In copywriting, it’s the KISS approach on steroids today.

… and it means “Keep It Short, Stupid” as much as it does “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Regardless of the era, most successful copywriters and ad specialists have always known that short copy is generally better-read than long.

And now, as smaller screens essentially take over the digital world, the days of copious copy flowing across a generous preview pane area are gone.

More fundamentally, people don’t have the screen size – let along the patience – to wade through long copy. These days, the “sweet spot” in copy runs between 50 and 150 words.

Speaking of which … when it comes to e-mail subject lines, the ideal length keeps getting shorter and shorter. Research performed by SendGrid suggests that it’s now down to an average length of about seven words for the subject line.

And the subject lines that get the best engagement levels are a mere three or four words.

So it’s KISS on steroids: keeping it short as well as simple.

Note: The article copy above comes in at under 150 words …!

E-Mail Marketing: On the Subject of Subject Lines …

emWith groaning inboxes, is it any wonder why so many e-mail messages get ignored by their recipients?

Indeed, with it costing so little to send an e-mail – especially when compared to the “bad old days” of postal mail – it’s too irresistible for marketers and others to deploy hundreds or thousands of e-mail missives at a pop, even if the resulting engagement levels are so paltry.

And therein lies the problem: The “value” of such e-mails diminish to the point where recipients have a very good idea of their (lack of) worthiness without needing to open them.

In such an environment, what’s the the likelihood of something important inadvertently slipping through the cracks? Not so great.  And so users go on their merry way, hitting the delete key with abandon.

Faced with these realities, anything senders can do to improve the odds of their e-mails being opened is worth considering.

As it turns out, some of those odds can be improved by focusing on the e-mail’s subject line.

We know this from research conducted recently by e-mail platform provider Yesware. As reported this week in Fast Company, Yesware’s data scientists took a look at ~115 million e-mails of all kinds, gathered over the course of a 12-month period, to see how open rate dynamics might be affected positively or negatively by differences in the subject line.

ywThe Yesware analysis was carried by analyzing most- and least-used words and formats to determine which ones appeared to be more effective at “juicing” open rates.

As the benchmark, the overall e-mail open rate observed across all 115 million e-mails was 51.9% and the overall reply rate was about 29.8%. But underneath those averages are some differences that can be useful for marketers as they consider how to construct different subject lines for better impact and recipient engagement.

The findings from Yesware’s subject line analysis point to several practices that should be avoided:

Subject line personalization actually works against e-mail engagement.

It may seem counterintuitive, but adding personalization to an e-mail subject turns out to suppress the open rate from 51.9% to 48.1% — and the reply rate goes down even more dramatically from 29.8% to 21.2%.

Yesware surmises that this seemingly clever but now overused technique bears telltale signs of a sales solicitation. No one likes to be fooled for long … and every time one of these “personalized” missives hits the inbox, the recipient likely recalls the very first time he or she expected to open a personal e-mail based on such a subject line – only to be duped.

“First time, shame on you; second time, shame on me.”

Turning your subject line into a question … is a questionable practice.

Using a question mark in a subject line may seem like a good way to add extra curiosity or interest to an e-mail, but it turns out to be a significant turnoff for many recipients. In fact, Yesware found that when a question mark is used in the subject line, the open rate drops a full 10 percentage points (from 51.9% to 41.6%) – and the reply rate also craters (dropping to 18.4%).

It may be that turning a subject line into a question has the effect of reducing the power of the message. Yesware data engineer Anna Holschuh notes that posing a question is “asking a lot of an already-busy, stressed-out professional.  You’re asking them to do work without providing value up front.”

On the other hand, two subject line practices have been shown to improve e-mail open rates – at least to a degree:

Include numbers in the subject line.

Subject lines that contain “hard” numbers appear to improve the e-mail open rate slightly. Yesware found that open rates in such cases were 53.2% compared to 51.9% and the reply rate improved as well (to 32%).  Using precise numbers – the more specific the better – can add an extra measure of credibility to the e-mail, which is a plus in today’s data-rich environment.

Use title case rather than sentence case.

Similarly, Yesware has found that the “authority” conveyed by using title case (initial caps on the key words) in e-mail subject lines helps them perform better than when using the more informal sentence case structure.

The difference? Open rates that have title case subject lines came in at 54.3%, whereas when using sentence case in the subject line resulted in open rates at just 47.6%.

Similarly, reply rates were 32.3% for e-mails with subject lines using title case compared to 25.7% for e-mails where the subject line was sentence case — an even more substantial difference.

Generally speaking, e-mail marketing succeeds or fails at the margins, which is why it’s so important to “calibrate” things like subject lines for maximum advantage. The Yesware analysis demonstrates how those tweaks can add up to measurable performance improvements.

