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?” the customer wonders, scanning through hundreds of new emails. To decide whether or not to go any further with yours, she evaluates the subject line. And when time is scarce, a subject line like “The world looks different through a Nikon” is likely to win out over “Some exciting news!” or “Re: C#13012205”.

A subject line is not an afterthought or the place to try out auto-generated product codes the customer does not understand. It should be at the heart of an 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 in the elevator and say, “Some exciting news!”, he nods and waits expectantly, wondering if he’ll ever get to hear the news (or reach his floor). What is the essence of your message? Next time, lead with that. Give the customer the news – let them decide if it’s exciting. Show, don’t tell.

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 I got today from Patagonia: “Critical water supply or gift to developers?” I’m hooked like a fish. Oh the drama!

But many don’t get it. Compare the sharpened arrow above to the bland and dull “Our January Newsletter” or “An email message from Bob”. Don’t laugh. Such message are still sent. Though typically Bob’s secretary sends them, ’cause Bob’s not online much – ya know.

Is there anything in the newsletter worth the customer’s time? If there is, do not conceal this all important information. The newsletter is the vessel, but the customer wonders, what’s it about? And by the way, which of the 50 groups I belong to is this from? A subject line like “Friends of Salmon – 2013 Capital campaign a resounding success” works much better.

Regarding that “Email message from Bob”. Are you drawn to articles headlined “An article by Paul Krugman”? (No, because such headlines don’t exist in the NYT). Are you interested in “A book by Kevin Phillips” or an ad that self identifies as “Information from the Coca Cola Corporation for you”? Get to the info the user wants. What is this about? If Bob’s message itself isn’t more interesting than the fact that it’s coming from Bob, there is zero chance the recipient will read it. Lead with the good stuff. If there is no message from Bob, don’t send the email. Bob won’t know.

Even though a bad subject line is hardly the end of the world, it’s a little thing that tells the customer who they’re dealing with. That email may be your first impression of a company or organization. How important could the news be if the company’s best effort at crafting a subject line is “Some exciting news!”? How good could the food be if the chef speaks of a “Special offer this weekend”?

Truly exciting news is simply UNLEASHED in living color: “Rupp Wins Silver”. Boom. No need to announce that some exciting news will be comin’ round the mountain when she comes. Cut to: the news. What is it? Lead with it. Assume 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 sounds 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. That is the language the vast majority of online merchants (BIG ones) continue to use today. DELETE! Woops, except I can’t delete it because it may be something relating to that purchase I just made. But I just made five purchases. Wonder which one this email relates to? The book or the concert ticket or the camera lens or the…?

I got the message by email, so I pretty much know it’s coming via email. Any time you are tempted to write the word “email” in the subject line of your email, step back, reflect, and grind your teeth a bit. Don’t do it. You don’t begin a phone conversation with the greeting “Hello, this is a phone call”. The user gets that. What they want is – the info. The message. Lead with that.

And instead of naming the message a “confirmation” (what else would it be – a rejection?), get to the more important info: a confirmation of what? But again, don’t simply give the user dull, computer-generated info. Give them your brand experience. Which presumably is good or they would not have just bought your product.

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 they wanted to engage in. It is the beginning of the next sale. If companies spend millions on 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? Baffling.

Consider the following subject lines we may one day live to see in our inbox, and ask what response they might ignite in the recipient (compared to the “Email Confirmation” or “Re: C#13012205″ variety).

American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips arrives by FedEx August 12, 2012

Stella for Star – Your tix for STREETCAR at The Music Box Theatre on August 12

So you’re flying out to Seattle on August 12

Congratulations. You now have 256 days left to train for the 2014 Boston Marathon

Wow! Now we’re cooking with gas. I’m interested, I’m excited. 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. At good companies, a human will respond. ALWAYS.

To emphasize how widespread poor email practice is (and thus how good your company will look if you do it well), it’s worth mentioning that even the largest retailer on earth does not get it.

I recently bought a book from Amazon, and my email receipt’s subject line says, “Your order with Amazon.com”

Now if I placed several different orders over the past days or weeks, I’m going to have a lot of emails with that same subject line in my Inbox. Not very helpful. But if I harvest the content inside the email body, I find all sorts of interesting info that should be used in the email subject line. Remember, lead with the news the user wants. So based on the info Amazon already knows, why don’t they write better email subject lines like:

Amazon – FREEDOMLAND by Amy Freed should arrive by June 24, 2013

If you buy something for Kindle from Amazon, same problem. My email receipt subject line from that transaction is:

Your Amazon.com Order (D01-7087187-5424658)

Technical codes and product numbers mean nothing to the customer. She did not jump out of bed this morning thinking, “I’ve got to go place order D01-7087187-5424658 with Amazon!” The customer wants a product. Which has a name.

Based on info Amazon knows, why not write a subject line like:

Amazon – RUINED by Lynn Nottage is now available on your Kindle

Smooth, clean and elegant.

Because email should be beautiful.