Writing: Articles: Subject lines

Subject lines that sink or swim
by Madeline Stanionis

I once read that an e-mail subject line is like a “promise” to your readers about what’s inside. I like the sound of that just fine. But more useful, though, is to consider this: You’ve got about 1 or 2 seconds to capture your constituent’s attention and convince her that of the many e-mail messages bombarding her in box, yours is the one she simply must read. No pressure, eh?

A good subject line will help get your e-mail opened and read. And if your donor doesn’t open and read your e-mail, well, obviously, he can’t make a gift or take action. So, it’s worth spending some time honing your sub line skills.

The basics

  • Length. E-mail programs vary as to how many sub line characters will be seen by your reader. Be on the safe side and keep yours to about 50 characters.
  • Shouting symbols ( $, !, CAPS, *) will land you in the spam filter. Avoid ’em.
  • Also avoid words like these: Free, Sale, Viagra, Teens, etc. Stay up to date on the word list here: www.emailsherpa.com or www.clickz.com

Tease, tell or take action?
The best e-mail message delivers the exact offer at the exact moment that your constituent wants it. Your job is to simply use the subject line to “tell” your supporters what’s up.

  • A crisis occurs overseas and a relief agency delivers an e-mail letting donors know how they can help: “Send a blanket to Bamgarian flood victims.”
  • The same holds true for e-mails that help your users take care of business, like: “Order your Annual Golf Shirt Gala tickets now,” or “Your membership expires soon – renew today.”
  • Messages that have time-sensitive content fall into this category as well: “Six vegan-friendly ways to decorate Easter eggs,” delivered a few days before Easter, of course.

However, you probably don’t always have these opportunities. That’s when you do a little teasing.

  • An e-mail landed in my box recntly with this sub line: “The movie President Bush doesn’t want you to see.” That works for me…I want to find out just what that movie is.
  • Another way to tease is by being a little clever. Quick, easy-to-scan clever. Not obscure references to old episodes of Leave it to Beaver clever. Puns, alliteration, sarcasm, etc. Like, “It’s beginning to look a lot like justice…” sent just before the holidays by Earthjustice, the environmental law organization.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to call your readers to action. The best of “take action” e-mails are:

  • Specific. Less “Tell them no” and more “Tell Big Tobacco to stop selling to children.”
  • Well-timed. See above.
  • Local, if possible. “Tell Big Tobacco to stop selling to Boston children.”

What’s in a name?
This one’s easy for me. Have you noticed how many spam e-mails use your own name in the from field or subject line? Yep. A lot. That, combined with the fact that I’ve never seen a benefit from using personal names in subject lines means that I don’t recommend personalizing your sub lines. Many of my colleagues have experienced otherwise, though, so you may want to test it.

Bad sub lines hall of fame
We’ve all seen them. And some of us have actually been the perpetrators. Here are a few:

  • Learn about how H.R. 376 will be detrimental and discriminatory (uhhh, what?)
  • Organization name Web site update (yawn)
  • There’s Still Time to Oppose Proposed Oil and Gas Exemptions from the Clean Water Act, Madeline! (too long! too wordy!)

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