4 Ways You Should Test Your Subject Lines

Want to improve your email performance? Never send out an email with only one subject line. If you test at least two ideas, you’ll ensure better results and learn more about what your audience responds to.

But what if you can’t come up with another idea?

Small tweaks like adding or removing a single word probably won’t make much difference. The goal is to test two completely different ways to introduce the same message. Thankfully, there are some strategies you can use to consistently generate multiple ideas worth trying.

Here are several ways you should test your subject lines.

Clarity vs. creativity

Every once in a while, someone thinks of a brilliant subject line. Unfortunately, marketing teams often fall back on the safety of normalcy, and clever ideas can get vetoed. Outside-the-box thinking gets replaced with “the usual.”

But clever messaging can create confusion, too. If your creativity obscures what your email is about, people may just dismiss it.

An A/B test prevents your team from making choices based on assumptions, which leaves you with the subject lines that actually work best.

So whenever someone gets a clever idea, test it against a subject line that clearly, simply explains the contents of your email. You might discover that your audience loves your creativity, and rewards it with clicks. Or you may find that they really just want to know what they’re reading.

You won’t know until you test it.

Emotion vs. no emotion (or another emotion)

Your subject line sets the tone for your email. It shapes how people feel about you or about the problems or aspirations you address.

To create a specific emotional response, you might frame your subject line as a personal question, use strong adjectives, or add punctuation (such as an ellipsis or exclamation point). Your subject line could speak to someone’s frustrations, amuse them, affirm them, or evoke other powerful emotions that help them engage with the content of your email.

Testing a variety of emotional subject lines teaches you what (if any) emotions your audience responds well to.

Punctuation vs. no punctuation

Punctuation is definitely a more subtle change to your subject lines, but it forces your audience to read the subject line differently, and can reinforce the feelings you’re trying to evoke.

Exclamation points can help convey urgency, excitement, anger, joy and any number of other emotions. They can also be annoying, or come across as unprofessional. Similarly, an ellipsis can create intrigue, but could also make your email feel like clickbait.

Part of what makes punctuation like ellipses and exclamation points effective is their novelty. They quickly lose their effect (and start to have negative effects) over time. Imagine if every sentence ended in an exclamation point! Nothing would feel urgent or exciting! And if every sentence used an ellipsis . . . well . . . you’d probably start to get impatient as a reader. (And if every sentence had a parenthetical statement, you’d start to lose focus on the main point.)

Emojis work similarly. A lot of organizations rule out emojis out of principle, but if they fit with your brand, it’s worth testing them. Punctuation and emojis create more opportunities to add personality and voice to your subject lines, and that can certainly have an effect on whether or not people open your emails.

Questions vs. statements

When you make a statement or express an opinion, it frames your brand as an authority. But it also takes a position, and if your audience disagrees with that position, they may not care what you have to say. You’re either affirming or denying their perspective.

Questions, on the other hand, invite your audience to bring their own perspective and experiences into the conversation.

Either form leaves room for you to make your subject lines personal, abstract, emotional, creative, or clear. So be sure to test different kinds of statements and questions. Whichever you choose, be sure that your email supports that statement or answers the question.

Odds are you will want a balance of questions and statements in your email drip campaigns and other lists, but testing them helps you gauge what your audience will respond well to in the future, and which direction that balance should lean.

Every email is an opportunity to learn

The more subject lines you test, the more you learn about your audience. Many organizations waste this opportunity by not A/B testing. That means the decisions they make in the future about what to say and how to say it are largely based on assumptions.

As you test your subject lines, you’ll start to build a “messaging profile” of what works best for your audience and in what situations. This is information you’ll want to hang on to. If you start making decisions based on limited data, it’s not much better than an assumption. Over time though, you’ll find trends and patterns, and then you can establish norms based on what actually works.