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Commentary & Analysis

Gimmicks or No Gimmicks? The Challenge of Email

Are “magic” subject lines really magic? Or are they only magic for certain people? Are you tracking who is responding to which? If you know which customers respond to which tactics, you’re way ahead of the game.

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: September 18, 2019

I just downloaded a white paper titled, “Open Sesame: Subject Lines That Work Like Magic.” Several days later, I read an article about the perception among the C Suite of the demise in the appeal of email. It was curious, especially since both articles were published by the same company.

If certain subject lines work like magic, why should anyone worry about a decline? Perhaps the implication was intended to be, “Use these headlines and your open rates won’t decline!” But I don’t think so. The point of the article was that when we see declining open rates, we shouldn’t assume it’s the lack of effectiveness of email itself, but rather, it should prompt us to do a deeper dive to find out what aspect of the campaign isn’t connecting. Is it poor creative? Poor targeting? Poor timing? Over-saturation? Are “magic” subject lines the answer?

But I go back to the “Open Sesame!” white paper. Here is a selection of the “magic” subject lines right at the top of the list:

SALE ENDS TODAY! Up to 50% off!

Tonight only: A denim lover’s dream

Last Day To See What This Mystery Email Is All About

The magic is supposed to come from the sense of urgency that the deal won’t last. “Get it now before it’s gone!” The problem is that if I open my inbox, I will probably see half a dozen of those subject lines right now. One company or another may only use that headline once in awhile, but when every company is using the same tactic, each company’s “every once in awhile” becomes oversaturation to the max. 

Individual companies overuse this tactic, too. I have multiple companies who send me URGENT! URGENT! LAST DAY! URGENT! emails at least once per week.

This is where the importance of testing comes in. For some people, never-ending urgency may work. These customers may have the type of personality that buys into the urgency every time. If you have customers like this, you need to flag them. Create a new field in your email database that says “Urgency.” Check. If they don’t respond to urgency, then the field stays empty and you try something else.

The next category was emails that pique curiosity.

Something you’ve never seen before!

Pick you up at 6?


Same thing here. Those worked for me the first time, say, a few years ago. But I’ve learned that this is nothing but a technique to get me to open emails, so now they just irritate me. Not everyone is like me, though, so here’s an opportunity to add another field to the database: “Curiosity.” Yes they respond to those subject lines or no they don’t.

Of course, there is always room for creativity. In the urgency department, “Low Stock!” can be effective because it appears to be a real issue of potential scarcity. The marketer can always offer another deal (and you know they can, and do), but if stock is low, well, that’s a different story. (Even though we know they could get another shipment later that day.)  Or in the curiosity department, “Look Glamorous In Your Sleep!” might work because it’s genuinely different.

For me, I look for authenticity in subject lines. Is this something I can trust? “Give a gift,” for example, is one of the “magic” lines that actually work for me, at least in the world of nonprofits. If it’s a mission I care about, giving a gift is something real. It might be a marketing tactic, but it has a tangible impact on a real person or organization. I also like the appeal to social proof. “This month’s best sellers,” “Our top reviewed products,” or “Look Who’s Wearing [Brand].” If I’m looking to buy a certain type of product, peer reviews matter to me. I’m going to click. Likewise, the appeal to star power might be a tactic, but the result is still that buyers get to look like their favorite celebrities, which is a very real motivator for some people.

My takeaway? Anyone doing email marketing needs to track subject lines as a database field. For some people, “magic” subject lines are a gimmick and a turnoff. For others, they work. Which types of appeals are most likely to motivate your customers? If you don’t know, you should. It’s time to start tracking.

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By Maeghan Nicholson on Sep 27, 2019

Best subject line I ever wrote, based on open rate: "Hello, it's me (not Adele)". Sometimes a surprising pop culture reference can work. Worst subject line I ever wrote: "Bad news". Got huge open rates, but also some hate mail when they opened it only to find a promotion inside.


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Oct 05, 2019

Gimmicks drive me crazy, too. In particular, I can't stand the subject lines that imply that someone has spoken to me before. When I get those (and sometimes they are cleverly written enough that I actually wonder if they are genuine and open them), I usually call the person/company out for dishonesty. Once in awhile, I actually get a response, but it appears that these folks are more concerned about open rates than the negative impression they may be leaving once those emails are actually opened.


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