July 14th, 2009 | 5 MIN READ

Marketing Tip: Keep an Email Headline Swipe File

Written by author_profile_images Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

A swipe file in the advertising / copywriting world is a collection of tested and proven headlines and other creative. The swipe file is used as a reference and inspiration for campaigns and copy. An email headline swipe file is handy for online retail marketers, especially when split testing "strategies."

I thought I'd get you started with your own email headline swipe file, taking inspiration from 9 Proven Headline Strategies, a guest post to Copyblogger by Dean Rieck of Direct Creative. Dean provides 9 kinds of headlines and the pros / cons of each type. I'll highlight the first 8 here, as the last one is tough to do in retail and in my opinion is more suited to direct sales landing pages.

Below is a summary of Dean's proven strategies, with some examples I gleaned from the Retail Email Blog's daily AM Inbox reports (which always finish with a collection of the best retail email headlines of the day) and my own email inbox.

1. The simple and direct headline

Get right to the point without clever wordplay or jokes. Works best for strong offers, famous brands or familiar product types.

Retailer examples:

4th of July Savings at BassPro.com?
25 patriotic styles to show your colors this 4th of July.
ThisNext: Win a Jones New York Shopping Spree
No payments, no interest for 12 months storewide
3 Days Left for Free Shipping Over $99

2. The "big benefit"

State your #1 selling point up front communicates your value prop (or the product's) even if the email isn't opened.

Retailer examples:

Exclusively At Urban: The Alexander Girard Collection?
Guaranteed Delivery for Father's Day + Great Gift Ideas?
Great Savings On Wrinkle-Resistant Styles For Dad?
What's New in Entertainment: Free Jonas Brothers Download?
Huge markdowns, free gift with purchase and more at eToys
Oprah Magazine agrees! Our no iron shirt, a great buy at $59.50
Effortless silk: it's washable! Plus, 20% off favorite wear-now looks.

3. The exciting news

Dean suggests you appeal to curiosity and craft your headline in a way that suggests news rather than advertising. Note that the subject does not have to be new, just new to your customer. I'll add that compelling magazine-style headlines can also be powerful.

Gap.com does the magazine headline thing exceptionally well. The following are all from Gap.com:

Introducing Athleta, the newest member of the Gap Inc. family.
This Just In: Fall's Casual Cool Look
Summer Getaway? Top Picks to Pack
Spring Must-Haves, Starting at $15
Top News: The Season's Shirts Are Here
New! Summer Styles You Need Now
What to Wear Now: Ultra-Feminine Tops
Closet Essentials: What You Need Now
Summer Love: The Chic Shorts Trend

4. The "How-To"

Focus on a need or want and promise to fulfill it (and follow through on fulfilling it in the creative). I had a tough time finding any retail subject lines that started with "how to," so I added some to the following:

Before you put on makeup - do this
(How To) Tighten, Smooth & Lift - In All the Right Places
(How To) Create Incredible Easter Eggs
(How To) Calm your dog's anxieties

OK I did find one how to. I just wasn't sure the content could fulfill the promise:

How to be the hottest thing on the beach

5. The "provocative question"

Dean says: "Asking a question directly involves your reader. However, your question cannot be random or clever. It must relate directly and clearly to the major benefit of the product. It must also prod the reader to answer “yes” or at least “I’m not sure, but I want to know more.”

Retailer examples:

Are You Ready For Dress Season?
The Season of the Dress. Are You Ready?

Gap uses the headline two years in a row, couldn't have bombed the first time.

OK, I admit, those were the only 2 examples I could dig up. So I made up my own:

What if you never had to iron again? Your wrinkle free wardrobe is here.
Running out of ideas for the Dad who has everything? I bet he doesn't have this...
Think you have no time to cook? 5 perfect dinners in 15 minutes or less.
Is your fashion budget on a diet? Splurge on our $10 tees, 100% Shipping Free!
Could you use a better night's sleep? Our top rated pillows and mattresses up to 75% off

6. The command

Taking charge and using a command verb may prompt more readers to take action on a sub-conscious level. It also clearly states the benefit of what you're offering.

Try Bare Escentuals' #1-selling makeup item?
Transform Your Dad with Savings on Grills, Tents, Workboots and More?
Make travel easier for Dad!
Give dad a piece of New York baseball history!?
Dress up your boyfriend
Be the first to shop our June collection.
Enter to win a new Black Stainless TRIO Refrigerator?
Over 400 items $14.99 or less. Shop Outlet now!

7. Offer useful information

...But not just any information. Dean suggests folks are drowning in facts and seek out tips, secrets and rules that promise to help them improve their lives or their world.

Earth-Friendly Recipes: Smart Seafood, Local Ingredients, Garden Herbs
Advanced treatment for cold dry winter air.
New Year's Resolutions: How to be flirty without flirting + FREE SHIPPING ends today
New ways to keep your New Year's resolutions
4 ways to get great sound for your HDTV

Bonus tip: offer a mix of product promotion and information, but lead with information. See Should Retail Email Sell or Inform?.

8. The honest testimonial

Customers trust people like them more than the marketing machine, and may get higher click through for being different - it was tough to find examples of these. In fact, I only found one by LL Bean (via RetailEmailBlog):

"Is it really wrong to love a doormat?"

Be careful though, testimonial headlines can look spammy - we're all tired of outrageous direct marketing copy like "I lost an amazing 50 lbs in 10 days with huckleberry extract!!!"

Other Headline Tactics

Go ahead and peruse headlines on the Email Retail Blog (you'll find the day's best at the bottom of every post) or iStorez.com. (Or if you're a sucker for punishment like me, sign up to about 80 retailer's emails!)

You'll notice other tactics retailers use that you might want to test, including:

Mixed case, like "Hurry! There's still time to shop our "ALL ON SALE" sale!" and "Come home: FREE SHIPPING on select home updates."

Use numbers and percentages, like "Save up to 50%. Sneak peek sale—3 days only!"

Highlight best-sellers and customer favorites, like "Shop our best-selling pants" and "Welcome to Williams-Sonoma Favorites"

Or extra long subject lines, like "Ends Sunday! Extra 50% Off THE MIRACLE BRA Swimwear. Plus, Free Shipping. Details Inside."

Happy testing!

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