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Subject Lines: The Haiku of Marketing?

The rule of thumb with email subject lines is that the first 35 or so characters are the most critical (and alas, each space between words counts as a character). On mobile devices, that’s very roughly how many characters will be displayed in the inbox. Even on computers, subject lines can be truncated at around that point, depending on the recipient’s settings.

It’s tough to craft a catchy subject line that will stand out from the madding crowd—let alone one that will do so within the first 35 characters. I know this firsthand, as my day job requires me to write at least a dozen subject lines a day. Sometimes it’s tough not to resort to a brutally direct “Buy these items; I have a kid to feed” (37 characters, for what it’s worth).

Some brands turn to symbols or dingbats to tersely grab attention. On March 31 I received two emails with symbols in the subject lines.

Maybe it’s just me, but the apostrophe after the heart symbol throws me off; every single time I read this as “Spa Week’s Connecticut.” And I never did open the email.

I did open the email with the subject line below:

Not because I was interested in InSaNe grape names, but because I was curious as to whether the email itself was as cheesy as the subject line. It was not:

There seems to be a major discrepancy in tone and voice between the tacky subject line and the elegant, gently witty email. The sender, Wine Awesomeness, sells curated collections of wine, so the email itself feels brand appropriate. The subject line, on the other hand, would have been perfect for the late, little-lamented Crazy Eddie electronics chain.

The ’70s were a magical time, kids.

Temple & Webster, an Australian home decor etailer, eschewed symbols for something a bit sneakier: a “Fwd:”

There’s something dishonest, to my mind, about pretending that the email was forwarded by someone I trust more than Temple & Webster, which with its faux “Fwd” hasn’t shown itself all that trustworthy. It reminds me of the trend a few years ago of sending out false “Oops, we goofed” emails: Apparently emails with apologetic subject lines had higher open rates, which led slews of brands to email apologies for ecommerce misdeeds such as slow site-load times and typos. Had all those goofs been genuine, it would have suggested that the average marketing pro had an IQ and work ethic similar to Homer Simpson’s.

Enough negativity. Here are two recent subject lines that I loved:

“Check out #4” from shopping app Keep, a scant 12 characters long. Who could resist the suggestion that an entire list of goodies were tucked within the email, and that #4 was especially fabulous? Not me; I opened the email.

“We Got Big Bags and We Cannot Lie” (33 characters in all), from Timbuk2, a marketer of (surprise!) bags and other accessories. It’s a bit cheeky, which is perfectly in keeping with the brand, but at the same time utterly straightforward.

Email subject lines are like haiku poetry. Too often, the focus on character count/syllable count results in uninspired doggerel. True masters, though, can produce art. 

And yes, I just called email subject lines an art form. Hey, I’ve got to justify the hours I spend writing them somehow...