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A Primer On Email Subject Line Testing

Subject line testing is not a new concept to email marketing or to this blog.  However, it is an important key to email marketing success. Subject line testing is easy to do and offers concrete results, but is often neglected.

Below is a typical inbox. Which subject lines best grab your attention? Which approach would work for your brand? Which one do you think is the worst performing? There's only way to know - test it out!

Keep in mind:
  • Best-in-breed email programs consistently test their subject lines.
  • It is important to verify your past findings and current theories about subject lines instead of making assumptions.
  • If you can increase your open rates even slightly by optimizing your subject lines, the potential to increase click and transaction rates increases.

  • Be clear and direct.
  • Be short – keep subject lines to 50 characters or less.  (test this out to make sure shorter is better for your brand)
  • Do tell subscribers what’s new in this message.
  • Remind subscribers when sales/events are ending.
  • Try wistful, fun or emotional subject lines.
  • Test personalization, symbols (%, $) and capital letters. Also, I have seen pipes (|) used successfully.
  • Set your subscribers' expectations during the opt-in process about what kinds of emails they'll be receiving.
  • Try incorporating offer codes in the subject line.

  • Be deceptive.
  • Be too long-winded.
  • Deviate from your brand voice too much.
  • Scream (use words in all CAPITAL LETTERS).
  • Test once and then make long term decisions.
  • Be afraid to have fun!
  • Don't confuse newsletters with promotions. If your email is a newsletter, put the name and issue of the newsletter in your subject line. If your email is a special promotion, tell the subscriber what's inside. Either way, don't write your subject lines like advertisements.
Subject line recommendations and solutions are not a one size fits all solution. Discover for yourself about what works best for you and what does not work. Don't forget to document both your testing failures and successes. You do not want to forget what worked and did not work as you perform more tests. Also, you do not want to lose any testing knowledge as employees come and go.

Some subject line testing scenarios include:
  • Short versus long.
  • Mentioning a product type (shoes, savings accounts, cars, travel destinations).
  • Mentioning of brand or style type advertised (Nike, Cargo Pants, Harry Potter, Rolling Stone, Jolly Ranchers).
  • Using and testing placement of free shipping, percent-off or discount offers.
  • Using language indicating urgency (limited time sale, 3 days only, etc.).
  • Using language evoking curiosity or inspiration.
  • Using first name personalization
  • Including the company name.
  • Using capitalization and abbreviations appropriately or intentionally inappropriately (Di$count 4U!).
  • Including offer codes in the subject line.

A sample subject line test scenario: The 10-10-80 split
  1. 10% of the subscriber list received Subject Line 1.
  2. 10% of the subscriber list received Subject Line 2.
  3. 80% of the subscriber list received the winning Subject Line.
The winner is most often determined by unique open rate but not necessarily all the time. In the case of including an offer code in the subject line, the winner might be determined by the number of sales generated by that offer code. In this case the subscriber does not even need to open the email for you to make a sale because they can often see the code from the preview pane alone.

If you are having a difficult time deciding what subject lines to create, get inspired by the content of the email or by your web analytics data (to see which content is recently popular on your site and which popular keywords are driving traffic).

When it comes to email marketing, the best subject lines tell what's inside, and the worst subject lines sell what's inside. But don’t take my word for it – you need to test, test, test this for yourself.

♥♥♥ Hearts in subject lines ♥♥♥‏

Earlier this month I saw an email with something unique in the subject line - a heart.  This is from Tommy Bahama and is pretty cool. Since that time I have been testing how to do this in my own subject lines.  I also reached out to Tommy Bahama for some insight on how they did it.

As luck would have it I was able to figure this out the same day that Tommy Bahama contacted me and let me know their story and secrets.  I am not going to give away their secrets, but keep an eye out for more symbols in subject lines.  This could be "the" new trend in Email Marketing.

President's Day, Presidents' Day. Who knows. Who Cares?

