May 01, 2006
Blog Entry

Boring Subject Lines Outpull 'Marketing' Email

SUMMARY: No summary available.
By Anne Holland, President

I've always wondered what works best in the battle to get noticed in the in-box, haven't you? 

So I was psyched when Sherpa reader Ben Chestnut Partner at RocketScienceGroup contacted me about a quick study his team just conducted.  They sorted 40 million email messages sent to house lists by hundreds of their clients over the past 12 months by open rate.

Then they reviewed 20 messages from the top: Ones with the highest open rates, ranging from 60%-87%.  Typical subject lines (I've put "company name" instead of an actual company name) for these extreme winners:


- Eye on Company Name Update

- Company Name Newsletter February 2006

- Invitation from Company Name

- Company Name May 2005 News Bulletin

Overall, 17 of the 20 included the company or brand name of the sender.  Also, 10 had the word "newsletter," "news" or a synonym such as "update."  None of them featured an overt promotional offer, although three were invitations.

Most of all, almost none appeared to be written by a "marketer."  They were fairly bland, factual, and even boring.

Chestnut's team also looked at the subject lines for the 20 worst performing campaigns, which ranged from 1%-14% opens.  Typical subject lines in the bad pool included:

- Last Minute Gift -- We Have the Answer

- Valentine's Day Salon & Spa Specials!

- Company Name Pioneers in XYZ Technology

- You asked for more

Overall, only 10 of these featured a company name.  Only one contained the word "news," and nine were pretty obviously promotional offers.  The rest were press-release-style headlines ("Now offering company name services!"), or brochure-style headlines ("True automation of your company name research"). 

In other words, the worst performing were all clearly written "by marketing." 

One thing I found interesting: if you say the email has news that's open-worthy, but if you feature the news as the subject line, that's not interesting enough to open.     

Caveat: Loads of factors beyond subject line influence open rates, including how the house list was gathered, the sender's brand strength, the average age (length of opt-in) of a typical recipient, deliverability, etc.  Also, we in email all know open rates are not a highly precise measurement tool.

That said, I still think this quick study is worth considering, if only as an idea generator for your own in-house tests this year.  Consider testing "boring" subject lines. 

Also, as this study reminds us, email newsletters have a big place in your email mix.  Recipients tend to prefer newsletters to promotions (and who can blame them?). 

If you're interested in learning more, here's a link to Ben's info on his study:

By the way -- have you done any studies?  Let me know. Our research team is always interested in reviewing third party data!

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