Email subject lines

Every marketer who uses email wants to get the highest possible open rate. At Resources Online, we’ve found that the right subject line can significantly improve email open rates. For some of our email campaigns, it can make as much as a 5-percent difference! We do a couple of things to help ensure that the maximum number of our subscribers open and read our emails.

Test multiple subject lines for each newsletter

Testing is the single most important thing we do to optimize subject lines. We always test at least two—and sometimes as many as 12—different subject lines for each newsletter. All of the debate and subjective opinions about subject lines goes away in the face of hard data—seeing what your subscribers actually respond to. Try this simple testing process:

  1. Draft a few of your best subject lines.
  2. Have everyone on your team make their best guess as to which subject line will win. This friendly competition can sharpen creativity for future subject lines.
  3. Send an actual newsletter to a portion of your subscriber base with each subject line. You want at least 200 to 300 opens for a meaningful sample size. For example, if your open rate is 25 percent, send out about 1,000 emails for each subject line.
  4. Wait a few hours (or even until the next day), and then look at the email open rates for each subject line.
  5. Pick the winner, and send the winning subject line to the remainder of your subscriber base.
  6. Write down the results, and learn from them!

Use words that help. Avoid words that hurt. 

  • Questions are almost always better than statements. People are naturally curious, and when you ask a question they want to know the answer.
  • Appeal to people’s sense of competition or comparison. Questions like, “Who is funnier, Jennifer Lawrence or President Obama?” or “iPhone vs. Windows Phone—who wins?” immediately pique interest.
  • Avoid the hard sell, particularly with words and phrases like free, help, percent off, and reminder. Nobody likes a nag. And spam filters don’t like these words either, so your email might not even be seen if you use them. Of course, if you do have a compelling offer that is, in fact, free, go nuts. The offer will speak for itself as long as you mention it in the subject line (but perhaps use freebie instead of free).

Consider these other tips

  • Be as specific as possible. Don’t use a coy subject line to make your subscribers guess what’s in the email.
  • In general, keep the text of the line short—50 characters or fewer.
  • Don’t repeat your subject line in subsequent newsletters.
  • Try referencing current events, such as an upcoming holiday, the Oscars, or the Super Bowl.
  • Edit the subject line to make it easy to scan in a crowded Inbox, and eliminate unnecessary words. Be pithy.
  • Put yourself in the recipient’s place—what would your reaction be to this email subject line?

Email can be a powerful marketing tool, but it’s one that you have to avoid over using. So, it’s worth spending the extra time to perfect your subject line (and your email content) to maximize the value of each mailing.

Picture Frame

Creating engaging content remains one of the biggest challenges for content marketers. Although quality writing is certainly key, you really need to start by picking the right topic. If you want to create content that interests and captures the attention of your customers—and benefits your business—look for the intersection between your products/services and customer queries.

Most marketers tend to write about their company, products, or services. That’s because, as a marketer, you want content that helps your business. You aren’t writing for fun.

It’s true that you might be able to draw tons of readers by writing about the hottest celebrities, but if you provide plumbing services or business intelligence tools, your posts about Justin Bieber probably aren’t going to get you sales.

The key is not to write about your business (most of the time, anyway). Instead, write about topics related to your business—topics that interest your clients and highlight your expertise.

Assuming that your content marketing efforts are focused on lead generation, moving potential customers toward a purchase, and supporting existing customers, identify topics by listing your company’s products and services. I find it easiest to list them in a matrix and then brainstorm from there.

Content Marketing Topics Table 1

Phases of the Customer Journey

Next, consider the phases that a customer goes through on the journey toward a purchase. (Some are more relevant than others for your customers, and you can add any that are specific to your business.)