There has been a discussion amongst email nerds about what is correct in a Subject Line: President’s Day or Presidents’ Day. I thought Presidents’ Day is correct since this day honors multiple Presidents.  Others argued that President’s Day is correct since this day honors Washington only.  To put this argument to rest, I did some inbox diving for President’s Day, Presidents’ Day and other variations in subject lines.

Here are the results listing the sender and the subject line.  What do you think about these? Please share your thoughts!

  • 34 Subject Lines were analyzed.
  • 20 used Presidents’ (59%)
  • 10 used President’s (29%)
  • 4 used another variation (12%)
  • 2 used both another variation and President’s in different emails (6%)
The longest Subject Line was:  Presidents Day Deals: LG 42" 1080p LCD HDTV $999.99, Sony Blu-ray Player $176.99, Altec Lansing Speaker System $89.99, Pentax Digital Camera $62.39,..

Ebates: Save big with Presidents' Day sales and Double Cash Back‏
Bluefly: EXTRA 20% OFF Presidents' Day Sale - Now Up To 75% Off!
eBags: Presidents' Day Weekend Sale - Our Best Deal is Back
HP: HP's Presidents' Day Sale STARTS NOW!
Disney Store: Presidents' Day Sale Starts Today! Up to 25% Off
Bass Pro Shops: Save up to 50% during our Presidents' Day Sale
Colorful Images: Celebrate A Presidents' Day Flag-Waver, Valued Customer, with FREE S&H
Current Catalog: Extended for 24 hours! Double savings at our Presidents' Weekend Sale!
Bluefly: Project Runway! See Who Won Last Night + Presidents' Day Sale!
Bass Pro Shops: Presidents' Day Sale – Save up to 50% Presidents' Day Shoe Sale Up to 45% Off, Plus Free Shipping at‏
Dick’s Sporting Goods: Final Hours to Save Big on Presidents' Day! Presidents' Day Sale + Last Day $1 Shipping
Lane Bryant: Last Chance For Presidents' Day Savings + New Must-Have Tees
HP: HP's Presidents' Day Sale - Save up to 50%
Radio Shack: Preview our Presidents’ Day 48-Hour Sale! President's Day Weekend Savings - Save up to 75%
The Sportsman’s Guide: Presidents' Day Sale! Savings Coupon from The Guide...
Bluefly: Presidents’ Day Sale featuring COATS – Now Up To 75% Off!
Newport News: Presidents' Deal: FREE SHIPPING for one more day.

Ann Taylor: President's Day Sale: Take An Extra 40% Off Sale + 40% Off 1 Full-Priced Item!
Ann Taylor: Shop Our President's Day Sale Now! 40% Off 1 Full-Priced Item + Extra 40% Off Sale Items
Office Depot: Hurry In for President's Day Deals + $10 Coupon
Norm Thompson: President's Weekend Event: 15% MORE OFF SALE!
Sam’s Club: Save big during the Serta® President's Day Mattress Event; online and in-Club Feb. 10-15, 2010!
Spiegel: President's Day Weekend Savings! EXTRA 25% OFF Already-Reduced Styles!
Office Depot: Celebrate President’s Day All Week + $20 Coupon
Banana Republic: Celebrate President's Day with 25% off! Today only!
LOFT Outlet: President's Day Sale: 50% OFF Spring Styles + Free Shipping
Ann Taylor: This Weekend Only--Our President's Day Sale! 40% Off 1 Full-Priced Item + Extra 40% Off Sale Items

LOFT Outlet: Presidents Day Sale...Savings Throughout The Store!
Banana Republic: Happy Birthday Mr. President! Save up to 40% + Free shipping.
Macy’s: Free Shipping + 2-day specials at the Presidents Day Sale! Presidents Day Deals: LG 42" 1080p LCD HDTV $999.99, Sony Blu-ray Player $176.99, Altec Lansing Speaker System $89.99, Pentax Digital Camera $62.39,..

