When you send an email to a prospect, whether they will open it or not depends on several factors. The timing of the email, whether prospects expect to receive an email from you and the subject line are three that initially determine the likelihood. For example, if you send an email at a time when your prospect is not predisposed to read it will result in a fail.
There are numerous studies on when to send the email with the highest likelihood of opening, and it depends on the type of your offer, what type of product or service you offer, etc. Assuming you nail the timing, you need to make sure your prospect would be expecting to see your email in their inbox. You can do this by priming your prospect when they visit your website and creating an expectation of your email.
When you ensure you are sending your emails to prospects at the time when they are most likely to open them and they expect those emails, there is one more factor under your control that makes prospects more likely to open emails. The first part of your email any of your prospects will see (and possibly the only one) is its subject line.
Why subject line matters
Persuading your prospect to open your email is a difficult task and average open rate for all industries is around 21%, according to the study conducted by MailChimp. Since the subject line is the first glimpse your prospect gets, it means that it plays arguably the most important part in their decision to open your email.
In order to convince your prospect to open the email, the subject line needs to stand out among the dozens of emails everyone receives on an hourly basis.
According to a study by DMR, the average person receives over 120 emails in their inbox daily.
“Modern inboxes are noisy, crowded, and extremely competitive. For marketers, that means most emails are just part of the cacophony and they’re probably not getting opened or clicked.
So what can you do to stand out within the inbox? Well, you need emails that are doing something unique and special.” ConstantContact blog post
Catchy subject attracts the attention of your prospects and gets your email noticed. Since ‘catchy’ is a pretty abstract term, we need to examine the main elements of a catchy email subject.
One of the best ways to get customers attention is to use urgency and present your offer as limited (by time, by quantity or some other factor). Urgency is used by many brands to get and hold the attention of their prospects. Urgency is used in ads, landing pages and most frequently in email campaigns.
To be effective, you need to have a legitimate reason for urgency. In the short term, multiple calls for urgency, for example, offering a limited time sale, can be very effective. However, if you repeat them frequently and show them as ‘the last remaining chance’ again and again, you will forfeit the urgency and either drive people to hold off purchase or, worse, lose all credibility.
Now, let us see a few examples of using urgency gone bad.
New York Times
New York Times uses urgency to get more digital subscribers through their email campaign. However, while initial email has urgency and promises a tangible benefit of 60% off the regular subscription price if you act now, it gets a bit strange when you receive an exact same mail 7 days later.
This way the NY Times erodes the sense of urgency they have created with their previous email. In fact, people who receive this email are likely to hold off and not act immediately since it seems the 60% off is the actual price, rather than a special sale that lasts just a day.
In fact, the NY Times frequently sends these emails, significantly eroding the sense of urgency and the credibility of their deadline.
Business Insider is a well-known news portal that offers the latest news. In addition, they run a service that offers various analysis and reports you can buy and download. These high-ticket items, costing up to US$9,000 are tough sells and to get more customers, BI offers significant price reductions through emails.
The email subject line starts by Last Chance, which is a credible urgency indicator with 12 hours added to quantify the urgency. In this email, BI offers bonus reports if you buy a US$1,000 dollar subscription. The offer seems genuinely valuable and due to limited time, customers would be highly motivated to take it. However, this is ruined by the next email:
Despite the previous email being ‘the last chance’ three days, later you will receive another email, extending the deadline for 12 more hours. If prospects missed the previous offer, receiving a second worded in the way Deadline extension will have the effect of eroding any credibility of urgency.
Expedia makes extensive use of urgency in their emails. So much so, that virtually any email you receive from them is worded with urgency.
The constant urgency has the same effect as the cries of the boy who falsely cried ‘Wolf’ in the fairy tale.
As you can see, using urgency without a due restraint has the effect oposite to what you want to achieve. Frequent ‘Last chances’ ‘Deadlines’ and ‘Limited offers’ will result in emails being ignored by your prospects.
On the other hand, some brands use urgency wisely and make their emails visible in your inbox and very likely to be opened. One of these brands is Harry’s.
As a part of their Christmas seasonal campaign, they offered $5 off every purchase for a limited time. On the last day, they have sent the email, with a subject line ‘Final Call…’. The email had credibility since it was truly the last call for this offer and it was not repeated.
