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Email Marketing continues to deliver the highest return on investment within the digital marketing space. This is an edited transcript of a 30 min live webinar for The Fold Live, introducing you the power of Subject Lines in Email Marketing.

Subject lines are one of the easiest ways to start converting your email marketing.

The big opportunity is making sure people read your email. If the email gets delivered to an inbox, the next thing you need to do is actually ensure your audience read it and take notice.

Email marketing is by far my favourite channel. It’s been around the longest. It has the highest return on investment, and highly, highly effective.

Subject lines are all about making people take notice. If you think about user behaviour, the first thing we do, we open up our inbox each morning and we short list or cull our email inbox based purely on the subject line. Most email inboxes are set up so that they have a maximum of two rows of text showing, the preview text that appears after the subject line. On an iPhone, that is the standard set up, on a desktop, the customisation is entirely up to you.

50% of all the emails that we receive are opened based on subject lines

Key principles of subject lines

  • Keep it short & descriptive.
  • Use CAPITALS, !, $, or 100% with caution and purpose – use them sparingly.
  • Don’t be afraid to use emojis. It adds personality, creates a tone, and is easily understood.
  • Value proposition is largely what this whole topic is about. Your subject line needs to show different types of value, different types of content, to make it really easy for your audiences to understand whether or not they want to open the email. Your value proposition may look like this:
  1. Time Sensitive / FOMO
  2. News / Information / Updates
  3. What’s in it for THEM
  4. Arousing curiosity

The use of personalisation, and what that means beyond using someone’s first name, isn’t just saying ‘Hi Valentina, this is what’s happening today’. It’s personalising it a little bit further and then looking at naming conventions and some serialisation as well.

Value Proposition

Time-Sensitive, fear of missing out. Your use of language can make a massive difference.

For example, the use of “Sale” vs “Save” in copy text. “Save” makes me feel like I’m actually keeping the money. Sale makes me feel like I’m going to grab a bargain. Australians love a bargain – consider your audience.

Word variations like ‘Join Now’ vs. ‘Sign Up’ and whether or not ‘join’ means something to you. For me, ‘join’ means that I’d likely have to pay money. ‘Sign up’ makes me feel like I need to be committed to something.

Examples of Time-Sensitive / fear of missing out headlines or subject lines.

  1. Uh-oh, your subscription is expiring in 7 days
    – Creates urgency. It does make me go; “Oh, my gosh. It’s expiring. I better get onto this & I’ll do it now so I don’t forget”
  2. You’re missing out on points
    – this is huge if hat drives a loyalty program
  3. [URGENT] You’ve got ONE DAY to watch this
    – It’s expiring. It’s now or it’s never
  4. 2 days left to register
  5. Your 7-figure plan goes bye-bye at midnight
    – There are fun ways to say exactly the same thing around expiring or limited time left
  6. [WEEKEND ONLY] Get this NOW before it’s gone
    – making it very clear to the user how long they’ve got to make that decision. You can see the use of capitals here to make the time frame stand out.
  7. Earn double points today only
  8. Tonight only: A denim lover’s dream
    – this is where I shortlist emails based on that subject line. If I’m not interested in buying denim, I just delete.
  9. Today only: Save 50% on everything
  10. Only 100 spaces left, secure yours now
    – All based on the fact that there’s a short supply. As soon as we believe that something is in short supply, our FOMO (fear of missing out) kicks in and we jump on that so that we’re not part of the group that misses out. You can then follow these up with “50 spaces left”, “20 spaces left”, “only two spaces left”, “Catch the one before it gets away”.

Consider what each of these opportunities mean for you, for your business, your product and your service. Playing around with them and testing is really important.

News, information and updates

These are usually largely reserved for companies instead of individuals, but it can obviously apply to individuals.