Email Marketers Lending A Hand to Haiti

It is refreshing to see how many companies and email marketers have forgone their normal creative and rigorous mailing schedules to assist with earthquake relief in Haiti. Some organization simply added a link or image asking for help, while others dedicated entire emails and product lines to help Haitians in need. Over the past few weeks there have been a variety of help Haiti emails. Organizations such as Omaha Steaks, Coldwater Creek,, Ralph Lauren, Sport Chalet, plus many more have shown their support.

Here are some creative and subject line examples:

Coldwater Creek
Subject Line: Join us in Haiti's recovery effort.

Sport Chalet
Subject Line: Haiti Relief - Donate your shoes

Ralph Lauren
Subject Line: Join The Global Relief Effort For Haiti

Email Marketing in a Difficult Economy

The economy is one everyone's mind.  How has email changed because of the economy?  Here are two telling charts.  These display what percent of email subject lines contained an offer in Q1 2008 and Q1 2009.  What a difference a year makes!


Email Marketers are sending more types of offers more frequently.
  • Subject lines with no mention of an offer decreased by nearly 44%
  • The number of subject lines including the mention of a free gift
    increased over 100%
  • The mention of a percentage off in the subject line increased 20%
  • The inclusion of a dollar off amount increased 52%
  • 4.5% of these campaigns included a combination of offers such as
    Free Shipping plus 25% off
  • Free Shipping offers increased 32% when comparing January and February, 2009 with the same time period in 2008
  • The minimum spend requirement for Free Shipping appears to be decreasing many clients that offered free shipping at $150 or $200 have dropped to $100 or $150 respectively
Here are a couple creatives addressing poor economic times.

Discount Codes in the Email Subject Line

The Retail Email blog did a great job with its Subject Line Hall of Fame 2009.

It found that the most significant subject line trend of 2009 was the use of discount codes. Rather than forcing subscribers to open an email to take advantage of a discount code, retailers decided to experiment with putting the full call-to-action in the subject line. This tactic puts business metrics ahead of email metrics.

  • RitzCamera, 8/22 — Super Student Special, 10% OFF (Use Coupon Code 1828)
  • JCPenney, 9/9 — Use Code 32GIFT to Get Free Shipping!‏
  • JCPenney, 11/8 — Want Free Shipping? Use Promo Code 49SANTA At!
  • JCPenney, 11/26 — Use Code 25MERRY & Get Free Shipping!‏
  • Bluefly, 12/1 — Today Only! EXTRA 15% OFF Handbags & Shoes with Code HOLIDAY15‏
  • Ann Taylor, 12/8 — 30% Off All Full-Priced Items with Code WINTER + Free Shipping!
  • Sears, 12/15 — Hurry, savings end soon! Enter coupon code EXCLUSIVE‏
  • Linens ’n Things, 12/18 — Jingle your way to Savings! HOHOHO Coupon Enclosed!
  • Linens ’n Things, 12/19 — 4 Days Left to Buy More Save More! HOHOHO Details Inside.
  • Linens ’n Things, 12/21 — Hurry, Only 24 Hours Left to Save up to $24 with HOHOHO!‏
This is a great suggestion and well worth a test.

What Does the Future of Email Marketing Hold? An Interview With Jordan Lane of Email

Jordan Lane, founder of, was recently interviewed on the website Here is part of the interview.  Click here to view the entire interview with Jordan Lane. – Tell us a little about how started.
Jordan Lane- started as a place where I can put down my thoughts, observations, and learnings about email marketing- and share them with anyone who is interested. Email marketing is fascinating because it is always evolving and people are always asking what other people are doing and looking for examples. Email Marketing is like a big game of follow the leader. Everyone is looking at what everyone else is doing and them imitating them. For example, one question many of my clients, co-workers, and network friends would ask me frequently is what is a good creative for a welcome campaign. Instead of providing some sort of vague answer I created a post on my blog that not only displays 45 welcome creatives from the best in the business, but also lists the subject line and other statistics. (see the August 11 2009 post on is a great place to learn more about email marketing. It’s as simple at that....
Click here to view the entire interview with Jordan Lane.