  • Awareness of a problem, need, or opportunity. The customer realizes that she has a problem or an opportunity. Or maybe you need to help her realize that fact.
  • The search for a solution. The customer wants a solution to the problem or a way to take advantage of the opportunity, and he starts looking into the possibilities.
  • Comparison. The customer becomes aware that there are multiple products, companies, and solutions, and he is deciding which one to pick and why.
  • Validation. Your product, company, or service is a leading candidate in the customer’s mind, and she needs to validate that you are a good choice (and to be sure that there aren’t any showstoppers). In some cases, this happens before the customer actually makes a purchase. In others, it’s the final step before he contacts you to get a bid or to begin more formal, in-person discussions.

Add these phases as columns for your matrix.

Content Marketing Topics Table 2

Continuing the journey with customer-focused questions

Now, ask customer-focused questions to help fill in the table. This is where it gets tough. It’s why we often use personas at this stage and why people hire consultants to advise them. The trick is to try to forget the kind of business you are in and your specific role. Instead, put yourself in the customers’ shoes and ask, “What problem does my product or service solve?” “What need does it serve?” or “What opportunity can it offer?”

Then, for each product/service and each phase in the matrix, ask:

  • What triggers the customer to begin this phase? For example, which situations cause him to become aware that he has a problem or to begin actively searching for a solution?
  • What questions does the customer have about the problem, need, or potential solution at this stage? For example, if your product is a marketing automation tool, in the search phase, what questions do users typically have about the capabilities of automation tools?
  • What information might the customer be seeking, about both the problem and the solution, at this stage? What data do they want to see?
  • Who else is involved in the decision, and what information do they need? If your services or products are travel-related, who else might your target customers consult with or have to make arrangements with? If yours is a business-to-business (B2B) company, does the purchase require IT or management approval? What would these people need to know?
  • What information might help the customer to move from here to the next phase? Ultimately, you hope this lead will move on to the next phase. What information or tools can you provide to help them do that?

Content Marketing Topics Table 3

Paving the way with adjacent topics

Lastly, for lead generation, it’s also helpful to ask yourself, “What topics are related to my products and services which are also of interest to my target audience?” Take this blog post, for example. The service I’m focused on is “content marketing strategy,” which Resources Online provides. But I’ve identified adjacent topics of interest to content marketers, such as writing engaging content, creating good headlines, strategies for sharing content, and others. All of these topics are related to content strategy and are important to the audience I’m trying to attract.

Knowing my audience, I could even go broader. Content marketers often are “marketers” who have added content marketing to the mix. So any topic about marketing stands a good chance of attracting these folks (or those considering the profession) and would be fair game for me.

Add the adjacent topics to your matrix, with the product they pertain to. You can merge the phase cells for each row and use that space to include any additional information for the topic.

Content Marketing Topics Table 4

This matrix approach can really kick-start your list of topics to write about. Next, take the list and look at it from an authoring perspective and a search engine optimization (SEO) point of view, to identify themes and keywords. This allows you to build content pillars with subtopics, along with the queries and keywords to focus on. From there, you can plan out a full editorial calendar. You may even be able to write about Justin Bieber after all.

Customer Journey Processes

You’ve done thorough research on your customers and invested considerable time and money to design a great customer-facing website and apps. You’re generating leads. But now what? Are your leads dropping into a black hole? Or maybe your marketing automation system nurtures them, but you have no idea how your customers fare after they purchase the product.

More and more companies are interested in taking a holistic view of the customer journey, because doing so can pay off in greater conversions and repeat customers. But supporting the customer journey requires back-end systems and processes that enable effective gathering, updating, and sharing of customer information to track the client through the entire journey.

To accurately do so—and to apply the information to improve your bottom line—you need to use the same methods for your internal systems as you do for your customer-facing systems. That is, you should conduct thorough research and apply user-experience (UX) principles to the design.

You may find that doing your internal design is actually more complicated than designing your website or customer-facing applications. It involves multiple departments, each with different goals and processes, and often with different systems of record. So, here’s a basic process you can follow:

Identify the corporate customer touchpoints, and involve the department stakeholders

Start with an assessment of the customer touchpoints—the customer’s intersection with different departments. You should be able to map the customer journey and identify each point where someone from your company interacts with the customer, either virtually or in person. That includes everything from emails sent by marketing automation systems to user registration of a product to customer service feedback. Use this process to create a customer journey map with departments identified at each relevant stage.

