Subject lines III: Branding

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some subject headersSo we cleared up the issue of length in Part 1 and then discussed what the subject line must achieve in Part 2. Which leaves us with the small matter of what, exactly, you should put in a subject line...?

Let us begin with a common question: should you include your brand/business name?

Well, if a core aim of the subject line is to ensure your email is recognized, putting some recognizable name in there makes intuitive sense.

It might be your brand, the newsletter name, your business name...whatever is likely to trigger that recognition most easily. Here some real-world examples:
  • [SherpaStore] Receipt for Order : 10084963
  • ClickZ News: IMC2 Lays Off; Google's Russia Deal Blocked
  • [] Account Password Request
  • Your order has dispatched
  • Email Insider: Six Key Email Marketing Trends You Cannot Ignore
Survey results certainly seem to support the idea.

Back in 2006, Silverpop found a correlation between branded subject lines and higher open rates.

More recently, MailChimp evaluated the results of numerous A/B tests and concluded:

"Subject lines with company names in them did better."

So you'll find experts recommending the practice. The folks at EmailGarage, for example, recently wrote:

"Name recognition is the most powerful element in your subject line."

(You can sense a "but" coming can't you?)

I, too, am a fan of branded subject lines. But...

Like many issues in email marketing, they involve compromise. The more space you take up with a name, the less you have for communicating the content of the email and enticing interest and action (our other two subject line objectives).

Equally, recognition is not achieved through the subject line alone. Recipients viewing your email usually see a sender line, a subject line and (commonly) either a snippet of text or a preview pane.

All those visual elements combine to induce recognition.

So you might argue that a clear sender/from line and appropriate branding in the preview pane can do the heavy lifting on recognition, freeing the subject line to focus solely on generating interest and action.

Indeed, you'll find few retailers branding their subject lines, presumably for these two reasons.

So what's right for you? Here's what you need to think about...

The role of recognition

Branded subject lines make most sense where recognition is itself the prime driver of interest and action. Two clear examples spring to mind.

First, we know that people open transactional emails largely as a matter of course (I want to know if the order is correct, what my new password is etc.).

So you don't need to write enthusing copy in the subject line. You just need to get people to see that it's a transactional message from you: hence the value of branding that subject line together with a clear statement of the content. For example:

"McAfee Subscription Renewal Confirmation"

Second, if you have a reputation for always delivering useful, valuable content, then your main priority may also be to ensure people recognize your emails.

Top newsletter publishers, for example, sometimes report that subject line changes make little difference to open rates.

It's because people's positive experiences with that newsletter and/or the sender cause them to open those newsletters whatever the subject line says. (Once they recognize them.)

The from/subject/preview combination

If your preview pane, preheader text, and from line are all set up to allow recipients to quickly recognize the email or sender, then you have more freedom to ignore the recognition issue in your subject line: you can leave out the name.

An alternative is to take a dual name recognition approach. Many informational newsletters, for example, often use a combination of "publisher name or website" in the from line and "newsletter title" in the subject line. For example:

Sender: MediaPost Publications
Subject: Email Insider: Who's In Your Fab 5 Inbox?


If you do include a name, then a good practice is to highlight it with some kind of brackets. This helps it stand out and also allows people to refocus on the actual content of the subject line much faster. Some examples:
  • {Inside Lyris HQ}
  • (Email Marketing Reports)
  • [EmailSherpa]
And one that turns the idea on its head:

[Invoice] Litmus monthly subscription


If recognition is important, then put the recognizable name at the front of the subject line. It's an almost universal practice whose value is also confirmed by the MailChimp study, which reported that test results were best...

"...when the company name was near the beginning of the subject line"


The smaller the recognizable name, the lower the opportunity cost of branding your subject line...the less space you take away from the subject line's actual message.

If your company name, brand or newsletter title is too long, then consider acronyms and short forms, provided they are truly recognizable: [UN] instead of [United Nations], (HP) instead of (Hewlett-Packard).


(You'll see the t-word a lot in this series.)

Your mileage may vary because each list, sender and audience is unique. While all the above can help you weigh up the pros and cons of branding your subject line, only a rigorous test will give you a definitive answer.

I've seen many senders switch from branded subject line to non-branded (and vice versa), presumably after testing to see which worked best.

OK, so much for branding. Next up: personalization.

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Permalink | November 11, 2008 | 0 comment(s)
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