The urgency of the line could be enhanced by adding an actual time factor, but the benefit was clear and unambiguous.
Sportique is another ecommerce store that uses urgency in their email campaign. The call to urgency they used was not based on time or quantity factor, however.
Sportique has introduced several new brands to their offer. To promote them to their customers, they used an email with a subject line aiming at customers pride. Calling on customers to be the first to own the products, adds urgency without using any reduction in price or other benefits.
Chubbies is a clothing brand known for extensive use of humor in their marketing. Their email marketing is no exception.
By using an alarming ‘The End is Near’ subject line, Chubbies replicates the click-bait some less respectful news sources use. However, they do it in a funny way to point out that their sale is nearing the end. They even used a custom email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
One aspect of human behavior is curiosity and we are wired to respond with interest in anything that is out of ordinary or unusual. You can use this in creating subject lines that do not provide full information.
Mistery evokes curiosity and leads customers to open your emails. To work properly the subject line needs to align with your brand and the email body itself must provide additional information to ensure prospects have enough to make a decision.
Huckberry sent an email as a part of their sales campaign with the subject line ‘Do not read this’. The purpose of this is to use reverse psychology and arouse curiosity with those who received them.
When a prospect opens the email they will see the full information on the offer.
Chubbies use a question in the subject line to evoke curiosity of the prospect.
By asking the prospect to look at what they did, without giving any specifics in the line itself.
In both examples, mistery is used to good effect since it matches the brand image and provides full information in the body of the email.
A subject line that includes the offer, conveys the immediate benefit to the prospect and lets them know what benefit they can expect when they open the email. This removes any notion that opening the email will be a waste of time, making it more likely the prospect will open the email.
Shopstyle is a clothes retailer that sells multiple brands of clothes online.
The email subject line tells the prospect clearly what they can expect from the email - to find Nordstrom dresses for under $100. This subject lline also makes the email more efficient as anyone who is not interested in Nordstrom dresses will be unlikely to open the email, thus increasing the efficiency of the campaign.
Zogics sent the email to offer their customers a sale for Pets day.
The subject line clearly states you will get 20% off all Zogics Pet products on National Pet Day. A clear and unambiguous subject line such as this will make the people who own a pet open this email and very likely buy something. Clever use of a National Pet Day aims to make people want to show their pets they care for them and buy a toy or similar thing.
Color Pop combines curiosity and offers in its subject line.
The offer is clear and it is 20% off every time you shop, while curiosity is evoked by using a question ‘How to get’. Everyone would be hard pressed not to open this email, especially if they are regular customers of Color Pop.
Personalization is an important aspect of email. Since an email is a direct form of communication and you are effectively invading prospect’s email inbox with your offer, getting as personal as possible will tend to have much better results. In fact, according to Campaign Monitor, personalized emails had 26% higher open rate.
Personalizing email subjects is limited since there is only so much information you can pack into the subject line. However, it is still possible in subtle and not so subtle ways, as we will see in the examples.
Chubbies uses the information they have on their prospects to send an email with a personalized subject line.
If you have filled out a City field in the registration form, Chubbies will use the value of that field to insert the name of the city you live in the subject line. This makes it personalized and any person that sees their hometown in the subject line will notice the email and likely open it.
On the other hand, Expedia simply uses their subscriber’s first name to personalize the subject line.
This simple tactic is effective, as it creates an illusion that the email is directed at the prospect personally (which is kind of the entire point of personalization). This tactic, however, tends to get old if you do not follow the personalization in the body of the mail to. You need to know your customer well enough and cross-reference their purchase history, behavior while navigating your site, abandoned carts and other things you may know about a prospect to make personalization really effective.
These four elements of the subject line can increase your open rate and if used judiciously, can make your email campaign more effective with your emails likely to stand out in the noise that characterizes the inboxes nowadays.
Combining these four elements in the subject line is likely to have the best results, especially urgency + offer combinations. For abandoned cart emails, for example, personalization combined with urgency tends to provide the best results.
Curiosity and urgency elements, however, need to be used sparingly as they can backfire. Unless you can provide a really interesting mystery, do not use curiosity since it can lead to disappointment, especially if you set the expectation too high.