“Five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”
— David Ogilvy, advertising legend
Your email subject line matters. A lot.
So this article is all about learning how to rock your online ‘envelope’ – which is really what determines if your email will get opened.
When you stop to think about this, it makes a lot of sense. Your email subject line has a function! And its form should follow that function.
- First, it must capture attention.
- Second, it must convince people to open your message.
People’s inboxes are increasingly cluttered, so you need to stand out. Big time! Really, you’ve probably got no more than two seconds to make an impression.
Do you think carefully about purpose when you create your email subject line? Do you even craft it at all, or do you delegate this essential function to someone else, perhaps an assistant or someone in your marketing or digital communications department? Someone who perhaps doesn’t really understand the email’s primary purpose as well as do you?
If you’re like most nonprofit fundraisers and marketers, you likely spend a lot of time crafting the perfect email body copy, selecting images and figuring out just the right design that will entice someone to respond to your call to action. Then, at the last minute, you’re ready to send it and hastily come up with a subject line.
Haste in Email Subject Lines Makes Waste
You’re never going to get someone to click through on your desired action (whether that be a link to more material on your website, a call to sign a petition, a donate button or something else) if you don’t get folks to open your email.
- Did you know that nearly 47% of email recipients open email based on the subject line?
- Did you know that 69% of email recipients report email as spam based solely on the subject line. That’s right! Not only do subject lines cause you to form a first impression; they also form a first impression on your ISP (Inbox Service Provider), that’s actively scanning for engagement cues to determine if you’re spamming.
And this is why everyone — fundraisers, nonprofit marketers and any other staff charged with responsibility to reach out and communicate with your constituents — needs to be concerned with, and aware of, what works/doesn’t work when it comes to sending out emails.
Subject Lines are Email Envelopes
They determine whether your content will ever see the light of day, or get tossed into the garbage bin.
You can either inspire, excite, alarm, intrigue or otherwise capture your recipient’s attention – or you can slip by completely unnoticed.
Even if your answer to “What superpower would you most like to have?” is “An invisibility cloak” – now is not the time. You want your readers to see your message – and your subject line is a window into your email.
Still think I’m making a mountain of a mole hill?
I’ve reviewed a bunch of research on this topic, and there are clear strategies that separate successful emails from unsuccessful ones. iContact put together a free downloadable e-book, The Ultimate Subject Line Guide, which looked at subject lines receiving an open rate of 80% or greater across all industries. They studied emails sent to more than 10,000 recipients over the past three years. Much of it depends on the subject line, so that’s the bulk of what we’ll look at today. I’ll also wrap in a few other key take-aways so you don’t make any missteps.
Let’s take a look at the lessons to be learned from successful emails and, especially, successful subject lines.
8 Nonprofit Email Subject Line Lessons
LESSON 1: Begin your email with a single declarative word or instructional phrase, followed by a colon.
Then include the rest of your subject line text. Per iContact, the most frequently used words in emails with high open rates were:
- TIME TO:
- UPDATE AVAILABLE:
- INFORMATION ENCLOSED:
LESSON 2: People look first at the bolded subject line text.
You can’t simply rely on the sender name in the “from” field to inform folks what the message is about. And the key reason folks open emails is they believe there’s something in it for them.
Perhaps it’s an issue that matches their values, or there’s an urgency, or there’s a chance to double their money, or there’s an intriguing question to which they’d like to know the answer, or there’s the beginning of a story that intrigues them to learn more, or there’s something that will simplify their life, or…
It’s important to understand that on most devices, subject lines are presented in boldface in an attempt to make them stand out relative to the other text components of emails. Most people do not scan their inbox from left to right. Their eyes focus in the center on the bolded, unread subject lines in their inbox. They decide which to open, and when, based on the subject line – which is why spending time to craft a good one is so important and shouldn’t be a mere afterthought.
LESSON 3: People look carefully at the sender.
Just because folks look first at the boldface subject line text is not to say that the sender isn’t important. People definitely are persuaded to open emails from people they know, trust and/or admire. In fact, research from Pinpointe marketing found that replacing a general email address or company name with a specific personal name can increase open rates by as much as 35%!
LESSON 4: More people open personalized emails.
All the research I found showed personalization lifts response. Humans are wired to react to their name.
- The iContact study found emails with personalized subject lines are 22% more likely to be opened.
- Per Hubspot, emails that included the first name of the recipient in their subject line had a higher clickthrough rate than those that did not.
- A Retention Science study found email subject lines personalized with a recipient’s first name lifted open rates by 2.6 %.
- An Adestra / IDM State of Digital Personalization report found 82% of marketers reported an increase in open rates through email personalization.
- Experian reports personalized marketing emails experience 27% higher unique click rates and 11% higher open rates, and also deliver 6x higher transactional rates than those that do not personalize.
Another way to be personal, without using the recipient’s first name, is simply to use ‘you.’ Rather than starting off with “We,” “our,” or “I,” try focusing the action on the recipient. For example, substitute “We can’t wait to show you” with “You won’t want to miss this.”
You always want to test things for yourself, but if you don’t have the bandwidth for testing you really can’t go wrong with personalization.
LESSON 5: Less is generally more, but not always.
Subject lines that are too long will get cut off, making it possible your reader will not get the gist of what the email is about (and may, therefore, ignore it). Subject lines that are too short may get more opens, but less click-throughs because it’s more challenging to be descriptive and actionable in four words than nine. So slightly longer subject lines may give a reader a better sense of the email’s content.
