When it comes to writing email copy, it’s not hard to see why so much focus is spent on subject lines.
Chances are that your subscribers receive many permission–based emails every single day. Not only that, but you’re also competing for bandwidth with emails from their friends, coworkers, and family members, too.
If your subject line isn’t compelling, not only will it not get opened, but there’s a chance that it won’t even be seen.
This kind of pressure leads to a few bad habits. One is that marketers tend to overpromise with their subject lines and underdeliver on content. The result? A poor subscriber experience and falling open rates.
Another is that marketers tend to go in the other direction, due to the overwhelming pressure, and play it safe and underdeliver on the subject line. The result? A lack of intrigue, poor subscriber experience, and falling open rates.
Wiebe, copywriter and founder of Copy Hackers, works with brands like Crazy Egg, Shopify, Invision, Metalab, and Quick Sprout (just to name a few) to create copy that converts more effectively.
She coined the term “conversion copywriting”, which as a quick Google search will show, many freelance copywriters now identify themselves as.
When it comes to writing captivating email subject lines, there aren’t many more qualified to talk on the subject than Wiebe. That’s why when it came time to talk subject lines as part of The Email Copywriting Series, she was the obvious choice to sit down and chat with.
Here is our conversation with Joanna Wiebe on how she approaches arousing curiosity in her subject lines, how long they should be, and most importantly, how to write ones that are intriguing enough to get opens.
Q: You have a really cool case study around subject lines involving work you did with Quick Sprout. Can you tell us about that?
It performed really well for over a year, and still does. It was hovering between a 98%-104% open rate. The unique open rate was at about 80% on average, which is still super high for an email.
A few things are going on with that subject line. The “BOOM!” part was in all caps with an exclamation point, so it’s clearly trying to get people’s attention. It’s really working hard to get noticed in the inbox. It’s the first email in the drip campaign for Quick Sprout, so if people don’t open that email, they’re unlikely to open the ones that follow.
We can say that subscribers are more likely to open once you start the behavior right off the bat. So we needed people to open that first email.
“Subscribers are more likely to open once you start the behavior right off the bat.”
Then comes the “This is how you get traffic and convert it…”
This is the open loop, or curiosity gap, in that you’ve been introduced to this idea that there’s a way to do the thing that you really want to do. But importantly, the subject line doesn’t say what it is.
It says “this.”
In “writerly” language, that’s called an empty suitcase. “This” without a noun after it, is the empty suitcase.
I don’t know why they call it an empty suitcase [laughs]. I learned it all the way back in my first year as an English major. And it’s not like we sat around talking about grammar as English majors, but somehow I learned it and it’s been really valuable to know it.
It’s a bad practice when you’re writing an essay or a novel to have an empty suitcase. But it’s a very good thing for copywriting if you want people to be intrigued enough to click or open.
Q: The other interesting thing about that subject line is that you committed two of the supposed triggers that could land you in the junk folder–using all caps and an exclamation point. You work with a lot of brands, what are your thoughts on the words we should or should not use in subject lines?
I would have fear if we couldn’t test it. So if we couldn’t split test subject lines, than I would be hesitant to move forward with some ideas.
I think that fear of using “spam words” is a holdover from when split testing was still pretty hard. So about a decade ago even, when I was working at Intuit, our email marketing manager at the time was very risk averse. And there was good reason for that. Email is where most of any businesses sales really happen. We rely on email to sell things and to keep that list growing, especially if you want to sell your business later. A big, engaged list is a valuable asset.
So there are a lot of reasons to be careful about sending out emails with subject lines that might get marked as spam or not even make it to the inbox. So my email marketing manager back at Intuit was risk averse, and while I understood it, it was really problematic for experimentation.
For all the things you hear about regarding best practices, most marketers that work in conversion rate optimization are saying “better practices”, because you know that there aren’t any hard and fast rules.
So if you say that, as a rule, that you’re never allowed to use the word “free” in your subject line, you could be doing real damage to your business because you’re resisting the possibility that there may be moments and campaigns where risking using words or phrases like that could really be worth the gain.
Again, that’s where experimentation and being allowed to test go a long way toward helping me feel comfortable using language that’s traditionally been called “bad.”
Q: How do you determine winners when it comes to testing email subject lines? How far down the funnel do you measure?
For me I like to make an element responsible only for the thing that it’s most likely to impact.
“Make an element responsible only for the thing it’s most likely to impact.”
