How important is the subject line of your email?

It’s like a gateway drug to the message.

“Do I have the time to see what this is?” the customer wonders, scanning through hundreds of new emails. To decide whether or not to go any further with yours, she evaluates the subject line. And when time is scarce, a subject line like “The world looks different through a Nikon” is likely to win out over “Some exciting news” or “Re: Order no. 69887″.

A subject line is not an afterthought or place to try out auto-generated product codes the customer does not understand. It should be at the very heart of your email campaign. It is one human speaking to another – the elevator speech you’ve been waiting to give. It is the invitation to the reader to go one step further, to come inside and read your message.

So if you have one sentence to speak directly to your customer, what do you say?

If you turn to the guy next to you in the elevator and say, “Some exciting news”, he nods and waits expectantly, wondering if he’ll get to hear that news. What is the essence of your message? Next time lead with that. Let the recipient decide if it’s exciting. Or news. If you don’t have exciting news, don’t send the email.

A subject line is like a newspaper headline, a title on a book’s spine, or the key slogan of a print media ad. It tells the user what this is all about. And it should do so in sparkling, unforgettable style – seamlessly channeling the essence of your brand experience. By clearly telling the user what’s going on and why, you save them time. Like a terse road sign, a to-the-point subject line improves the overall information environment. It informs and clarifies. It sets the tone for the whole experience.

Many companies get it. “Critical water supply or gift to developers?” announced a recent message from Patagonia. Bingo. I’m hooked like a fish. I want to know more. I must know more. Beautiful.

But older, less informative subject line styles are still widespread. Compare the sharpened arrow above to variations like “Our January Newsletter”, “An email message from Bob”, or “Some exciting news”.

Is there anything in the newsletter worth the customer’s time? If there is, do not conceal this all important information: divulge it. The newsletter is the vessel, but the customer wonders: what’s inside? Time is tight. The reader has two seconds to decide whether she’ll spend another eight seconds and open the email.

Regarding that “Email message from Bob”. Are you drawn to articles headlined “An article by Paul Krugman”? You can’t be – because they don’t exist. Are you interested in “A book by Kevin Phillips” or an ad that self identifies as “Information from the Coca Cola Corporation for you”? Not so much. Instead, get to the info the user wants. Which is: what is this about? And more importantly: what’s in it for me? What do you have that I want?

No news ever became exciting by being labelled as such. Truly exciting news is simply UNLEASHED on the world in living color, sans introduction: “Rupp Wins Silver”. Boom. No need to blow trumpets and announce that some exciting news will be comin’ round the mountain when she comes. Cut to: the news. What is it? Lead with it. Assume the recipient can handle the news. They can. Put the news right there in the subject line.

A sub optimal subject line is not the end of the world. But it’s a little thing that tells the customer who they’re dealing with. It’s a missed opportunity for beauty and style and engagement. A clunky or ordinary subject line subconsciously signals to the reader that whatever’s inside may be equally drab. Whereas a great subject line sticks in the brain like a pop song.

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