Writing B2B email subject lines with complete confidence

Many thanks to Jay Schwedelson, President & CEO of Worldata, for my richest learning experience at the recent Direct Marketing Association (DMA) 2012 Conference.

His topic of “What’s Working Now: Critical Email & Emerging Media Trends” was packed with information on how to make B2B emails work better. The information he provided isn’t based on guesswork or the results of just a few projects. It’s taken from the results of testing over 20,000 email campaigns in both the B2B and B2C arenas.

His opening point was that, today, most emails are seen on mobile devices first. This stat proves it:

87% of C-Level executives see their email on their mobile device first

This means emails must be designed to be mobile-friendly, with pictures and sidebars built into the design and not added as separate elements.

The big learning for me was what he said about subject lines. I’ve been writing them for years, but few of my clients test; so, much of what I do is built on the best practice of including a benefit in the subject line. But the simple instruction he shared now makes me surer of the subject lines I’m creating.

His words of wisdom? The two most essential elements in subject lines that continue to win in A/B split testing are these:
Exclusivity and Urgency

He reports, “Implying exclusivity generates a 22% higher open rate.” This is true in B2B and B2C. The other factor, “urgency”, is the #1 driver of response and raises open rates by 34%.

To maximize visibility he also advises that subject lines be 30 to 35 characters long or less.

A great way to achieve exclusivity is to target emails to specific titles and put the title in the subject line. This implies that the message is exclusively for that group. Then try to include urgency words such as “now” or, even better, include a respond-by date.

Here are a few ideas on how to include exclusivity and urgency in a B2B subject line — and keep it short:

  • Now CFOs can track labor costs fast
  • SMB savings ideas: Register now
  • Download guide now on closing sales

To help us all, Worldata has created a free tool,, that lets B2B marketers test subject lines they create and get a score of how well the line measures up. The above lines achieved a 94% to 100% rating. So I can be confident that they are a good bet for getting good performance — and being mobile-friendly, too.

Subject testing: Hate it in the classroom, love it in B2B marketing.

Sitting in the classroom on test day was always a painful experience. “Do I know the materials?” “Did I read the right chapters?” “I should have spent more time studying.” “What will happen if I fail?” Back then, testing was a bad thing full of questions.

Today, as a B2B marketer, testing is a good thing that delivers answers. Testing, in fact, is the thing that keeps us from failing and allows us to continually improve the success of our outbound marketing efforts.

Direct marketing has always been about testing. Without testing, how can a B2B marketer know which marketing channels, offers and language will work for his or her particular company, product and market?

Yesterday I sat in on part of a MENG Webinar by Beth Harte, Client Services Director, Serengeti Communications on “Strategies for Integrating Traditional Marketing With Social Media.” She spoke about the importance of using the right language. Her point was that, if a company’s market is “gear-heads,” then the person communicating with that market via social media better be a “gear-head” or the social media strategy will fail. She’s so right. Having the right “voice” is critical in all B2B marketing.

Unless our market is very vertical (such as “gear-heads”), figuring out which “voice” will best resonate with our prospects is best determined by testing.

Since smart B2B marketers use emails to nurture their pipeline leads in an effort to move them through the buying cycle, subject lines are at the top of the list of items that should be tested. The question arises, “What should we test?”

Fortunately there was a great discussion recently on LinkedIn about subject lines. Started by Ben Bush of The Crocodile on the B2B Technology Marketing Community, the 26 participants shared great insight.

Here are some of the approaches that have worked for others and are, therefore, worth testing:

John McMillan at McMillan Technology Ltd.:

  • Eye-catching benefit subject lines going to strangers — the equivalent of a “cold call”
  • First names in subject lines (he notes that it works in the U.S. but can be seen as rude in other cultures)

Sandra Nangeroni, Director of Interactive Marketing:

  • Include in the subject line “what” they get if offering a white paper or Webinar
  • Who it comes from carries a lot of weight as it identifies the sender as a trusted, credible source
  • Words or phrases that resonate with the target and industry
  • Use themes like “Top 10 Tips for . . .” or “5 Reasons Why . . .”

Graeme McKee at API Software and AudoRek:

  • A phrase or sentence that summarizes the email content — no more, no less

Karen Dove, at DEX Imaging:

  • Simply the company name in the subject line is very effective
  • Sometimes, after the company name, put a colon and then add detail

Sokol Nikolov at EL MEDIA:

  • Use specific technology-related words in the subject line

These are some of the elements B2B marketers may want to consider when conducting email subject line testing. There was much other good advice as well.
Jason Ball, Specialist B2B Copywriter, for instance, uses Litmus to check whether subject lines would get tossed by spam filters before sending. This is an excellent idea, as a test result is not very valid if one of the two lines being tested never makes it to the prospect’s inbox.

The best testing approach, of course, in an A/B split. That is sending the two options at the same time in a half-and-half split.

The lesson today is that testing is good and, in B2B marketing, it can end with more than an A+ grade. It can result in learning how to generate more click-throughs and more prospects being moved down the buy cycle and into the hands of sales for conversion.

Will your B2B prospect take time to read your message?

Just read this great article: “Three Tips to Engage the ‘Short Attention’ White Paper Reader.” by Jonathon Kantor in a guest post at Savvy B2B Marketing. As the title implies, it talks about tactics you should follow in your white Readingpapers to improve their chances of being read.

He’s right. The little time our business prospects have to read anything should be very much on our minds when conducting B2B marketing. Want prospect to pick your email to read out of the often hundreds received daily? Want your letter read? Want your prospect to ask for, and then read your offer?

In Jonathon’s article you’ll see that current research shows that shorter is better for white papers, as long as they are not too short. This should be true of your other marketing tools as well. Here are the best practices I try to follow when writing marketing communications:

Email: 250 words
Subject lines: 40 characters with spaces
Direct mail lead letters: 1 page
Paragraphs: No longer than four lines

In today’s busy work environment, to get a message read, we need to get to the point — and do it fast.