Email copywriting, Maslen on Marketing

Forty characters in search of an author

Do you use emails as part of your promotional mix? If you do, I bet you spend a long time working on the message: lots of nice short sentences (balanced with longer ones, of course); plenty of benefits; calls to action top and bottom; bullet points using ASCII characters. But let me ask you a question…

How much time do you spend on the subject line?

This is the critical part of the package; yet it’s often the one overlooked even by the most experienced marketeers. And it’s critical to the success of your campaign. This little line can galvanise your reader into opening the email or it can have them stabbing the Trash button.

If you’ve come from a direct mail background, you should be a natural. The subject line is your outer envelope. But just look at the height of the bar you have to clear. You’ve got no colour, no paper, no windows showing glimpses of the pack inside, no logo – just a few plain text characters.

And I mean a few. Your subject line should always be 40 characters or less – including spaces. That’s a pretty tall order, particularly if you’re fond of long words, like information, strategic or organisational.

Why teasers don’t work

In a moment, I want to offer you a few tips for getting it right, but first, let’s take a look at a subject line from an email I received recently.

Subject: Do your customers smile when they call you?

What would you say this was promoting? Could be almost anything to do with customer service, or product reliability, or keen pricing, or friendly sales staff. Do you think this would make you – a busy person – open the email?

In fact, the company – an event organiser – was promoting a free online conference about speech recognition software. The key benefit, buried in the text, was that you could delight your customers and cut costs. Not a bad reason to register. PLUS you could win a 10 euro Amazon voucher, so they had an offer as well. So why the mysterious subject line?

I suspect the writer was going for the teaser angle. After all, it works on ads and flyers. But with ads and flyers, you can see the headline in context; and there aren’t 20 or 30 other headlines flanking it.

People are actively looking for reasons not to open emails of any kind, let alone promotional ones. So the secret is to ditch the teaser approach in favour of one that gives them a reason to click. And that means giving them the benefit.

Our event organiser could have gone for a much simpler proposition, like this:

Subject: How to delight your customers, for less [39 characters]

Or how about these:

Subject: Make your customers happy to call you [37 characters]

Subject: Keep your customers longer, for less [36 characters]

Subject: Stop disappointing your customers [33 characters]

Or even these:

Subject: Free tips on delighting your customers [38 characters]

Subject: Free Amazon voucher for you [27 characters]

To free or not to free

There are two schools of thought on using free in the subject line. The first says it’s one of the most powerful words in the marketeer’s lexicon, and you’d be a fool to ignore it. The second says there’s so much filtering going on that this is signing your own death warrant. I tend to side with the former. Sure, there are filters in many email programs. But how many people actually know that? Or have the time and energy to find out how to configure them? Plenty of people only use 10% of the functions available in Word.

If you’re spamming, ‘free’ probably isn’t going to work very well. But you’re not, right? With properly targeted b2b mailings, offering relevant, well-written messages, ‘free’ can work. Hard. But you can test it for yourself and find out what works for you.

 This month’s takeaway message

Those 40 characters are really, REALLY important. Write your message first, then you’ve got a platform to create a winning subject line. And don’t forget to include a benefit.

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