Writing Compelling Copy – Part II

Having touched on the overall “tone” of an email message and how it should speak “to” instead of “at” your prospects, we now dive into one of the most powerful components of an email promotion: The subject line.

Think of the subject line as the teaser on your email’s virtual “envelope.” If improperly written, it can all but kill your response. It can certainly make or break a promotion. After all, getting folks to open their email is half the battle. And coming up with a compelling “subject” is how to do it.

As I mentioned last week, try to stay away from the “hard sell” strategy. Consider the following email promotion’s subject line from a popular offline sporting goods store:


Sheesh. Talk about hard sell. Not to mention hype. Sure, that may have piqued the curiosity of some… it may even have pulled a solid response. But it’s sensationalism, pure and simple – strategies such as this won’t, in all likelihood, help you build any friendships. Not to mention long-term customers.

Speaking of the word “free,” just a few months ago that very word was heralded as a subject line “must-have” based on its response-lifting powers. However, a few marketers (including myself) have recently experienced a falloff in response when using it. Is this the new trend?

Interestingly enough, this topic came up recently on the ClickZ Forum: Apparently there are quite a few corporate firewalls out there that are now blocking any messages that contain the word “free” due to the assumption that server-clogging advertisements are involved. Could be one reason the use of this word has seen a reduced response as of late. My belief, however, is simply that it has been overused.

Enough of what NOT to do. Take a look at the following subject line:

“Experience the Luxury of Fine Craftsmanship…”

This works pretty well… in more than one way. First, it leaves the reader with a question: Luxury of Fine Craftsmanship? In… what? Are we talking cars? Jewelry? Furniture? You HAVE to open the email just to find out what the product is.

Second, it opens by “speaking” in the reader’s terms. An old rule of copywriting is to use the word “you” to communicate benefits to the reader. You don’t necessarily have to use that exact word; however, words like “Experience…” can have the same effect. Think of it like this: If the subject line read, “Our products are luxurious and finely crafted,” it wouldn’t have the same appeal because it would no longer be about MY experience. It would be only about the advertiser’s benefits.

Last, this particular subject text was short and sweet and didn’t have to resort to the hype-filled “free” tactic as that of our sporting goods store above. It also honed in on specific aspects of its offer (the “luxury” and “fine craftsmanship”) To that point, take a look at the first example again and notice how general its message sounds. (Remember the “don’t write for the masses” rule?)

Indeed, that type of message isn’t one that someone trying to sell you directly would use. Therein lies the difference: Be specific and speak to your readers one-to-one. Even in the subject line.

Okay, suffice it to say there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to subject lines; but there ARE some current strengtheners that are working right now. Just to recap:

  1. Make the subject line compelling. Try to leave the reader wanting MORE with a teaser.

  2. Stay away from the word “free” and any hype-filled language.
  3. Speak to the readers in their own terms and in a one-to-one style.
  4. Keep the text brief.
  5. Be specific.

Remember: Online results can change at the speed of sound. That means what’s working today could be a bust tomorrow and vice-versa.

The solution? As always, test heavily. And re-test… continuously. (Yes, we will cover email testing strategies in a future issue as well).

Well gang, I thought I’d be able to wrap up email copy basics in just two articles, but for the sake of time and space, I’ll save the remaining tips for next week in Part III (“The Final Sequel,” I promise!). See you then.

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