Marketing Bootcamp

Email Subject Lines Can Really Suck. Here's How to Make Yours Better.

Remember when receiving email was exciting? The alert of “You’ve got mail!” created a feeling of joy. Now, getting an email alert creates more of a feeling of dread than anything else. This means that if you are trying to reach someone for business purposes via email, you have to make a strong effort to get their attention.

Despite this, many marketers and business people alike still write really crappy email subject lines. This lessens the chance of them getting opened and in some cases, can be a detriment to the brand.

Here are some crappy email headline techniques (or lack thereof) that you will definitely want to avoid.

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Leave out the ‘WIIFM’.

This is possibly the biggest offender. In a sea of hundreds of emails that the average customer, potential client or colleague receives a day, there has to be some reason for them to pay attention to yours, which means that you want to have something that benefits them.

However, many emails are sent with no WIIFM -- “what’s in it for me” from the receiver’s perspective. Writing “May Newsletter,” “We Just Launched Our New Site” or other vague and company-centric headers does not make the reader care. Let the reader know why he or she may be interested and only then, the person may open the email.

When I send my own newsletters (which you can sign up for here), I make sure to put key topics in the subject line. This headline helps the reader decide whether or not to spend their time exploring what I have to say any further. If it’s an opportunity for them to enter a contest, make money, save money, meet someone important or anything else that they will be excited about, lead with that in your email subject. If the email content doesn’t have something they care about, then don’t send it to begin with.

Make it misleading.

I recently received an email entitled:

The XYXY* site is shutting down

(*name withheld as to not shame the business)

So, naturally I assumed that the XYXY site was shutting down. However, in trying to delete the email, I accidentally opened it (multitasking often doesn’t work so well). Here’s how it started:

“Dear Member,

We have some exciting news! In just a few weeks, XYXY as you know it will be temporarily shutting down -- and coming back better than ever, with new services and offerings we think you’re going to love…”

Had my multitasking accident not happened, I would have thought that XYXY was shutting down as a company. I would have deleted the email and never gone to the site again, because, well, why would I?  It was shutting down. That’s what the headline said -- no additional information needed.

They could have chosen:

Exciting News -- a NEW XYXY site is coming!

Wait until you see what XYXY is doing for you…

XYXY’s temporary shutdown means that you get more future offerings!

First, it wouldn’t have given the impression that the site was going away (not a good impression to give your users or customers).

Second, it teases that there is information that is of interest, creating a reason to open the email.

Last, the second and third options also hit on the WIIFM from above. If there’s something in it for me, I am more likely to open the email.

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If your email states that the content is an update, or worse, alerts of a shut down, you lose potential opens.

Also, if the email is misleading in terms of the content in general, you risk pissing off the recipient. A catchy headline may get the email open, but if it is misleading, it may lead to one less subscriber.

Make it off brand.

While there is continued pressure to be bold, be clever and take extreme or unusual actions to reach the other party, as a business owner, you have to make sure that your message reflects your brand.

Here’s an example. One of my connections, who is in the financial services industry, was approached for a “connection” on LinkedIn. While he didn’t know the woman, it appeared that she was in the headhunting and executive search function in the financial industry from her biography, so he accepted the connection, thinking she might be a good future resource.

Sometime later, he received a LinkedIn email with the subject “Help me and I will give you $500,” seeking a candidate for a financial advisor position. He deleted the email and didn’t think much else of it.

However, about four weeks later he got another LinkedIn email with the subject “WTF?”

He was floored; he didn’t know this person and he assumed that she was upset that he didn’t respond to her previous email and had the nerve to contact him back saying “WTF?”  So he opened this email which had gotten him riled up and it wasn’t at all what he had thought. WTF stood for “Why Txxxxx Financial?” (middle name redacted for privacy again). It was a solicitation letter and the recruiter sending it was trying to be clever with the WTF double entendre.

However, what my connection did next was unsubscribe from future contacts from this person and firm and then, delete the email. He told me that he was furious about that particular hook and that he didn’t think it reflected well on a search professional or the firm.

While it is important to stand out from a crowd, you need to be thoughtful about how your use of emotional tactics and other tactics that affect the customer’s perception of you and your company. Some marketers may say that it’s OK that my contact unsubscribed because if he didn’t get it, he wasn’t an ideal client, but I disagree. I think that the entire approach here from spamming people that you don’t know through LinkedIn by writing something that seems inflammatory is a big marketing miss.

Communicating with customers is a privilege and a competitive privilege at that. Make sure that you are taking advantage of the opportunity as best as possible.

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