Consumer E-Mail Marketing: Too Much of a Good Thing?

igAdvertisers often complain about the drawbacks of online display advertising — and it’s not hard to figure out why.

Online display ad viewability, which is defined by the Media Rating Council as at least 50% of an ad’s pixels being in-view for at least one continuous second, is running under 45% these days — meaning that fewer than half of online display ads meet the definition of being viewable.

That’s actually a lower percentage than before; viewability charted closer to 50% in 2014, according to the global media valuation platform Integral Ad Science.

Because of these middling viewability rates, many advertisers look to e-mail marketing as the panacea. Not only is e-mail marketing inexpensive, the rational goes, it’s also more likely to attract and engage recipients.

But here too, the evidence is that there is mediocre visibility, too. And in this case, it’s actual willful ignorance.

According to the results of a study conducted earlier this year by business technology research firm Technology Advice, ~40% of the ~1,300 U.S. adults surveyed reported that they completely ignore marketing-oriented e-mails.

Of the ~60% who reported that they do open marketing e-mails, only a little over 15% do so on a regular basis.

Here’s a breakdown of the underwhelming stats that were gathered by Technology Advice:

  • ~58% of recipients read from 0 to 25% of marketing-oriented e-mails sent to them
  • ~21% read 25% to 50% of the marketing e-mail sent to them
  • ~13% read 50% to 75% of them
  • Just ~8% read 75% to 100% of them

In an attempt to “juice” these figures, marketers are experimenting with robust personalization in e-mails that become evident even before anyone opens them (e.g., personalization showing in the subject line), along with offering clearly marked discounts and other promo attractions.

In this regard, consumers do expect businesses to provide “value” in exchange for their attention, which explains by ~40% of the survey’s respondents are responding to discounts and similar promotional offers above all other types of e-communiqués.

But with such modest levels of people interacting with any marketing-oriented e-mails at all, there’s a question as to how whether these ploys to improvement engagement are just nibbling around the edges.

Because the reality is, there’s a big portion of the market that’s become jaded about e-mail.

Another approach seems counter-intuitive but just might be working better: reducing the frequency of e-mail solicitations from advertisers.  That theory is supported by the Technology Advice research, which found that nearly 45% of respondents feel that businesses would improve their marketing effectiveness by actually sending them less frequent e-mails.

A case of “less is more”? Probably so.

Copywriting by computer: Wave of the future? … or wild-ass pipe dream?

persado logoIn recent years, computers have upended many a job category.  And they include quite a few positions involving “language” – from foreign language translators to medical transcriptionists.

And now, it looks like copywriting itself may be the next domino to fall.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal published a story about Persado, a company which has developed a software algorithm that enables it to write copy without the human element.

David Atlas, the company’s chief marketing officer, refers to it as “algorithmic copywriting.”  The process creates sentences with a maximum length of 600 characters that are used for e-mail subject lines and other short persuasive copy.

Persado builds the copy by sending thousands of different e-mail subject lines to the e-databases of its clients, which include large retailers and financial services firms such as Overstock.com, AMEX and Neiman Marcus.  Response rates are measured and used to refine the subject lines to narrow them down to just the most effective.

Company PR spokesperson Kirsten McKenna explains the Persado edge further:

“Typical A/B testing will send out only a few messages – then go with the one that gives the best response.  Persado can send out thousands of permutations of the same message to determine which would be the most successful.”

Alex Vratskides
“We have never lost to a human.” — Alex Vratskides of Persado

Comparing Persado’s machine-generated results with traditional copywriting, “We have never lost to a human,” Alex Vratskides, the company’s president, claimed to The Wall Street Journal.

Those results would suggest that Persado is doing things right.  And here’s another positive indicator of success:  The company raised over $20 million in venture capital earlier this year.

The bigger question is whether Persado will be able to scale its simple and short-sentence copywriting into persuasive copy for longer-form marketing materials such as sales letters and brochures – which would make it an even bigger threat and seriously threaten to upend the traditional copywriting field.

For the answer to that question, I’d never want to take issue with the views of veteran copywriter Bob Bly, whose perspectives I respect a great deal.  In writing on this topic, he states:

Bob Bly
Bob Bly

“I do think that either already or very soon, software will equal or surpass the performance of human writers in both simple content and short copy.  We have to prepare for the eventuality that computers may someday beat human direct response copywriters in long-form copy, just as Deep Blue beat Kasparov in chess and Watson clobbered Ken Jennings in Jeopardy.  Ouch.”

What do you think?  Is computer copywriting the wave of the future?  Let’s hear your own perspectives.