Based on that analysis, you’ll know which teams you should involve in your design project. Consider any team whose work affects prospects, is involved in sales, or supports customers after they have purchased. Get at least one representative from each team to participate in the project. As with any project, you need knowledgeable representatives who can speak for their team and who see value in the outcome of this process.

Determine goals

A critical component of user-centered design is identification of each audience and its goals. For the purposes of your internal UX project, consider each department as a separate audience and assess the goals of each one. You’ll want to look at the goals the department has for its work with customers, in addition to the goals the department has as an entity.

For example, when it comes to customers, support may be focused on satisfactorily addressing customer questions in a timely manner. As a department, though, it may also have a goal of reducing the cost per incident. It’s important to consider both when designing solutions.

When you complete this step, you should have a list of customer and department goals for every department or team that interacts with the customer. You can combine this information with your journey map to show the goals of each department by customer stage and touchpoint.

Focus on the customer information

Because you are trying to improve the tracking and exchange of information about customers, focus now on that information. For each touchpoint, identify:

  • Input: What information does the team have or gather about the customer?
  • Use: What does the team do with the information? How is it used by this department?
  • Output: Where does the information go and how is it used by other teams?

Keep in mind the goals you listed. As you assess the information flow, ask yourself what information the team could use that it doesn’t currently have access to. Also consider what information other teams could use that this team is gathering or could gather at this stage in the customer journey. This can reveal additional opportunities to better support your clients or to meet internal needs.

Assess the current systems and tools for storing customer information

Now, look for gaps and integration opportunities. Where is information not being passed? Where do you need to integrate systems to exchange information? Where can you make process improvements to better support the customer?

Don’t forget departmental goals as you do this assessment. Some improvements may not benefit the customer but will help improve internal business outcomes.

With the information you’ve gathered, you should be able to create a diagram showing a complete picture of the customer journey and the internal supports for it. Your map can include all the data you’ve gathered about the inputs, uses, and outputs of customer information at each stage and by each department. On your map, make note of the different tools and databases that store and manipulate information at each stage. Your map will then show the gaps where information isn’t being exchanged or used effectively because of disparate systems.

Using your map, you can develop a plan to standardize or integrate the different systems. Of course, your ideal solution may be one centralized tool that all departments can use. That’s often not feasible, though. More likely, you’ll make targeted improvements to integrate specific applications and databases so that they can exchange key information.

Design your systems like you’d design your website

If your solution involves building new applications or intranets, consider spending the extra time and money to do a good design for those tools. Just as customers are more likely to use your website if it’s well designed, employees are more likely to use internal applications that are well designed.

Treating your internal tools project like a customer-facing project does require more time and more money. In the long run, though, a good, user-centered design approach can definitely pay off.

B2B Customer as a robotWhen you come into the office in the morning, do you put on your business hat and turn into a robot? No. And neither do your business customers. So why do we write web copy as though we are talking to one?

According to a recent study from CEB, emotion plays a bigger role in B2B purchase decisions than most marketers realize. Although business customers may be looking at vendors through the lens of their company, behind that lens is still a person. Remembering that you are writing for that person—rather than for a business—can make a big difference in the effectiveness of your content.

Does professional have to equal boring?

The same man who visited websites on Sunday researching cars is a sitting behind a desk on Monday researching cloud storage systems. The same woman who was looking into vacation packages for herself yesterday is looking into marketing automation tools for her company today.

The consumer websites that we view regularly on our non-work time are focused on captivating copy—often with a bit of humor—written concisely and presented in a friendly and approachable manner. Boring doesn’t cut it on a consumer website. Yet, when we put on our B2B writing hats, boring copy tends to be the standard.

