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Ken Magill

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Another Interesting, But Ultimately Useless Study

3/11/14

By Ken Magill

Want to clutter up your head with some useless crap? Of course you do. You’re a Magill Report reader.

Let me rephrase the question: Want to clutter up your head with useless crap from a source not named the Magill Report?

If yes, read a recent report by Retention Science on optimum subject-line length. It’s right up there with best-day-to-send-email studies in terms of usefulness.

According to Retention Science, a study of 260 million emails revealed that subject lines with from six to 10 words outperformed longer and shorter subject lines.

“We found subject lines with six to 10 words perform best, generating a 21 percent open rate, well above industry standard,” says a blog post touting the findings. “Those with subject lines containing five or fewer words ranked second with a 16 percent open rate, and those with 11–15 words returned a minimal 14 percent open rate.”

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: A higher open rate doesn’t automatically mean better campaign performance. A campaign with a low open rate may be driving clicks from prospects or customers more likely to buy than one with a higher open rate.

Long before the Internet became the direct marketing powerhouse it is today, there were campaigns that drove tons of leads—but really crappy leads.

Far more important than the world length of the subject lines in question is what they said. Maybe, for example, subject lines announcing limited-time killer deals or discounts just happen to tend to average between six and 10 words.

And even more important than what the subject lines said is what happened after the opens occurred.

This isn’t to say Retention Science’s findings are uninteresting. They are simply unhelpful. They may be even somewhat hurtful.

Every company has some jackwad who loves waving research like Retention Science’s around to prove a point of some sort. Sometimes the jackwad has enough power to hand down decrees.

I once worked for a jackwad who decreed our catalog covers could only be designed using primary colors because of something he read somewhere.

So now we have a study that says subject lines from six to 10 words are best. And without a doubt, somewhere there is at least one jackwad decreeing that 11-word subject lines are forbidden.

That is one jackwad too many newly empowered by a meaningless report.

What works? Too often the answer is: “Who can predict?”

Coincidentally, marketing services provider AgilOne recently sent an email to its subscriber file with the subject line: “email subject line.” It was a mistake AgilOne owned up to in a follow up email.

“What did we learn from this?” AgilOne asked in the follow-up message.

“9.7% of recipients still opened the e-mail (a higher open rate than the subject line ‘Customer Data Management Playbook’). Also interesting to note, click through rates doubled for this report as compared to another recently sent e-mail with a similar offering.

“Does that mean subject lines don't matter?” AgilOne continued.

“No, but you can expect that the unexpected will capture people's attention and pique their curiosity.”

Imagine that. An unexpected result in a direct marketing campaign.

With the possible exception of the “from” line, subject lines are the most important part of an email campaign. And, yes, obviously they should be brief to account for all the various devices and platforms through which people will access them.

But what if four words do the job? Should we add two or three more just to fall within Retention Science’s findings? Of course not. Focus on writing, not counting.

[Note to Retention Science: The Magill Report welcomes rebuttals. If you would like to supply one, I will publish it here.]

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