Blue Utopia Blog

Oy, another article about the importance of subject lines.

Thu, Apr 5, 2012 - 05:41 PM

in Email Outreach

I got an email the other day from some political consulting firm.  Spam really.  They’d skimmed my email and now send me worthless stuff but somehow I’ve become too lazy to opt-out.  Anyway, one of the articles they were touting made me take notice because it’s something that strikes a chord with me -- but not in a good way.  It was another article written about how important it is to get the subject line right.  (Seriously and OMG).  It gave all kinds of technically valid points like subject line words that are more likely to trigger spam filters such as “Act Now”  and “20% Off”.  (yeah, those are common in the political and non-profit worlds).  Oh yeah, and it said the key was to test test test.  Oh good one.   

Listen here’s the deal:   Email and online consultants that tell you that subject line is one of the variables that gets your email opened is the modern-day equivalent of the snake-oil salesman.  It's 80% bullshit.  Yeah, just 80 -- not 100 – although it’s probably more like 90.  (I'm making these numbers up) Sure, subject lines are one of the variables.  But if you have the sense enough to create a subject line that isn’t offensive, is half-way interesting, and more-than-remotely related to the content of your email, then you are well on your way.  The vast majority of the rest of the story is in whether you’ve done anything to build the relationship with your readers that makes them want to read your email.  If not, then it doesn’t matter what the subject line is anyway.

So before we get into subject lines, let’s address all of the things you should be doing BEFORE the words ‘subject line’ ever spring from your lips. 

  1. Build your relationship.  Period.  That’s it.  If someone cares about what you are doing and what you have to say, then they’ll read your email. 
  2. Deliver Value.  Not just in your organization but in your email.  If you’re asking for money every time you hit the inbox, you’re not delivering anything of value.  If you’re making your audience a valuable member of the overall team or if you’re providing information that can’t be easily gotten in other forms, then you’re providing a valuable service.  Bingo.
  3. For Pete’s sake, don’t treat your email list like your house is on fire every time.  People really do get sick of being asked for money or to sign a petition every single day.  It’s exhausting and, to be honest, ridiculous.       

Once you’ve done the above then you are already 95% of the way there.  If you feel it necessary at this point to spend resources thinking about how to (or hiring someone to) make your subject lines better – or in other words, if you feel that even though you are working 80 hours a week, not working out, you have high blood pressure, you drink too much, and you can’t stop smoking but you feel that it's important to go from 1% to skim milk – then here is a list of things you should know about writing a subject line:

  • Be concise.  Many people read and/or filter email on mobile devices, which have less capacity for long subject lines.  That's the technical reason. The non-technical reason to keep them short is that if you can't concisely say what the email is about then your reader doesn't have time (at least not right now) to read it. 
  • Be specific and/or creative.  Avoid general subject lines like Top News for Aug.  B-o-r-i-n-g.  I guess this bullet point should have been called "Don't Be Boring".  Too late.  I don't edit. 
  • The From name is important.  It's the face of the relationship that exists between your organization and your (potential) reader.  Who is the relationship with?  That’s the name that should be on the email then.  (most of the time)
  • Invoke a sense of urgency.  Realize that your reader is going to process 30-100 emails that day.  Try to not be the one they mark for reading tomorrow. That one never gets read.  

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