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Over the last week a couple coworkers, clients and I have been discussing the effectiveness of email campaigns that we’ve received over the last few months. We’ve had arguments over whether or not headlines like “Why Is Your PC So Slow” and “Get $50 for 30 Minutes of Your Time” are effective at getting people to open emails. We’ve debated the usefulness of less-than-paragon tactics such as out-out’s and disguised opt-ins (if you need an example of the latter go try to download Quicktime from and tell me if you have to enter your email address in order to do so). We’ve settled on three general principals that we think creates a good, and effective, email campaign, including: trust & recognition, matching expectation, and affective quality of subject lines.

Trust & recognition

This is our primary factor. One of the keys to not being marked as spam is to gain the trust of the person you’re sending to. If you’ve created an opt-in campaign then there’s a good chance that the people you’re sending to already trust you to an extent. However, you want to be sure that they recognize both that they did opt in to receiving emails from you, and that they are getting what they signed up for. Means of doing this include:

    • Use coherent identifiers

      A Mailchimp study of 40 million emails sent through their service found that amidst the top performers were “[Company name]” Newsletter” and even “[Company name] Sales and Marketing Newsletter”. While Mailchimp is quick to note that boring doesn’t necessarily equal good, these two examples have one thing going for them: they’re consistent and expected. Anyone receiving these two emails knows what is going to be in them, and who is sending them.

    • Use an identifiable sender name

Part expectation, part trust, sender name lets people know if some one they recognize is sending the email. In a Email Experience Council poll, 54% of readers proclaimed that they weight sender as a more influential factor for opening email than subject line.

It’s also worth noting that you should always send from a company email address. If one person is identified with the newsletter, then using their address or name is a good idea too.

Matching Expectations

What are your users signing up for? Sending users email that they aren’t expecting is a good way to get users to unsubscribe, or worse: mark you as spam. The key is consistency between the offer in the sign up process and what you provide. Did they sign up for deals on products? Give coupons. Did they sign up for your newsletter? Don’t send them hard-sell advertisements. Do they want the latest deals from your store? Send them to ’em. If people are expecting to get something from you then they will open it.

  • Communicate how your content matches their expectations. For instance, if some one has signed up for your newsletter then use the word “newsletter” in your subject.
  • Remember that a subject is supposed to describe the contents. The purpose isn’t to make a sale, it’s to get people to open the email.

Affective Subject Lines

Maybe it’s the history of copywriting in email marketing, but a catchy subject line is the point that everyone focuses on. I would go so far as to argue that this is of lesser importance. Unlike headlines where you are vying for a the attention of a reader who has no connection to you, subject lines should be reflective of an ongoing relationship and discussing something that interests them.

However, if you’ve got the above in the bag, then you don’t need to be a brilliant copywriter. Just take a subject that your readers care about, that is in your email, and state it. Sure there are all sorts of rhetorical tricks for creating tension and making readers interested, but if a reader has already displayed interest by signing up, expects what you’re sending, and then sees a subject that they care about…

…well, they’re going to open.


The following examples illustrate several of the theories discussed above. All are formatted as [sender] – [subject].

Blair Lazar – Extreme News

I’ve mentioned Blair’s email marketing before. It’s good, especially for such a small company. Their headlines, however, leave out any kind of affective message. Instead they just opt for the somewhat boring “Extreme News”.

Is this bad? Not persay. In fact, given that their campaign is based around news and their goal is (or at least appears to be) relationship management, the use of a boring headline may actually be favorable to both their open rate and customer relationship maintenance, though I wonder about how much directly attributable profit comes from these campaigns.

What might cause a problem is the use of his last name in the “from” address. However if I were to receive this today as a new user would I know who “Blair Lazar” is? Would I connect him to Blair’s hotsauce? Would I consider “Extreme News” something I wanted to read?

Tough call.

Winzip – Why Is Your PC So Slow

While the subject may be effective at hitting a subject that readers care about, there are more problems with this than I can count.

For one the signup process for Winzip is designed to incur permission by making people assume that they need to enter an email address to download Winzip software, meaning that people aren’t really signing up expecting to receive anything. When they do receive email it is a hard-sell for a product with no apparent connection to winzip. Bad for trust, and not what people expect.

The opposite of Blair’s campaign, this may work as a means to achieve the goal of selling a product (and likely getting a commission or some such), but I bet that the “report as spam” rate is through the roof. Not to mention the incredibly shady practice of proclaiming on your sign up page that “We do not share e-mail addresses with any third parties”, then sending you advertisements from third parties through your own mail service probably destroys customer trust.

Natural Wellbeing – February Newsletter: Cold sores & Thinning Hair

A client of ours, Natural Wellbeing, does their own email marketing. However, I frequently chat with their email marketer, and was discussing the ideas above with him leading up to his last email subject line test. Deciding to switch their subject lines around a bit, from “February health tips – the Natural Wellbeing Newsletter” to the above. When tested the above resulted in a 33% increase in open rate, and even more impressive, a whopping 60% increase in click through, sending traffic soaring.

What’s right here? Identifiable sender name immediately following an email identifier that matches what the reader expects to see, and finally a subject that the reader is interested in. Simple, nothing about it that makes you go “wow”, but it works.