Importance of subject lines in emails


email marketing expert diaries

Parry Malm is the CEO of Phrasee. Parry is a well-known digital marketing professional. He’s worked with countless brands and media outlets to help them optimize their online results, and is one of the world’s leading experts for email marketing.

Expert Diaries from Zoho Campaigns connects avid email marketers to the experts in this space, and help them learn some best practices and tips. Our aim is to connect email geeks and form a community that learns email marketing from one another.

In this interview, Parry discusses the best practices for writing, optimizing, and delivering email subject lines and pre-header texts.

Creating a subject line is one of the first things we do while crafting an email. What are some underlying ways subject lines impact and enhance email marketing that might not seem obvious at the first glance?

Parry:Global open rates for marketing emails haven’t been particularly strong for a while now, which means that the subject line will be the only part of each email most of your subscribers will ever see. The thing is, that tiny, brief touchpoint when a subscriber reads your subject line can become an effective branding opportunity. Even an unopened email can have a positive impact on a subscriber’s perception of your brand if you use the right subject line copy. 

Does a “perfect” subject line exist? If so, can you tell us the anatomy of a perfect subject line?

Parry: “Perfect”? No. “Optimized”? Yes. A subject line is only as effective as the impact it has on the subscriber who reads it. Since each of your subscribers is a beautiful and unique snowflake – each with their own individual set of tastes, preferences, histories, needs, hopes, and dreams – writing a subject line that will appeal to / engage all of them is an impossible task. A better goal is to aim for subject lines that appeal to / engage as many of them as possible as often as possible over time. The good news is that learning how to do so through a data-based approach is entirely achievable (it also works!).

The easiest advice a marketer could receive is to test emails using different subject lines. But how do beginners who are unsure about why and what to test get started?

Parry: The “why” of split testing is pretty simple: testing helps you learn what works on your brand’s unique audience and what doesn’t. This knowledge can help you write better-performing subject line copy that drives more subscriber engagement.

As far as getting started goes, the first thing you have to decide is which performance metric you want to test for. Phrasee recommends testing for email opens as it offers the most robust optimization data. The process of testing is relatively simple: write several subject lines using diverse language and send them to random segments of your audience. Then see how each of them performs in the wild. The tricky part is having a robust methodology in place to learn from the results of each test you conduct. That’s what drives improved performance in the long run.

Marketers believe that emails, whether B2B or B2C, is first “Human to Human.” With Artificial Intelligence (AI) currently ruling the technology world, how do you think AI drives the email engagement with humanized subject lines?

Parry: I prefer to look at emails as “brand to human”, rather than “human to human”. When a subscriber reads your email, they aren’t thinking of the developer who designed it, they view it as a message from your brand. Every brand has a unique voice. If your AI tech is up to snuff, then teaching it how to write short form copy in that unique voice is entirely possible with today’s technology. Engagement functions as a proxy metric for your audience’s perception of your brand and its emails. If you give your subscribers a reason to engage with your emails, they will. If you don’t, they won’t. It’s all about respecting the relationship between brand and subscriber. 

Many people still overlook the advantage of a pre-header. How important is it for pre-headers to complement the subject lines? Are there cases when a pre-header could be empty, and, if so, how would that affect the deliverability of the email?

Parry: The pre-header (we call it a “subheader” at Phrasee) should always compliment your subject line copy. It affords you the opportunity to convey a bit more information and drive those all-important opens, so I’d never suggest leaving it blank. A subject line and a subheader should combine to tell the story of what’s inside your email.

It’s the era of conversational personal assistants, and brands might never know if their emails are read by an actual human or a (human-like) voice-controlled device. Does this possibility impact subject line creation? If yes, how?

Parry: If anything, the adoption of voice technology will make email subject lines even more important. As they currently stand, voice-enabled email applications read aloud the sender name and subject line for each email. But there remain important questions about this evolving interface that need to be answered, like: how would a voice assistant read an emoji? What impact will a subject line length have on its performance when read via voice? Basically, as voice email tech evolves, there’s going to be a LOT of testing needed.

What are your thoughts on the role subject lines play in achieving a maximized email delivery and ideal inbox placement?

Parry: There’s no quicker way to annoy subscribers and garner spam complaints than using boring, repetitive, or dishonest language in your subject lines. Bombarding your audience with lame subject lines will damage your sender reputation, impacting both your inbox placement and deliverability. Putting in the effort to use on-brand subject line language which resonates with your audience rather than annoying them or tricking them into opening is the only effective way forward. Respect your audience and the relationship you’ve built with them.

Sender address is crucial for establishing brand trust, but not every time the same person could send emails to the same set of recipients. Do you think this violates the rule of maintaining the sender identity? What strategies should a brand adopt in these situations?

Parry: Here at Phrasee we’ve always been advocates for keeping things as straightforward as possible between sender and recipient. If your emails and subject lines are consistently good, on-brand, and offer value to the subscriber, there should be no need for such tricks. 

What’s your opinion on marketers using emojis to shorten windy subject lines? Do you think emojis influence the length and display of subject lines across various devices and clients?

Parry: Emojis are a linguistic tool to amplify a subject line’s message. As such, they make a good subject line better or a bad subject line worse. Every brand should experiment with (and robustly test) emojis in their subject lines. See how your audience responds. You might be surprised!



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