The Writer’s Dilemma: How to know which marketing copy will really be most effective


I’m staring at a blank page on my screen. There are several directions I could go with this piece of writing, and I’m not sure which will be most helpful to you:

  • How to improve the conversion rate of your email marketing
  • How to best understand and serve your customers
  • How to split test your email marketing

I’m sure you face this dilemma as a copywriter or marketing manager as well:

  • Which subject line will be most effective?
  • How should you craft the headline?
  • What body copy would be most helpful (and generate the most response) from customers?

So that’s what today’s MarketingExperiments Blog post will be about. Essentially, your product and offers likely have many elements of value, and there are many ways you can message that value, but what will work best with your potential customers?

To give you a process to follow, I’ll use an example:

We recently ran a public experiment to help answer the above questions for VolunteerMatch, a nonprofit organization with a unique funding model. It sells a Software as a Service (SaaS) product to companies to help fund its organization, which has generated close to $1 billion in social value each year through its work with nonprofits and volunteers.

Let’s take a look at the process we used for this public experiment and how you can repurpose it for your own marketing efforts.


Step #1: Get some new ideas

You think, breathe, eat, sleep and dream about the products and services you advertise and market. So sometimes it helps to step out of your box and get a new perspective.

For example, MarketingExperiments’ parent company, MECLABS Institute, uses Peer Review Sessions to foster idea collection and collaboration from new and unique viewpoints.

To get some new ideas for VolunteerMatch, we launched the public experiment with a contest on the MarketingExperiments Blog as well as on The Moz Blog where we asked marketers to comment on the blog post with their ideas for effective subject lines with a chance to win tickets to Email Summit and a stay at the event’s host hotel, the ARIA Resort & Casino. We received subject line ideas from 224 marketers.

However, this is only one way to step outside the box and get a fresh perspective on your products and services. You could also:

  • Talk to people in departments you don’t normally engage with (e.g., customer service, sales, product development, IT, accounting, legal … keep your options open)
  • Conduct surveys or focus groups with potential customers
  • Read reviews, feedback forms, forum conversations and social media to learn the language the customers use when talking about your products
  • Get on the phone and interview customers (and even people who chose not to be customers)
  • Read websites, magazines and newspapers aimed at your buyer and see what language they use and values they emphasize
  • Go to a museum, national park, art fair, farmer’s market, the symphony or some other creative endeavor to help spark some new thinking

My point is cast a wide net. Get a lot of ideas at this point.


Step #2: Coalesce these ideas around key points of value

Once you have all of these ideas, they will likely naturally fall into a few main categories of value around your products or services.

When conducting this public experiment with VolunteerMatch, we started with three elements of value (listed below) to help focus marketers who were entering the contest. When they entered, they would leave a comment on the blog post with their suggested subject line and which category of value that subject line was intended to communicate.

Defining the value upfront will help you know what elements of value you already consider important to your product or service when conducting Step #1.

However, it is important to stay open minded. When you assign the feedback you’ve received into different categories of value, you may find that all of the feedback doesn’t necessarily fit into the categories you’re using. You can find gold in these outliers — new value categories for your product that you had not considered before.

The three categories of value we focused on for VolunteerMatch were:

  • Category #1: Proof, recognition, credibility
  • Category #2: Better, more opportunities to choose from
  • Category #3: Ease of use

We also gave marketers an opportunity to come up with a category of value we may have overlooked.

From the suggestions we received on the blog post, I picked a new category to test along with the previous categories of value we had already identified. Suzanne suggested “I would argue that true volunteers are motivated by something more profound from within: dedicated volunteers are passionate about a particular cause.”

Based on this response, we added one more category of value:

  • Category #4: Passion


Step #3: Identify the best expressions of these categories of value

Now that you’ve identified a few areas of value to focus on, look through all of the messaging for the value from the suggestions you received and identify a few examples of wording that you think is the most effective.

I read through each and every subject line suggested in the comments on the MarketingExperiments Blog, and Cyrus Shepard, Head of SEO and Content, Moz, read through all the subject lines proposed by marketers through The Moz Blog.

We settled on these seven subject lines:

Category #1: Proof

  • Attention Business Leaders: How to Increase your ROI through Employee Volunteer Initiatives
  • Volunteering matters. We have the proof.

Category #2: Network size

  • CC Your Boss: 1,000+ Ways To Make A Difference (Inside)
  • Does your company care? Thousands of ways to prove it.

Category #3: Ease of use (app)

  • The volunteer app your coworkers will talk about
  • The One App That Can Change The Way Your Company Gives Back

Category #4: Passion (no feature)

  • Spread the Only “Good” Office Virus
  • Spread the Only “Good” Office Virus (I’ll tell you why this subject line is listed twice in the next step)


Step #4: Test with your audience to see which value and messaging combination is the most effective

In this case, my colleague, Jon Powell, Senior Manager, Executive Research and Development, MECLABS Institute, ran a split test with VolunteerMatch’s email list to see which subject lines would be most effective and which value is most appealing to potential customers.

Testing with your potential customers is another way to break down that fourth wall with customers and discover what is really most valuable about your product to inform and improve your copywriting.

Here was the email that was sent. (Note: The last, bolded line was changed for different treatments to correspond to the value expressed in the subject line that was tested.)


I listed the “passion” subject line twice because Jon used it as a double treatment. Essentially, this is a way to make sure the results that you see from an experiment are valid.

