Crafting a Personalized Subject Line

The audience asked a lot of great questions at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies (as I mentioned in a previous column). The one I want to talk about today affects every email marketer:

I’ve heard that the preview pane in Outlook might be disappearing in a next release or might not display HTML. Will that kill email marketing as we know it?

The answer lies in perhaps the most important aspect of email: the envelope. The envelope consists of the information contained in the sender, receiver, cc, subject, and date fields. There are a million things to say about the envelope. I’ll limit today’s conversation to making subject lines seem less spam-like. If there’s enough interest, I’ll cover the other fields in a future column.

Suddenly Important?

The envelope is not relevant merely because of the possible change in the preview panel. The envelope is as critical now as it will be in the future. Many people don’t currently use the preview panel, and those who use Hotmail, MSN, AOL, or a host of other email clients don’t have a preview panel at all. If you’re worrying about the preview panel, you’re not only ill-equipped to handle the future, you probably aren’t doing so well in the present.

As an example, I recently started using an Outlook feature that allows you to download only the envelope information (message headers) rather than the email itself. This way, I can quickly see what’s in my inbox. I download only the email I want, and delete spam before it’s ever downloaded. My system runs faster because I’m not downloading the hundreds of spam messages I get every day, which take up room on my hard drive. Those messages (and often, virus-laden attachments) never touch my computer.

The Subject Line

The email marketing ante has been upped. Just because your double opt-in email list is definitely not spam, there’s no guarantee your recipients will care what you have to say. You need to be as specific as possible with your envelopes. Send only relevant email. Get rid of any marketing language in the subject line that sounds like it could have been written for an infomercial. Spammers are bad marketers. They use this kind of language all the time.

What specifics are interesting? I’ve previously written about needs-based design and how effective it is. With this in mind, try crafting subject lines that address the needs of consumers rather than use product-centric information. Every element of the envelope must allude to your brand, so there’s no mistaking where your email came from.

Some of the subject lines below feel like spam, some don’t:

  • Great savings from
  • brings you lower prices
  • Save more with
  • Our new ComputersAreUs Laptops make traveling easier
  • Desktops from ComputersAreUs that are built for gaming
  • ComputersAreUs desktops for small businesses on a budget
  • The Monthly Newsletter

The last four subject lines feel like real email (to me, anyway). They are specific, telling me exactly what’s in the email; they address user needs; are branded; and don’t use marketing hype. The “laptops” subject line addresses the needs of laptop users (traveling with a bulky laptop is terrible). The “gaming” and “small business” subject lines address specific user types, and the “newsletter” subject line clearly states what the email contains. Every month, I would expect to get an e-newsletter with exactly the same subject line.

Use Personalization, Differently

Using the recipient’s name in the subject line once had a lot of value. Unfortunately, the spamming community seized the opportunity and ruined that for the rest of us. Almost every spam message I get these days starts with my name or my email address. Saying things like, “Jack, now is the time for a holiday” is a surefire way to look like spam.

Instead, personalize the subject line to make customers realize you provide relevant information for them. I own a Compaq iPAQ 5450. If HP/Compaq were to send me an email announcing a software update, it could use the knowledge of the products I own to personalize, instead of using my name. Three sample email subject lines using personalization:

  • New software from HP
  • Jack, HP has new software you need
  • iPAQ 5450 Software Update from HP/Compaq

I hope it’s obvious which one “feels” legitimate. To me, anyway, the last subject line doesn’t look like spam. It contains personalized information about the product I own. It’s certain to catch my attention more than “Jack” would. It also follows the other rules I outlined: It’s as specific as it can be, and contains company branding.

Does It Work?

If you follow the guidelines above, will more people read your email? Maybe. People only read the email they think will have relevant information for them. If your highly specific, needs-based, targeted email doesn’t appeal to your customer at this moment, he won’t read it. But you stand a better chance of getting those customers for whom the content is relevant to read your email, rather than discard it because they thought it was spam.

Agree or disagree?

Let me know!

Until next time…


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