E-mail Marketing: Grabbing ‘Em at the Inbox

Pity the poor subject line. The electronic equivalent of a direct mail envelope, it is overlooked, misunderstood, laughed at, yawned over, and trashed. Yet it is arguably the most important element of a catalog’s e-mail message.

The purpose of the subject line, after all, is “to intrigue them into opening the e-mail,” says Thom Pharmakis, Internet copywriter at Dodgeville, WI-based apparel cataloger Lands’ End.

Although he couldn’t cite exact response figures, Pharmakis says Lands’ End’s are “much higher” than the average conversion rate. He puts the industry standard at 1.2%; Geoff Smith, director of client programs at Palo Alto, CA-based e-mail marketing provider ClickAction, estimates that 2%-3% of e-mail recipients follow through with a purchase.

Some liken the subject line to the cover of a catalog: It should entice you to turn the page. “A subject line that says ‘Sale on Shirts’ is certainly not interesting, and unless I need shirts, I won’t open the e-mail,” Smith says. “But the subject line ‘Cows We Know’ from Lands’ End gets me to open it. It’s intriguing.”

“The subject line is the riddle, and the e-mail body is the answer,” Pharmakis says, recalling customer favorites such as “Snow Falling on Cactus” (about snow in Arizona) and “It’s in the Wind” (about a windmill farm in Wisconsin). About 500,000 consumers subscribe to Lands’ End’s weekly e-newsletter.

The mystery of intrigue

There’s no doubt that an intriguing subject line has a greater chance of standing out amid inbox clutter. But how a subject line intrigues is part mystery, part best practices, and part instinct.

It helps if it’s witty, practitioners say. “‘Celebrate World Fleece’ from the Roaman’s catalog was one of our best-performing e-mails,” remarks Michele Bartram, Brylane’s chief Web officer, who runs e-mail programs for the New York-based company’s eight apparel and home decor catalogs.

It helps even more if it’s also a compelling offer. A Valentine’s Day promotion from Vermont Teddy Bear Co. hooked male customers with “Get Some for Free…(Shipping That Is).” “Response rates were great,” says Michelle Cote, loyalty marketing manager of the Shelburne, VT-based cataloger, which e-mails 350,000 subscribers a month. “As we test subject lines, we struggle with wanting to have a free shipping offer and to have fun with our brand.” (Using the word “free” does not affect response rates, Cote says. And, in fact, Internet service providers sometimes automatically shuttle messages with subject lines that contain words such as “free” — or types of punctuation such as exclamation points — off to bulk mail bins.)

As important as fun and an appealing offer is brevity. Court Cunningham, vice president/general manager of DoubleClick Technology Solutions in New York, tells clients not to exceed 40 characters in the subject line. Not only is a short line easier and quicker to read, but “most browsers don’t show more than 60 characters,” he points out.

What’s more, keeping the subject short forces the copywriter to get right to the point. “Because of the way spam has infiltrated our inboxes, what you instantly want to communicate is credibility,” says Rachael Heapps, executive creative director at New York-based agency RappDigital.

One sure way to get the electronic envelope opened is to create a feeling of exclusivity and immediacy, experts say. “‘A Sweet Offer for Pre-FUR-ed Members’ makes recipients feel special, and it is reinforcing our connection to them,” says Vermont Teddy Bear’s Cote. “That is the whole idea of loyalty, that you are being treated differently from everybody else.”

Getting personal

If exclusivity pulls well, personalizing a subject line pulls even better, right? Consider that, according to Heapps, personalization within an e-mail message can lift click-through rates up to 30%.

But though personalized subject lines can be powerful, don’t overuse them, warns Susan Beckett, relationship-marketing manager at the New York office of CCB-Paris. The beauty products cataloger presents subject lines such as ‘Private Sales for Susan’ just a couple of times a year. Otherwise, “it reduces the exclusivity of it,” Beckett says.

And while Vermont Teddy Bear personalizes e-mail body copy and is testing the use of customer names in subject lines, Cote has a concern: “data-cleansing issues. What happens if you send one to the wrong name?”

One thing e-mail marketers agree on is the need to test, test, test. “It’s so easy with e-mail, there’s no reason not to test multiple subject lines,” Double-Click’s Cunningham says. A company can send out a test campaign today at lunch and know by tomorrow what works.

Of course, the other elements of the e-mail must be right, too. “The best subject line in the world,” says Brylane’s Bartram, “won’t overcome the wrong product or a bad offer.”

Breaking the Rules

Lands’ End routinely defies a number of accepted best practices for subject lines in the e-mail newsletters it sends to 500,000 subscribers each week — and that works beautifully for the apparel cataloger.

While others say make a subject line direct and to the point, Lands’ End’s often come across like a riddle, or worse. “If you didn’t know ‘Cows We Know’ was from Lands’ End, you’d probably think it was spam,” admits Thom Pharmakis, the Internet copywriter at the Dodgeville, WI-based company.

“The obvious thing is to say ‘It’s Mother’s Day, Buy a Gift for Your Mother,’” Pharmakis says. “We feel that everybody knows it’s Mother’s Day, and if they are already a Lands’ End customer, they know what we offer.” The entertainment value of the subject line keeps the customers involved and keeps them coming back, he adds. In fact, a more straightforward subject line, ‘The Swimwear Is Here,’ had a much lower response than Lands’ End’s typically cutesy one, according to Pharmakis.

The bigger the brand, the more leeway it has with its subject lines, experts say. “Lands’ End has trained its e-mail newsletter customers that every e-mail it sends will be interesting” says Geoff Smith, director of client programs at Palo Alto, CA-based ClickAction. “I open every single one whether or not I’m in the market for the product featured, because it’s engaging.”

New York-based Brylane had great success breaking the rule that shorter is better — though the subject line’s length wasn’t necessarily the reason. When the company’s King Size men’s apparel catalog sent the subject line “Special Web Only Sale — Save 50% to 70%,” the e-mail performed terrifically even though the last half of the line didn’t even appear on most browsers. “When recipients saw ‘Web Only’, it gave them a sense of exclusivity,” says Michele Bartram, chief Web officer at the New York-based multititle mailer. “They said, I can get this only if I click on this e-mail. It’s like getting an engraved invitation. Any time we use ‘Web Only’ it does great for us.”

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