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


There are many reasons customers may value your product. But which one resonates with your customers the most?

Miller Lite famously spoofed this conundrum in its TV commercials, in which people would debate whether the beer was awesome because it tasted great or because it was less filling.

This is a serious challenge to you as a marketer. You’re likely not only marketing a product, but an associated offer of incentive as well. Should that incentive take precedence over the product itself? How do you choose?


Don’t bury the lead

Sure, you may drip elements of secondary importance throughout your campaign, but what should you lead with?

In email marketing, another way to think of this is: Which element should be included in your subject line?

Let’s look at a value testing experiment (that you might have been involved in creating) to help answer this question.

We recently launched a subject line writing contest here on the MarketingExperiments Blog using a product from our sister company, MarketingSherpa – Email Summit 2014 in Las Vegas. The point of this contest was to gather possible subject lines to test in a value testing experiment.

You can read the blog post that launched this contest to see the email body copy we tested. In the comments section of that post, you can also see all of the subject lines your peers wrote.

After receiving more than 300 potential subject lines from you (some people submitted multiples), our next challenge was to narrow them down to just five subject lines to split test. No easy task.

To guide our selection, we divvyed them up by the value and incentive categories featured in the email’s body copy:

  • Name of promotion (Early Bird)
  • Incentive ($300 discount)
  • Urgency (discount expiring soon)
  • Value of product (what you’ll get by attending Email Summit)
  • Location of event (Vegas baby, Vegas!)

Once all of the subject lines were organized by category, we gathered a team together to choose the top three or four subject lines that best expressed the value for each category, and then took those to a larger group in a peer review session to vote for the finalists. The lesson here is don’t test in a vacuum – collaborate.

Here are the subject lines written by the MarketingExperiments audience that the peer review session chose for each value or incentive element.


Name of promotion – Early Bird

[Email Summit 2014] Last Day of Early Bird Discount is… (written by Eugene Nilus)

Incentive – $300 discount

$300 Savings | Vegas | More ROI From Email In 2014 (written by Mike Schwenk)

Urgency – Discount expiring soon

Tick Tock – Email Summit 2014 discounted registration ends soon (written by Joy Avila)

Value of product – What you’ll get by attending Email Summit

Get the latest, proven strategies in email marketing – Email Summit 2014 (written by Chris Allsop)

Location – Vegas baby, Vegas!

What Happens In Vegas Shouldn’t Stay in Vegas – 2014 Email Summit – Bring it home! (written by Linda Jackson)


Challenge your paradigms

When testing, it also helps to see an outside perspective.

After all, insider ideas may help convert current customers, but if you want to bring new customers into the fold, you have to think like someone who knows little, if anything, about your product.

It can be difficult finding the right outside perspective when you know your product so intimately.

By this point, we had already involved 43 people within MECLABS along with 209 readers from the MarketingExperiments audience. But many of them likely have some familiarity with Email Summit already, or, at the very least, MECLABS and our focus on conversion optimization and A/B testing.

So we went a little further outside the box. We challenged the readers of Copyblogger to write their own subject lines for this email. Not only did this provide a new perspective to the subject lines; it also added a fun, competitive element – seeing which blog’s readers could write the most effective subject line.

To further remove bias, we had no say in which subject lines Sonia Simone, Robert Bruce and the team at Copyblogger would choose. However, since those same five elements of appeal were in the email copy that entrants were writing the subject lines for, they naturally appeared in these subject lines as well.

After Sonia sent her selections over, I assigned each subject line from the Copyblogger audience to one of the elements of value or incentive being tested.


Name of promotion – Early Bird

Early Birds, save $300 when you register for the Email Summit by January 9, 2014! (written by Faraz Maqsood)

Incentive – $300 discount

Last Chance to Save $300 on Email Summit 2014 (written by James Shirley)

Urgency – Discount expiring soon

(Open BEFORE Christmas) Email Summit 2014: discount ends Jan 9th (written by Ali Luke)

Value of product – What you’ll get by attending Email Summit

Your emails don’t work (We’ll tell you why) (written by Danielle Wallace)

Location – Vegas baby, Vegas!

What happens in Vegas…will improve your emails! Save $300 now. (written by Cheryl)



The primary KPI for this test was clickthrough rate, measured as delivered-to-clicks. What we were trying to avoid was a subject line that got a lot of curiosity opens, but did not tie into the value of the email. For example, we received submissions referencing everything from naked women to checks from grandma.

Our goal with a subject line is to make it compelling, but also make sure it honestly represents the email someone will read if they open it.

