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Cross Media Automation – Not for the Faint of Heart

How (not) to write email subject lines

by Eleanor Heins

Email subject lines are often a last minute, overlooked item on many marketers’ campaign checklist. We’ve compiled a few ideas, industry standards and best practices to help get your emails to the inbox.

It’s not me, it’s you.
An email subject line should tell readers what is in the email in just a few words. A long message usually contains a chain of complex concepts. This not only makes the subject line difficult to comprehend, it also will likely to have the end cut off in the email client’s title pane. How many times have you seen 3 or 4 separate features of a product shoehorned into one line, with comma’s and semicolons gasping for breath?  Promotional emails and company newsletters often try to compress the entire company philosophy and product features into a single sentence.  There is a fine line between tagline and paragraph.

Industry Standard
Keep the length around 40-55 characters.

Best Practice
Do not leave email copy for just anyone to write at the last moment.  A staff member experienced in email marketing should oversee the process.  A list of previous subject lines and emails should be reviewed upon every send with their response rates in hand.

Status Check - Its Complicated
How do we keep our subject lines simple and effective? One of the greatest books for marketers ever produced is Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think”. Run, do not walk (no, we are not affiliated) to your nearest bookseller and pick up a copy or download it to your Kindle for you tech types. The concepts in this book about web usability easily apply to email - the title says it all. Save the complex concepts for the cut sheets and the deep content on your landing page. If the staff in charge of writing the email copy says, “This subject line will really make them think!” Think again. If you don’t have time to figure out your email word jumble, neither will your customers.

Industry Standard:  Keep it simple….you know the rest.

Best Practice: See above


“Opening Night – Acme Diner” versus
"A new cutting edge entertainment & dining facility is opening soon in your area - check it out NOW!

"Acme Toolkit Launch" versus 
“Is your business ready for Acme’s New Online Customer Management Business Solution Toolkit?”

Free Words to Avoid N O W !! Please Read and Save BIG $!
Everyone should already know that it is best to keep such terms as “free” and “cash” out of the subject line and content.  Even so, we are asked constantly by our clients about what words to avoid and what to use.  One suggestion is to watch your own activity. What did you just delete without reading? Why? Were you interesting in saving more on your generic service? No? Well, your prospects won’t be either.  First, safely open up a full junk mail box and flip through some titles.  Now, evaluate honestly. If some of the titles and content have a familiar theme, you may want to revisit what you are sending your customers. It may not be what they want to read.

Common SPAM Triggers
Here is a short collection of SPAM triggers, by no means all inclusive, that may trigger a trip to the junk email folder.  Of course, these are many of the words you will want to use...

New, Best, Price, Guarantee, Sale, Congratulations, Claims, Win, Buy direct, No gimmicks, Success, Help (insert topic here…), See for yourself, Save $, Risk Free, Please Read, Free Gift, Free Info, Hidden, Now Only, Limited Time Offer, and of course,  S P R E A D I N G   Y O U R   T E X T, and ALL CAPS.

Who are you?
The From Name and From Email should be clear and help users immediately identify you and relate you with your subject line.  What address are they used to receiving email from? If they aren’t familiar with this particular product from your company, then who on your team would they recognize? My junk mail is filled with names of people I have never heard of, many with incredibly long subject lines selling me everything from software to furniture to medication.  Delete!

Data. It is really, really important. REALLY.
A long, complicated subject line can be a symptom of a greater problem.  Is it possible your list has been decreasing in performance over time? Are these customers who you haven’t hear from in a while and there is concern that they won’t recognize your From Name or From Email? The subject line is no place to compensate for a stale, error filled database.  It might be time to refresh your CRM and get your sales team to identify who really is among your active contacts. The response rates will tell the tale.


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