There’s No Such Thing As Bad News, Or Is There?

8 Aug 2016
Alan Martin

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In a previous edition of the Chat Marketing e-newsletter I tried out a live experiment in order to illustrate the power of the subject line in influencing whether or not an email gets opened.

One of the challenges in marketing (both on and offline) is to ensure your messages are seen by as many people as possible. In email marketing, one of the most important factors in whether or not someone opens the email, is the wording in the subject line. “January Newsletter” just does not inspire the reader to quickly open the email to digest the contents. A lot of research has been done on this topic, down to whether or not lower case wording works better than caps etc, and it is beyond the scope of this article to go into this in any depth other than reporting the results of this particular experiment.

The Experiment

The subject line that I used to email out the newsletter was “bad news [insert name]” and the plan was to demonstrate the effects of having a powerful subject line in a fun and interactive way. I also asked readers for their feedback on the experiment and the importance of having a good subject line.

I expected a decent response to this experiment but was completely blown away by the sheer number of comments I received, both positive and negative. On the whole much of the feedback from readers was either positive or at least constructive, but others were angry and upset by my choice of wording, particularly as there was no bad news to report. I was also extremely touched by a few readers who thought that something terrible had happened to me and wanted to see if they could offer help in some way.

What Happened?

Open rates as you would expect were way up on previous newsletters (no surprise there) but just what effect did this have on the overall performance of the newsletter and what conclusions did I draw from the experiment?

In general terms (unless you have something you are trying to sell) two of the most important stats to measure in any email marketing are the number of unique opens and click-throughs you receive. Unique opens are the number of individuals who opened your email, whereas click-throughs are the number of people that clicked on a link within your content (perhaps a read-more link or a link to an external website) and is a good measure of whether or not your content is of interest to your readers.

What About The Stats?

Unique opens went up by 21% on the previous newsletter, so use of the controversial subject line definitely had a positive impact as far as that was concerned and created a fair amount of buzz on the Chat Marketing Facebook page too, but this uplift was more than offset by a dramatic fall-off in click-throughs, which declined by a staggering 56%.

This meant that although more people were opening the newsletter, they had been put off reading any further because the content did not match the subject line. From that respect, using the controversial subject line was self-defeating and meant that I had to post the articles via our social media channels in order to get the visibility that these pieces deserved (normally newsletter content is exclusive to subscribers).

Unsubscribes

There were also seven people who unsubscribed from the mailing list altogether, which was way more than normal, but interestingly every person who unsubscribed was from a section of the mailing list that had never really interacted in a meaningful way before. They had not provided a name or any other information that is used to make communications more personal, so these were not active readers.

Now, while I was initially upset by so many people unsubscribing, with hindsight I realise that this was actually a good thing. Nobody wants information that they do not value clogging up their inbox, so if people are not valuing the newsletter content it is a positive thing that they have decided to unsubscribe.

For me having a mailing list of engaged users, of people who really value what I hope you think is good quality and helpful content, is what it is all about. That is after all why I get up in the morning. The two spam complaints did hurt though, I am not going to lie about that!

What Were The Key Learning Points?

Moving beyond the quantitative data the main lessons that can be drawn from all the feedback that I received from readers is:

  • Who the email is from is THE most important aspect relating to open rates (source credibility).
  • Subject line does impact open rate but not necessarily click-through rates. People may open your email but not read it.
  • Subject line and content needs to be congruent. If you use ‘bad news’ then you need to make sure your newsletter carries some bad news.

Although I never intended to upset anyone, the experiment did reveal some important psychology that hopefully readers will benefit from in the future when they are planning their own email marketing activity.

It also revealed that I have some fantastically loyal and caring subscriber and for that I am truly thankful.

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