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According to a recent MarketingSherpa survey, most U.S. adults prefer that companies contact them via email (2015). However, with so many emails coming to their inboxes daily, customers are not actively trying to read emails, but delete them.

~Source: MarketingExperiments


When someone opens their email, the first thought is usually about what they can delete without needing to read it. Your company’s emails can’t be wallpaper. You need to catch someone’s attention and, in about half of one second, raise that doubt they may be missing something by hitting delete.

However, there’s a fine line here you can’t cross.  While you need your subject lines to be engaging and catch the reader’s eye, the content must deliver on the subject line. In other words, if your subject line is “free beer” then your email damn well better tell people how they can easily get their free beer. You can’t do the old bait and switch.

Email is About Trust

At first glance that may sound corny, but please consider it. At some point in the past, each person on your list was willing to give you their permission to contact them. They did so believing that you would not abuse this privilege and, presumably, provide some sort of value to them. Each email you send them is a test of this relationship.

If someone feels like they were “tricked” into opening, you run the risk of violating that trust and earning an unsubscribe, or worse, a “marked as spam” complaint.

(To be fair, it should be noted that an unsubscribe isn’t always a bad thing. Interests and situations change. If you are trying to be everything to everyone then you likely aren’t really connecting with your audience. A smaller, but more targeted and engaged list, is usually going to do more for your business than a larger unengaged list. )

No Wallpaper

On the flip side of “free beer,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing it safe and going for informative subject lines. Below is a screenshot of a series of emails currently in my inbox.

Email Subject lines

I’ve blurred out the identifying names as I am not trying to embarrass anyone. Plus, I honestly don’t have all the information to know the full story. It is possible this campaign was thoroughly tested and this was the optimal set up for this particular company but I am willing to bet they could get better results.

From a user’s perspective, the idea of a “pro tip” might have some appeal but then they are left hanging to figure out on their own whether there is really something useful inside.

At some level, this could be considered a “curiosity gap” approach where you entice people by trying to exploit the discrepancy between what they know and what they would like to know. However, they aren’t really giving people much to work with.

What’s blurred out are the company’s name and names of the individual senders. The overall problem with this approach is that they aren’t reminding me of why I signed up or what I cared about when I did.  (There’s also a missed opportunity by simply showing the subject line again as the first part of the preview line. While this doesn’t always show for users, it still shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought.)

A safe/informative headline can feel natural. After all, if someone is on your list it is natural for you to assume that they are as emotionally invested as you are. Fight this feeling.

They don’t know as much as you do about it. Furthermore, it’s way too easy for you to forget about the most key elements of why your company/product is NEEDED. I am not talking about features but the core pain point you solve. This is called the curse of knowledge and can be defined as:

 “The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.”

As noted in the article above, you beat the curse of knowledge by using concrete language. In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath discuss the concept of using vivid details and these 6 principles:

  • Simple – Simplicity isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about prioritizing.
  • Unexpected – To get attention, violate a schema.
  • Concrete – To be concrete, use sensory language.
  • Credible – Ideas can get credibility from outside (authorities or anti-authorities) or from within, using human-scale statistics or vivid details.
  • Emotional – People care about people, not numbers.
  • Stories – Stories drive action through simulation (what to do) and inspiration (the motivation to do it).

The Heath brothers do a fantastic job of explaining all of this so I am not going to try to re-invent the wheel. Just buy their book. It’s a quick, entertaining read and definitely worth the time.

Know Your Audience

Walking the line between catching someone’s attention and still being genuine can be difficult and often requires a good deal of testing and an understanding of the audience.

For example, in the financial space people respond to humor when the market is performing well. However, attempting humor when the market isn’t performing well is a completely different story. Since most investors are traditionally long the market, an up period should feel good to them and they respond to humor. In a down market, they are likely losing money and humor can come across as throwing salt on an open wound.

Tie it Back to Your Core Value Proposition

Email subject lines don’t have to be boring to tie into your value proposition. In fact, it gives you a good deal of latitude to be more creative. Your company’s product/service solves a problem. Use that to your advantage and make a connection with your database.

About the Author Nick Perry is a marketing and digital strategy professional who has worked in both B2B and B2C environments. With deep experience in software, SaaS, and financial publications, he specializes in helping small- and medium-sized businesses build, grow, and optimize their digital marketing. He can be reached at (513) 279-2075 - or emailed directly.