We also included sheer open rate as a secondary KPI, acknowledging that the copy in the email itself is a large part of driving clicks, and the subject line writers had no control over that.

Drumroll, please.

And the winner is …


Urgency – Discount expiring soon

(Open BEFORE Christmas) Email Summit 2014: discount ends Jan 9th (by Ali)

This subject line had the highest unique clickthrough rate and highest open rate, as well. 


As you can see in the results, this subject line outperformed all but two subject lines with a level of confidence of 99%. This means that we can be very confident that this subject line will consistently perform differently than those underperforming subject lines if we used them in the future.

However, the winning subject line did not outperform two of the subject lines by our desired level of confidence of 95%, which means that we cannot be certain that there is a significant difference between the subject lines. There is a higher likelihood that sometimes, because of random chance, one of those subject lines might perform better.

If you look back at our hypothesis, an interesting aspect is that both of the top two performing subject lines relied on urgency. This new knowledge can help inform future tests.

While we, like all marketers, hope the value of our product by itself is enough to encourage an action, this experiment backs up the classic marketing notion of the important of urgency. As Brian Clark of Copyblogger said, “Give people a logical reason why they should buy now, and more people will.”

This experiment also shows the power of A/B testing. We also really liked, “$300 Savings | Vegas | More ROI From Email In 2014.” We had meetings and votes and chose that subject line as one of our five favorite overall.

However, had we not tested and just ran with it because it was popular, we would have ended up with a 67.25% lower clickthrough rate, as you can see in the results.

Perhaps it wasn’t the subject line as much as its focus on incentive. Incentive underperformed urgency. That may be because, logically, you have to show people the value of something before you give them an extra incentive to buy it. After all, $300 off something you don’t know or care about isn’t a very attractive incentive.

That was our take on the results. You can read Copyblogger’s take on the results to learn additional lessons for your subject line testing, as well.

Congratulations to Ali Luke, Writer, Aliventures, who wrote the subject line with the highest clickthrough rate (measured as delivered-to-clicks) and winner of a ticket to Email Summit plus a two-night stay at the Aria Resort & Casino Las Vegas.

Ali also wrote the subject line with the highest open rate, and therefore won a MECLABS Email Messaging Online Course, as well.

Ali is editor of DailyBlogTips, and author of Publishing E-Books For Dummies (Wiley, 2012).

When I congratulated her on her winning subject line, she said, “I’m absolutely thrilled (and pretty stunned!) to have won the Copyblogger/MarketingExperiments competition. I’m no email marketing expert (I hope Email Summit will change that) – but clearly some good advice has sunk in during my years of reading Copyblogger. When coming up with my subject line, I thought about what I’d like to see in my inbox – a bit of humour with a clear, straightforward message.”


Thank you

I would be greatly remiss if I didn’t thank all of the people that helped make this subject line contest possible:

  • Sonia Simone, Robert Bruce and the team at Copyblogger
  • Rebecca Strally, Will Duke, Taylor Lightfoot, Pamela Markey, Zlatko Papic, Brooke Bower, Austin McCraw and too many to mention at MECLABS
  • You, the readers of the MarketingExperiments and Copyblogger blogs, for sharing your best subject lines


And now, for a little fun

When you get this many marketers and copywriters together, you’re bound to have some creative responses. So finally, in no particular order, a few of the subject lines we just thoroughly enjoyed reading were:

  • Meet The Guy We Gave $2000 To Write This Sentence at MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2014
  • Life has many regrets. Don’t let this be one.
  • Learn to write compelling subject lines like this one!
  • Cocktails and Conversions – Now $300 off Email Summit 2014
  • You’re smarter, more fun to be around and more physically attractive. Now be $300 richer.
  • How to write headlines that the NSA would read… over and over and over
  • Your Uncle Sherpa died and left you $300 and some sage advice.
  • “So A Priest, A Rabbi & Email Marketer Walk Into This bar…”
  • Sherpa? I hardly know ya.


Now that you’ve seen the results, see everything we did “wrong in this split test in “Marketing Experiment: Learn from our split testing mistakes.”


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  1. Ali Luke says

    Many thanks to you, Daniel, and all the MarketingSherpa team for the prizes — and for a great insight into other subject lines that did well. I’m very excited about coming to Email Summit 2014!

  2. Joy Avila says

    I agree with Ali (congrats btw, Ali!) – great insight, Daniel. I appreciate how you categorized the entries. Thanks for this. It was fun. 🙂

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