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The Worst Subject Line Ever

……and why it demonstrates the importance of paying attention to user-level data.

Given we create and advise other firms on sending newsletters, we naturally have our own, and we like to think it’s a pretty good weekly covering media and marketing (sign up here!).


One of the core tenets we push for newsletters is to avoid anything gimmicky. The medium is built for genuine, thoughtful attempts at helping your readers make sense of the world, and to devalue that trust kills the entire purpose of the product. It’s one of the biggest distinctions between commerce-driven email marketing, where the goal is to get a conversion at all cost, and an editorial product, where the value is the email itself.

The Easy UX of the Unsubscribe

Also, one of the most beautiful parts of email is how easy it has become to unsubscribe. It’s a world apart from trying to figuring out how to tweak your Facebook feed, and that forces a high bar for newsletter creators in maintaining reader trust.

So this week, I tried to be a little cute. There was this Techcrunch article on how Movable Ink, a company that has a number of email design tools, was launching a tool “to add augmented reality to email marketing arsenal”. If you read into it, the announcement has nothing to do with email and is simply a tool to create AR filters (of which there are plenty). But, in one of our A/B test subject lines, I put “Augmented Reality Emails” because it just kind of easy. That seems fairly benign, right?

Enter the Carnage

We get a Slack notification (via Mailchimp) for each unsubscribe. Most unsubscribes for any campaign take place fairly shortly after the send, and when we sent it our #unsubscribe channel kept getting lit up. The gut-wrenching part, you can see the email address of who is unsubscribing, and man, it was a lot of senior media people we really look up to. One after the other. Some serious newsletter kings and queens in their own right, breaking up with us.

We run a lot of newsletter campaigns, and I had almost never seen anything like it. As the carnage started to die down, and the flood of heartbreak set in, we noticed something else….

Wee A/B test our subject lines and the “Augmented Reality Emails” subject was performing at 3x the open rate of the plain vanilla “A CMOs Guide to Email Marketing”. When it was all said and done, the gimmicky AR subject line crossed a 60% open rate across an audience of a few thousand, which was also the highest open rate we’ve seen.

What was it about that subject line, “Augmented Reality Emails”?

I guess it’s good clickbait; short, intriguing, punchy and makes you hopeful that you’ll be dazzled by some new form of email technology. And then you open it, and are disappointed. It’s certainly not egregious, but it was enough to annoy a certain subset of people. The people who know what they’re doing when it comes to newsletters. Some of the more prominent media folks you probably subscribe to.

The Importance of User-Level Data

This is why paying attention to granular, user-level newsletter data matters so much. If we were just watching our open rates, we would’ve been ecstatic. We’d start making every subject line resemble this one. But our newsletter does not sell sponsorships, and is not aiming for a commerce conversion. It’s a labor of love that hopefully communicates how we think to people we respect and hope to work with. And those are the exact people that understand the game, opened the email, took one look, and decided they didn’t want another subject line hacker in their inbox.

For that, we apologize.

Know Your Target Reader and Have a Strategy

If you’re taking the time to craft a newsletter, have a plan in place in who you are targeting, and what you hope to get out of it. Even if it’s as simple as getting a specific subset of people to open the email, have a plan beyond targeting an open-rate percentage you did a quick search for:

We learned our lesson. Individuals matter to us, and there was a measurable impact from trying to get cute on the aggregate level. That’s not our goal.

Lesson learned.