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Crafting an Effective B2B Subject Line

  |  February 21, 2001   |  Comments

Bit by a bug lately? You don’t have to like virus propagators, but if you’re a B2B email marketer, you might want to learn from them. To wit: Why do we open their messages?

Do the following subject lines grab you?

    Here you have, :o)

    Hi: Check This!

If you were bitten by the "Anna Kournikova" bug, these may sound familiar. Remember this one?

    I love you.

If only it were this easy to write enticing subject lines in B2B email marketing. The virus propagators seem to nail it every time. Maybe we can learn something from these nasty folks. Why do we open their messages?

Let’s find out what we can apply to B2B email marketing and develop a recipe for sizzling subject lines. Here are our criteria: The headings must cry out to be opened, and they must compel us to read the message.

ClickZ columnist Kim MacPherson recently led a seminar for The Zeff Group in which she enumerated six key ingredients to effective subject lines:

  1. Be direct and matter-of-fact;

  2. Stress benefits to the recipient;

  3. Ask a question that pulls in the reader;

  4. Tease the reader so he or she has to click to learn more;

  5. Tie into current events; and

  6. Begin with the recipient’s first name.

She also offered tips about subject lines in an article she wrote a year ago: Don’t use hype; be careful with "free"; speak one-to-one in your reader’s language; be brief; and be specific.

All of these are great pointers to get started, but which are most effective in B2B email marketing?

Let’s start with our virus writers’ subject headings and then look at some examples of B2B subject lines.

What makes you click on "Hi: Check This!"?

It’s brief, it’s specific, and it teases. And of course you are much more likely to open a message from a colleague or friend -- a name you recognize.

It’s interesting to note that this subject line does not get the American slang quite right. (It should be "Check this out.") OK, I’m being picky. But it’s significant. Establishing credibility is key in a B2B communication. If you don’t speak your recipient’s language, it shows.

What’s wrong with this one?

    From: HP
    Subject: Trust HP to help you get your website up & running -- here’s a special offer!

Sorry, HP, you blew it. You have the advantage of being able to use a respected brand name as the sender. But you use up your brand credit instantly by coming on too strong. No teaser here.

And what about being brief? Kim and others advise that you express the gist of your message -- and make the recipient click -- within 25 characters. By the time we get to "special offer," we’re well past any email client’s window for previewing subject lines.

The rewrite below includes the special offer and is more specific.

    From: HP
    Subject: Free hosting for 30 days when we build your website

Without all caps and exclamation points, "free" can be powerful. Particularly in a B2B email in which the sender is a trusted name and "free" can represent a significant dollar amount.

Here’s one from a brand name that does work:

    From: Amazon.com
    Subject: Tax Relief and a $10 Special Offer

It’s brief, it’s straightforward, it offers us a specific benefit, and, most notably, it makes us want to click for more information. (Tell us more: How does the tax relief work?) It’s also seasonal, referring to the upcoming tax season.

Now look at this:

    From: Adobe Systems Incorporated
    Subject: Don’t Miss Out: Getting Down to Business

This text message from Adobe Systems is vague and doesn’t make much sense. Too bad, as the company has a great offer it forgot to put in the subject line -- a free half-day offline seminar aimed at small businesses.

And finally, here’s the message from MarketFirst that I wrote about last week. It’s disarmingly simple, yet it is stimulating a high click-through rate (CTR) and conversion to sign up for a free offline seminar. It’s from eMarketing Team@MarketFirst.com and bears this subject line: "Free Marketing Automation Seminar."

So here’s my recipe of five ingredients for an effective B2B subject line, one that is likely to inspire a click:

Think about the sender’s name. Use a sender’s name that is either recognizable or at least credible. Kim recommends using PostMasterDirect.com, for example, if your company is unknown. But if your company’s name (and/or domain name) gives a good hint at what you do, use that.

Make it easy for your reader. Emphasize the benefit to your recipient. There should be an instant "reward" or benefit for opening your message -- additional information. Don’t make the reader "work" for even a nanosecond to decipher your message. And of course, use benefits -- not features -- to sell your product or service.

Hint at business results (save time, earn money). Here’s where you tease your readers. Tell them just enough to make them want to click and find out more.

Be matter-of-fact and specific -- it’s compelling. Be straightforward. Use sturdy, descriptive words (no very’s). Be specific about your offer, whether it’s free, a dollar savings, or a percentage discount.

Don’t forget the basics. Use good grammar. Use the word "you" if possible (as in all good direct marketing). Don’t use all caps or multiple exclamation points. (By the way, no period is necessary at the end of a subject line if it’s not a complete sentence.)

Spend a disproportionate amount of time working on your subject line. It’s like haiku: If you get it right, it can be as powerful as it is simple.

    From: Debbie
    Subject: Click now to sound off about subject lines.


Debbie Weil

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.

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