Email Subject Lines…Say What?

Subject lines have been an email marketing topic of conversation for more than a decade, yet we still don’t seem to have it figured out. In speaking with marketers, the actual act of composing a subject line is often one of the last elements considered and sometimes even just “slapped” on by the email manager as it goes out the door (confessed to me in confidence by a brand…but a secret is a secret). I imagine this is true at a number of brands – you just don’t know it or don’t want to admit it.

Consequently, it’s an effective subject line that initiates an interaction with your recipients and should receive its due. So today we are taking advanced email marketing practices back to basics, providing some insights into elements we should all consider about the subject lines of the messages we send.

1. Write your subject line first. Like writing a good story or thesis, you need to have a clear and succinct objective. Your point needs to be clearly stated, and when it comes to your email program, the subject line serves as this statement. Too often, ample time is spent on the creative and copy that is contained within the email itself, leaving the subject line largely overlooked. Your subject line is critical to driving engagement and ultimately setting the appropriate expectations for your customer.

2. Why say it in five words, when you can say it in 55? You can find all kinds of advice around the proper length of a subject line. It’s anecdotal at best and should be leveraged by brands as a rule of thumb – not a definitive guide. Realistically, if you don’t follow rule one, then this is really moot. If you have nothing important or inspirational to say, it matters little how many actual characters you use to express that nothingness.

There are things to consider as it pertains to subject line length though. The number of characters that render in different email clients, on varying smartphones and tablets does limit the insight into the message. So do make sure that you are conveying the most critical information at the front end of your subject line. If you are testing percent off or dollar off offers, consider placing it at the front end of the subject line to best ensure it is going to render for most (if not all) of your recipients.

3. Say what you mean. Be direct in what you are asking the customer to do – tell her what you want her to do. Leverage some sense of action verbiage to drive the engagement you are looking for. If there is time sensitivity – tell her. If she is getting a great deal – share it. Whatever you do, make sure you mean it.

I spoke with a consumer once who acted on a “Last Chance” email because she didn’t want to miss out. Two days later (after she converted), she got another “Last Chance” email from the same brand with the same offer. Needless to say, she felt duped. If it really is the last chance, make it so.

4. Carry the voice of your brand. Companies and brands all have different personalities and different voices. If you have a racy or fun brand, be sure to carry that voice and character through in your subject lines. It is typically that demeanor that the customer resonates with, so there is little reason to hide it inside the message. But be sure you are true to that voice.

5. Don’t stop at the subject line. This is why starting with the subject line is important – it is where the conversation starts. It introduces the main idea of your email, and you need to make sure you provide the supporting content when the message is opened. Your subject line makes a promise to your recipient of what can be found inside. If there is a disconnect between the subject and the actual content, you may see great “open rates,” but you may also find that the recipient doesn’t follow through with the desired behavior. Be sure to deliver on that promise from start to finish.

6. Test your subject lines in real time. Subject lines are an element that work really well at a moment in time. Depending on what each recipient may have going on when they see that email will determine whether it resonates or not – right then and there. What works for a single consumer today may not tomorrow. So developing a methodological approach to composing a subject line may not be effective in the long run.

This all may seem something of common sense to you, but it is a critical piece of your email program and its success. I am finding that many marketers are squarely focused on how to innovate the channel, loop in video, optimize at the point of open, and on and on – but we are losing sight of the basics. I still only see 36 characters on my iPhone when I am triaging my email, and if those characters are – “Today Only. In Stores Only – Try Bea” your point may be missed because 1) I am busy today, 2) I have no intention of leaving my house for an in-store only offer, and 3) I don’t even know what I am to be trying. Message deleted. Opportunity lost.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

Editor’s Note: As 2013 comes to a close, we’re pleased to share our top email columns of the year. This article was originally published April 16, 2013.

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