Zillow, Birchbox, & Clint Eastwood: Go Ahead–Make ’em Read Your Email

We don’t WANT to get e-mail, but we DO. So the sender needs to focus on our goals, give us some direction, treat us like we’re smart, make us say “hell yeah!”, and remember that we’re people. Most sales and marketing e-mails just don’t live up to that.

Organizations spend a lot of time and resources sending messages of one kind or another. We can’t afford for them to go ignored. Fortunately, what gets our e-mail opened will teach us everything we need to know about ‘messaging’ in general.

You are NOT about to get a list of airy-fairy best practices. Let’s let the audience tell us when they’re buying our story, and then you can decide whether to buy ours.

Hard Hot Truths from A/B Testing

Do you feel lucky? Well… do ya? Senders can run split tests on who the sender is (person, company, or both), the preview blurb (preview text visible in recipients’ inboxes), the actual content of an email itself, or the subject line.

Now, MadPipe routinely hits 40-65% open rates and I sometimes get us click-through rates up to 17%. That’s usually the result of pairing two things: a carefully crafted subject line and a tight, targeted list. The latter is another topic. But tweaking subject lines alone can easily get open rates into the 25-50% range. Starting with subject lines is good, because they teach us most of what we need to know about sales and marketing communications in general.

These B2B split-test results comparing ONLY changes to subject lines (aimed at a broader than recommended list) provide insights into getting heard. We included some B2C brand notes too:

Focus on My Goals

Corporate Story

No one liked the tongue-in-cheek image of Elvis in Spanx. But the fun thing is the difference between the e-mail with highest open rate vs. click-rate. More people opened the email telling them they’d missed something. Yet the click-rate on that was no better than the Elvis version which, in all other ways than subject line, was identical. The fewest people opened the e-mail with the subject “These Companies Have a Better Story Than You”, but the ones that DID open it clicked through to check that assertion at almost TRIPLE the rate!

Positive and negative aspirations are both effective.

Why The Winner Works: The subject activates the ASPIRATIONAL motivations of the audience, while gently triggering the fear of falling behind the pack. Poke a marketer, and you hear a lot of cliche’ advice about “adding urgency”. That’s the problem–it’s an additive. Telling us that something is important doesn’t convince me that it’s important to ME the audience member. We not only need to get to an actual motivation, we’ve got to get specific about it. When it’s generic (“don’t miss this killer opportunity”), we don’t BELIEVE the sender. Of course, we like opportunities but, if we went around paying attention to all of them, we’d spend all our time at fast food drive-ups.

Motley Fool: This financial advice firm is a master of aspirational subject lines (and yes, some urgency). “Richest Man Alive Issues Dire Warning” and “This Stock Could Be Like Buying Amazon in 1997.” Those touch BOTH the audience’s aspirations to avert disaster and to gain advantage. They’re specific, and yet you can’t get more primal than that.

Gimme Instructions

Pricing Narrative

The most clicked subject line held out a lofty enough goal: “Shrewder Price Haggling”. But that wasn’t very personal–it was just a concept floating in the air. Remember, more people clicked it, but they didn’t then engage the content, even though it was in all other ways identical. The subject line frames the entire presentation. The e-mail that sent 25% more clicks to the content changed one thing–it used the imperative mode (Do this! Don’t do that! Turn left!). It gave us an instruction (“Learn!”).

the Imperative mood
The imperative mood means tell us what to do.

Why The Winner Works: The implied “you” in an imperative makes it more personal. “You do this!” Think of the difference between “Faster Cars” and “Drive a Faster Car” I’m far more interested in the latter. It situates me as ‘first-person shooter’ in the narrative. The subject line is a frame–the first line in the story. It’s the first and perhaps only chance we have to involve the other person, drawing on their motivations.

Clark Hulings Fund: This non-profit gets artists some real-deal business training, so they can act as entrepreneurs that fortify the economy. Their 2016 Black Friday subject line “Stop shopping and start investing!” That’s right–most e-mails are too soft. Don’t be afraid to tell us what to do. Go ahead, make our day.

Play Like a Smart Kid

Brand Heroes

The “found you on a map” subject line gets the opens, because they’re curious. But then it drops them. The message is metaphorical, not personal. That hint of that inauthenticity came through in the “you’re the hero” version, which garnered a fat zero on click-through. The version with the most clicks drew on curiosity, like the others, but it put the audience in charge instead of using sleight of hand.

Why the Winner Works: Curiosity drives audience engagement, and they’ll welcome an invitation to explore, but it has to respect their intelligence. We’re playing with the audience, not toying with them. We’re mixing sincerity with fun.

Zillow: The real estate search engine makes money mainly from ad impressions by agents, so their raison d’etre is getting potential buyers to look at listings, even if they’re not sure they’re ready yet. We think questions usually make poor subject lines, but their “What Can You Afford?” actually GAMIFIES the message, and that’s hot. Similarly, SWSG.org (Strong Women Strong Girls) asked “Who was Wonder Woman’s Role Model?” You don’t have to use a question. Morning Brew’s subject line “Bezos is watching you” is too creepy and curiosity-inspiring not to click.

