March 6th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

One of my favorite e-commerce retailers, Gilt.com almost never disappoints me. The company was founded by Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson as a by-invitation, members-only flash sale site, and launched back in 2007. Each sale lasts roughly two days (though you should consider yourself lucky if the goods aren’t sold out within two hours) and features merchandise from a mix of luxury and mid-tier brands. Gilt buyers acquire inventory at an extreme discount, and sell it at a pretty hefty discount as well, typically offering over 50 percent off.

The reason I consider Gilt a favorite is because in my eyes, they’ve got the whole package. Well, almost. They’ve got a great presence on social media, their customer service is top notch, they have a strong dedication to sale personalization, and they even recently added a comprehensive loyalty program to reward frequent shoppers with points that can be redeemed in the form of free shipping, early access to sales, and other perks. But their email marketing? Ugh.

The company sends out a daily email to inform users about upcoming sales. I rarely open it, but shake my head at it almost every day. This morning’s email subject line was as follows: “Minimalist-Chic Shoes, Tweed Spring Jackets & Dresses, Spring Tees & Polos, The Ultimate Dress Shop, Men’s Undershirts, J Brand and More Start Today at Noon ET.”

Yesterday’s subject line was just as…informative: “Easy Knits Feat. Firth, March Steals Under $30, It Takes Two: Must-Have Earrings, Pink Chicken for Girls, Lodis, Charles David, Super-Cool Clothes for Little Ones and More Start Today at 9PM ET.”

Notice a problem? Yup, me too, and I’m not alone.

This “word-vomit” approach to email subject line writing is common among flash sale sites and is, as it turns out, exactly the reason why their marketing campaigns consistently underperform. Retention Science, a company that specializes in retention marketing, recently conducted an email marketing study, which revealed that nearly 80 percent of flash sale email campaigns had subject lines consisting of 20 or more words and, of these, most perform significantly worse than campaigns with shorter subject lines. Why?

“A subject lines that’s basically just a list of brands or items is not engaging. It’s not catchy,” Jerry Jao, CEO of Retention Science told me. “You might get a customer here and there because they see the name of a brand they like, but you don’t just want to attract people that already like a certain brand. You want to attract new users too,” he adds.

The disappointing performance of some flash sale email marketing campaigns could also be attributed to the frequency at which they are sent; flash sale brands tend to email their customers four to eight times a week, where the norm for others is two to four times a week. A growing number of users accessing their emails on mobile devices could also be to blame. Retention Science’s study found that roughly 35 percent of emails are currently being opened on a mobile device, which displays only the first five or six works of every email subject.

So what should email marketers do when it comes to promoting these deliciously addicting flash sales? Keep it simple! “Shorter subject lines tend to perform better across the board, across industries,” Jao says. Six to 10 words is usually ideal, and it doesn’t hurt to throw in a pop culture reference. Subject lines with song lyrics or quotes from popular films can boost open rates, the study found.

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