July 30, 2014 Filament Email Marketing Specialist

Get to the Point, Part 1: Subject Lines & Preheaders

Is your open rate underwhelming? Perhaps this is because the pendulum between teaser text and clear and informative messaging might be swinging toward the latter. In this two-part series, we’ll explore what this means using an excellent recent post from Campaign Monitor on the subject: Where to position key messages in your email marketing campaign to get them noticed and remembered. Using the guidelines here, we’ll rework some examples of recent email marketing content, beginning with subject lines and preheaders. Oh, what fun we’ll have!

In recent years, email marketing philosophy has largely supported the “curiosity gap” approach. Early adopters and possibly even originators of this method (noted as Buzzfeed and Upworthy in the Campaign Monitor post) were boldly withholding in their mysterious copywriting. Now, a quick peek at your inbox reveals company after company doing the same clever thing. It’s characterized by the way marketers “tease” the email’s content in the subject line and preheader, in the hopes that curiosity will compel prospects to open and read the rest of the email.

However, recent shifts in the curiosity gap approach supported by phenomenon such as the Serial Position Effect (the reason your brain remembers things at the beginning and end of a list while forgetting the stuff in the middle), suggest that healthy open rates are starting to depend on clear communication of the email’s contents and purpose in the subject line and preheaders in a strategic way that fosters message retention.

In other words, try experimenting with including your email’s primary message, clearly stated, in the subject line and preheader. Use a structure and an order of ideas/details (important stuff at the beginning and end of the sentences) that works with the human brain so that people register the information.

Aaron Beashel’s post on Campaign Monitor stated, “Similarly, multiple research studies on subject lines have found that clear, descriptive lines that told the subscriber exactly what they would get when they opened an email are the best performing. Our recent research into power words in email subject lines also supports this, with some of the most effective words being those that clearly describe the content of the email, such as ‘Invitation’, ‘Sale’, and ‘Special’. So in order to get your key messages across to the maximum number of people and still encourage strong open rates, your best bet is to use clear, descriptive subject lines that tell the reader exactly what they are going to get from reading the email.”

Now, it’s true that we’ve previously suggested you try enticing your consumers with a little mystery by grabbing their attention and then leaving them wanting for more— that is, until they click your glorious email and all is revealed (and hopefully, purchased). And we still think this is an excellent tactic that helps battle inbox clutter, builds your brand voice and develops consumer relationships among a host of other neat benefits. However, at Filament, we also believe that curious experimentation often leads to the biggest and brightest ideas. So, we gladly conduct informed experiments all the time, knowing that the next breakthrough could pop up in the process.

So, with a commitment to curiosity, let’s break down the key points Mr. Beashel sets forth and apply them to five subject lines and preheaders for a side-by-side comparison of their merits.

To write effective subject lines and preheaders, this Aaron Beashel recommends that you:

  • “use clear, descriptive subject lines that tell the reader exactly what they are going to get from reading the email.
  • get the key messages in there.
  • personalize where possible.
  • compliment the subject line.”

Now, onto some examples.

1. Sephora.com

Original Subject Line: For smart girls
Original Preheader: Kate, we’ve got the latest innovations in beauty.

Reworked Subject Line: New beauty science for smart girls.
Reworked Preheader: Kate, here’s the latest beauty innovations.

The original content was cute and compelling enough, and because I know it’s from Sephora, I know what’s being marketed. What the subject line lacked was specificity. All the preheader needed was to save a few characters for a quicker get (“we’ve got” vs. “here’s”) The personalization here and the way the two bits of content compliment each other make for an informative (and intriguing) email intro, with the most important thing being that even without opening the email, I know what’s in it. 

2. Groupon.com

Original Subject Line: Good for Kids
Original Preheader: None.

Reworked Subject Line: Kids’ summer faves: bowling, bouncing, books + more. Reworked Preheader: Grab these deals on last-chance summer fun.

Here, the original subject line scored points for its simplicity and the fact that the consumer knows it’s something to do with kids, but it needed a conversational infusion plus the added bump of the complimentary preheader (that’s actionable + urgent) to make this email really stand out.  

3. Cartwheel by Target

Original Subject Line: Redeem these new offers today!
Original Preheader: None.

Reworked Subject Line: New Cartwheel offers to redeem today.
Reworked Preheader: Diapers, wipes, formula, bibs + more.

The subject line was actionable but the “meat” of the message, “new offers” was lost in the middle of the text—a problem if we apply the Serial Position effect which suggests that content in the middle gets lost when processed by our brains. Additionally, it’s beneficial to restate “Cartwheel” so that the first two words basically tell the story: New Cartwheel (which consumers know is a Target offering). The lack of preheader was a missed opportunity, so to compliment it, I suggest getting specific (based on segmentation data, perhaps) by listing the actual products the consumer can save money on. 

4. jcrew.com

Original Subject Line: August @ jcrew.com: looks we love, new denim and lots more
Original Preheader: Plus, shop our sale and get free shipping on all orders of 100+

Reworked Subject Line: Sale + free shipping on $100+
Reworked Preheader: Looks we love, new denim + more

The real value for the consumer here is the deal, so using the new philosophy, the subject line should get to it straight away. Several characters were “wasted” in the original subject line on a “throw away” phrase or, one that doesn’t necessarily hold a lot of value, meaning of informational value to the consumer. Here, the preheader can go into some of the more inspirational messaging like style tips and new products, which people of course also love to see. This is the beauty of the subject line/preheader dichotomy. You can use them in countless ways to tell your story in a very small space, and they’re the first things that your audience sees in their inbox. 

5. lynda.com

Original Subject Line: New courses: Be the first to learn
Original Preheader: Check out the newest courses in our growing library, and learn something new … (characters cut off in gmail and preheader is not viewable in message body – yikes.)

Reworked Subject Line: Learn Adobe Illustrator CC, Access 2013, Flash + much more. [sub the word “learn” with the word “new” if newness is in fact a key data-supported message that needs play in both the subject line and the preheader)
Reworked Preheader: Tons of new classes to super-power your skills.

The subject line included a quick “get” at the very beginning of the message, which is good, but from there, the specificity of the whole subject line/preheader relationship just fell flat. Each precious character should be used to tell the consumer what’s in the email. This message spent a lot of characters on a redundant newness message when they could have been better-utilized to specifically inform. The email should list what data projects will be the most popular new offerings (or segment based on data gathered at opt-in) and then hit the newness message as needed in the preheader. 

Part 2 of this series will use the tips shared in the Campaign Monitor post to discuss applying the trend towards straightforward messaging to the body of your emails. Stay tuned, stay curious and contact Filament to craft email campaigns that inform and transform prospects into customers.

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