There should not be a significant difference between those two treatments since the subject line was the same. If there is a significant difference, it could be an indication of a validity threat, and you must question your data even further before trusting it (an issue we fortunately did not have with this test).

Step #5: Learn from the results

I started this blog post by talking about how to determine the most effective marketing copy, especially when you hit a wall.

By widening your net of inspiration, identifying the key values and best expressions of those values for your product, and then testing with your customers, you get to see how your copy and messaging actually performed with real customers making real buying decisions.

In our case, for this experiment, here are the results. You can see the overall winner with the most clickthrough — Volunteering matters. We have the proof. However, it also resulted in a split in results between value segments. While we were able to glean some discoveries about the best way to express value segments, results were mixed when it came to which segment of value was most effective:


“If you look closely, there is a defining factor (our caveat in this case): expression,” Jon explained. “You can almost draw a line right down the middle of performance (high to low) and see all categories represented on each side.”

“When you separate them, you see two contenders for attracting the most in each threshold of expression: Proof and Ease of Use (app),” Jon said. “Network size, in both thresholds of expression, attracted significantly less (but still attracted nonetheless).”


Step #6: Build on what you’ve learned

This is one step among many that indicates some of the value (and ways of expressing that value) that works best with your customers.

“The winning headlines in each winning category explicitly point out volunteering,” Jon said. “The winning headline in the losing category won because of researched best practices in subject line writing (i.e., point first, quantification, better relevance).”


Of course, this is just one test. True optimization is a cycle of experimentation to build a customer theory.

In the case of this experiment, Jon will build on what he learned here for the live test at Email Summit — another group experiment in which all attendees of Email Summit can participate as a hands-on lesson to help attendees further improve already effective marketing.

You can see all of Jon’s four levels of interpretation of this experiment, and participate in the live test, by attending his session with VolunteerMatch at Email Summit — “Hands-on Live Test Lab: Learn how to improve your already successful marketing.”

If you’re not able to attend Email Summit, we’ll be sharing a case study about the Email Summit live test in the MarketingSherpa B2B Marketing newsletter after Summit.


And the winner is …

As I mentioned above, we did not write the subject lines in this experiment. They were crowdsourced as part of a contest with the Moz and MarketingExperiments audience.

The best-performing subject line was written by Mozzer Jeff Purdon, an In-House Web Marketing Specialist for a chemical manufacturing company and distributor. Congratulations Jeff!

To help you in your subject line testing, I asked him to shed some light on how he crafted his high-performing subject line:

My top priority for crafting the subject line was to match the messaging and thinking behind the body of the email. The phrase ‘volunteering matters’ is in bold-face text and seemed like the shortest, most powerful way to connect with the recipient. I figured it would get their attention, but on its own not call them to action (open the email). So with the second half of the subject, ‘we have the proof,’ I was hoping to give the recipient a reason to open the email (what’s in it for me). I figured a lot of the intended audience may personally believe volunteering matters but may not have the hard facts to back it up.

I also asked Jeff for his advice to other marketers to help them improve their email marketing:

I’m a firm believer in testing. Oftentimes, we get mired in our own email habits or beliefs that we always know how best to connect with our audience. We can make good guesses or have informed opinions, but there’s no reason not to take advantage of A/B testing.


Step #7: Be thankful

If you decide to collaborate with different departments in your company, customers, suppliers, agencies, vendors, etc., please remember, this isn’t their full-time job. Make sure to thank them for their participation, partly by showing them the results of their efforts, which is what I hope I’ve done for you here today.

So, with that in mind, I wanted to take a moment to thank:

  • Shari Tishman and Lauren Wagner of VolunteerMatch
  • Cyrus Shephard, Annette Promes and Trevor Klein of Moz
  • Jon Powell, Joey Taravella, Regina Love and Will Duke of MECLABS
  • All 224 marketers who wrote subject lines

At the end of the day, this contest drove a record amount of traffic to the VolunteerMatch Solutions page. And each new lead we generate can potentially add $750,000 in social value to the VolunteerMatch Network, connecting thousands of new volunteers with the nonprofits that need them.

“This was a really great contest idea, and I’m glad I could be a part of it,” Jeff said.


You can follow Daniel Burstein, Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS Institute, on Twitter: @DanielBurstein.


You might also like

MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2015 — February 23-26, ARIA Resort, Las Vegas

Email Marketing: What elements of your offer get people to click? [Subject line contest winner announced]

Subject Line Test: 125% more unique clickthroughs

CRM and the Marketing Database: Data hygiene, behavioral analysis and more

MECLABS Email Messaging Online Course

Danger Zones: 4 Things You Need to Know when Testing Emails [From the Moz Blog]

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  1. Craig says

    With my Facebook marketing copy I keep an Excel doc to record everything. The title, topic, slant, time of day posted, length, image or no image, etc… then I go back a few days later and record likes, shares, comments… After doing this for a few months I can quickly see which topics my clients audience respond to, which ones converted and which ones had shares or brought traffic to the site. With that info I can create a “content calendar”. It might look something like this… First week of the month, Mondays at 10:30 post humorous photo, Tuesdays at 12:30 info graphic leading toward supporting article on site. Wed off. Thursday 11:15 product or service announcement leading to shopping portal… etc. etc… I have had really good results… tracking is the key and things will emerge quickly to target your market.

  2. Kat Hood says

    I do the same as Craig^. I keep a spreadsheet with all the information organized to be able to go back and reflect and see what’s working good. Thanks for more information on the subject.

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