Open Rate is Overrated: What Really Makes Effective Email Subject Lines

When it comes to creating effective email subject lines, most marketers only focus on getting opens.

It’s important goal, especially considering that 64% of people will open an email based on the subject line only.

That’s why the vast majority of blog posts and case studies out there consider “successful” subject lines the ones that get opens.

But here’s the deal:

Getting people to open your emails isn’t the ultimate goal of your email marketing campaign.

And subject lines actually play a bigger role in your marketing success than just getting people to open the email.

Subject lines can have a direct impact on more important metrics, like conversions.

Whichtestwon A/B test

Screenshot via Get Response

Just look at these subject lines Whichtestwon A/B tested:

Version A had a 10.5% lower open rate than Version B, but it increased orders by 21%, and revenue by 35%.

This example illustrates a bigger issue:

We have a huge disconnect between our subject line optimization tactics and our actual business goals.

This post will explain how effective email subject lines don’t encourage opens, but help your bottom line. 

 

Tricks to Get Clicks

There’s been a ton of research into what subject line elements get the most clicks, but it’s important not to adopt these strategies without considering how they impact your audience after they open the email.

To illustrate, here are some examples of how subject line tricks can potentially damage the subscriber experience:

Using “Re:” and “Fwd:”

It’s general knowledge among email marketers that subject lines containing “Re:” and “Fwd:” will get more clicks because people assume they’re from someone they know instead of a marketer.

Research by Contact Monkey found that subject lines including “Re:” can lead to a 92% open rate. That is impressive.

Content Monkey Best Subject Lines

Screenshot via Contact Monkey

But there’s a problem:

What happens after they open the email and realize it wasn’t a reply or forward at all, but a piece of marketing material?

Considering that 70% of buying experiences are based on how the customer feels they are treated, using a tactic of deception like this can seriously damage your subscriber list, and your ability to convert leads.

Using Too Many Numbers

Numbers are the number one factor in headline preferences, which has led many email marketers to integrate them into creating effective email subject lines as well.

People like list posts, and numbers offer some substance if you use them to quantify your promotional messages:

“Weekend SALE — Get Up to 50% off!”

But if you use this trick too much, it can have some negative effects for your email marketing strategy. Too much promotional messaging can tire out your readers, make them lose interest in your emails, and even push them to unsubscribe.

Creating False Urgency

In the same vein, marketers should avoid crafting subject lines that people can’t resist, only to disappoint them once they open the email.

A high open rate isn’t valuable if no clicks or conversions follow. Your subject line needs to be an honest representation of other aspects of your email content.

For example, adding a sense of urgency to your subject lines (“limited time,” “last chance,” “today only”) is an effective way to get opens, but should only be used if there actually is a sense of urgency.

So say your subject line reads:

“Now’s your chance! This offer expires tomorrow at 5 PST. Don’t miss out.”

That should mean that your offer really does expire tomorrow at 5 PST. People will notice if your short time offer wasn’t really so short time after all.

Maybe someone clicks and converts thanks to your urgent plea. But then later they visit your website and see the same promotion is still going a week later.

This deception could make them angry enough that they never buy from you again.

You could just shrug it off and say, “We’ll get new customers,” but remember it costs five times as much to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one.

Using Clickbait

As annoying as they are, clickbait headlines that encourage curiosity (such as “You won’t believe this shocking secret…”) have been the driving force behind many successful blogs over the years.

Many marketers have adopted them to create effective email subject lines as well, yet recent research has shown that clickbait subject lines actually aren’t very good at getting traffic to your website:

Marketing Land Clickbait Research

Image via Marketing Land

 

So even if they prompt more people to open your emails, they don’t appear to do much else.

Avoid clickbait subject lines, especially if the content that follows doesn’t match. Disappointing your readers can lead to mistrust that you’ll have to overcome, or even push people to unsubscribe.


Pro Tip: Write Your Subject Line First 

If you want to avoid any potential disconnect or deception between your subject line and content, try writing the subject line first. This makes it easier to stay focused on your marketing objective. And if you have the subject line on-hand, you can use it to inspire a persuasive email as well.  


Understanding Your Metrics

When you’re trying to research what makes effective email subject lines, you need to look beyond ways to get higher open rates.

In fact, open rate as a metric is essentially flawed.

Let me explain:

Any service that tracks email opens uses a tracking pixel in emails to monitor them. When someone opens the email, it sends a request back to the server to load the graphic. If the graphic loads, it counts as an open.

So that only works when someone chooses to load images in their email. Many people use settings that prevent images from loading or receive text-only emails. This can really mess up your open rate, and make potential leads seem less interested in what you have to offer.

And I don’t know about you, but I for one regularly open emails that I mean to delete. Also, if I see a marketing email has come through, I often click on it just so it gets marked as read, but never even glance at the contents. I bet a lot of people do these things.

But all these behaviors will be counted as opens, when really doesn’t reflect how I really reacted to the email or its subject line.

No metric is perfect, but focusing only on open rates for subject lines knowing how flawed they can be isn’t very wise.

Just take it from Comm100, It’s a generally accepted metric in the email marketing world that email open rate reporting can be off from anywhere from 11% to 35%.

No marketer can afford to work with that kind of variability.

Instead, we need to find data that takes a deeper look at the sales funnel and how people respond to our subject lines:

Litmus Infographic

Screenshot via Litmus

This data at least shows how longer subject lines have lower open rates and fewer clicks, making it a more viable measure of effective email subject lines than open rates alone.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of research out there that genuinely focuses on how subject lines affect conversions and other important metrics, despite an apparent need. That’s where you come in.

Really Testing for Effective Email Subject Lines 

According to Get Response’s latest Email Marketing by Industry Report, less than half of email marketers test their subject lines even occasionally:

Get Response Optimization Data

Screenshot via Get Response

Which is kinda crazy, when you think about it.

Every email you send is an opportunity to test, analyze and adjust each part of your email campaign to make it more effective.

And the information you get from your actual audience’s reaction to your content is so much more valuable than case studies and statistics based from other marketers’ research.

That’s why every subject line you create should come with a hypothesis you can test, even if the strategy was already proven useful for other businesses.

It can be as simple as: “A personalized subject line will result in more conversions than a generalized one.”

Test, adjust, and test again.

Remember Your End Goals

The most important point I’m trying to make with this post is this:

Don’t forget your end goals when creating subject lines.

Subject lines are arguably the most important component of your email marketing campaign, and focusing on open rates alone is a poor measure of their effectiveness.

If we want to write subject lines that actually result in a return on investment, we need to care less about getting opens (through damaging tricks and deception, no less) and more on testing how different subject lines affect our customers’ journey, by focusing on other key metrics like clicks and conversions.

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