Did the subject line make you open this?

If it did then I have a confession.

I nicked it.

Didn’t even change a word of it.

It was sent from eBay, a website I use often and from whom I get emails every week.

They make a great case study for email marketers because they put a HUGE amount effort into testing different subject lines.

And there’s good reason…

With eBay you pretty much KNOW that you’re going to be hooked up to some product or other, based on your purchase history.

Which is great, but…

If you’re busy working, or trying to save money, or feeling guilty because you’ve bought too much recently… well, then you will probably avoid opening the email at all.

It’s a big problem for many businesses.

How can you get past this reticence
in your readers to open your emails?

How can you keep it fresh and interesting when people know your website very well?

eBay do it by trying to be as personal and direct as possible.

Take a look at this screenshot.

As you can see, ‘your name’s all over this’ has been used twice in the past month.

Clearly this is something they’re testing, or that works so well they’re using it again.

I can imagine why…

When someone writes ‘Your name…’ it immediately inspires interest.

It suggests they know something which is personal to or particularly relevant to you.

It’s worth taking a look at some of their other subject lines to see how they compare…

• ‘Dress up your living space’ – I suspect I received this one because I recently ordered some chairs on eBay and they’re stalking my purchase history.

• ‘You’ll find this interesting’ – This is quite intriguing. WHAT will I find interesting? It’s simple, direct and compels me to open.

• ‘It’s your chance for a change up’ – I’m not sure I like this one. It doesn’t really mean anything and doesn’t connect with my recent customer experience. Saying that, it’s worth testing and testing and testing again. Never dismiss an idea until you’re tried it and checked the analytics.

• ‘Customers like you aren’t easy to find’ – Ah, flattery gets you everywhere!

Now, the next one I like…

• ‘Warning: contains temptations…’ – These are warmer, more emotive words, and there’s some humour to it.

Other eBay headlines use urgency, like ‘Hurry, your item ends in a few hours’ when an auction is drawing to a close.

They also like to push me back to the website with subject lines like these…

As you can see, I recently looked at a retro swivel chair (I decided against it in the end) and an old 60s garage rock 45 single.

The subject line for this was: ‘More information about SCANDINAVIAN DINING BAR OFFICE CHAIR’.

Again, this is very specific and personalised, based on my behaviour on the site.

So what can we learn from this?

• BE PERSONAL – If possible try using people’s names in the subject line from time to time. If you can’t do that, try personal language, for instance ‘Hey, you’ll like this’ or ‘I think this is perfect for you’.

• KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER – If you know that a customer is likely to have visited a certain area of your website, or purchased a product, then tap into that experience. For instance, ‘Update on your recent purchase of XXXX product’ or ‘If you liked XXXX product you’ll love this’. Your aim is to connect with those people who are most likely to click and buy. So you have to think of that person as living breathing human being with specific goals, fears and desires.

• ENCOURAGE ACTION – People think that the end of an email is the only place where you can push a reader to take an action, but your subject line can do this too, saying ‘Look at this’ or ‘Can you help us?’ or ‘Hurry, time is running out, please read’.

• MIX IT UP – eBay use a variety of wildly different formulas and approaches and test lots of different ideas. They don’t just batter us with personalised messages; they constantly mix it up so that we’re more likely to take notice.

• EXPERIMENT – Experiment with subject lines each time you broadcast emails and monitor the open rates, as well as the clickthrough rates. Keep a record so that you know what works and what doesn’t. Most email service providers let you split your email list in two and test different subject lines on the same content.

Finally, here’s a great tip for you…

Start building your own swipe file, starting today

Whenever you get an email message that you click to open, save that subject line.

Write it down in a Word doc that you’ve specially created for the purpose… or in an Evernote note (this is what I do). Or if it’s easier, just pop the email into a folder so you can build a file of them.

The best way to write subject lines is to take inspiration from existing ideas and adapt them for your own use.

As a direct mail copywriter, I was trained to save up every headline, sales brochure, letter and envelope that caught my eye. This didn’t change when I became a digital copywriter, web developer and editor…

I still grab and save everything that catches my eye, like a mad digital magpie, and then I use them as inspiration.

Far better than sitting in front of a blank screen, wracking your brains for ways to reinvent the wheel.

See how you get on, and if you test out some subject lines and have some results you want to share, please let me know.