A good subject line is like art -- hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Concocting a winning subject line for a business-to-business (B2B) email isn’t a step-by-step process, yet there are a few characteristics good subject lines share.
But first, let’s think about the subject line’s purpose.
Your Subject Line Must Inspire a Click
Repeat after me: The purpose of a subject line is to inspire the reader to open your message. Got it?
Yes, this measly string of 45 characters or so (five or six words) should tell the reader something about your offer and your message. But it’s more important that the subject line prompt a click.
If it doesn’t, your email campaign (or current issue of your e-newsletter) is dead in the water. So, did the subject line for this article work? If it did, here’s why.
Don’t Tell the Whole Story
This is the secret. Your subject line should tease. It should intrigue. It should drop a hint. Human nature being what it is, your reader is going to feel compelled to click to find out more, to get the rest of the story.
This is especially true for a B2B subject line. Your email recipients are likely to be busy businesspeople, and you’ve got to be very creative to attract their attention.
For example, one of my e-newsletter readers inquired recently about a subject line for an email campaign she is planning. Her target audience is attorneys who practice product liability law. Her offer is a white paper or guide. Her proposed subject: "Free product liability & safety law information."
Leaving aside for a moment the use of the word "free," here’s how I recommended revising the subject: "What you need to know about product liability & safety law."
The words "what you need to know" suggest there is useful information inside the message. "Need to know" prompts the click. Even if you’re a successful attorney, the thought flickers through your mind, "I’d better find out, just in case..." Tip: Use the words "what you" or "why you" in your subject line to create the "gotta know this" factor. Subject lines with these words are more likely to prompt a click.
Note that the example above uses the "implied benefit" approach.
You can also lead with your offer. In this case, it would be: "Free guide to product liability & safety law." (This is more specific than "free product information.")
If you’re not sure which approach will be most effective with your audience, test it. Check out several other ClickZ articles on this topic: "Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3..." and "The Science of Subject Lines."
Is It Free or Is It Spam?
Can you use the word "free" in your subject? Yes, if you’re careful about how you use it. Here’s an example: "Free trial of content management software."
But this one for the same fictitious campaign sounds "spammy": "Free! Try our new content management solution!"
Exclamations are like loud voices; avoid them if possible -- or use them with care. You don’t want to be shouting into someone’s inbox.
In addition, the call to action in the above example is not effective. Asking someone to "try" something puts the onus on the reader to make the effort. Plus, it’s not really clear what the offer is. Make it easy; hand him your offer on a silver platter.
Here’s another example: "Download our FREE guide to launching an e-newsletter."
The offer is specific. It’s easy in the sense that the recipient knows in advance the steps to a PDF download. But it’s also a tease. The reader must click to find out how to get this newsletter guide.
Tip: Be obsessive when you’re writing a subject line. Test several versions using different wording through various email clients. What does it look like, with or without a preview function? How many words can you see and what do they tell you?
I tried the "FREE guide" subject line above in Outlook and liked the way the word "free" looked in all caps. You may not. (Yes, what makes a good subject is also, to some extent, subjective.)
The Secret Life of a ClickZ Columnist
I promised a few details. Here’s how it works. I keep a running list of topics that I plan to cover in the next several months. On the list right now are email change of address services (ECOA), international email marketing (how to develop a multi-language campaign), and maybe another look at e-newsletter service vendors. Feel free to suggest another topic!
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Debbie Weil is publisher of WordBiz Report, which focuses on the business of words online. It was awarded The Newsletter on Newsletters' Gold Award for Online Subscription Newsletter. A former newspaper reporter with an MBA and corporate marketing experience, Debbie is an expert on B2B online content and marketing at both the strategic and creative levels. She was Web content marketing manager for Network Solutions (now part of Verisign) before launching WordBiz.com.