The subject is your subject line

How important is the subject line of your email?

It is the gatekeeper to your message. “Do I have the time to see what this is?” your customer wonders, scanning through dozens or hundreds of new emails. To decide whether or not to go further with yours, she evaluates the FROM and subject line. And when time is scarce, a subject line like “The world looks different through a Nikon” is likely to win out over “Re: order 13012205”.

A subject line should not be an afterthought or the place to try out auto-generated product codes the customer does not understand.  It is the very heart of your email campaign.  It is one human speaking to another – the elevator speech you’ve been waiting to give. So if you have one sentence, one minute, to speak 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 ever get to hear the news. What is the essence of your message? Next time lead with that.

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 style, seamlessly channeling your brand.

When it comes to normal marketing campaign emails, many companies get the importance of a subject line. Here’s one from Patagonia: “Critical water supply or gift to developers?” I’m hooked like a fish.

Compare that to “Our January Newsletter” or “Email message from Bob”.  Woops – life just a bit more ordinary, didn’t it?

Is there anything in the newsletter worth the customer’s time? The newsletter is the vessel, but the customer wonders: what’s inside?

Regarding that “Email message from Bob”. Are you drawn to articles in the New York Times titled “An op-ed by Paul Krugman”?  Are you interested in “A book by Kevin Phillips” or an ad that leads with “Information from the Coca Cola Corporation for you”? Get to the core of Bob’s message.  Get to the info the user wants. If Bob’s message itself isn’t more interesting than the fact that it’s coming from him, there is zero chance the recipient will read it.  Lead with the good stuff.  Or don’t send.

Even though a bad subject line is hardly the end of the world, it’s a little thing that tells the customer who she’s dealing with. It may be her first impression of a company or organization. How important could the news inside be if the company’s best effort at crafting a subject line is “Some exciting news!”? Exciting news needs no advance billing.  It is simply unleashed: “US lands on moon”.  No need to announce that some exciting news will be comin’ round the mountain when she comes.  Lead with it. The recipient can handle the news.

These exceptions aside, when a company sets out to contact you about something, motivation is usually high to craft a good subject line.

However, when it comes to email confirmations after a transaction, it’s a totally different story. Email receipts that follow up a purchase are weak links in the online commerce world – when they could be beautiful. Whereas the leading email the company sent you showed signs of human input, once you’ve bought something or done whatever it is they wanted you to do, the next email you get almost always seems to have been wholly created by machines.

Technical terms and unbeautiful mainframe text dump layout predominate. Codes and abbreviations that mean nothing to anyone outside the IT department cover the screen. And then the favorite “DO NOT REPLY TO THIS EMAIL”, which so often feels like “DO NOT GIVE US ANY MORE OF YOUR BUSINESS”. In a million different ways, a bad email receipt deflates all the product and brand associations your web site and marketing materials have painstakingly built up.

Imagine a news headline that reads “news story” or a book on the shelf titled “book title”.  Not very helpful, right?  And yet to this day I continue to get emails with the subject line, “Email Confirmation”.  No joke.

So what should an email receipt be? It should be a fully produced piece of art/commerce designed to continue the selling process the customer just told you she wanted to engage in. It is the beginning of the next sale. If companies spend millions targeting customers who might buy their product, what would a list of 100% guaranteed customers be worth? Someone just bought something from you. Now is when you solidify a lifelong relationship by sending a receipt that will stop them in their tracks, knock their socks off, draw them in – and tell them about the next product you have. They will read every line if it’s good. Their head is completely in your space at the post purchase moment.

And yet 99.9% of the time, the customer who just bought one of your products is thanked with an email utterly devoid of message, brand, coherence and beauty. None of these confirmations would ever be approved to send as part of a front end marketing campaign. So why do companies think they’re ok to send as a receipt on the back end?

Consider the following transactional subject lines we may one day live to see, and ask what response they might ignite in the recipient – compared to the “Email Confirmation” or “Re: order 13012205” variety.

The Great Gatsby arrives by FedEx August 12, 2016

Stella for Star – Your tix for STREETCAR

So you’re flying out to Seattle

You have 256 days to train for the Boston Marathon

Wow!  Now we’re cooking with gas.  I’m interested, I’m excited.  I am inside the brand experience.  I’m so excited I may even take the step of replying directly to the email, seeking to deepen my contact with the company, thinking I have a real human on the line. And at good companies, a human will respond.

A subject line is much more than just some info.  It is the summary in a few words of your brand and message.

It should be smooth, clean, elegant, dramatic.

Because email should be beautiful.


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