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Getting the Subject Line Right

5 tips for writing e-mail subject lines that'll get recipients to read on

One of the most important elements of your e-mail communications is the subject line. Next to the "from" address--which should be a recognizable company name--the subject line will determine whether your e-mail gets opened.

Writing a great subject line is no small challenge. You only have a few words to make it compelling, urgent and specific--without sounding too sales-like or misleading your readers. Here are some tips for writing subject lines that'll get great results.

1. Keep it short and sweet. Do your best to keep your subject lines under 50 characters, including spaces, as most e-mail clients display 50 characters or less. A recent study done by e-mail monitoring company Return Path showed that subject lines with 49 or fewer characters had open rates 12.5 percent higher than those with 50 or more characters. The study also found that click-through rates for subject lines with 49 or fewer characters were 75 percent higher than for those with 50 or more characters. Want to increase your open and click-through rates? Keep your subject line short and sweet.

2. Be specific. A vague subject line is a waste of prime real estate. A great example of this that I see often is monthly newsletters with subject lines like "The Green Thumb Newsletter: June 2007." This tells the receiver nothing about what they'll find when they open the e-mail and gives them very little reason to do so. A better approach for a newsletter like this is, "The Green Thumb: 3 Tips for Summer Gardening."

3. Write it last. Many e-mail marketing services (including Constant Contact) prompt you to write your subject line first as you're building your e-mail. I encourage you to come back to it when you're done with your e-mail content. It's important to determine all the elements of your e-mail first, then look for the most compelling topic to highlight in the subject line. When you're done with the body of your e-mail, read it over and pick the nugget that'll entice your readers to learn more by opening your message.

4. Take some time. Don't just dash off your subject lines. Considering how important they are, take some time to think about them and write several--at least three or four--before choosing which one to use. Once you have a few subject lines you like, run them by a friend or colleague and see which one they think is most compelling.

5. Test it. When you have two strong yet different subject lines, test them. Split your list in half and use a different subject line for each group. After a number of tests like this, you'll have a very good idea of what works for the people on your list. And the better you know your audience, the more effectively you can communicate with them.

The next time you're tempted to rush through the process of writing a subject line, think about the number of e-mails you get every day. After the effort you've put into composing your e-mail, don't you want to ensure people open and read it?

Gail Goodman is the author of Engagement Marketing: How Small Business Wins In a Socially Connected World (Wiley, 2012) and CEO of Waltham, Mass.-based Constant Contact Inc., a provider of email marketing, event marketing, social media marketing, local deal and online survey tools and services for small businesses, associations and nonprofits.

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