj.: Never fear a puddle again
Why I like it: This one’s approach to the spring theme is a little more subtle (much like the approach of spring itself if you live in the northeast. Ha.) The creative is simple and nice enough, but it’s the subject line that really made the grade. In the half a second it takes to skim over a subject line, I was certainly intrigued enough to open, wondering why puddles no longer pose any threat to me.

From: IKEA
Subj.: We’ve got #SPRINGFEVER for smart style!
Why I like it: Always love a good hashtag in a subject line, first of all. Second, IKEA knows we have spring cleaning on the mind and they’re taking full advantage. An email like this one, including links to ideas and tips for affordable springtime organization and rejuvenation, could easily spur a reader into action.

From: DogVacay
Subj.: Going on Spring Break? Get $10 Off Pet Sitting.
Why I like it: Here’s another subject line that I think works because it serves as a reminder and an action item—Oh, I did forget to make arrangements for Fluffy next week, good thing I’ve got this link and discount offer right here! The playful, sunny imagery and large, bright CTA button tie it all up with a bowwow.

Honorable Mentions

From: Rejuvenation Lighting & House Parts
Subj.: SAVE 20% ON WINDOWS AND WALLS + 6 ways to spring for green
This email followed up its 20% offer with six green product suggestions such as a green lamp, throw pillow, and tumbler to help get you in the spirit of spring and get you using the offer code. While something of an afterthought in a long subject line, it was an effective way to let the reader “window shop” before diving in.

From: OnlineShoes
Subj.: We can see spring, and it looks amazing
The email itself is a fairly basic design, a pair of sandals and a simple call to action. I’m a fan of this subject line though—catchy, conversational, and got me curious enough to want to take a look at the “sights of spring” inside.

From: Appleseed’s
Subj.: We’re Bringing Spring – Shop Top Styles!
Two rhymes for the price of one! It might be a little bit of a tongue twister, but it’s also short, punchy, and every bit as cheerful and perky as the season. An effective attention-grabber.

Here’s hoping you found a few blossoms of inspiration in some of these, and also that spring is springing a little more dutifully for you than it is for me. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you have any good examples to share! And I promise not to desecrate any more classic British poetry in my next entry.

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!

The Problem With A/B Testing

This week we set up an elaborate A/B test on subject lines. I liked “How 1.75 Billion Mobile Users See Your Website” and my client manager liked “Business Cards are No Longer the First Impression.” We learned long ago not to be a focus group of two, but our testing also proves something else I’ve been saying for years—A/B tests do not stand alone.

This week we set up an elaborate A/B test on subject lines. I liked “How 1.75 Billion Mobile Users See Your Website” and my client manager liked “Business Cards are No Longer the First Impression.” We learned long ago not to be a focus group of two, but our testing also proves something else I’ve been saying for years—A/B tests do not stand alone.

For our Mobile Users campaign, we dropped in an actual screenshot of every recipient’s website as viewed on an iPhone 6 (see image), because we knew this level of personalization could add a sizeable bump to engagement. It’s one thing to tell a recipient their website looks awful on a mobile device; it’s another thing to show them.

At the end of the campaign, we will have sent under 10,000 emails, but before we get to the balance, we felt it was important to know which of the two subject lines would perform better. All of us want to have the very best chance of success, so this was a necessary step. Ensure our subject line would foster a higher open rate.

For our initial test, we sent 600 emails, half to each subject line. One subject line performed best with opens, the other subject line performed best for clicks to the form. What that means is we now have a new question: is it better for us to get more people to open and see the message, or is it better to get fewer people to open, but to have accurately set their expectation about what was inside so they would click?

The open rate differed by more than 10 percent, and the CTR by about 2 percent.

Should I stop my analysis here and answer the only question I started with (which subject line should we use), or would it be better to take a look at other factors and try to improve the overall success in any way we can? For me, the problem I see with many marketers’ A/B tests is they ask one question, answer it, and then move on. In fact, many email automation systems are set up in precisely this manner: send an A/B test of two subject lines, and whichever performs better, use it to send the balance. What about the open rate and the CTR combined? Isn’t that far more important in this case (and many others)? Let’s take it one step further: what about the open rate, CTR and form completion rate combined? Now we’re on to something.

