Why everything you thought you knew about subject lines is wrong (maybe)

Writing subject lines that grabs the attention of an audience is tough. So what can copywriters do to get people to pay attention?

As I said last time, I’m a bit obsessed with email subject lines.

I’ve read every guide there is on how to write subject lines that ‘work’. I pore over reports like Adestra’s, looking for clues about what makes people open and what makes people hit ‘delete’. I hoard all the marketing emails I receive in a special folder, and comb through their subject lines in search of inspiration and brilliance.

Based on all this obsessiveness, I’ve developed some basic rules of thumb about what makes a good subject line.

Or at least, what I thought made a good subject line. Because it turns out that the things I thought I knew? They probably no longer apply.

Or at least, this seems to be the underlying message of some new research by Outbrain, the content recommendations engine. They did an analysis of click-through rates on paid content headlines (so, not subject lines, but similar), and discovered that a couple of the things you might have considered best practice are actually damaging:

1. Addressing the reader directly as ‘you’.

2. Injecting a sense of urgency with the words ‘must’ or ‘need’.

That joke isn’t funny any more

Why don’t these approaches seem to work any more? In Outbrain’s words:

Readers appear to be resistant to words that demand action or attention. It may be that these words are more reminiscent of advertorial calls to action than editorial language or that their overuse in headlines over time has weakened their ability to convey a true sense of urgency.”

(my emphasis)

And that’s the fundamental issue for copywriters: as soon as a particular technique or approach is proven to ‘work’, everyone rushes to use it. And when everyone rushes to use it, every email that hits the poor beleaguered recipient’s inbox starts to look the same.

When everything is touted as urgent and important, it’s hard not to conclude that none of it is actually that urgent or important.  And once the spell is broken, all these ‘You Must Read This Must-Read eBook Now”-type messages just become immensely irritating.

(Especially if you’ve ever opened one of these urgent-sounding emails to discover that the “must-read ebook” is a half-arsed piece of promotional literature that has no use or value whatsoever.)

That’s why it doesn’t do to pay too much attention to tactics that apparently ‘work’. Adestra’s 2013 subject line analysis report suggests that subject lines with words like “Alert”, “Bulletin”, “Daily”, “Weekly” and “Video” see much better open rates. But if every marketer in the world seizes on this information and starts sending “Here’s Your Daily Video Alert” type emails, the magic isn’t going to work for long.

Just be honest

What’s the solution? Same as it’s always been: don’t resort to tricks, keep your audience’s best interests in mind, be clear and honest about what’s in your email, and emphasise the value they’ll get from it.

And if you don’t honestly believe that what you’re offering in the email provides genuine value, it’s time to rethink your marketing strategy, not your subject lines.

Fiona Campbell-Howes

Our founder and original managing director, Fiona was responsible for the strategic and day-to-day management of Radix, as well as working on many client writing projects. She brought long experience of marketing in the tech industry, during which time she worked with many global IT brands, including Adobe, CA, IBM and Oracle.

More posts you might like…

How to rid B2B copy of its cliché addiction

Birds do it. Bees do it. And imaginary peas do it. Probably. We all use clichés as an everyday shorthand. But copywriters must learn to have a little more discipline – or risk having their writing written off.

Create B2B tech marketing content that really works

Get regular advice and insights from our team of specialist B2B tech writers and account managers, direct to your inbox.