You know how they say, “The first impression is the last impression?” Yeah, it turns out that’s true, especially in email marketing, where 69% of email readers have been reported to mark an email as spam based on the subject line alone.
Clearly, if you want even a chance at getting your reader’s attention, your best shot at it is the subject line.
But with so many unread emails lying in your subscriber’s inbox, how do you make yours stand out? That’s the billion-dollar question. And to help answer that, we reached out to Andrew Kordek, VP of Customer Engagement at iPost, with 22 years of experience in the world of email.
So let’s dive in and look at the do’s, don’ts, and much more of writing catchy subject lines.
There’s so much discussion about how the email copy, design, or other such elements are the most important parts of the email. So in this spectrum of importance, where do subject lines fall?
Figuring out where subject lines fall in that spectrum depends on who you’re talking to. If you speak to the designer, they’ll think the creative is more important, whereas the marketing manager might say the email copy is more important.
In all of this, subject lines are often the last thing sometimes to be decided upon. And what’s really interesting is that these same subject lines are the “hooks” that attract potential subscribers. So I would say start the process of writing the subject lines early. They shouldn’t be the last thing you do, but often they are.
And I actually have a methodology for writing great subject lines called the DICE methodology.
Can you tell us more about your DICE methodology for writing subject lines?
So there are different methodologies to do this. For starters, you can invest in an AI tool to help you write subject lines. But if you don’t have that budget, what I would like to suggest is that to write high-performing subject lines, use the acronym DICE (Desire, Importance, Call to action, Empathy).
D for Desire
You have to use action words or phrases that make your subscriber want to learn more. Basically, you need to invoke emotion.
I for Importance
Signify the value of what you are trying to communicate by capturing the subscriber’s attention. Creating that importance conveys relevance.
C for Call to action
When writing a subject line, we know exactly what we want our subscribers at the other end to do. But often, the person receiving the email doesn’t know. So you have to use a call to action in the email.
And use clear words highlighting what you want them to do, like “download now” or “click here to buy.” People have to be led using the subject line.
E for Empathy
The last thing is empathy. Empathy means you have to speak with your audience, not at them.
Often, we tend to make subject lines impersonal. I’m not saying just use the subscriber’s first name to make them more personal. Instead, you have to use phrases they can relate to so people don’t think it’s just a bot or somebody who really doesn’t care.
So, using the DICE methodology - desire, importance, call to action, and empathy - is the best way to write unique subject lines.
Are there certain words or phrases that see more engagement when put in subject lines? Or are there any words to avoid using because they trigger the spam filter?
It’s sort of a myth that using certain words will trigger the spam filter. Gmail, Yahoo, and all of these different ISPs now use much more sophisticated technology for their spam filters than just scanning subject lines.
A piece of advice that I give many of my clients is never to write a subject line that the answer to which is a yes or no. These subject lines might look like, “Do you want 5% off your next deal?” If the answer is a no, then it takes one second to click delete, and your email’s gone.
Instead, you want to entice your readers by saying something that makes them read the whole email before making a decision. Making that happen doesn’t revolve around keywords. In the past, we’ve seen a lot of hot words thrown around in subject lines, like free, complimentary, percentage of X, etc. Don’t do that.
Rather, focus on speaking to your audience like a human being. Don’t worry about those words or phrases anymore. Worry about the content, worry about invoking those emotions.
You mentioned that there’s a lot more to personalization than just adding the reader’s first name. So what are some other ways of personalizing subject lines?
By utilizing data that you already have. And this data can be stuff like whether they’re a previous customer or location-based, either in the US or somewhere in the world.
For example, if I were to say, “Hey Anna, look at what your friends are doing” versus “Anna, take 10% off today,” we can clearly see how the first one is more likely to invoke emotion and intrigue. Empathy and emotion can take on many different forms.
I tend to shy away from first-name personalization in email all the time. Because even though it seems personal, it’s somewhat impersonal, right? Because a personalization attempt like, “Andrew Kordak, please download this,” that’s not how people talk to each other, you don’t speak in first and last names.
And sometimes, even using my first name can be somewhat impersonal if the brand doesn’t know me and I don’t have a history with them.
Instead, utilize data, whether it’s location or previous purchase history. I’ve seen subject line examples where companies have used data beautifully, with examples like, “Here’s a list of upcoming events in Chicago,” which is relevant to me because that’s where I’m based. That’s personalization.
So take the data that you have and figure out what you can use to make the experience, at least in the subject line, a little bit more personal.
What are some of the don’ts of writing subject lines that might trigger the spam filter?
What I mean by deception is don’t write a subject line just to get your audience to engage. Make sure you follow through with whatever you’ve written. Because Gmail, Yahoo, and all these ISPs will look at engagement, are people clicking on your email, forwarding, deleting, or reporting it?
Now, if your email content consistently does not match your subject line, people will click delete or hit spam. And this is marked spam because it’s deception; what you’re saying doesn’t match what you’re providing. That’s going to build a bad reputation for you over time.
2. Overusing urgency
Don’t overuse urgency in the email. Don’t say, “things are going to go away” or “little time left.” If you consistently use the urgency tone to get engagement, that might rub people the wrong way.
3. Don’t not test
Sophisticated marketers today should be able to test 80 to 90% of all emails that go out and figure out what works and gets higher engagement. Look at the clicks you’re getting and how people are engaging with your content.
Once you have that information, send the next batch of subject lines based on that. And keep a record of what you’re doing, all the tests you’re running, and the email engagement you see.
