Amanda Gagnon

Case Study: Creativity vs. clarity in email subject lines

September 4th, 2012

Editor’s Note: One of the prizes of winning the MarketingSherpa Reader’s Choice Awards is the chance for a guest post here on the MarketingSherpa blog. Today’s post is by Amanda Gagnon of the AWeber Communications blog, chosen as best email marketing blog … by you.


It’s critical for any marketing email to be labeled with an appealing, even gripping, subject line. Since the subject line acts as the email’s introduction, if it deflects attention, the rest of the message never gets seen.

The question is, what do consumers find appealing? What grips them?

The AWeber team investigated results from recent email broadcasts promoting posts on our blog to find out.

Test: Clarity vs. creativity in email subject lines

Subject lines written to appeal with creativity were identified, as well as subject lines written in a clear, straightforward manner.

Subject lines written creatively included:

  • AWeber’s AWesome Anthony A.
  • Getting Earth-Friendly Beyond Email
  • Threadless’ Frequency Alert: Hot or Not?

Subject lines written with clarity included:

  • Grow Your Email List 99% Faster: How One Site Did It
  • 43 Free Animated GIFs For Your Email Campaign
  • Email Timing: A Look At 6 Marketers


The test was run across 20 subject lines, sent to a list of over 45,000 subscribers. The clear, straightforward subject lines gathered far more response than their creative counterparts, surpassing them by:



On average, each channel garnered 541% more response from the clear subject lines.


Analysis: Why does clarity work in subject lines?

An email’s subject line has three objectives:

  1. To get the brand in front of consumers
  2. To get the email opened
  3. Failing that, to communicate a key message from the brand to the subscribers

The first objective — getting the brand in front of consumers — happens during routine inbox checks no matter what the subject line says.

The second objective — getting the email opened — depends on several factors: the appeal of the subject line, the past relationship between the brand and the consumer, and the frame of mind the consumer is in.

The more rushed or detached the consumer’s frame of mind, the higher the subject line’s appeal needs to be.

So, clarity is paramount.

“If your emails are going to your target audience, your readers have requested what you’re sending,” says Justin Premick, AWeber’s Director of Education Marketing. “Telling them in the subject line exactly what it is confirms for them that they want it.”

While the ideal outcome is to get the email opened, there will inevitably be subscribers who won’t see the main message inside. That’s where the third objective comes in — getting a key message across to those subscribers.

A clear subject line, of course, can get that message across, even if it’s abbreviated. However, this raises a question:

If the subject line gets the key message across, why would people bother to open the email?

The stats above show that opens don’t stop; in fact, they’re higher when the subject line is clear.


The answer lies in the nature of the key message. A subject line shouldn’t give away all of the information inside. Instead, it should clearly explain what that information is about.

For example, if a tea shop were celebrating a new location’s grand opening, its email’s subject line wouldn’t read, “Tea Party at 4 p.m., 9/12/12 at 8 Main St.”

That’s not clarity — it’s throwing itself at readers.

And, it wouldn’t read, “The Mad Hatter on Main.” That’s creative, but it doesn’t tell subscribers what they’ll find inside at all.

Instead, it might read, “Your Invitation to Our Grand Opening Tea Party.”

This clear subject line, with its promise of more details inside, would get the opens.


Related Resources:

Findings From MarketingSherpa: Relevancy is Key (via AWeber Communications blog)

Optimizing Headlines & Subject Lines

MarketingExperiments Research Directory (contains A/B testing case studies with explanation of lessons learned)

Categories: Email Marketing Tags: , , , ,

  1. September 4th, 2012 at 03:52 | #1

    Great case study. I’m not surprised that the creative subject lines received much less responses.

    If I sign up to an email list I would much prefer clear actionable content that I can use and benefit from. From what I’ve seen, if the subject line doesn’t state the reader’s benefits for reading it, it will get less responses.

    The creative subject lines don’t have any of that, in fact some of them are downright confusing.

  2. September 5th, 2012 at 22:04 | #2

    Congratulations on the guest post. Creativity is nice from time to time; however I agree with Burii. I would rather see straight to the point email subject lines to determine if the email is even worth opening (objective 2) to begin with. Getting the brand across to customers and click through go hand in hand. If the email does not even make it to the inbox there will be no impressions or the possibility of a click through. Keep it clear, concise and relevant-give the customer what they are seeking or in need of.

  3. September 7th, 2012 at 10:54 | #3

    Right? Thanks for adding your opinions – it definitely seems that the entertainment factor needs to be kept within the email itself – unless, of course, one can be 100% clear and also entertaining at the same time.

