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The power of the subject line

September 13, 2010

We all know that the inbox is now a very congested place, with a continual stack of emails screaming out to be seen and opened. That’s why it’s absolutely essential that you write a powerful subject line that leads your email recipients away from all the other inbox clutter, to get the attention it deserves.

First of all, when it comes to subject lines, don’t try and SELL what’s inside, instead you need to TELL what’s inside. If you understand what motivates your customer and can work this into the subject line, then you are likely to get them to click.

Think of the subject line as your campaign, compacted into one single sentence.
The importance of the subject line in any email campaign should never be underestimated. It really could make or break your campaign. It is the first (and sometimes the only) thing that your customer will see. Whom the email is from and what the message suggests about the content of the email are the sole factors upon which your email will initially be judged. 

It is primarily in the subject line that you have the opportunity to really shine and visibly stand out from the crowd. If your email looks like it could be spam or fails to interest the recipient, you can be sure that it will quickly hit the rocks as a deleted item.

10 useful subject line tips: 

1. Keep things simple and get to the point

The general rule of thumb is to keep your subject line to 50 characters or less. Only exception to this should be for highly targeted audiences who may appreciate extra information in the subject line. The best email subject lines are short, descriptive and give the recipient a reason to further explore your message. Attempts to stand out in the inbox by using really cheesy lines will invariably result in your email being ignored.

2. Use your customer knowledge

Personalisation is the single most successful technique in an email marketing campaign and should start from the subject line onwards. Use any customer data you have at your fingertips to build a subject line that is personal and personalised. At the very least you should know the recipient’s name, and how they prefer to be addressed. This type of information will not be available to the spammers that sadly may be competing for your reader’s attention. See our blog article "That's not my name!"

3. Focus on the benefits

Emphasise the customer benefits in terms of their experience, not the features from the company point of view. Tell people why they should open your message; outlining your key offer, explaining how it will benefit them. Of course, you should always make sure your subject line relates to the content of your mailing. If users feel tricked into reading your email, at best they won’t be back, and worse they’ll mark your email as spam.

4. Take care with your choice of words to avoid spam filter triggers

Email marketers are familiar with avoiding words such as "free" as they tend to trigger spam filters. So no surprise that usage of the word "free" in subject lines from marketers decreased from 16.9% (2008) to 12.4% (2009) according to The 2010 Digital Marketer: Benchmark and Trend Report" (2010) 

Three other little words to avoid that will negatively affect your open rates are “Help, Percent off, and Reminder”. It's easy to get caught up in 'ad speak' when writing a subject line. The subject line is not a strap line but a request to your customer for a moment of their time. You have intruded into their inbox (even though you've sought permission to be there) and should remember your manners. Brash, marketing speak is likely to trigger a rejection response. Keep the subject line straightforward and also avoid using over the top, promotional phrases, CAPS, or exclamation marks!

According to Marketing Sherpa’s 2010 Email Marketing Benchmark Report, the top three types of subject lines that compel subscribers to open emails contain one of these:
• A discount Offer
• A product Offer
• A familiar Brand Name

Here’s a useful sample of some the worst spam filter triggers according to a report from on line publisher Mequoda:
100% free - Affordable - Amazing stuff - Apply now
Cash bonus -Cheap Compare rates - Compete for your business - Credit
Double your income - Earn extra cash - Eliminate debt - Explode your business- Extra income
F r e e - Fast cash - Financial freedom - Financially independent- Free gift- Free info- Free membership
Income from home- Increase sales- Increase traffic- Increase your sales- Incredible deal
Info you requested- Information you requested- Internet market- Limited time offer
Mortgage Rates- No investment Obligation- Online marketing Opportunity- Order Now
Promise you- Remove- Reverses aging- Serious cash- Thousands- Web traffic Weight loss

5. Establishing trust and credibility is vital

This needs to begin with the subject line. Hard sell strategies won’t help you build relationships when it comes to email and no matter what the campaign’s objectives are; improving customer relations has to be an important consideration. Speaking your customer’s language is the best way to establish trust and gain interest.

6. Use urgency

Some people respond better to the threat of losing than the promise of gaining. e.g.: This is your last chance to win a Mini Cooper ...Registration for this event closes on Friday

7. Newsletter sustainability

Repeating the exact same subject line for each newsletter accelerates the drop in open rates. While it is important to establish continuity and branding of the newsletter, ideally each new campaign should provide a clear indication in the subject line of what is inside this newsletter that is of interest.

8. Be creative

It takes a creative mind as well as good customer knowledge to build the perfect subject line, but don't forget the basics too – make sure you check grammar and spelling

9. Consider using keywords

SEO wisdom says keywords are important, because we know that customers search and respond to them. Using keywords in an email subject line is to be encouraged, but not mandatory.

10. It’s all in the testing

 Above all you need to test what works and constantly refining your subject lines is the best way to guarantee a result. If you are having difficulty condensing your offer into one specific benefit, try two or three variations and test the response on a small control group.

Testing is the only sure way to know what works and what doesn’t. If your campaign results are disappointing then it may be worth re-writing the subject line and re-sending the email to those who didn’t open it the first time round, one failed attempt isn’t necessarily the end of the game.

Of course, there are also lots of other factors which affect whether your email is viewed; such as frequency, sender, and the nature of the message. Personal messages are at the top of the interest scale, followed by affiliations and timely news.

At the other end of the scale are stale newsletters, requests for money and offers that are just far too good to be true. It really is worth spending a lot of time on your subject line. If you get it right it could be the key to being a successful campaign for you. 

If you need any more information, please call 0161 817 2929 or email [email protected]

Posted by Paul Latham

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