Don't be afraid to tinker with your From line

I happen to belong to something call Groupon, an online, email driven business that harnesses the power of collective purchasing to offer money-saving coupons on anything from fish pedicures (no time to explain) to car valeting and even holidays. Groupon is a play on words – well word actually: “coupon.” Geddit?

But a puff for Groupon is not the point of this quick post. I was clearing out old Groupon emails from my inbox and noticed how they have progressed the From line in their emails over time – I’ve been a member for about 6,8 months.

Take a look below. The top line on both images shows the most recent email. The bottom line, the oldest.

Obviously this isn’t all the emails I received from them in that time period shown. But I hadn’t spotted how they had slowly modified their From line from:

  • being benefit led and explanatory – “MyCityDeal – Groupon” (bottom)
  • to leading with the brand name but supporting with the benefit – “Groupon – MyCityDeal” (middle)
  • to simply – Groupon (top/most recent).

The brand has grown enormously in this time and you’d have to live in outer space to have not heard of them. Every time I look the value being placed on the company and the list of prospective buyers seems to increase. Way to go coupon people!

But the point of this post is – don’t be afraid to fiddle with your From line in emails.

We allk now that people delete emails faster and faster and that the From line is very important when deciding what to open. We all angst over Subject lines. Let’s start angsting that From line progression. If it’s good enough for a business most recently valued at $15 billion, it’s good enough for me.

Highly effective email tactics

I lurve MarketingSherpa and have been a fan for years. I particularly wanted to share this chart from them on various email tactics, such as delivering content relevant to segment, email to house lists, email to rented lists… were rated as 2highly effective” by B2B and B2C marketers.

effective email tactics

( I know the copyright says 2009 but it’s just landed in my email inbox from them.)

Both B2B and B2C rate delivery of relevant content to segment as highly effective. The percentage of B2B marketings saying this is slightly higher. In their analysis of this difference MarketingSherpa point out that the business-buying process is usually longer and more complex than that for consumer purchases. “Delivering content that is not only relevant to the recipient’s business segment but relevant to their current stage in the buying process is critical.”

I’m less swayed by this argument. Timely contact in the buying process is important in both markets. With consumers, the buying process can be as complex and involve a journey across multiple channels – a newspaper advertisement, something on television, a poster in a shopping mall as well as email. There’s also a proportion of consumers who will make selection processes online but still go in store to buy. By contrast the business buying process is more focused and may have less distractions (competitors), particularly at the high end (capital purchase).

But the real kicker in my book is the statistically significant percentage of marketers who rated event-triggered autoresponder emails as highly effective – way above  third part ads and rented lists, among other things.

When was the last time you reviewed your autoresponder emails? Yeah, yeah… I know – you’re just about to take a look.

» This chart on the MarketingSherpa site (it won’t be available for long)

Are we all becoming users?

One of the most important  things us lab rats do (when starting to work with a client) is getting them to ‘think like users’. Instead of thinking about what they want to say they must be totally absorbed in what their users want to do.

This means organisations have to get inside the psyche of users, whether that’s visitors to websites, ‘target segments’ opening emails, or less controllable interaction via social media. “Who are these user people and want do they want?” “Can’t we just sell them stuff?”

But I think I’m currently caught up in a profound and seismic shift ,which is turning us all into users (businesses and individuals alike). As a business, do I still need to engage in a time-hungry project of Borgian magnitude to construct a website, or do I download WordPress? Is my next budget demand a massive add campaign or an imaginative poke on Facebook? Is it all about build and cost or is it all about visualisation and imagination?

Don’t get me wrong, businesses who too-eagerly embrace social media,  with no clear idea of what they will bring the millions of social mediators they seek to interact with, do so at their peril.

But it strikes me that if businesses, organisations and other coporate collectives can engage with social content generation tools wisely and thoughfully, it will bring them one step closer to being users instead of simply mimicking users in order to turn a buck.

That brings a smile to my lips.

Email Subject line length

So, what is the ‘best’ length for the Subject line in an email? Perceived wisdom is that 50 characters is the outer limit, with best practice limiting you to 45. There have been some bulletin board exchanges about 200-plus character length Subject lines (including one test involving a 1500 character line). But an email Subject line is a bit like a Porsche Cayman: the fact that you can accelerate from 0 to 62 miles an hour in 6.1 seconds doesn’t mean you should.

In the summer of this year, digital marketing agency Alchemy Worx carried out some interesting research that indicated Subject lines of less than 60 characters were best for optimising open rates, while click
and click-to-open rates were optimised by subject lines of over 70 characters. There was a ‘dead zone’ between 60 and 70 characters that didn’t optimise anything.

What interests us here at the CDA Content Lab is how people are engaging with Subject lines? We know that, online, people tend to scan and skim text in a very visual way. This is different to the character and shape decoding that goes on when we settle to read (which we may do online at certain arrival points, but more on that another time).

We also know that From lines are very important when it comes to opening emails, as people try to tackle ever more full inboxes. From lines are more manageable and often more unequivocal than Subject lines. We see a name we recognise, so we open the email. We always advise clients to spent as much time on the From line as on the Subject line. From the Acme Trading sales team may be much more openable that From Fred if I’ve heard of Acme Trading but I don’t know Fred Blogs from Adam.

So some degree of familiarity – resonance – works in the From line. Can we work this little benefit into the Subject line? What do recipients want to see in their From lines? Keep in mind we’re discussing a business-to-business and business-to-customer / prospect environment here. From lines to mates and relatives are a whole other ball of wax.

What we’re working towards is reply-focussed communication (see our earlier post). In email and website content we’re often engaged in conversations with people we have never met and who we can’t hear. We have to anticipate what they want and reply accordingly. So…

If I get an email, which is not a regular newsletter I’ve subscribed to, I want to know ‘why?’. Keep in mind that spammers are exploiting the ‘why?’ card, so go for something that’s clear and quick to understand, coupled with a good From line that underpins your authenticity. Clients occasionally talk about the ‘wow’ factor but my advice is that ‘wow’ is often very spammy.

When an email newsletter hits my inbox I want so see news. I’m not reading at this stage, so it is possible to get away with words like ‘latest’ and ‘update’ so long as there’s a robust context. ‘Latest news’ just doesn’t cut it without explaining what the latest news pertains to.

If it’s an email from a product provider, then an offer always goes down well – again, give me context.

I’d also hypothesise that, because the recipient isn’t reading that this stage, you can get away with something less than correct sentence construction. Even a simple sentence is a complex beast and I’m not going to get sidetracked by explaining subjects and predicates and goodness knows what else at this stage.

An email Subject line needs a whole new rule book. The ‘object’ of the Subject line is the recipient of the email. Oh goodness, all the grammarians have just fallen over!

You don’t have to place the object in the Subject line. That said, adding the recipient’s first name to a Subject is an increasingly deployed bit of conditional content.

Think about shape. As I’m scanning and skimming, give me short, familiar words that convey clear meaning. It’s worth drawing up lists of words you use frequently in your emails. Type them down, all in the same font, all lower case and the same size and then scan them with your eyes half closed. Which ones leap out at you?

Finally, think about length. If you want to, divide the Subject line into pre-35 and post-35. Put the main point of your email in the first 35 characters and use some additional length to develop a supporting argument or an action eg ‘read our 10 top tips about this’.

And remember, size isn’t everything.