On the Subject of Subject Lines
Subject lines can be curious things. They perhaps present no mystery if the email in question is from a relative or friend. There, the function of the little space large enough for seven or eight words is straightforward enough; a quick greeting before the email is opened, perhaps an exclamation mark or emoticon.
Marketing is different. Next time you check your email, do a quick scan of the subject lines of marketing emails. Whatever the quality of the message itself, the function is less clear: clumsy, half-finished sentences; spelling and grammatical errors; inflated promises which you rightly dismiss as bunk without even thinking about it. With Internet marketing so slick and gleaming in other areas, this is puzzling.
Laura Wilson, Manager at HostPapa Connect, is one of a growing number of email marketers who have noticed this underused and underdeveloped little niche. She understands that the subject line can be “a powerful branding tool if done right.”(Email Insider.) But she is equally aware how rarely this happens, how often “the subject line is often the last thing we do after working so hard at crafting the right email.” Crucially, she sees what so many seem to miss; that “while [the subject line] may be the last thing we do, it’s the first thing our subscribers see.”
So where are today’s email marketers going wrong when composing their subject lines? Well, even a brief scan of a typical inbox reveals gaffes aplenty. There’s a fair sprinkling of spelling mistakes, for example, each one a fatal chink in that message’s armor; subject lines containing just one will leave that particular email dead in the water. As consumers, we tend to set the bar high for any written communication of a commercial nature; a spelling or grammatical error is seen as representative of incompetence elsewhere.
Another stratagem any company would do well to avoid is the Inflated Claim Subject Line; we are so wearily familiar with being told we’ve won something, or that a vast fortune is within our grasp, that we mouse-click such messages into oblivion via sheer wrist muscle memory. And companies that use our first names in a presumptuous attempt to imply an already established relationship come across as insincere and phony.
Conclusion: with a few exceptions, commercial subject lines today are flawed specimens.
This is set to change, as marketers like Wilson and other similarly astute email marketers lead the way and other companies begin to recognize the marketing potential of the subject line, and to appreciate its function as the linchpin upon which their carefully crafted emails depends. What sort of changes might we see?
It seems likely that sheer natural selection will weed out those email marketers who doggedly stick to the sort of outmoded techniques referred to above. But perhaps the most intriguing will be the maturation of an art currently in its infancy: the ability to take a paragraph and par it down, strip it of each redundant syllable and digit until just that single line remains, language at its most condensed – and to do this whilst still conveying the necessary information in a way that leaves the customer wanting to know more.
Sounds radical? Perhaps, but there are precedents; language has adapted before to fit new technology-based communication. Texting, for example (isn’t it strange to think texting was once a mere gimmick?), gave us predicative language; that strange, almost vowel-less pidgin text. An earlier and perhaps lesser known example is the communication by initials only employed by PC online gamers; here, the restriction was not the space available, as with the subject line, but rather the time the gamer had in which to type between frantic onscreen battles. Thus “GG” and “BG” were rapidly pecked out by the online warrior in place of “Good game” and “Bad game” (more complex messages were decipherable only to the initiated).
Besides, the art of the hyper-condensed subject line is emerging already. Here is a neat little pitch (a real one, actually), suggesting the marketing folks are taking a fresh interest in the subject line:
Why is this so good? Well, to start with the obvious, there is the brevity, giving the writer a confident, organized poise. Combine that brevity with a statement so simple, and you have a message that will register in the mind before the reader actually decides to read it.
Now consider the message. Or, to be precise, the messages, for there are indeed two: the reader is told there has been a problem. The reader is further told that this problem has been solved. Worry followed by reassurance; although suspecting the message is ultimately a sales pitch, the reader is instinctively well-disposed to the sender, whether they like it or not. This general bonhomie is strengthened by the fact that the message isn’t asking for anything; this is a “Problem Solved”, remember, not a “problem requiring your attention and probably your money”. Of course, the reader is no fool, but these reactions happen in an instant – the same instant it took to read the subject line - and in any case are largely subconscious. All the reader is aware of is a vague sense of trust and geniality toward the message and its sender – and some curiosity about the exact nature of the problem. This reader is about to open the message. Mission accomplished.
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