Every week, we send out the Content Marketing Update email. Before I send it out to the entire list, I always set up an A/B test on subject lines to see which subject line is preferred.
We’re a little competitive here, and sometimes it becomes a battle between Garrett’s blog post or my blog post being the winning email. That’s silly, of course (though admittedly I still cheer and point it out when I win), but after doing A/B testing for many months, we have some interesting data to sift through.
Let’s take a look and see if we can learn a bit about what makes for great email open rates, based on the data from the past three months.
To start, let me tell you about the data you see here, and the A/B test we ran. Like any A/B test, you are focusing on only one thing to test, despite there being other options. There are also two key variables that would obviously affect the outcome and data.
1. Who got the email, and when.
We sent the email out to 10% of our email list at 10 am CST, letting the test run for one hour before sending the winning email out to the rest. Of that 10% that receives the email, on average 10% actually opened the email.
2. Arbitrary decisions on featured posts.
The email subject line did not always match the headline of the post it referred to.
3. What you choose to measure.
This is quite a bit to consider when it comes to A/B testing your email. You might focus on the subject line (which is what we did here) and build data on character count, how the subject line is phrased, and the EMV of the subject line.
There are other things to test besides subject line, though.
We use Campaign Monitor and some of the other options for A/B testing they offer include adjusting who the email comes from (we use Garrett’s email because we think a real person is better than firstname.lastname@example.org), and the email content.
In this chart, you can see the email subject lines used. The green row is the winner, the subject line with the most opens. You can also see:
What does this data tell us?
|3||17 Apps To Help You Make Ebooks||86||1||29%||31||222|
|How We Grew Our Email List By 2,000+||73||3||50%||36||76|
|10||A No-Fail Method For Writing Blog Posts||126||3||0%||39||633|
|50+ Places To Repurpose Your Content||99||1||33%||36||278|
|17||The Total Guide To Sharing Content On Social Media||110||1||44%||50||153|
|3 Reasons To Use Exclusive Content||108||2||83%||34||145|
|24||Using Game Theory As A Content Marketing Tactic||108||1||63%||47||156|
|How Pixar’s Creative Process Can Help Your Content Marketing||97||0||44%||60||2219*|
|1||The Case For (And Against) Using Link Shorteners||117||3||13%||48||138|
|Is Ghost Blogging Unethical?||113||1||0%||28||89|
|8||3 Tricks To Get People To Remember Your Content||117||1||56%||47||257|
|An SEO-Driven Approach To Content Marketing||109||1||50%||43||325|
|15||The 1 Big Reason You Should Self-Host Your Blog||100||1||22%||47||98|
|How Distraction-Free Writing Will Work For You||98||3||14%||46||211|
|22||5 Plugins That Get You More Leads||92||1||29%||33||135|
|Make Your Headlines Instantly More Shareable||76||0||17%||44||2367*|
|29||Why Your Project May Be Doomed Before It’s Launched||124||0||44%||51||53|
|How To Handle Upset Customers On Social Media||115||2||38%||45||159|
|5||Why Content Marketing Tips Should Not Be Trusted||109||5||50%||48||91|
|Is Audience Fragmentation A Danger To Your Blog?||88||6||38%||48||137|
|12||Know Your Audience? Google Just Made It Even Easier||110||3||44%||51||146|
|Everything You Need To Know About Color In Content Marketing||108||5||60%||60||249|
|19||90s Nostalgia Can Rock Your Content Marketing||131||2||43%||45||94|
|5 Dangerous Assumptions You Make About Your Audience||118||3||38%||52||122|
In the sample above, nine of the email subject lines contained a number. Five of them won. However, in two cases, both A and B had a numbered headline. So, taking them out of the pool means that there are only five true examples of a numbered and un-numbered headline pitted against each other. Of those five, three won.
After seeing this, I may be more aware of creating a numbered and non-numbered headline to see which performs better over a longer period of time. In looking further back in our A/B test emails, numbered headlines performed slightly better, but not significant enough to say that they are a sure thing.
There are a few different theories about how long a subject line should be. MailChimp has done some great research on what makes email attractive to recipients, and a general rule of thumb seems to be about 50 characters.
In our sample, the character count looked like this:
|Character Count||Total Uses||Wins|
This is a pretty small sample, but what this data shows is that shorter subject lines were less successful. Mid 40′s and up worked best..
In looking at this table, I’m thinking I could be writing longer subject lines. Ours tend to hover around the mid-40′s in character count. What I also found interesting is that in half of these A/B tests, I tended to create subject lines that were of about the same character count instead of varying the length of the two competing against each other. Often, our blog posts have longer headlines and in future tests, we could be using that length in our favor.
In the June 10 email, the spread between the two subject lines was the largest, at 27. The winner, “A No-Fail Method For Writing Your Blog Posts” beat out “50+ Places To Repurpose Your Content.”
What is odd about that is that this was the same week where the winning subject line had an EMV of 0%, while the losing subject line pulled in a fair 33% EMV.
My theory is that the subject matter (how to write blog posts) with the promise (no-fail) was simply too good to pass up. Bloggers are looking for help on blogging, period. In any other week, the 50+ post would have been a strong contender.
We’d seen such dramatic results in how EMV (the emotional value) affected social shares of a post. I expected to see the same here, with email subject lines. In this sample of 12 tests, 67% of the winners had the higher EMV value. Emotional headlines AND emotional email subject lines are your best bet.
But does the EMV also affect if recipients choose to unsubscribe to the email? Let’s look.
In the sample of 12, one was a draw (winner and loser had same amount of unsubscribes). Of the remaining 11, the higher EMV also had more unsubscribes.
Perhaps it’s good to remember that emotional reaction works both ways: it causes us to click and share, but it can also cause us to unsubscribe.
I always think that a question is a good way to get people’s attention. MailChimp’s research suggests that is true. However, in our small sample (which is clearly not definitive), that wasn’t the case.
We had two email subject lines with direct questions. Both of them failed to win. However, they both had the lower EMV of the two email subject line options. You can’t get past the importance of how you word your subject line, even if it’s as powerful as a question.
A question alone won’t cut it. An emotional question probably will.
You’ll notice a few posts with significantly higher shares that have an asterisk. These posts were included in Buffer’s suggested shares and received a great deal of attention. I took them off the table for our purposes here, and used the remaining 10 email subject line tests.
Of the remaining 10, four of the winning subject lines were blog posts that received more shares, while six of the losing subject lines were blog posts that received more shares. And remember, the email subject lines don’t mirror the exact headline of the post, nor do all of the social messages that go out have the same headline, either.
So in other words, not terribly conclusive, except perhaps for one minor note: the wording you use to promote your post in headline, social media, and email really does matter. It’s not enough to write a fantastic post about a subject people are really interested in if you present it to them in a way they are uninterested in.
What should you learn from our email subject line test results?
What works for our email list and readers might have a vague application to your own, but in all likelihood, it doesn’t mean a hill of beans for you. The best thing you can learn from what we are starting to discover is the process of what we did, not the results.
Your results will probably be different, and blindly accepting someone else’s content marketing tips and data as the solution to your own content is not a good idea.
In the never-ending struggle to find a way to get readers to click and read your content, testing your email subject lines (just as you test headlines) is important. Not only for that specific email, ensuring that your best email goes out to your list, but also to learn about what attracts your list the best.