There are many factors at work here: time of day, past engagement, lifecycle and more. The subject line is a good place to start, but I can’t afford to ignore what we’ve gleaned from other campaigns.

This then becomes the hardest part of testing—be that A/B or multivariate—isolating what we’ve actually learned, and that usually means I cannot analyze just this one campaign. It must be an aggregate.

For our campaign, I took our test results and put those into a spreadsheet of 2014 campaign results and started to look for patterns. We’ve all read Thursday mornings are good (as an example), but does that hold true for my list? Were my open rates affected by time of day, by date, by day, by business type, by B-to-C vs. B-to-B? These are all analytics we track because we’ve found each of these does, in fact, influence open rate.

So, yes, we did learn which of the two subject lines performed better for opens, but what we also learned is that a repeat of the test to another 600 recipients on Tuesday morning instead of Thursday morning resulted in almost exactly opposite performance.

A/B tests can be hard. If they were easy, everyone would do them. Our simple one-time test was not enough information to make decisions about our campaign. It took more testing to either prove or disprove our theories, and it took aggregating the data with other results to paint the full picture.

We did find a winner: an email with a good subject line to get it opened, good presentation of supporting information inside, that led recipients to a form they actually completed, and all sent on the right day at the right time, from the right sender,

While you’re not privy to all of the data we have, on the top of the subject lines alone, which do you prefer?

How to Make Subject Lines Work Overtime

Emails are a series of components working together to motivate recipients to act. The subject line has always been a front-line player. Its ability to capture attention in a flash is critical to getting people to open the email for more information. The best subject lines are the ones that stop people before they can move along to the next message. This isn’t an easy task because today’s hectic lifestyles are filled with distractions. The only messages that get through are the ones that hit the target for an immediate need or are from trusted sources. The best messages combine trust and need

Emails are a series of components working together to motivate recipients to act. The subject line has always been a front-line player. Its ability to capture attention in a flash is critical to getting people to open the email for more information. The best subject lines are the ones that stop people before they can move along to the next message. This isn’t an easy task because today’s hectic lifestyles are filled with distractions. The only messages that get through are the ones that hit the target for an immediate need or are from trusted sources. The best messages combine trust and need.

The challenge for marketers creating email messages is creating trust and targeting needs. Trust comes with time. If your customers and prospects are consistently treated well, they will trust you. Targeting needs is much harder. Even the best analytical minds cannot predict with a high level of accuracy all of your subscribers needs at a given time. Missing the mark by a few days is the difference between a sale and a lost opportunity. Google is working to change that. The Gmail field trial that is currently running changes the email marketing game.

The enhanced Google search delivers a personal experience. The results are delivered from the web, Google Drive, Google Calendar and Gmail. This extends the life of emails exponentially for companies whose subscribers haven’t achieved InboxZero. Emptying the inbox every day and reaching the goal of InboxZero is elusive to most people. They try, but the best they can do is take care of the most pressing messages and leave the rest to another day. After all, there are more pressing demands than deleting messages most of the time.

When your subscribers search for products or services featured in your messages, they will be reminded of your email. Having a subject line that includes the search terms increases the likelihood that they will open your email and breathe new life into the campaign. This means that your subject line has to work overtime to deliver a better return. In addition to motivating people to open the email now, it needs to give them a reason to open it later. For example, if your business sells sunglasses, the subject line of “New Styles Just Arrived” becomes “Just Arrived – New Styles from Oakley, RayBan and Gucci.” When a recipient uses Google to search for “Oakley Sunglasses,” your email will appear with the detailed headline.

The same rules of engagement for subject lines still apply. The only difference is you want to add high quality keywords that will target recipients when they are searching for items or services you are featuring. The following subject line best practices have been adapted to help you capitalize on the new opportunity:

  • Put the most important information in the first fifty characters to capture attention and create a sense of urgency. Use the space after the first fifty to add targeted keywords.
  • Make the first two lines in the email consistent with the subject line. This is a good place to provide additional information and emphasize the keywords.
  • Avoid spam triggers in the subject line and first two lines of the email. Otherwise, even if the email happens to make it past the spaminators and into the inbox, Google will most likely ignore it.
  • Be your brand’s self. Your customers trust you, so create subject lines that make it easy for them to recognize your company.
  • Test, test and test. Don’t rely on other people’s experiences. Test to see what works best for your company.

