Should You Avoid “Free” In E-Mail Subject Lines?

December 18th, 2008 by Bob Bly

The frustrating thing about learning Internet marketing is that when you ask gurus for advice, they give different answers.

When I asked BJ, a successful information marketer, he was quite firmly against “free” in e-mail subject lines.

“We have found it is a no-no to use FREE in the subject line,” says BJ. “FREE is a tremendous spam flag in most systems.”

You can’t fool the spam filters by using “f-r-e-e” or “F*ree” or other variations, according to BJ.

“They are way ahead of you on that and in most cases it hurts you more because they see that as a blatant ploy to try to fake them out.”

On the other hand, AA, a respected Internet marketing consultant, says “FREE can and does work … in fact, most of our clients have at least one control subject line with FREE in it.”

“Way back when, there were a ton of rules about what you could and couldn’t do when it came to subject lines,” says AA. “All of these rules have pretty much been thrown out the window.”

Of course, you can say “test it.” In one test, a list brokerage promoting its service did an A/B split test with 2 subject lines: (a) “Boost sales, increase profits, and expand market awareness” vs . (b) “FREE Direct Mail Encyclopedia.”

The “FREE Direct Mail Encylopedia” generated 25% more click-throughs than “A.”

What happened? Obviously, the increased response produced with a free offer far outweighed the negative effective on clicks caused by triggering spam filters, resulting in a net click-through-rate gain.

What about you? Have YOU tested “free” in e-mail subject lines? Does it work for you?

P.S. By the way, according to a recent study from Datran Media, 83% of marketers surveyed said that e-mail marketing — not blogging, social networking, or banner advertising — is their most important advertising medium.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, December 18th, 2008 at 9:21 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

31 responses about “Should You Avoid “Free” In E-Mail Subject Lines?”

  1. Michael A. Stelzner said:

    Bob;

    I have avoided it because of what the pros said. I would love some proof that I can indeed use it.

    Mike

  2. Bob Bly said:

    Michael: Does the “free direct mail encyclopedia” test I described not offer you some proof?

  3. Best Virtual Advertising » Blog Archive » Should You Avoid “Free” In E-Mail Subject Lines? - bly.com blog … said:

    [...] unknown wrote an interesting post today onShould You Avoid â??Freeâ?? In E-Mail Subject Lines? – bly.com blog …Here’s a quick excerptThe “FREE Direct Mail Encylopedia” generated 25% more click-throughs than “A.” What happened? Obviously, the increased response produced with a free offer far outweighed the negative effective on clicks caused by triggering spam filters … [...]

  4. Gloria Hildebrandt said:

    When I have used “Free” in the subject line, even legitimately, when offering something personal & not as an ad campaign, my messages have been discarded as spam.

  5. Bob Bly said:

    Gloria: I just used “free” in my email blast to my list today and my in-box is already flooded with orders. (The subject line is “Free content for Internet marketers”)

  6. Stacey Mathis said:

    I was told that “Free” in the subject line should generally be avoided in emails since it tends to trigger spam filters. It can also negatively affect your open rate.

  7. Terry Dean said:

    My opinion is you can definitely use Free in your subject lines at times. What I recommend for most people is to use an email service that makes it easy to check your email against a SpamAssassin score (a lot of them offer this).

    If your “score” is to high, then look for a few changes to make. Even a brand new domain name can be a huge mark against you. So it’s the overall message, not one single word I’d be looking for.

  8. Big Marketing For You » Blog Archive » Should You Avoid “Free” In E-Mail Subject Lines? - bly.com blog … said:

    [...] unknown wrote an interesting post today onShould You Avoid â??Freeâ?? In E-Mail Subject Lines? – bly.com blog …Here’s a quick excerptOn the other hand, AA, a respected Internet marketing consultant, says “FREE can and does work … in fact, most of our clients have at least one control subject line with FREE in it.” “Way back when, there were a ton of rules about what … [...]

  9. Michele Shubert said:

    I, too, have read both opinions from the so-called experts. Here are my thoughts.

    First of all, spam filters are getting more and more sophisticated. Newer filters are smarter and do not rely as heavily on content-based blocking. And the fact is that people are still affected by the word free. If it’s free, we want it, even if we don’t really want it. So using “free” in subject lines still works.

    I tend to agree with the “experts” who say that even though content-based filters are still in use, if using a “kill” word gets you better results than not using it, then [duh] use it! It’s been proven through testing that “free” is one of those words.

