Dos and Don’ts For Email Subject Lines

By | Monday December 17th, 2012

Is it art? Is it science? Or is it luck? When it comes to writing email subject lines, success may require a combination of all three.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For proof, take a look at how the Obama campaign used email outreach to rack up significant fundraising wins. With unconventional subject lines like, “I will be outspent,” “Do this for Michelle,” or simply, “Hey,” the Obama campaign used email to raise millions of dollars.

So, if the Obama campaign can use with unusual subject lines, should you try to do the same? Is it time for your marketing team to start breaking the rules?

Not necessarily.

Keep in mind that when it comes to email subject lines, there will always be certain things you should NOT do.

For example, don’t include anything that’s likely to get your message caught by your readers’ SPAM filters. These SPAM filter treats include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Words relating to sex or pornography.
  • The words “free” or “fast cash.”
  • References to brand-name prescription drugs like Viagra, Levitra, Cialis or Vicodin.
  • Extra (and unnecessary) p.u.n.c.t.u.a.t.i.o.n.
  • The oh-so-obvious words “Not SPAM!”  . . . because if you have to say it’s not, it probably is.

Even after you have steered clear of SPAM filters, your email message won’t be read if it’s not opened. Here are a few more tips to help you create compelling subject lines a’la the Obama campaign. Make sure you pay attention to:

  • Length. With a limit of 50-60 characters, you have about 6-10 words to get your message across. Brevity is key. Studies show a link between shorter subject lines and higher open rates.
  • Your name. Keeping your company or brand name as part of your message can help significantly increase your open rates. But, how can you use your company name and stay within the character limit? Your “From Email Address” should include your company name.
  • Call-to-action. Use the subject line to emphasize a call-to-action. Try piquing curiosity with news snippets and other important announcements. Or, set deadlines or countdowns, to create a sense of urgency.  You can even ask questions in the subject heading if it suits the topic; these typically involve the reader much more than pure statements alone. Example: “Have you seen these discounts? Only 24 hours before the sale ends.” But, make sure you pay off on this promise quickly (not buried) in the content of the email, or readers will get frustrated.
  • Added value to the recipient. Accentuate benefits, but get straight to the point. Put yourself in your recipient’s place. What does he/she need to know? Example: “Order now and receive two shirts for the price of one.”
  • Truth-telling. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Focus on appropriate subject headings and only raise expectations you are able to fulfill! Nothing causes more harm to your business than a dissatisfied, disappointed customer. Be reliable and truthful, and you’ll build long-term trust with your customers, while establishing a loyal readership. Example: “We can save you up to 25% off your heating bill.”
  • Personalization. Customizing the subject line with the recipient’s name is definitely an eye-catcher. But, don’t personalize each email you send, or you risk turning something extraordinary into something mundane. Also, don’t forget the recipients who may not have provided you with their name when registering; you’ll need to design a subject line that works even without this kind of personalization. Also, make sure your first name data collection and validation process is solid. As an alternative, try customizing with the sender name, as well. People are more likely to buy from other people. Example: “A special offer for Lucy Hudson.”

 Two final points:

1. Remember to be creative. A recent campaign from MarketingProfs, a Massachusetts-based marketing think tank, used a tactic that earned some interesting publicity. To promote its “B2B Forum” in November, MarketingProfs sent an email from Don Draper, the main character from the wildly popular “Mad Men” series” with the subject line: “Why I’m Not Attending B2B Forum 2012.” Perhaps for many who were unfamiliar with the show, the email was immediately deleted. But for countless “Mad Men” fans, their curiosity was immediately piqued. The message was successful and discussion of its creativity (and possible, but not probable, copyright infringement?) lit up channels like Twitter and LinkedIn.

2. And, remember to test, test, test! Let’s not forget the Obama campaign had a team of data crunchers analyzing inputs and collecting insights across all of its digital channels. Take a lesson from that playbook and test your subject lines. Track results. Learn what works, and what doesn’t, with your target audience. At Aprimo, we’ve seen how even small changes can have a significant effect on results. Of course, that’s good news . . . very good news. It means the more you count on the science of analytics and the art associated with marketing experience, the less you have to count on luck –and the more accountability you’ll have when it’s time to report on your email marketing ROI.