The field trial is in progress now. If your subscriber list has a high volume of gmail users, you may want to start testing now to find the best ways to capitalize on this opportunity. Knowing Google, the senders who get opened the most are more likely to be at the top of the results. Shouldn’t that be your company?

Learning From the Best (and Worst) Email Marketers

Following best practices is one of the quickest ways to get a high quality marketing program started and to improve one that is in place. The things that consistently motivate people to act in one channel or industry will work in others. Watching what competitors and non-competitors alike do provides insight and inspiration for connecting with your customers

Following best practices is one of the quickest ways to get a high quality marketing program started and to improve one that is in place. The things that consistently motivate people to act in one channel or industry will work in others. Watching what competitors and non-competitors alike do provides insight and inspiration for connecting with your customers.

Email marketing is one of the easiest channels for gathering information on what people are doing to inspire their customers and prospects to act. Subscriptions to most email programs are free, so the out-of-pocket cost is minimal. The downside of subscribing to a magnitude of newsletters and promotional emails is a full inbox that has to be filtered to find the best ideas. Subscribing to an email archive provider is an alternative that will save you time while providing access to a multitude of ideas. [Editor’s Note: The Who’s Mailing What Email Campaign Archive is one such service, offered by one of our sister publications in the Target Marketing Group, that provides research and data for The Integrated Email.]

Whether you compile your own or use a provider, look at what is being done to capture the recipient’s attention. You have a few characters and nanoseconds to make recipients decide they want to open your email. Everything has to fit together to make it work. Your customers use a variety of devices and tools to view their emails. You want your return address, subject line, and opening blurb to scream “open me now” at first glance regardless of the device or tool.

Looking at how others use copy and graphics to motivate people to act can help you find new ways to inspire and tactics to avoid. When you have historical data at your fingertips, you can start identifying the things that work best. Repetition of the subject line or special offer typically means that it worked well and the company wants to replicate the success. The exception is when the same subject line or offer is barely changed email after email. This usually indicates that the email program is in auto mode with little testing to see what has the best success.

In addition to seeing what works, reviewing archived emails also shows opportunities. A review of your competitors’ program and content will show where they are leaving holes in the information provided to customers and prospects. Fill those holes and your business will attract market share.

Every component of an email has one simple purpose: To keep the recipients moving forward step-by-step until they reach the end. The final action you want them to take is the objective of the email. It may be purchasing an item, completing a survey, or any other activity you choose. The perfect email is the one that makes the most people fulfill its purpose.

The components of an email include:

Subject Line
The subject line needs to lead strong and provide a reason for people to open the email. The best subject lines capture attention with the first words because some devices or tools only show a few characters.

Return Information
Use the return information to let people know who the email is from and why they should care. Your loyal customers will be more likely to open the email even if the subject line is unappealing when they know it is you.

Opening
The opening line is often shown when people skim through their emails. Apparently email marketers pay little attention to this because I routinely receive emails that appear on my mobile device leading off with “if you have trouble viewing this email click here” or “view in iOS out|view as web page.”

Graphics
Emails that are primarily graphics open in most email client inboxes with red Xs in place of those graphics. Use a good combination of text and graphics in your emails so there is something for people to read when the graphics aren’t visible. Use alternate text for your images to provide information that will motivate people to download the images.

Copy
The words you use make all the difference in an effective email. Invest in a good copywriter that knows how to speak to your customers in the language they understand with words that motivate them to act. It is money well spent because it always delivers a higher return on investment.

Call to Action
What do you want people to do next? If you don’t tell them, they’re less likely to do it. People have been trained from an early age to follow instructions well. Use that training to get them to take the next step.

Follow-up
Give people an opportunity to respond directly to your email if they have additional questions. Provide a call to action for questions that includes a link, an email address, and a telephone number. This allows them to choose the method of communication that fits them best.