How do you go about A/B testing in subject lines?
To start, ensure that when you set up an A/B test, the subject lines are uniquely different. For example, testing urgency versus personalization - that’s uniquely different. Sometimes when testing, people just change one word. Instead, change the whole tone of what you’re writing.
What I do is a 10-10-80, where I’ll send one subject line to the first 10% of subscribers and a second one to the other 10%. Then wait a specified time to determine which line gets the most traction and send that one to the remaining 80%. Depending on your situation, you can do a 5-5-90 test or any variety of this.
And don’t just use open rate as your end game. Instead, use clicks, engagements, the number of unsubscribes, and spam complaints - basically, use all of the engagement metrics to decide which subject line actually performs.
Do you have any examples of how testing has produced results for you?
Absolutely, I have a great story about working with a client where they tested subject lines over a specific period, like a week. And they saw anywhere between a 10 to a 20% lift in conversions just by spending some extra time creating subject lines.
That extra time makes all the difference. Because otherwise, if you just send one subject line out and don’t test it, you never know how the other one might have done.
But there is a caveat to this: there will be times when you’re going to fail, and that’s okay. But you must be able to roll with the failures to see the successes. So subject lines can and should, and will make a difference if you keep testing over some time.
Are open rates still relevant? And what are some other (better) ways to track the performance of subject lines?
I think open rates are a good directional metric, but when was the last time open rates paid the bills, right? They keep the lights on at the organization, but that’s it. This is why, historically, I haven’t used open rates as a metric for success. I either use clicks, conversions, or some other engagement metric.
Are open rates still relevant? Of course, they are. But are they something I’m going to bank my program on? Not necessarily. Because if you walk into a meeting and say, “My open rates are 35%,” who cares?
We need to move on as an industry where we don’t parade open rates around anymore because they mean nothing today.
How does lower engagement lead to deliverability challenges or bad deliverability?
The way I think about this is that your reputation as an organization determines whether you will make it into the inbox or the spam folder. And all leading ISPs figure out your reputation by looking at everything, which includes:
- The clicks and conversions you’re getting
- Do readers folder your email?
- How long has a specific reader been on your emailing list?
- Do readers engage with your email in their inbox?
- How old is the reader’s email address?
- Does the email address exist anymore, or did it ever exist?
- Do readers forward your email?
If you aren’t performing well according to these factors, you will have deliverability problems. Having deliverability challenges is directly tied to how you treat your subscribers. Poor experience means bad deliverability.
To avoid such problems, you must maintain good email hygiene practices and ensure that the experience leading into the inbox is a great one.
But let’s caveat this: every organization in the world sending emails has ended up in the spam folder or is currently in the spam folder. The only way out is through time, patience, and keeping track of your email program.
One methodology I have to keep an eye out for deliverability problems is to look at the engagement, primarily clicks, over a long period. Track your clicks across all your top ISPs. When you see a dip, you might have a problem.
Do people take the preview text seriously, should email marketers care about it, and does it really matter?
The preview text, obviously, is to help emails that are viewed on mobiles. So the first thing I always say is, “What is your mobile engagement?” You have to figure out whether you have a large enough mobile audience or not, which then dictates whether you need to care about the preview text.
Irrespective of the mobile engagement, though, it’s always beneficial to have a good preview text. Having one only helps, it never hurts.
And what I mean by good preview text is it should be an add-on to your subject line. I’ve seen people use the preview text to extend or re-iterate the subject line, which isn’t the best approach.
What are your thoughts on adding emojis to subject lines?
You want to know what’s funny? I saw this emoji study some seven or eight years ago, and it said that the “💩” emoji gets the best engagement for some reason.
Look, if your audience and the demographics you’re targeting can understand emojis, then sure, go ahead. I think it’s a playful aspect to use emojis. But I also think they need to be used sparingly. I see a lot of companies today where almost every subject line is filled with emojis. That’s too much.
By any chance, do you remember the best subject line you’ve ever received?
The best subject line I’ve ever received was, “We are about to pee our pants.” That got me. It invoked that emotion, that curiosity in me where I needed to know what they were talking about.
The creative was very simple, and it did the job; it got me to engage with the email.
How do you get over writer’s block? Because we all know, it gets super hard to create engaging email content all the time.
I subscribe to a ton of emails, so I always have fresh content in my inbox to help with writer’s block. I talk to a lot of colleagues, bouncing ideas off each other and creating several subject lines together. I read a lot of blogs about specific subjects.
I look at some of the best creatives I’ve received over the years that I keep saved in my inbox to use as inspiration. Sometimes I’ll even go to Twitter and look at what some of the engagements are happening with brands on there.
Lastly, what is one email marketing pet peeve you can’t stand?
That email marketing is easy, and anybody can do it.
In reality, it takes patience and a lot of work. Email marketing managers have a lot of pressure. And the biggest pet peeve I have is when people go like, “Just send it, it’s just an email.” There’s loads of work that goes into the creation of everything in that email.
But there are people out there who just have an email address and have an opinion on how an email should be. They think it’s just an email, but it’s much more. Whether you’re sending to 3000 people or 32 million people, it’s always hard.
And so I always say, it’s not as easy as you think, and I invite you to try it because it’s not just another email.
We hope this interview helped you learn about the art of writing unique and engaging subject lines. As long as you keep the DICE methodology in mind, remember to test your subject lines, and be patient, you have nothing to worry about. Good luck!
Can’t wait to see the subject lines you come up with. In the meantime, let us know who we should interview next?