Reach for “Hell Yeah!”

The Future of Work

There are times when opens and clicks align–you’ve got a lock! The winning subject line tapped into something the recipient has felt, thought, or said. More importantly, it was the WHY behind the ask. It didn’t take much–just a shared observation with an ask inside. The “you’d rather send me… than go yourself” e-mail had the same click-rate but lower opens. It wasn’t strong enough. “Work sucks” nailed it. MadPipe calls this the “Hell Yeah!” Response. Yeah is not enough; it’s got to be Hell Yeah!

Why the Winner Works: Knowing and channeling audience attitudes–what they live and feel every day, what jazzes them up and pisses them off is key to aligning with the audience. I knew a liaison between labor and management in the eighties. He used to go down to the work floor and hear labor trash the bosses: “Those guys don’t know how to work. Look at them up there in their air-conditioned offices, never breaking a sweat.” To that, he would answer “Yeah!” He’d go up the stairs to those offices and hear the bosses say “Those guys down on the floor are lazy. All they do is complain, while we’re up here trying to steer this company toward enough revenue.” To that, he would answer “Yeah!”

You can A/B split-test your own “hell yeah” ideas on your audience, just like a movie producer.

Hell Yeah ResponseAttitudes Marketing

The winner will have spinoffs: weaker ones (“Go ahead. I dare ya.”) and stronger ones: “I do not aim with my gun. I aim with my mind. He who aims with his gun has forgotten the face of his father…” (Stephen King’s “gunslinger”).

Clint Eastwood movies are, by the way, the answer to everything: Why? Because they’re full of egalitarian observations. “Even buzzards gotta eat.” If you like Westerns, you’ll remember the ferry driver in The Outlaw Josey Wales who whistled Dixie on one side of the river, and Battle Hymn of the Republic on the other, depending on who was crossing. We don’t have to be sycophantic to the audience–we also want to lead. But if we don’t know their mind, we don’t stand a chance of getting them onboard with us.

Stay P2P

Person to Person Marketing

Last test: Come out and ask for what you want. If I want to do it, I will. No one has ever had a truer response to a sales pitch or marketing message. NOT acknowledging that’s how it works means we’re committed to fooling or manipulating our audience in some way. Sure, let’s use some art, but transparency keeps the audience’s respect. “Do me a small, personal favor?” not only says what we want, but it sets the expectation that this is not going to take a lot of time, and that we recognize it’s person to person, never really person to organization. We like brands, but we like them because we like the people who represent them.

Why the Winner Works: If the bar is low enough, for an initial step, and if it doesn’t feel like a sand trap, people will often help us out. They will do more than help us out. Very often, they will try an experiment, test a product, review a service, or look at a straight-up sales pitch. Really.

Birchbox: Don’t think a direct, personal, low-hurdle ask works for your industry? Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp, cold-emailed the CEOs of every major beauty company. A champion of cold sales e-mails, she said “I asked CEOs and brand managers to give 5-minutes of their time to give me advice.” Beauchamp also likes to say, “ask for something that’s pretty hard to say ‘no’ to.” Their stuff works. They got me to open an e-mail too. It took three words: “You’ve Been Selected”. Yes, cue the music; I accept!

(Finally) Benchmark Your Rates

OK, sure, we’re professional storytellers. But how do most businesses rank–relative to each other?

Open Rate: An average e-mail open rate of 25% is excellent–hard, but excellent. That number varies a little by industry sector, but not by much. On the other hand, open rate is deeply impacted by WHO the sender is–their reputation thus far, and WHO is in the list–how they got there and why they came.

Important truth: E-mail remains a person-to-person medium, so focus at least as much on HOW you acquire the audience, and how you treat them in the process. Thought leadership events, in which you exchange value face to face, are a superb way to pair hearing from the brand (sign them up!) with a reason to love it in the first place. Cause marketing initiatives can help even further.

Click Rate: refers to website visits or clicks through to further content from the e-mail. For most businesses, an average click-through rate of 2-8% is a fine target, but the market average varies DRAMATICALLY by industry. On the shallow end, legal & restaurant brands get around 1%. Maybe they should team up. The deep end of the pool is sports, with around 7.5%. Raging fans don’t hurt at all. The goal should be 1) to set a baseline and improve upon it, and 2) deliver value within the e-mail itself.

Important truth: Consider putting everything in the e-mail, sometimes, and not worrying about click-rate. If it’s all about the clicks, we might lose the 92% who would be glad to just get an email that delivered value and made them happy. It’s like a handshake, and the other guy is looking away already. The important person is the one in front of you right now. Don’t forget that.

There’s no rule that, applied blindly, will get us more clicks. As Clint Eastwood says, “if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.” But you can find the story that connects your brand with your audience.

MadPipe is looking out for you with stories like these, because good brands deserve to prosper. Get us involved more directly, if you want leadership in crafting your email marketing, or in other means of connecting an audience with your brand story.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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About once / month, corporate storyteller and digital ecologist® Daniel DiGriz weaves together interesting business stories, insights, analytics, & examples for organizations committed to achieving their goals.


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