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Debunking email subject line myths

I’ll tell you a nasty little secret about email marketing.

Nobody cares about your email as much as you do.

I know that’s a hard pill to swallow given all the love and attention you put into making your emails great. But it’s true. People aren’t looking for reasons to open your emails. They’re looking for reasons to delete them.

That’s why you need to write killer subject lines with your emails. You need to grab that small window of opportunity to tell people why they absolutely must not delete your email. Why they should take the time to open it up and see what’s inside.

Now admittedly, this is no easy task. Subject lines are a complex beast with many variables to consider. There’s the subject line length, branding, personalisation, format, typography and other things that impact its effectiveness.

I believe the only way to discover the best performing subject lines for your emails is to continuously test, measure and optimise. With that said, there are some commonly held beliefs about subject lines which aren’t necessarily true and should definitely be tested.

So this post is dedicated to challenging some of the myths around subject lines.

Myth #1 – You can’t say “free” in your subject line

This school of thought dates back to a time when mail filters weren’t that intelligent. Back then, any word considered as “spammy” would trigger alarm bells. So perfectly legitimate emails were being falsely categorised as spam and not reaching the inbox.

But today, mail filters are much better at correctly identifying and filtering spam messages. So there’s no need to be afraid of your email being filtered just because you have “free” in your subject line. The truth is there are hundreds of variables that mail filters use when trying to differentiate spam from legitimate marketing emails. This is why Vision6 has a Spam Checker feature for you to identify any potential issues before you send your email.

So if you have something to offer for free in your emails, don’t be afraid to say it. But let common sense prevail. Don’t overuse the word because “FREE FREE FREE” sounds spammy any way you say it. Remember also, just because a mail filter doesn’t think your email is spam, your readers still might. So focus on communicating the value to them in opening your email.

Myth #2 – Subject lines need to be short

How long should your subject line be? Popular opinion is that 50 characters or 5 to 6 words is an ideal length. But I think a subject line should be as long as it needs to be.

A good subject line tells the reader why they should open the email. It can use a range of tactics to do this like creating a sense of curiosity and urgency. Or it could communicate value, relevance, or simply inform readers about what’s inside. So if it takes 7, 8 or 15 words to do this (ok, 15 might be a bit excessive), then so be it.

Do aim to be succinct though. You don’t want readers working hard to figure out what’s in it for them to open your email. Plus some email clients will truncate your subject line after around 50 characters. So ensure to have your most important words first.

Myth #3 – Your subject line’s job is only to get someone to open the message

This is potentially the most harmful subject line myth of all. It’s half true, because your subject line does have the job to encourage someone to read your email. But it’s not the only job. If this were true, subject lines that trick the reader into opening the email would be considered effective.

I received a marketing email recently with the subject line, “This made me think of you”. It peaked my curiosity so I opened it. To my huge disappointment, the email had nothing to do with me. It was simply their regular newsletter with a feature story about recent changes in their business. Boring!!!

Even though their emails are sometimes interesting, their deceptive subject line left a bad taste in my mouth. So I unsubscribed. So this was a case of a subject line fail.

Subject lines also have a role to play in branding. So don’t trick people into opening your emails. Be truthful about what’s inside. Set readers up for a positive experience as this will not only help your open rates, it will also help your click rates. Plus an informative, accurate subject line can prolong your email’s lifespan by helping them index and archive it to be revisited at a later date.

What do you think?

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Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson is the EDM Specialist at Australian email marketing software company Vision6. His work helps to educate marketers and business owners on how to create, connect and convert using the power of email, SMS and social media marketing.

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