If we tried to make subject lines also responsible for click throughs in our emails, then that would be really problematic. You know that a subject line is there to get people to open, and when used in combination with the from name, the purpose is to get people to open the email.
If you try to measure it based on whether people clicked through or purchased, I think you’d be setting that poor little subject line up for failure.
The retort often is, “well I can do tricky things to get people to open the email, and then it’s the email’s job to get people to click.” That would be sabotage.
Your subject line shouldn’t be tricky. It should be doing things to get people to open the email while also setting them up for what’s inside the email without giving it away.
If we go back to “BOOM! This is how you get visitors and convert them..”, inside the email is actually talking about how you get visitors and convert them. So the subject line is doing the job of getting people to notice it and open it, but it’s also very importantly doing the work of getting people prepared for what’s inside.
It really comes back to making your subject line only responsible for the open, but it has to consider what’s inside so that you’re not setting yourself up for failure.
Q: When it comes to personalization, do you have any better practices for using personalization that isn’t sleazy, but actually adds value?
I’ve actually been tricked, for lack of a better word because I was actually like, “Hmm..nice work!”, by subject lines that were personalized that felt real.
Our goal isn’t to sound like marketers in a subject line, right? In the inbox we shouldn’t sound like marketers, we should sound like someone that the subscriber knows.
“In the inbox we shouldn’t sound like marketers, we should sound like someone that the subscriber knows.”
Now, you can go really dark with that and be tricky, or you can just say, “I’m actually trying to establish a relationship with this person, so it’s okay for me to want to connect with them personally because I’m not doing it for fake reasons.”
In those cases I’ve seen personalization work well in regards to using where I live and my name.
I thought Dan Martell was writing to me [laughs]. Nowadays I know Dan well, but at the time I thought, “How cool! Dan Martell is writing to me.”
When I opened the email it was plain text, and it was very short and said something like:
“I saw you just signed up for Clarity, and I also saw that you’re in Canada. If you know any other Canadians that should be on Clarity, why don’t you send them this link. Thanks, Dan.”
It was just really well done. It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t trying too hard–it actually matched really well with what I was experiencing at that time.
That’s really the only example of personalization where I was like, “Nice job. You did it well.”
Q: How do you use from name and preheader text to assist the efforts of the subject line?
We’ve found that they’re very useful, especially on mobile.
From names on a mobile phone displays very large, so in most cases it’s the key indication of whether or not you should pay attention. If the from name doesn’t sound like it’s from someone you want to hear from, it doesn’t matter what the subject line is.
That means we have to do a lot of work. You can test from names in most email platforms, so it’s about finding out if I should be Joanna, Joanna at Copy Hackers, or Joanna Wiebe, and testing those to see which gets the most opens, particularly on mobile.
The preheader text is huge as well. It should work with your subject line, but also stand independent from it in case your subject line only does half the job.
That means it should say something that builds on your subject line, or further teases at something from your subject line, or provides a new piece of information like a data point that people will want to open and read about.
The subject line doesn’t stand alone. It’s a matter of testing all the different elements.
Q: How do you determine the length of a subject line?
Whenever I’m writing subject lines, I have a constant reminder in my head that the point of the subject line, in order to get that open, is to stand out in an inbox.
So when you think about the fact that most marketers are told to go for about 45-60 characters, it stands to reason that the subject lines that might stand out are likely to be different from the standard. So you’d want to go very, very short–like one word–or maybe even quite long.
For clients, I’ve written insanely long subject lines that push right to the end where the tool won’t let you add any more characters. And that’s purely so that it looks different in an inbox.
Of course, you’ll want to front load the really long ones. You don’t want your subscribers to have to read the whole thing to care, front load it with the most interesting stuff in order to do the job of getting noticed while not having to read the whole thing.
You’d be hard–pressed to get me to write a 50 character subject line at this point, because you’d have to work extra hard with the copy you write, and I’m far too lazy for that [laughs].
If we know we want it to stand out, then do things that others aren’t doing. So go short or go really long.
The Principles for Writing Captivating Subject Lines
- Utilize the empty suitcase method for arousing curiosity in your subscribers.
- Split test your subject lines to continually identify optimal words, phrasing, and punctuation that get opens.
- Make your email subject line responsible only for the thing it is most likely to impact: the open.
- The subject line doesn’t stand alone. Test how different from names and preheader text variations impact opens.
- When it comes to length, try testing very long and/or very short iterations of your subject line in order to stand out.
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