Takeaways From a New Subject Line Report

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"Looking for fun evening plans, Mr. Levine?" That's the subject line of an email I just received from the Folger Theater here in Washington, D.C. According to a 2015 study by Experian, email subject lines that were personalized by including a name boosted open rates by 29% on average across all industries. Usually you see first names though, so this one goes a bit more formal.

In an article last month posted on their Conversion Rate Optimization Blog, OptinMonster's Mary Fernandez wrote about subject lines that boost your open rates. "Personal" was one of the 10 types. She does advise to "be careful not to play too many 'tricks' on your subscribers by making them think that you actually are a friend!" That could have influenced Folger's choice of using my last name.

But there are other ways to personalize. For a two-for-one-special they were running, Access Intelligence used the subject line, "Who will you bring with you?" Mequoda, one of the best at this, offers to "Let us be your coach."

Here are 7 takeaways from this subject line report:

1. Sales, discounts and special offers work really well. But while the higher the percentage off, the higher the click rate, open rates can actually go down if the percentage is too high. People may have a hard time believing it and move on.

2. "One psychological principle that is practically impossible to resist is the fear of missing out." Sure enough, I was debating about whether to go to an event last week and then received an email from the museum that said, "Last chance to come to our House Party Celebration." I signed up. I felt even better when an email a couple days later said "sold out." Builds their credibility. "Subject lines that include words that imply time sensitivity—like "urgent," "breaking," "important" or "alert"—are proven to increase email open rates," wrote Fernandez.

3. Leverage our desire for closure by leaving your subject line open-ended so readers will be curious. I received an email from Fast Company that reads: "This Easy-to-Use Beehive Is Bringing Honey to Backyards." That I have to see. "Alexandra Schwartz's Favorite New Netflix Show," wrote The New Yorker. (Good to use one of your well-known writers occasionally.) Another one from them asked, "Who's the White House proofreader?" They had me at proofreader. Here's one from Ted.com: "Amazing photos of Africa—taken from a flying lawn chair."

4. Use vanity. "To do this, you can either promise something that makes the subscriber look better to their peers, or invoke the fear of being shamed." One example she gives is, "Gift inspiration for the discerning cyclist." The use of "discerning" there—or any positive adjective—works well as a subtle compliment. I'm discerning; I'll read this.

5. "I want you to forget all the channels and products that you produce and go back to, 'What are the pain points for your customers?'" Melcrum co-founder Victoria Mellor told us at BIMS. Fernandez advises using those pain points in your subject lines. "How to Survive Your Next Overnight Flight." "Get more kitchen space with these easy fixes." "The best cities for finding a job." (LinkedIn)

6. "Retargeting emails are sent to subscribers when they fail to complete an action or a step in your sales funnel." Goldstar, a half-price ticket agency, is famous for these. And they do work, especially if you're willing to discount further. "Hey, forget something? Here's 20% more off." A travel company looking for my feedback on a trip wrote, "Welcome back. We've got one last thing to ask you." Telling people that their time will be short is a good strategy. Just got this one: "Your recent Hertz experience – 3 minutes." No verb needed.

7. "Give subscribers an easier way to achieve their goals by offering a shortcut, or a useful resource that saves a lot of time and energy." We've all used these. To my inbox today came: "The 8 Dos and Don'ts of Event Tech Implementation"; 10 Small Luxuries That Will Upgrade Women's Business Trips in 2018; and "12 Resolutions for Event Planners This Year." And this came last week: "How to fix a broken heart." (Ted.com) I'm sure that got a lot of opens.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…
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