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Email Marketing Subject Line Dos and Don’ts Explained

Email Marketing Subject Line Dos and Don’ts Explained

Guess what?

There is no secret sauce for the ultimate subject line.

Bummer, I know.

In my last post, I talked about subject line best practices, such as “telling” what’s in the email rather than “selling” your message. I showed some subject line examples from MailChimp’s study of over 200 million emails, and included comments on why the emails with the highest open rates might have succeeded as well as why the subject lines on the emails with the worst open rates might have failed.

Email marketing experts across the globe openly admit that there’s no special secret to crafting subject lines that will guarantee you opens and clicks. The truth is that writing (really good) email subject lines is hard. It’s hard for email marketing newbies. It’s hard for email marketing veterans. It’s just hard.

There are dozens of suggestions and recommendations, tip and tricks, strategies and tactics available online from a variety of expert sources. You can spend hours Googling “the best subject lines of all time” and compiling the results or just continue reading for a pretty comprehensive list of subject line dos and don’ts.

When crafting your perfect subject line….

DO

  • Do think like your clients. Be useful and ultra specific, making sure that your message is relevant and useful for your clients. Make sure that your topic is appropriate and provides value to your recipients before sending your message out with any subject line, good or bad.
  • Do include calls-to-action and action verbs. Tell readers exactly what their next step should be right up front so they don’t miss the email (and the opportunity you’re presenting them). More than likely, your call to action will include awesome action verbs which will not only help your message stand out in the crowded inbox, but also tell readers what they need to do, prompting them to open your email to learn more. Passive subject lines like “ABC’s newsletter for October 2, 2013” are likely to be glossed over and missed (see next bullet point).
  • Do change your subject line with every launch. Some companies send out monthly newsletters with the same subject line each time. This might work for an organization that already has high brand awareness and a devoted following that eagerly anticipates each issue, but for most companies, focusing on the highlighted article(s) within that particular issue will have a much greater impact on readership. Keep your newsletter name in the subject line if you wish, but be sure to include a sneak peek of the content as well.
  • Do ask (relevant) questions. Pique interest by asking questions in the subject line that pertain to your message. Target the question at the types of problems your clients/prospects need answers to, provided the answers are in your message. A recent study (summarized in this infographic by Litmus) found that subject lines phrased as questions performed better than similar subject lines that were phrased as statements.
  • Do be specific. Specific, concise, compelling: these all describe the ideal subject line. Clearly state what’s inside your email to avoid confusion. Your goal is to arouse curiosity without giving away the entire story. Tell your clients exactly what the purpose of your email is and what lies within it.
  • Do be honest. Your readers will recognize a bait-and-switch email based on a dishonest subject line and they will either unsubscribe or just delete your messages going forward. Honesty and transparency build trust and help you develop a long-term relationship with your prospects and clients. Spam filters will compare the subject line to the content, so make sure they match. No one wants to have a bad email marketing reputation. Make sure what’s in the body of your email is what is promised in the subject line.
  • Do be useful. What’s in it for your readers? Why should they open your email? No one will open the email if they don’t understand what the benefit is. Feel free to throw in a little tease of what the benefit is, as long as the tease relates to your email message and provides value to your recipients. A consistent stream of informative, quality content will foster loyal clients and help earn prospects’ trust.
  • Do keep it short. The general rule of thumb in email marketing is to keep your subject line to 50 characters or less (no, character length won’t necessarily trigger spam, but a study of over 200 million emails indicated that subject lines with 28-39 characters had the highest click-through rate above all others). Is there an exception to the rule? Yes. For highly targeted audiences, where readers appreciate the “extra” information in the subject line, longer subject lines can be equally effective. However, subject line real estate is extremely valuable, and only about 35 characters will be visible in the mobile inbox, so the more succinct your subject line, the better. Useful and ultra-specific, yes, but try to compress the basics into the most powerful premise possible. Use direct, compelling, actionable language to get your point across as quickly as possible. The best rule of thumb?  Concentrate on getting your message communicated, without obsessing about the number of characters.
  • Do identify yourself. Make sure it’s clear who your email is from. You don’t want your email recipients to be confused when your email shows up in their inbox. This is especially important for new subscribers to your email campaign. Name your company or your most recognizable product or service in the subject line. Alternatively, always prefix your subject line with a consistent identifier (like CopyBlogger does with their newsletter, Internet Marketing for Smart People newsletter, where every subject line begins with [Smart People]). Over time, the most compelling thing about an email message should be that it’s from you. Your recipient needs to know at first glance that the email is from a trusted source. Either make it crystal clear by savvy use of your “From” field, or consider starting every subject line with the same (short) identifier.
  • Do convey urgency when appropriate. If every message from you is urgent, none of them are. Use urgency when it’s truly genuine, such as when there is a drop-dead deadline approaching or a  particularly compelling reason to act now. If your recipients understand that there is a short time frame in which to benefit from the information in your email, they are more likely to act upon it. The closer the deadline, the more compelled they will be to open your message. Use relevant timely topics that are top of mind, and urge readers only when true deadlines a-cometh.
  • Do reference location. If you’re targeting an email campaign by location, add a personal touch to your subject line by saying something like “5 Things our Seattle Clients Need to Know Now.” Adding your readers’ location adds a subtle touch of personalization that helps raise the relevancy quotient above what you had before.
  • Do differentiate your email visually. ♥ ★ ☼ ♫ ☺ Make your email stand out among the hundreds of others in the inbox by trying brackets (perhaps in your consistent identifier – see above), sparing use of capitalization, phone numbers or quotes. Test the use of Unicode symbols (not to be confused with keyboard characters, see Don’ts below). Experian CheetahMail reports that 56% of their customers who used symbols saw higher unique open rates. The trick to using symbols? They must make sense and tie directly to your message and be used strategically (probably not on every email), or your email might be viewed as spammy. Try testing the same email with and without symbols to see which results in higher open rates.
  • Do use ALL CAPS, albeit sparingly. No, I’m not suggesting your entire subject line be written in all caps. That could easily impact your open rates (see Don’ts, below). However, for highlighting a specific name, brand or word, using all caps can increase visibility and your open rates.
  • Do perform A/B testing. Test your subject lines so that you can repeat the strategies that work best, whether you use symbols or not. There is no better way to determine which subject lines will be more effective in increasing open rate and click through rates than an a/b test. Create two emails with minor differences in wording, send each email to 50% of your list, and then track the results.
  • Do utilize spam-checking software. We all know that certain words trigger spam filters, but there’s a lot of confusion out there about which words are the real problem. Can using the word “free” in a subject line trigger a spam filter? It could, but probably not all by itself. Most reputable email services provide spam-checking software as part of the service or as an add-on. Craft your messages with compelling language, let the software do its job, and adjust your messaging accordingly.