- A report by Retention Science found subject lines with 6 to 10 words deliver the highest open rate, making 8 words an ideal number for a subject line.
- But wait! Marketo found 7 words to be ideal, and 8-words resulted in open rates of just 50% the amount of the 7-word headers.
- Subject lines shorter than 6 words show diminishing open and click rates.
- Email marketing company MailerMailer found longer subject lines had lower open and click rates; they recommend trying to say it in 50 characters or less.
A good guideline is to keep your words between 6 – 8 and your subject line length to under 60 text characters.
NOTE: Brevity is especially important for mobile readers as the subject line character length is even shorter (5 – 6 words)! And over 60% of email opens take place on mobile. Guess what happens when your email isn’t optimized for mobile? 70% delete the email immediately! So if you haven’t checked out what your own email looks like on a mobile device recently, do this before you hit “send” on your campaign emails.
LESSON 6: Direct subject lines outperform teasers.
Unsuccessful subject lines have one thing in common — they lack relevancy and specificity. Most people don’t have time for cute and clever. State your purpose clearly to increase results. Use action verbs that communicate what you want your constituents to do after they’ve read your content. Consider some of these:
- “Donate.” (good for all fundraising appeals)
- “Join us.” (good for an event)
- “Enroll.” (good for monthly giving; legacy or other giving society)
- “Share.” (good for peer-to-peer; crowdfunding; social media advocacy)
- “Tell us.” (good to solicit feedback)
- “Learn.” (good to amplify on what they already know from a previous email)
- “Double Your Impact” (good for matching challenges)
Want some examples?
“Children’s lives need saving” differs from “Save children’s lives.” The latter directly tells readers to take action.
“Double your donation” differs from “Double your donation before our challenge expires.” The latter conveys the urgency of taking action now.
“Our 100th Anniversary is this Saturday” differs from “Join us Saturday for the celebration!” The latter is an invitation to act, not an announcement.
“Your help is needed” differs from “Could you help Jimmy out?” The latter sounds more direct and personal, rather than vague and institutional.
LESSON 7: Get emotional.
Co-Schedule has built upon research done in the 60s and 70s by government researchers studying the roots of languages. The findings revealed that emotional language creates a very predictable response. If you haven’t yet discovered their Email Subject Line Tester I highly recommend you give it a try. Personally, I have it bookmarked and my articles don’t leave home without it!
LESSON 8: Capitals, exclamation points, question marks, numbers, ellipses and emojis
Do this too much, you’ll land in spam. Do it too little, you’ll miss an opportunity to capture attention that will increase open rates. Do it just right, you’ll increase response. Try just one of these at a time; too many and you’ll increase the likelihood your email will land in spam.
- The best use of capitals is to emphasize your supporter (e.g., “YOU can…;” “YOU’RE invited…” as opposed to “DEADLINE to give is approaching.”). Use it as emphasis, not as SHOUTING.
- The best use of exclamation points is one at a time. The folks at iContact found between 2016 and 2017 46% of their most opened and clicked subject lines used one exclamation point. Smart Insights found more than 70% of brands saw a lift of 10 – 20% in their open rate when they used it. Using several, however, can trigger spam filters.
- The best use of a question mark is to ask a question that’s specifically about what the opportunity is about (e.g., (Want to double your impact?”). However, use it with caution. Some studies show that of all the punctuation marks with which you can end a subject line, this one is the most likely to depress open rates.
- The best use of numbers is to add specificity that makes your purpose clear (e.g., “Only 100 more donors needed to meet our challenge;” “Top 10 Ways to Save…”)
- The best use of ellipses are to capture curiosity and make folks feel they’re missing out if they don’t take a peek. (e.g., “Here’s an opportunity you won’t want to miss…”). We’re wired for FOMO.
- The best use of emojis is to portray your brand personality and grab attention. Test first, because support for emojis varies across devices, browsers and internet service providers.
NOTE: All of the lessons and reported results above are guidelines only. The key is to be thoughtful about what you’re crafting. And subject lines are a great place to experiment and try some A/B testing. Remember: When you do a test you can only change one variable at a time. So only change the subject line; don’t change anything else.
Spend as much time crafting your email subject line as you spend writing your content.
- Don’t make your subject line an afterthought.
- Don’t delegate subject line writing to the lowest person on your totem pole.
- Think carefully about what you want your recipient to feel, think and do when they see your headline.
- Use the research and data in this article to guide your efforts.
Calendar some time so you can thoughtfully put these tried-and-tested principles to work in your favor.
- After all, there’s no point in putting in all the work to send an appeal that will get relegated to the trash bin.
- You may have great content to share, but your reader needs a little proof or enticement that taking the next step (opening your email) will be worth their time.
Would you go to all the effort of creating an online dating profile, crafting your words, selecting your images, messaging would-be partners and finally setting up a date, only to show up wearing the clothes you rolled out of bed in? That would be dumb. A turn off, rather than a turn on. In other words, a big “never mind.”
Don’t be a dumb fundraiser or email marketer.
At the end of the day, if your email doesn’t get opened, it doesn’t get seen.
In which case you’ll not only have not made an offer your donor can’t refuse, you’ll essentially have made no fundraising offer at all.
Subject lines are really important.
If you want to get a ‘date’ with a donor, dress your email for success!
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