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Test something besides the damn subject line!


In many of my conversations with marketers, I’ll ask them how many parts of their programs they’re testing. Inevitably they answer,

“We’re testing a lot!”

“Great! What do you test?” I ask. 

“The subject line. Every time!” they respond. 

“Great! What else do you test?” I ask again. 

“Just the subject line, but we test it every time!”

Sigh. I die a little inside whenever I hear that answer. Why? Because the subject line is only a tenth – or even a hundredth – of what we could be testing and learning about what works in email marketing.

I know why marketers test subject lines. Among other reasons, their email service providers make it easy. All it takes is a couple of mouse clicks and a couple of ideas.

Subject line testing has its place, too, in a complete testing program. But I have three problems with testing only the subject line:

  1. Many marketers test subject lines so they can check the box in their workflow that says they have to test the subject line. They aren’t looking beyond the subject line itself to establish a standard or guidelines.
  2. Testing subject lines without a plan produces only a result or answer that says, “On this day, for this email, at this time of year with this audience, this subject line drove more opens than that one.” Without a plan, you develop no learning or insight that leads you into the next email and the next subject line test. You should develop a three-month testing program for whatever you do.
  3. Subject line testing makes us great at getting an open. But the last time I checked, most retail or ecommerce marketers don’t get paid for getting lots of opens.  Subject line testing should be measured by more relevant outcomes like revenue, conversions or acquisitions. If we test only the subject line, we’ll increase our opens at the expense of metrics that drive success.

A three point plan to break your subject line testing addiction

  1. Vow to yourself that you will resist the temptation to take the easy route and to try the easy thing. A/B subject line testing is easy. Copy testing takes a little more work, but it can tell you more about your program.
  2. Go over every aspect of your email program, and come up with a list of three things you could change. Look at your call-to-action, the images you use, or the headline. How about the way you order products in the message? You might come up with more than three, so focus on the three you need to fix most urgently, or those that will make the biggest difference in your email results.
  3. Using your list, develop a three month plan to test new ways to do each of the three things you identified on your list. For example, create a testing program for new images. Create several segments of your database, and test different images over the three months of the plan.

Do pictures of people using your products generate more clicks than product photos alone? A one-off test won’t give you the answer. That’s why building out a three month plan gives you the time that you need to be able to spot a pattern. Test consistently. Your goal is to find repeatable success and results you can measure.

Enlist your ESP’s help

I get it that subject line testing is easy. I’ve been where you are, on the front lines of a major retail brand. I’ve been in a rush and felt unmotivated and overwhelmed. I’ve said to myself, “At least I can test the subject line and feel like I’ve accomplished something that makes me feel like a smart marketer.”

But, I caution you not to expect that just testing subject lines will change your email program or give you better results from it. It won’t.

Make no mistake – subject lines are great. That’s what gets the open for your email and what leads to the click. But we need to start working a little harder and not just go for the easy results.

So now, make me this promise. Say, “Ryan, I promise I will not go back to subject line testing for the next six months.” Then, call on your ESP to walk you through all the different testing protocols it offers. Your relationship manager might burst into tears, but trust me, they’re tears of joy that you want to try something new.

And, stop testing the damn subject line!




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