  4. September 7th, 2012 at 12:54 | #4

    I think it depends on your audience and how really creative your subject lines are. Nothing personal, but your examples of creativity felt a little flat to me.

    I’ve done both the creative and the specific and (depending on how well they’re done) have seen the opposite happen.

    So, when my audience sees something like: Rumors & half-truths…can you help me clear this up? or The Cheese Sandwich Monsters edition, the open rate is at or near 50% or better. Versus just using a specific “Here’s an invitation” type subject line.

    By the way, my biz is B2B.

  5. September 10th, 2012 at 10:52 | #5

    This is an amazing illustration. There’s such an art to creating headlines and most marketers overlook it in email headlines. Hooray for data! Thanks for sharing.

  6. VladV
    September 10th, 2012 at 15:31 | #6

    Great little article. We have ongoing debate at the office about the type of subject lines we should use. Some people prefer to keep it creative and mysterious to tease the user open the email. But I prefer to keep it as informational as possible. I don’t need all those opens from disappointed users who jut wanted to see what’s inside, to lower my CTR. Thanks to you, tomorrow I am going to change the SLs for all my campaigns for the rest of the week.

  7. September 10th, 2012 at 15:44 | #7

    Wow! Loud applause! Great case study. I concentrate more on website content in my practice. As a lesson learned from you guys, I review websites live in front of audiences when I hold seminars. It is amazing to hear when I ask the group – at the beginning of the talk – if titles, tag lines, or whole home pages are good or not and they say “yes”, only to have them tell me when asked, that they have no idea what the page was trying to communicate. They change their tune pretty quickly. At the end, the answers are reversed and they have begun to see what they missed. Research of this nature is “the bomb”.

  8. September 11th, 2012 at 09:59 | #8

    Hi Amanda,

    This is a great article, but I have to say with due respect that while you presented “creative” headlines, you didn’t address the notion of quality creative. I think what you call creative, I would call clever, but unfocused. I agree that to be different is not enough.

    If it were about clarity only…then we could all just report the facts and everyone would respond with high numbers. I would suggest that your “clear” subject lines are in fact creative for their brevity, targeting, etc.

    I agree that being CLEVER should never trump clarity or relevancy, but please don’t indict “creativity”. Great creative that is clear, will win out every time over the boring presentation of facts.

  9. September 17th, 2012 at 08:57 | #9

    “Creative” without purpose and focus has little value. The need for audience clarity and context is a given and instant relevance is necessary to engage them. Quality creative understands this and explores message options in this context.

    Quality creative is about solving problems in new ways and is always focused on the final objective. You’re Mad Hatter example is a very short illustration of the process, but does not do it justice. Short, concise and compelling is not easy. That is where creative counts in both the subject line and the fulfillment of the promise to the reader – more details.

    Creative and its value-add is getting short-changed here.

  10. Jeff Sawyer
    September 28th, 2012 at 08:32 | #10

    One factor is how often the recipient hears from you. If they’ve subscribed and you e-mail them several times week;y, interspersing creative subject lines occasionally can sustain response.

    There is also the less measurable impact of smart creative on long-term brand appeal. “New pants!” may win the day, but “Who needs pants?” may win the attention long term.

  11. January 8th, 2013 at 20:30 | #11

    Thanks for sharing, Amanda. The data is interesting, as are the comments. One thing that also needs to be added to the equation is the fact that a huge percent of emails are now being opened on mobile devices. So regardless of clarity vs creativity, the subject line’s main idea needs to come across in 5-6 words. If you have any test results regarding mobile vs. desktop open rates, please share (perhaps in a future guest post?)

    Also, regarding creativity vs. clarity, I think it depends on the product, audience, and as mentioned the relationship the company has with the recipient. If a company is using email software or marketing automation tools, A/B testing is always an easy, useful option.

  12. January 24th, 2013 at 09:15 | #12

    Great point, Susan. I am guessing that at least 50% of emails are now opened through a mobile phone or a tablet. More than being clear, subjects should be concise and still catchy as much as possible. For small business marketing, I think clarity should be given importance. As the recipient of the email, I am more likely not to open emails that sound shady and sometimes, trying to be too creative creates that impression.

  13. February 28th, 2013 at 09:05 | #13

    I actually Think that posting, “Case Study: Creativity
    vs. clarity in email subject lines | MarketingSherpa Blog” was in fact correctly written! I reallycouldn’t agree with u more! At last appears like Iuncovered a blog page worthy of checking out. Thanks for your effort, Gabriel

  14. Ash
    January 12th, 2014 at 13:31 | #14

    Hi – while this article is interesting, what is the baseline that the performance lift is measured against? What was the manner of testing – is the 355% increase in subscription base an absolute or relative figure?

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