Contradictory Advice Improves Your Email Open Rate

Here’s a little parable that relates directly to digital marketing…and specifically email marketing, as we’ll illustrate in moment. But first, see if our parable describes a situation you can relate to:

There’s a hot new restaurant in town that’s booked three or four months in advance.

A wanna-be customer slides up to the maîtres d’, sheepishly requests a table and tries to slip the maîtres d’ a 20 or 50-dollar bill to make things go a little more “smoothly.”

The customer gets shut down and sent on his way. But as he turns and starts to walk toward the exit with his tail between his legs, someone who the maîtres d recognizes strolls in – also without a reservation – and this guy is greeted like an old friend and immediately seated at a nice table.

This is the illustration that came to mind as we reviewed some data and advice on marketing email open rates the other day. We were looking at two separate articles and they seemed to be sending opposite messages. Here is the opposing advice, as we gleaned it:

  • Make your subject line as straightforward as possible.
  • Play on the emotions of the recipient in your email subject line.

Let me give you an example to illustrate the first point. According to a study that looked at thousands of emails various companies have sent to customers, the subject lines that work best are something like this: COMPANY NAME Newsletter.

I don’t see that subject line playing on any emotions, do you? By the way, I have to say that this simple formula of basically using the name of the company and adding something to it like “newsletter” or “product update” is very appealing. Having been in this business for a while, I know how much people struggle to craft the best subject lines for their marketing emails, and I’ll touch on that more in just a moment.

Let’s get Emotional About It

Now let’s examine the strategy of building emotion into the subject lines of your digital marketing emails. (These emotions are like the $20 bribe the restaurant goer tries to use in our little parable.) Three of the emotions recommended were:

  • Fear of missing out (this is a very popular emotion right now, and you see it shorted to FOMO)
  • Curiosity
  • Desire

I think it’s safe to say that an email subject such as COMPANY NAME Newsletter doesn’t really play on any of these emotions, at least in any significant way. So here’s the big question: Were the people recommending emotional subject lines totally wrong?

I think the answer to that question is no. The critical issue is to understand how both positions on this question can be correct.

First, let me say that the study that touted the success of bland subject lines found that they had insanely high open rates – as high as 80 percent. Wouldn’t you love to have open rates that high? Why would such a simple subject line results in such a high open rate?

When it’s not the Subject Line

The answer to that last question, I believe, is simple: It wasn’t the subject line that was causing people to open the email – it was the reputation of the company itself. This is the man in our parable who is recognized and immediately given a table.

In other words, companies that enjoy high open rates with subject lines like COMPANY NAME Newsletter, are held in high regard by the people on their email lists. They have established “street cred.” The people receiving those newsletters know that the content is important.

This teaches us perhaps the most important lesson regarding email marketing: Your content MUST be seen as invaluable! If you can establish that, people will almost always open your emails. This takes a company culture that consistently delivers valuable information to customers, clients, and prospects.

However, it takes time to develop this kind of relationship with the people on your email list and that’s where pushing a few emotional buttons can be part of your strategy. When you’re trying to pull a new prospect on board, it may not be enough just to say your name in the subject line; you may have to add an emotional element. But when you do this, and coax a recipient into opening your email, you absolutely must deliver valuable content. If you don’t, you’ve probably lost that prospect.

Finding the Best Subject Line

How do you know which kinds of subject lines will work best for you? You need to do some testing and perhaps even some surveying.

First, why not see how a subject line like COMPANY NAME Newsletter would work for you? Do an A/B test and pair it against a more emotional subject line. See which performs better, or if the difference is negligible. If there’s no difference, you’ve just made life a lot easier on yourself!

If you discover that you need to put some emotion into your subject lines, then start testing the three emotions listed above and see which resonates with your list the best.

Match Content to Customers

Finally, you may want to survey your recipients and find out what kind of emails they actually want to receive. Do they want information, discounts, updates? Once you know their specific interests, you can segment your list so it better targets your customers and prospects.

This could increase your work because you may need to pull together more than one newsletter at a time. However, it may also increase sales and customer loyalty. Better open rates certainly help keep your company “top of mind.”

I hope that by outlining these pieces of seemingly opposite advice, I’ve given you some direction for experimentation and exploration. I also want you to fully appreciate the significance of providing exactly the kind of content the people on your list want to receive.

Wouldn’t you be pretty darn pleased with an 80% open rate?