  1. Designing Emails That Convert LIVE Webinar: 21 July – BOOK NOW
    – Part of the entire email series is to write the reminders. How many seats left? Last chance! It’s happening tomorrow!
  2. Big News: new store opening
    – If it is big news, tell me what it is. You could just say “big news” and that makes people wonder what this is going to be. You could end a curiosity email with just the words “big news”.
  3. Check out the new product features you need right now
    – This is great when it comes to social media – “Nine Instagram hacks to save your life”.
  4. Introducing <company update / new team member / special feature>
    – That could be a company update, a team member, a special feature. It could be an ASX listing result. It’s whatever you want to be introducing.
  5. <Company Name> July Newsletter
    – Serialisation is being able to say this is the July newsletter, which indicates the newsletter is monthly.
  6. July News Bulletin – your must-know features update
    – A news bulletin can sometimes feel like company updates that don’t affect me. Company updates that are interesting to the company but have no consumer facing value. Always think about what’s in it for the reader, for your audience, for your customer.
  7. We’re taking a break
    – When are you closed? Closed for Christmas? When will you open? This was very, very common during the pandemic to say we’re taking a break.
  8. We want to hear from you
    – What your concerns might be. You are soliciting a response immediately. Think about what you’re actually asking people – we are all time poor.

What’s in it for them?

The human brain is naturally drawn to numbered lists.

  1. 7 Instagram Hacks That Will Change Your Life
  2. 212 Blog Post Ideas Just For You
  3. Learn how to grow your website traffic 10X
  4. Learn a language in just 5 mins a day
  5. 6 signs you’re wasting your time
  6. Routines of Australia’s most successful people
  7. How to survive the impact of winter on your skin
  8. Get more kitchen space with these easy fixes

All of these are designed to encourage the readership. From a digital perspective, if you’re going to put seven Instagram hacks together, you want the blog page or the landing page to have seven very quick headings that make it easy to understand what’s in it for them and which of the hacks they may be already aware of versus the ones they’re going to read about.

Arousing curiosity

Highly relevant to the naturally drawn human brain for lists, is making sure that people have a “Yes” statement. It’s the fear of missing out, mixed in with curiosity, mixed in with news.

  1. A surprise gift for you
  2. Check out our newest digs
  3. What they eat in prison
    – I like this as an example because it is so far removed from generally public experience that I’m curious. I’m interested. Newspapers do this very, very well. They give you five words on a headline on the front page, and those five words are completely designed to make you buy a newspaper.
  4. What NOT to do in a crisis
  5. This app will save you 2 hrs of admin a day
  6. What’s the best way to handle a break-up?
    – Best way to handle a Break-Up could actually be to buy a financial planner. When there is curiosity around what do I even do financially to handle a Break-Up?
  7. How to retire safely with your superannuation
  8. Does your toddler know more about technology than you?
    – This might make you feel like, oh, gosh, I am being left behind. Maybe this email can tell me a few tips and tricks to be able to stay ahead of my toddler’s curve.
  9. Businesses will be 100% virtual by 2022. Are you ready?
    – “Yes” Statements, you want someone to read that and say, gosh, I’m so not ready to do this. They must open this and see what they can do to be ready in the next two years.

All of these things are about curiosity and making sure that the consumer’s problems are being solved through arousing the curiosity.

Personalisation (think location, behaviour, purchase history, names)

What I want you to think about when you’re personalising is it can actually cross between creepy and feeling homely and recognised. Think location, think behaviour, think purchase history, not just names.

  1. Are you as excited by free poke bowl delivery as we are Valentina?
    – This prompted our whole office to order weekly poke bowls for Friday lunch.
  2.  ✨ 7 long weekend activities, live music + apres skiing in the Highlands ⛷️🥂
    – This highlights a good use of emojis. It tells me what’s going on. It looks fun. I’m drinking, I’m skiing, so I know it’s winter time. This subject line is looking at location and behaviour as well.
  3.  Here’s a little gift to help you relax and get your groove on Valentina
    – Straight away you know that I might be wound up and you know that I might need to take some time out.
  4.  Your order #12345 is on its way
    – Highly personalised, tied to a purchase. It could be “your wall hanging is on its way”. It is now not just a personalised e-mail, it’s a functional email as well. It will likely have tracking numbers in it and it will likely be asking me to leave a review for that product as well.
  5. Rough day? Let us add a little luxury to help you along
  6. 40% off your favourite <personalised product purchase>
    – This works very well in skincare. If I have bought a cleanser, I would expect that maybe my personalisation might be 40% off the moisturising cream that matches the cleanser. Using that behaviour and tying two things together can be really useful. In terms of personalisation, it could be something that says ‘your cleanser should be running out in the next seven days, replenish now’. That means that the customer should know the cleanser should last approximately 30 pump actions, and if it’s been 25 days since that purchase, they’re going to run out. Solve the customers problem. But tell them what problem you are solving and what you know about them as to why this might be useful.
  7. Are you coming?
    – My curiosity goes ‘to what?’ the fear of missing out. What’s going on? Have I not RSVP’d? Am I about to miss out on the event of the year?
  8. Thanks for helping us
    – Makes people feel like they’ve personally done something to assist that business, and they’re more inclined to read it because they just want that pat on the back. There’s a chance they will say: ‘What did I do?’. There’s the curiosity and then the simple pat on the back, which means I’m going to have brand loyalty or brand favouritism.
  9. Happy Birthday Valentina, a little something something just for you
    – Happy birthday is the easiest subject line you can use. If you’re going to ask for someone’s date of birth, make sure that you know what you’re going to do with that data. That’s personalised, identifiable information. If you’re not going to use the data or need it to deliver your service, don’t collect it.