    Michele Shubert
    QuantumDigital

  10. Stacy said:

    From a consumer view-of-point, the subject heading wouldn’t even come into play. I always check who the email is from, and the unknowns are sent straight to the trash bin. Now, if I know who the sender is, then the word “free” in the heading would give me more of an incentive to open that email–but not by much.

  11. Cynthia Maniglia said:

    Bob, one of my boss’ taught me that when it comes to writing copy, “Free is the strongest word in the English language.”

  12. Anti Aging said:

    I’d like to second what Terry said.

    Most spam filters give you a score based off of the type and number of infractions in your email. The word FREE in the subject line is just one of thousands of different ways to get a negative score.

    Before I EVER send out an email I always check it’s span assassin score

  13. Note Taking Nerd said:

    My question is why resist the machine?

    Free is flagged for a reason. Too many lazy losers have abused it.

    Why play in that sandbox?

    “Free” is the refuge of the unimaginative.

    Not relying on free seems to me to be the best defense against getting your email bounced.

    Not ever using it after running it through spam assassin would be lazy also. Like Bob said he used it today and the orders came flooding in.

    But I don’t imagine this tool makes up anymore than .5% of his email subject line tool box.

    If we ever become a one trick pony show we’ll end up on our asses in the snow.

    I recently listened to Matt Furey’s “The Furey Formula For Making A Fortune With Email” and in it he gives suggestions for drawing people into your email by being provocative.

    Not normal.

    I might be wrong but I don’t think he mentioned using free in the subject line during the seminar.

    I haven’t been paying close enough attention to his emails lately but from what I remember his subject lines stand tall without resorting to free.

    The word “Free” is like perfume. Use too much of it and you’ll nauseate people (and search engines). Make it almost undetectable and you’ll arouse senses.

    Note Taking Nerd #2
    http://www.mynotetakingnerd.wordpress.com

  14. Free contact lenses said:

    I’m working on marketing for an online contact lens retailer and we constantly run up against the “start up” e-tailers trying to grab market share with “free contact lens” offers. While we stay away from the word “Free” in email campaigns for our current business, it is a very effective word in our overall marketing strategies for other businesses I have been involved with.

  15. Note Taking Nerd said:

    Hey Bob,

    I just opened my inbox and this subject line for an email from Playboy grabbed my attention…

    Naughty Naked Babe Has $180 Savings For You Inside

    I thought this was an imaginative way to frame free you’d like to see.

    Note Taking Nerd #2
    http://www.mynotetakingnerd.wordpress
    www.

  16. Dental Lab NJ said:

    I like to use the words Special For you at no charge less likely to be tagged as spam.

  17. Anna Johnson said:

    Have used all kinds of ‘free’ words e.g. ‘complimentary’, ‘no-cost’, ‘no charge’ and ‘free’ itself and never noticed a substantial difference in open rates or click-through rates. I do, however, avoid too many instances of ‘free’ in the body copy as this seems to trigger a high SpamAsassin score which I prefer to avoid. That’s really for peace of mind though… so I should probably test that too…

  18. How to Avoid Spam Filters said:

    Guys,you’re confusing some things here.

    First of all, “FREE” and “free” are not the same thing from the spam filters view.

    Then it matters where the word is placed in the subject line.

    If the subject line starts with “Free”, then for example the version 3.1.x of Spam Assassin will penalize the email.

    If the word “free” is somewhere “inside” the subject line, but not at the very beginning, then the email is not penalized unless you write it ALL CAPS.

  19. Stacey said:

    Thanks “How To Avoid Spam Filters.” I did not know that.

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  21. Bob Bly said:

    Nerd: You are correct. I rarely use free in my subject lines. But, if it fits perfectly, I will use it. I had great results with an e-mail to my list last week with the subject line: “Free content for Internet marketers.” I simply could not think of anything stronger than that (I was selling an e-book on how to market public domain works online).

  22. Troy Bingham - Lead Response Manager said:

    I guess it doesn’t hurt to try. And the success is really going to boil down to the list in both cases. Good points.

  23. Terrance Charles said:

    Good topic post. It all depends, free is overused yes, but people never stop paying attention to free stuff, and if it’s a good offer, you can build trust with your subscribers so they know when you say “free” they know you deliver.

    But, at the same time, you can use other words like “no cost” or “cost free” in different phrases that will still get good results. It’s kind of the same thing with “gifts”, that’s overused too, bonuses may sound better to most.

    Terrance Charles
    http://www.thesimplecode.com

  24. Becca said:

    It’s really getting harder and harder to avoid spam filters, as they’re always increasing their “flag” lists.

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