November 25, 2008
How To

4 Takeaways from MarketingSherpa's Newsletter Subject-Line Analysis

SUMMARY: MarketingSherpa recently pored over a year’s worth of data on our weekly newsletter subject lines. We learned a lot about what we’ve been doing right, and what could use some improvement.

We wanted to share our findings with you – our faithful readers. Check out the four big takeaways and take advantage of our subject-line ‘Aha!’ moment.
To identify subject line trends, Carol Meinhart, Strategic Development Director, MarketingSherpa, analyzed every subject line of the newsletters Sherpa ran over 12 months. Meinhart explains the methodology:

“We ended up pulling out the top 10 and bottom 10 subject lines [for each newsletter] based on both clickthroughs and click-to-open ratio. We brainstormed the variables that we’d look at, and then we dumped the subject lines and clickthrough data into a spreadsheet. The analysis itself was pretty primitive; we just checked a box on the spreadsheet if the variable was in the subject line, and then we compared the variables that were in the top-performing subject lines to the ones in the bottom-performing subject lines.”

The ultimate goal was to identify which subject lines readers for each newsletter liked or disliked based on those rates. Here are the four biggest takeaways:

Takeaway #1. Show value in the first two words

Sherpa’s top subject-line performers showed that pushing the value of a particular newsletter in the first two words was optimal. Meinhart recommends having your subject line writer focus on what *exactly* those first two words should be.

To illustrate the importance of those initial words, here are the 10 top-performing subject lines in the 12-month time period:
- Top 12 Email Newsletter Mistakes
- Simple Email Link Change Lifts Clicks
- CAN-SPAM - Must-Know Updates
- Best Time to Send Email: Test Results
- 6 Actions to Lift Clickthroughs: New Data
- Your Copy of Annual Email Study Results Enclosed
- HTML vs Text: Which Works Better?
- Newsletter Design Exclusive Data
- Email Audit PDF: How-to & Checklist
- How to Conduct Email Surveys

Meinhart says the first two words of these top performers convey the intended benefit for newsletter subscribers. “Top 12,” “Simple Email,” “6 Actions” and “Your Copy” were all examples of informing the readers they are *getting an actionable item*.

CAN-SPAM was a hot-button issue at the time of that particular newsletter edition, representing a different, newsy value. But it was still communicated at the very start of the subject line.

Here are EmailSherpa’s Bottom 10 subject lines:
o Target Referrals & Abandons
o Eastern Europe Factbook
o Tailor Lists to Reach Exec Moms
o Call for Speakers - Email Summit & Expo '09
o Your Input, Please: Annual Marketing Questionnaire
o How Wholesaler Lifted Orders 13%
o Buyer's Guide to Top Survey Vendors
o Turn Customer Queries Into Profit
o Test Your Email Practices; Friday Award Deadline
o Alert: Analysis of New CAN-SPAM Rules

Meinhart believes the rates on those subject lines dipped partly due to a lack of communicated value in the first two words. The subject matter may have contributed to their low open rates and CTRs as well, but the word choices and sequences really weren’t optimal.

For instance, notice how “Alert: Analysis of New CAN-SPAM Rules” did poorly. But “CAN-SPAM - Must-Know Updates” did well. The latter subject line clearly represented an immediate value over the former.

Takeaway #2. Find the right ‘trigger words’

Meinhart found that certain words or types of words, by themselves, trigger response as much as or more than subject-line length. Being punchy is *often* important to the art of writing subject lines, but including the right words from start to finish is more integral.

“A trigger can be a name, the use of numbers, the number of characters in the subject line, the use of an industry phrase, or the appearance of an unusual word,” Meinhart explains. “Subject lines also need to stay within brand guidelines. It’s easy to get a high open rate by using sensationalistic language. But if you are not careful, you can harm your brand in the process.”

What about subject-line length? The top four EmailSherpa performers (see Takeaway #1) were between 31 and 41 characters (including spaces); pretty short.

But not conclusive that short is always better; every marketer should test subject line length for themselves. For instance, from the data, Meinhart says that content-driven newsletters can successfully use longer subject lines when there is a real primer, such as a PDF download, a white paper or other easily accessible information.

For all lengths, she suggests, dedicate at least a few hours to the subject line. Whittle away at the line until it’s powerful.

Takeaway #3. Watch the hard sell

Recent MarketingSherpa Case Studies also indicate that eretailers that minimized hard-sell language got better results. Meinhart says newsletters are similar. Sherpa results suffered when the subject line seemed too self-promotional – we told folks to do something or it came across as a hard sell.

Here are the 10 worst performers in the last year for Sherpa’s B2B subject lines:
- Please Take Quick Tech Survey Today
- Call for Speakers: Demand Gen Summit
- You’re Invited - Biz Tech Webinar June 17
- Early Bird Special for Demand Gen Summit
- Nominations to Speak at Email Summit
- Podcast: Contests for Lead Gen
- Podcast: Get Wicked Good Leads
- Game Lifts Sales - Test & Results
- How to Weed Out Consumer Leads From B-to-B Campaign
- Touched by Angels

Instead of offering immediate value, the subject line asked subscribers to do something, and the opens and CTRs dipped. Of course, we already knew that Sherpa readers dislike corporate gobbledygook and empty content.

As a result, Sherpa’s subject line writers are seeking to provide subscribers with more value, while still promoting surveys and events in newsletters (but not in subject lines).

“We’ve developed a new set of subject-line guidelines, with a goal of trying to hit or surpass our average response rates. Some newsletters are already showing improvement. The times when we’ve knowingly violated the guidelines, our subscribers let us know with a much lower than average CTR.”

Takeaway #4. Hot brands work across sectors

Putting hot brand names into the subject line isn’t just for eretailers. The top ContentBiz newsletter performer, for instance, was “Facebook App Tips”.

Here are three other top-performing subject lines for Great Minds:
o Google AdWords: 8 Tips to Lift ROI
o Get Listed on Wikipedia - 3 Ways + Monitoring Tips
o Use Facebook to Market Yourself & Your Company

NOTE: We may have done even better by putting “Wikipedia” and “Facebook” as the first word in the latter two subject lines. Getting a hot brand into that crucial two-word window can turn a good email performance into a better one.

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