I tell people data is in my DNA. That’s because analytics guide every marketing campaign I complete. I even dream [good dreams] about A/B testing. Yes, I’m that passionate. Through my passion I’m noticing that many have lost the true vision for A/B testing. Lots of marketers are sparing the strategy process that leads to effective testing.

The simple reason is science.

Many of us learned the scientific method in school. How does that relate to marketing? I’ll tell you. Scientific research is the basis of observational studies and experiments. As a refresher, here’s the steps to scientific method:

  1. Ask a Question
  2. Do Background Research
  3. Construct a Hypothesis
  4. Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
  5. Analyze Data and Draw Conclusions
  6. Communicate Your Results

Having all stages present in you’re A/B test is essential. However, the majority of items on the list are easy to overlook. Too often, I hear marketers who simply write two general headlines or test two different images without thinking about the A/B test as a wholistic test. To understand the “why” behind these tests, you must first understand buying psychology.


The real reason that subject line matters

We all have an intuitive sense of why subject lines matter, they get people to open and click on the freaking email.  But how do they work, what is it about human nature and the science of the brain that makes them work?

This is a much longer topic, but we’re going to cover it in short order.  The brain has two fundamental states of awareness: 1. Alpha = a state of auto pilot, and 2. Beta = a state of alertness. The Reticular Activator (RA) controls what wakes up the brain and moves it from Alpha to Beta. The RA is constantly on the lookout for things that are familiar, problematic or unusual. And when it observes anything of that nature, it will snap your brain from Alpha to Beta.

As an example, have you ever noticed that when you’re thinking about buying a car, you suddenly notice the same types of cars on the road? That is your Reticular Activator doing its job. It’s taking something where you have currently shown an interest (it’s familiar to you) and it’s snapping your brain from Alpha to Beta so you can continue to evaluate and make a decision.

Subject lines need to do that exact same thing.  They need to snap the Reticular Activator from Alpha to Beta so your prospect will actually pay attention.  Your imagery and call-to-action should also incorporate this kind of thinking to keep your prospect engaged in your value proposition.  If you want to get really good at writing subject lines use this eBook to get you thinking in the right direction: Revolutionary Guide to Writing Effective Headlines.


What to Test

Having a better understanding of scientific research and the science of the brain enhances you’re A/B tests. Rather than walk you through a series of how to scenarios, I’m going to share three key elements within marketing emails where buying psychology is present. Remember, do not test multiple elements at once. A true test has one test field and all other content is consistent (yes there are more sophisticated methods for testing several variables at one time but we’re going to keep this blog to the simple A/B method). So let’s focus on the following tests:

  1. Subject lines
  2. Hero images
  3. Call to action


Subject lines – The Ad for the Ad

The subject line is the “ad for the ad”.  Without a compelling subject line all your hard work to construct the email is wasted. The key to writing good subject lines is to match up your prospects hot buttons to the content you’re planning for your email (hopefully you’ve already completed a content strategy that has done this and created a strong editorial calendar).

When you know who your audience is and the content you want to deliver to them it is now time to construct your subject line test. You’ll want to create subject lines that have enough contrast to them to be meaningful.  Too often we’ve seen subject line tests that aren’t distinctive enough from each other to gain any valuable performance lift, or just as importantly any learnings about your audience!

For example, you might be wondering which subject line will increase more back-to-school haircuts from your database. Many email marketers will go directly to the promotional subject line, but before you just start giving promotions think about what you could learn about your audience and how to inject a stronger value equation to your consumer.

Remember the great line in Austin Powers when Fat Bastard says “Get in my Belly”, well we as marketers need to “Get in my Brain”.  Start thinking about the conversation that is happening in your consumer’s mind:

I sure would like to get Johnny a stylish haircut that both he and I will love.

What haircut styles don’t make my kid look like a dork.

I just don’t want to hassle with thinking about this, can someone just give me good advice.


When you’ve done this exercise it really helps you to understand how you’re going to hit that hot button and get the consumer to flip their brain from Alpha to Beta.  Using our Revolutionary Guide to Writing Effective Headlines you can rapidly start to create headlines that will be more compelling to your consumers, and you’ll be able to categorize them.  Here is an example of some subject lines you could use:


3 easy hairstyles that you and your kid will love.

How to get free compliments with your kid’s next haircut.

The ultimate guide to your child’s hair style.


Notice how these subject lines are trying to tap into the hot buttons that we derived from getting in our customer’s brain.

I trust that you can think of examples that relate to your brand. If you have writers block here’s a website that provides ideas for subject lines.


A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Cliché alert! But yes, there is a reason that this statement is true, even back when it was originally quoted (back in the early 1900’s).  Again, let’s turn to brain science to help us out.  Here’s the simple fact:

MIT neuroscientists find the brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.

Ok, wow, that’s freaking fast.  But the practical implication is to use imagery to help tell your story.

The main image in your emails is the Hero Shot. Heroism embodies outstanding achievements, noble qualities, and admirable character. In life, it’s human nature to want to be a hero. In marketing and business, it’s our role to help customers become one.  Images and video thumbnails are instrumental in visualizing a desired outcome, context, or solution that embodies these “hero” attributes.

Just like subject lines, you can test your hero images. You might test product imagery versus lifestyle imagery. In the end you never know what will work better until you know what works better.  You can gain some guidance on creating hero shots by using the 7 Hero Shot Persuasion Factors and downloading your Hero Shot Scorecard.


You Want Me to do What?

If the subject line is the “ad for the ad”, then the next most important factor is the Call to Action (CTA). It’s “the ask” within the email. Very rarely does your email deliver the entire message that you’re trying to communicate, so it asks the prospect to take a step by providing an easy, low risk offer to encourage them to continue.

So at this point you know where we’re going, right? YES, TEST IT. The CTA typically has two fundamental elements:

  • The copy you use (see earlier in this document for the science and methods to test subject lines).
  • A button that is begging for the prospect to click on it!

We’ve already talked about writing subject lines and testing them. You can use the same methods for the CTA. The next biggest question we get is usually about the color of the button.  So let’s talk about a little known secret on how to improve your CTA using the brain science behind color.

See, I bet you didn’t know as a marketer you were also a mad scientist!

Our eyes jump rapidly about three times each second to capture new visual information.  The eye wants, even needs to find a complementary color. Use this science to lead your prospect to your CTA.

All that fancy science leads to a fairly simple conclusion. Your CTA color should be the complementary color from your main color design on the color wheel. This is laid out for you in Color Usability: 4 Keys to Clockwork Conversion.

Of course you should TEST THIS and identify the most optimal color for the buttons in your CTAs.


Don’t Just Use Math for Your Testing, Use the Science of the Brain

The above principles of brain science should give you a new understanding of why and how you can test the elements of your emails to gain better results.  Yes, the math behind testing is still critical, but putting a little thought into why the brain makes decisions can give your testing a large leap forward in it’s effectiveness and help you find some true insights into how your prospects behave!