Why strong subject lines are killing your email marketing.

slick salesmanHigh open rates are not the most important thing about email marketing.

Nor are click-through rates or conversion rates.

These are not the metrics to watch.

There is only one thing you really, really need to watch. And it’s not even a metric.

The thing to watch is your reputation.

Without a solid and positive reputation for delivering high-value, honest and useful information through email, you’re dead in the water.

Not even the best subject line will save you.

Let’s look at how this might play out, in two scenarios.

Scenario 1…

I sign up for a newsletter on a company’s website. They have promised me the opportunity to stay ahead of the curve in an area of my life that’s really important to me. I’m persuaded to let them into my email inbox.

Keep in mind, this is my personal inbox. It’s the same place I get email from family and friends.

Anyway, after subscribing, I eagerly open the first few emails from the company. I’m anxious to improve my knowledge in this area of my life.

Those first emails set the tone. I’ll quickly learn whether or not I did the right thing in giving the company my email address.

In this scenario, the company is pretty sophisticated and very much driven by metrics. They want high open rates, high click-through rates and high conversion rates.

So they use every trick in the book to drive these metrics higher. They’re also pretty keen to sell me some of their products or services, right out of the gate.

Yes, they share some free information with me, just like they promised. But what they’re really saying is that to get the really good, valuable stuff, I’ll have to take out my credit card and buy something.

As a consumer, I’m not totally naïve. I knew these guys had stuff they would want to sell me when I signed up.

But…they moved awfully fast. And they pushed awfully hard.

The outcome?

Loss of reputation.

I stop opening their emails because I know they’ll just keep pushing. I don’t trust them anymore. Their reputation is in tatters.

And I probably won’t be alone in how I feel and in what I do. As the company sees their open rates fall, they’ll start writing “better” subject lines, and more urgent calls to action.

The trouble is, by doing that, they’re just making things worse.

Now let’s look at Scenario 2…

Same thing. I sign up for the company’s e-newsletter.

This time, they send me some really, really useful stuff each week.

Amazingly, they don’t try to sell me anything. It’s all give, give, give.

Pretty soon, I’m loving these guys.

Interestingly, their subject lines are horrible from an “expert” point of view. But that’s fine. No problem. Because as soon as I look in the “From” column and see the company’s name, I click to open the email.

Open rates are not about clever subject lines. They’re about the reputation of the sender…the name in the “From” column.

After several weeks I kind of wish the company would pitch me something. Based on the value of the free information they give me, their paid services or products must be awesome.

Maybe, after a couple of months, they’ll start adding a quiet link in their newsletter, so I can click through to one of those products or services.

Or maybe they won’t have to do even that. Maybe I’ll just go to the website on my own and start buying stuff.

The company wins in this second scenario because they have worked hard to develop a stunning reputation.

The direct response experts among you might be thinking, “Sounds cute Nick, but we have the metrics to prove you wrong. The harder we push, the more money we make.”

I’m sure you do.

In the short-term.

But as you lose more and more people from your list, because you pushed too soon and too hard, how much time, energy and money is it costing you to keep filling the “hopper” with new names and email addresses?

The faster you burn your subscribers, the faster you have to feed the front end.

Instead, how about building a massively positive reputation among the subscribers you already have?

How about having them watch for your next newsletter, wishing it would come sooner? How about having them think you are the most awesome, trustworthy and generous company on the planet?

I worked on this second scenario with a company a few years ago.

With new subscribers, we waited four months – sending out issues once a week – before we added the first product link to the newsletter.

We were going to wait a little longer. But we started getting emails from our subscribers, and they were complaining that we were making it too hard for them to find our products because we didn’t link to them from our emails. They had to go find them on the website on their own.

As complaints go, that was a pretty nice one.

The campaign was all about building reputation.

Do the same, and your subscribers will be eager to buy. They don’t need to be pushed or cajoled or teased with overblown promises and urgent text links.

So here is the thing…

The more attention you are paying to your subject lines with your email marketing, the more likely it is you’re on the wrong track…pursuing Scenario 1 instead of Scenario 2.

You’re burning reputation instead of building it.

About the author: Nick Usborne is an online writer, copywriter, author and coach.

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7 thoughts on “Why strong subject lines are killing your email marketing.”

  1. Spot on perspective, Nick. And very timely. Was lured into “shiny object” marketing zone the past few weeks. Good info from sources I subscribed to for some needed resources.


    The over the top, hyped up pitches that followed really left me feeling…well…over-sold.

    On the other hand the help-first, be-useful approach of others (and what you share here) is refreshing.

    Thanks for providing perspective. I was beginning to feel that I had to be something I’m not to turn leads into long term (profitable) relationships.

    Press on…

  2. An excellent article. You can also add “what day/time to send” to the list of topics that marketing “mavens” use to obscure poor content.

    No matter what time of day, night, week, or month you send – whatever small flurry of activity you might receive as a temporary boost will be drowned by poor content.

    I have been continuously producing enewsletters since 1997 (text only then – what fun for a writer to use only words) and have resigned accounts when the mktg managers got obsessed with links, subject lines, etc.

    And the reason they usually get so overly concerned with such topics is simple. They do not know their customers, do not know their products, and do not know why their customers like their products. And that is why you resign the account.



  3. Hi Nick, Just got back from 2 weeks vacation and was confronted by 1200 emails. I opened yours first. Then proceeded with the standard, select all–deselect To Be Read–delete, routine. Very few make the cut.

    It is quite easy to see the formulas being used when viewing these series of emails en masse.
    I could go on a rant, but why bother. Anyway, I think that is your job. I’ll just go talk to the neighbor’s dog until it walks away.

  4. This article might just save me! I don’t think my emails were horrible, and I didn’t bash people over the head to buy, but there was some “sales-y” stuff in there that new subscribers might not have been expecting.

    I actually gave up due to the abysmal open rate, but just this one article has inspired me to take a new look. Thanks for getting me “un-blocked”!


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