DON’T

  • Don’t “advertise” in your subject lines. Subject lines that sound like advertisements will get trashed. Endless product promotions provide no value and are bound to get caught in spam filters if they aren’t deleted by your subscribers.
  • Don’t over-utilize symbols. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Too many symbols will make your emails look cheap and spammy, counteracting the strategy of a well-placed symbol to gain inbox attention.
  • Don’t use keyboard symbols. Ever. These could potentially increase the probability of your email being opened in the short term, but they have never been linked to increased clicks. (Note: this is different from using symbols in your subject lines). Additionally, symbols like @#$^%& could trigger spam filters. The best time to use @ and # is when you’re engaging with prospects, clients and others on Twitter.
  • Don’t use cheap spammer tactics. Don’t use “FW:” in your subject line to imply that the message comes from a trusted source. Spammers practice these kinds of despicable habits and your email reputation will suffer.
  • Don’t ask subscribers for help. Unfortunately, people have become all-too-wary of requests for help due to the pervasiveness of this tactic by spammers. Even if your request is legitimate, find another way to phrase it.
  • Don’t use your recipients’ names. In a study conducted by MailerMailer, click through rates and open rates were both negatively impacted by personalized subject lines that used the subscriber’s first name.
  • Don’t use all capital letters. Using all caps sporadically to highlight a specific word can be effective, while using all caps for your entire subject line is generally considered a bad idea. In addition to all caps translating as “shouting,” there is no need for an all caps subject line and could put your recipients off.
  • Don’t cry wolf in every email. If you use urgency as your primary tactic in every subject line, even the most compelling call to action will be overlooked and lose its meaning. Only write an urgent subject line when it is useful and true.
  • Don’t forget about the content. Don’t make the mistake of obsessing over your subject line without having killer content to back it up. The perfect subject line might get your email opened, but it can’t engage prospects, drive site traffic, generate conversion, or achieve any meaningful content marketing goals by itself. Focus on delivering quality content. Brand trust will do more to increase your open rate than the subject line.

Whew. Yes, these are exhaustive lists. There may even be some additional things missing from either the “Do” or the “Don’t” lists. Crafting the perfect email subject line can be overwhelming, particularly for a content marketing novice. But these strategies are important to the success of your email campaign.

There is so much to be said about subject lines and their effect on deliverability and open rates that an entire ebook could be created. And then edited in a few months, as junk and spam filters evolve, changing the way we use subject lines to market our products and services. There are a dozen contributing factors to a perfect email marketing campaign; the subject line is just one aspect. Having quality content to share with your subscribers is the first step to developing an effective email marketing campaign. Once you have something valuable to share, these tips will help you draft a compelling subject line that will boost your campaign’s success.

Have you had success with any of these strategies? Or did you notice a particularly effective strategy that is missing from the list? Share your comments below.

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Becca Fieler
Becca Fieler is an Online Marketing Specialist for BizActions | PDI Global Marketing Solutions, a division of Thomson Reuters. She provides strategic planning and oversight for our online marketing and email marketing initiatives. Becca also works with clients, developing comprehensive marketing and lead generation programs for professional service providers, including accountants, attorneys, banks and credit unions, payroll service bureaus, human resource companies and others. A prolific writer when she has time, Becca also enjoys graphic design, illustration and developing marketing strategies. Read more of her blog posts here.

Posted in: Branding, Content Marketing, Email Marketing, Marketing, Marketing Strategy, Newsletters, Online Marketing, Reputation Management

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