Think about how you’re going to use some of these tactics when you start writing your next subject lines.

Best practice tips

  • Write multiple subject lines. Write 10 for every email, then choose the best.
  • Write the email subject line last. Write all of the content and then write the subject line at the end. I find it’s actually much easier to relate the subject line to the actual content of the EDM
  • Keep it under 50 characters. If 50 percent of our promotional email is being cut off at the inbox, you also need to consider that 50-70 percent of email is first read on a mobile phone. There is a very well-known case study many years ago that Emirates had actually cut off the subject lines on mobile phones and it looked like they were giving away European flights for one pound. What got cut off was the comma and the three numbers that came after it in the thousands of pounds. Emirates were taken to court over it because the subject lines were misleading and deceptive. Consider what is being cut off. When you’re testing your emails before you send them, look at them on a mobile phone to see what actual characters are being cut off and if it still makes sense.
  • Alliteration attracts people. If you are looking for a quirky approach, just find two or three words, starting with the same letter. And that can actually just be the quirkiness that you need.
  • Some people can think that more CAPITAL letters equals more opens and it doesn’t. It actually makes people feel like they’re being screamed at. Be really mindful of using capitals & exclamation marks, make sure they are warranted because if you overuse, they’ll lose impact.
  • Know your audience – make sure that you can cater to them with your content. If you’ve stopped being relevant to your audience in the content, your subject line won’t help you. However, the subject line is what’s going to make someone decide whether or not you understand them.
  • What’s your tone of voice? A conversationalist tone attracts readers. People don’t want to feel like you’re just a business. They want to feel like you’re chatting to them. I write in a conversational tone to make difficult marketing terms or terminology quite easy to understand. If you are a professional service, you might need to reconsider maintaining a professional tone of voice versus having a little bit more fun.
  • A call to action needs to be clear. Tell people what you want them to do. Be very specific – This is what you need to do, register now, book now, don’t miss out. You need to tell people what to do because they’re not clever enough to do that all on their own and they will scan the email content.
  • A/B testing of subject lines means that you’re going to maximise your overall response. An A/B test is comparing apples to apples, oranges to oranges with just one variable. Sometimes I write two subject lines and I want to test which one I think is going to work. I might use fear of missing out as a tactic vs. complete product push. Then I send a test to a percentage of my database. 10% of my database will get option one, 10% of my database gets option two. After 2hours, out of these two subject lines, I’ll see which one gives me the best response. The reporting will clearly indicate the winner. And the rest of that database gets the winning combination. What you have to remember when you’re testing a subject line is you need to have a hypothesis. And that’s saying, what is it that I think I’m testing? Is it the fear of missing out vs. a direct call to action? Is it humour vs. really serious? You have to make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples. It’s not about the content, it’s about the subject line.
  • When you have a winning test, the idea is to introduce a new test. If the first test was personalised, using a name and it works really well, the next test is still customisation, using a product feature rather than a name. You can then determine what personalisation is driving the better response.
  • Pay attention to your preview tests. Your preview should allow you to look at those two lines of characters, which is really valuable because it can create that little insight to what the email content is going to cover. Don’t lose the opportunity to make those two very different.
  • A steal/borrow – the world’s greatest ideas, processes, tools, they’re all borrowed or stolen. It’s okay to borrow what you think is working really well. Look around, see what you like, and if you think they’re good, take it and give it a go.


What to do next

If you’re ready for your next step in email marketing, check out our blog, we have two resources you might find interesting:

An Introduction to Email Marketing – a good look at the best return on investment channel in digital and what you should consider throughout your planning stages; and

Email Marketing For Financial Advisors – whilst it’s geared towards financial services, it can be applied to any industry and any audience.