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3 Email Subject Line Habits That Hurt the Subscriber Relationship

16th Feb 2016
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It isn’t difficult to understand why so much attention is paid to the email subject line.

People receive several permission-based marketing messages in their inboxes every day, and the subject line is what drives them to either open or ignore a message. (Conversely, with emails that aren’t permission-based, the sender’s name has the most influence on whether an email is opened.)

Delivering a compelling subject line that quickly conveys value or utility is essential in standing out. Therefore, digital marketers put a great deal of effort into getting the most out of that small — yet significant — piece of real estate. Sometimes, however, putting too much emphasis on the subject line ends up hurting the effectiveness of the email or even damaging the overall subscriber relationship.

You’re Thinking Too Short, Yet Selling Too Big

All too often, marketers don’t consider how each individual email fits into the long-term relationship with a customer or subscriber.

Behavior tends to value opens, clicks, downloads, and other methods of engagement. More focus is placed on trying to optimize and hack an email than on developing an ongoing narrative that forms a continuous relationship with subscribers. When that happens, bad habits tend to form — and reduce the chance that your next email will be opened.

There’s a lot of overselling happening in subject lines, followed by letdown in the body.

Getting the email opened is not the end goal. If subscribers open it and see content that isn’t consistent with the promise, they lose trust in the brand. Ultimately, it’s the “open at any cost” subject lines that get deleted.

When attempting to write an effective headline that doesn’t cross the line into spam, marketers generally get three things wrong.

1. They’re afraid to sell.

Many marketers are afraid to use certain words because they assume that they’ll automatically lead to the spam folder.

In reality, content filtering is a much smaller part of spam filtering today than it was 10 years ago. While the words you use in your subject line and body copy can count against your email, they’re rarely enough on their own to get your email filtered out. Elements such as sender reputation and engagement metrics have far more impact on whether your message is considered spam.

Renowned marketer David Ogilvy believed people cared about three things above all when considering a purchase: that the item was easier, faster, and free. There is no reason to avoid these words or others like them.

People aren’t afraid of being sold to. What they don’t enjoy is a pitch that’s of no interest or utility to them.

Use the words that sell to the right people. Just be sure you don’t overdo it.

2. They get too personal.

Everyone has seen the personalized subject line pop up. It asks, “Hey, John, do you want to....?” Worse, it uses both your first and last names.

With most automation software or ESPs using this functionality, it’s become quite common, and marketers feel like it creates personalization. In fact, it often lowers click-through rates and opens.

Why? Because people have wised up to it. Personalized subject lines feel superficial, disingenuous, and gimmicky. In reality, you want to personalize the body of the email — factors such as the offer, framing, pitch, and main value proposition.

Personalize the subject matter, not the subject.

3. They try to sneak through with a “RE:” or “FWD:” format.

Another variation of the personalization route involves a marketer trying to sneak a sales pitch under the radar by disguising it as a reply or a forward. The idea here is that the subscriber, fooled into thinking it’s an email from someone he knows, will be more likely to open it.

People have become accustomed to this tactic as well. The moment subscribers open an email and see that it isn’t actually a forwarded message or reply, their trust in the brand evaporates. And just like that, you’ve lost them.

If you value open rates above all else, you’ll chase open rates above all else. You’ll do whatever it takes to get the open at the expense of genuine connection. All the while, your sender reputation and engagement metrics will tumble. (And these factors have much greater influence over whether your email is considered spam.)

Eventually, your list will dry up because you valued the wrong things and put yourself in a cycle of meaningless growth.

Instead of trying to trick subscribers and spam filters into letting your email through, consider the long-term relationship you’re trying to build.

Write for Humans, Not Filters

Every email you send adds to the narrative you’re building with subscribers. To think of it more as a relationship than an agreement serves marketers well in writing subject lines and body copy for real people, not content filters.

Great email subject lines are about communicating value to the right people: the people who most need what you’re selling. As email professionals, it’s our responsibility to strive for nothing less.

John Bonini is a growth marketer and conversion copywriter passionate about creating more effective marketing for actual humans. A journalist-turned-marketer, John currently heads growth at Litmus, a web-based email creation, testing, and analytics company.

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