Changing the subject (line)

How associations can get out of the trash and into inboxes.

BY Adam Wren
Senior Editor, Imagination

An email subject line can either be your first impression or your last.

It can be the difference between connecting with an association member and turning them off.

According to a study by the London-based Radicati Group, the number of business and consumer emails sent each day now exceeds 281 billion. As subscribers on your list scan their inboxes, you have only milliseconds to convince them your email is worth opening. The subject line matters now, perhaps more than ever.

Here are evolved best practices for crafting inviting subject lines.

Emoji the possibilities

In the emoji age, you can ditch the formalities. Modern readers are more accepting of casual subject lines. In fact, according to a July 2019 report by Adobe, 58% of respondents said they are more likely to open an email with an emoji. Likewise, a report by Experian found that 56% of brands had a higher unique open rate with emoji subject lines. Say your association is releasing a thought leadership survey of members that reveals a positive future outlook for their profession; for example, a small business association survey finds members are likely to expand their operations in the coming year. A sunglasses emoji next to few words connotes optimism:

2020 small business outlook: 😎

But it’s still important to keep your audience—and subject matter—in mind. The National Funeral Directors Association, for example, may not be the right group for emojis. And the email clients your audience uses play a part, too. Outlook 2003, for example, doesn’t render emojis, so an older, less tech-savvy audience could mean a message lost in translation. (For more guidance, check out Campaign Monitor’s handy chart of which email clients display emojis.)

Don’t be “thirsty” for opens, but quench your readers' thirst for ROI

Yes, open rates matter. Yes, you want your content consumed. But the package needs to match the packaging. An eye-popping subject line works, but the content that comes after should fulfill the promise made.

Take some of Slate’s “thirstiest” subject lines from the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates as examples of what not to do. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) went with this subject line for a recent end-of-quarter note to supporters: “My last email.” It played on shock, urgency and scarcity to get readers to open, but the content didn’t back up the promise made to readers. Instead of her last-ever email of the campaign, it was her last email of the quarter. The result: a bit of trust lost.

In contrast, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke sent out an email subject-lined thusly: “Banquet hall tilapia.” Its weirdness and novelty enticed readers to open. And the content actually delivered: The email served up a memorable line from one of O’Rourke’s speeches arguing that democracy “shouldn’t be about whichever candidate can invite the most lobbyists to eat banquet hall tilapia for $2,800-per-plate.”

One thing that hasn’t changed about email marketing: Avoid spam trigger words, which will Double your chances! of 100% turning off your readers.

Out of character(s)

For years, the best subject lines were 40 characters or fewer. That’s still true, but with the rise of mobile, the emphasis is on the fewer. The 30-to-40-character rule is based on how a subject line displays on a smartphone, where most readers read their email now. Keep in mind that perhaps the best-performing subject line of all time was the terse “Hey” the Obama presidential campaign used in 2012 before a critical fundraising deadline.

For associations, this has practical implications. Some are married to the idea of having their acronym in the subject line as a way of establishing trust with their members. However, this ignores the reality that their name appears to the left of the subject line on a desktop or laptop, and just above it on a smartphone.

Email Monks, the email template designers and coders, suggest following the 2-2-2 rule: The first two seconds a member scans your subject line determine whether they’ll open, the first two words should convey your message, and the last "two" refers to “today.” In other words, your subject line should play on urgency.

Boost your (artificial) intelligence

A human touch can still crack the toughest inbox. But the rise of AI has nitro-charged email marketers’ ability to personalize their approach to connecting with readers, including with optimized subject lines.

According to Accenture, AI is expected to deliver $14 trillion in additional revenue for companies by 2035. Futureproof your association by leveraging that trend. AI can harness data about your members and personalize renewal pushes and member benefit drip campaigns. It can also now create drip email campaigns that use an association’s brand-friendly words to break through the digital detritus of any member’s inbox.

published: October 14, 2019

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