Whether it’s a B2B or a B2C website, the fact remains that users make a “stay-or-go” decision within seconds. So the first job of website copy is to grab the users’ attention and keep them on the page. You stand a better chance of doing that if you apply techniques similar to those used for consumer websites. That means an aesthetically pleasing webpage with reduced text, written in an informal tone.

Make your copy engaging and compelling. Just like those in a newspaper, your headlines should grab the reader. The usual marketing speak or standard business lines aren’t likely to do the job. Instead, try humor, surprise—or even controversy.

If you manage to keep the reader on your website, at some point you will probably need to provide more detailed information about your products and services. That doesn’t need to be boring either. One way to keep it interesting is to write to and about your customers rather than about you. We call this you versus I writing.

To illustrate, here are two examples of website copy:

B2B copy:

GreatTools is an enterprise-capable suite of data-quality modules designed for SalesToYou administrators. GreatTools contains modules for data deduplication, normalization, standardization, comparison, verification, import, export, and mass delete, to name a few. These modules have been designed to work on massive data sets at the most sophisticated SalesToYou installs around the world. GreatTools can be operated in a manual mode but also in a 100-percent scheduled unattended mode for large batch jobs.

B2C copy:

Action Cam.
Prove Yourself.

Relive the glory of every hardcore, gravity-defying moment and share it wirelessly via Wi-Fi, thanks to Sony innovation. No other mountable camera combines Carl Zeiss optics, 4x slow motion and low light sensor with a rugged exterior that welcomes mud, snow and water.

Which do you find more engaging? If you’re like most people, it’s the video camera content written for consumers. Even when it doesn’t use the word “you,” it speaks directly to the reader, suggesting he or she “relive the glory” and “share it.”

You might be thinking, “Yes, but a video camera is naturally more interesting than an enterprise data cleansing tool.” True, but even the boring tool can have better copy, by focusing on the reader and his or her experience. Compare this rewrite to the original:

Do you just love data deduplication and standardization? Our guess is no.

Hand the drudgery off to GreatTools. Save time while ensuring accurate and up-to-date information with this enterprise-capable suite. It handles a multitude of administrative tasks involved in keeping data clean: data deduplication, normalization, standardization, comparison, verification, import/export, mass delete, and more. Keep database maintenance worry-free by scheduling GreatTools to run regularly. Or operate it manually. GreatTools supports even massive data sets on the most sophisticated SalesToYou installs. Now, you really will love data deduplication!

This revised text may not be as exciting as that for the action camera, but it’s more personal than the original text and speaks directly to the benefits for the user in a much more informal way.

Speak to the business person, not to the business

Which brings me to the next point. Not only should you speak to the user and about the user, you should speak about the user’s problems. We often forget that the business user researching a product or service likely has a personal stake in the outcome of that research.

The user searching your website may have been tasked with finding a solution to a business problem—in which case his or her reputation is on the line. That person will be blamed or praised depending on how well the solution works.

Or the user may be looking for a solution to a problem that affects him or her directly. Maybe he’s trying to eliminate daily, time-consuming tasks so he can focus on more strategic work. Maybe she’s looking for a product that will end the complaints of the people her department serves. Or finding a vendor who can implement a solution to meet critical corporate initiatives. In these cases, the solution may directly make the user’s life easier or more difficult and may affect his or her work review or career.

You don’t have to know the reader’s specific situation to write in a way that speaks more directly to him or her. Simply keeping your focus on the person rather than on the business, and writing for that person, can change the nature of your website copy to make it more compelling.

Text like “Improve the ROI for your business” becomes “Deliver good ROI to your management.”  Text like “Save time and money” becomes “Make your work life easier, and meet budget goals.”  And text like “Increase user adoption and user satisfaction” becomes “Tired of hearing complaints from your users? Turn complaints into compliments by…”

Speaking directly to your business buyers’ concerns and issues shows them that you see them as real people and that you understand the personal impact your products and services can have on them. It suggests that you empathize and care. As human beings, we prefer to interact with and give our business to people who actually see us as such and who care about the outcome for us. So, if you want to make the sale, write your copy for humans instead of robots.