Size matters in e-mail subject lines, but so do the words you choose

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

The primary goal is to have your message read

Misty Harris

Size matters when it comes to an e-mail’s subject line, according to a new study of more than a billion e-mails, but it’s not the only consideration for Canadian job seekers, corporations and even parents who want their messages to stand out amid fierce inbox competition.

The research conducted over a one-year period by the world’s largest permission-based e-mail marketer found that while shorter subject lines generally outperform longer ones, word choice and order are also “vitally important” to decreasing the probability e-mail will be deleted before it’s even opened.

“Significantly more people will see a subject line than its accompanying creative,” says Thane Stallings, senior analytic consultant at Epsilon, which has offices in Canada and the U.S. “The way in which content and brand messaging are positioned can be as important to e-mail success as the number of characters in the subject line.”

The study, published this month, looks at roughly 1.1 billion e-mails sent by retail and consumer services companies between June 2007 and June 2008. In each of the two industry groups, an increase in subject-line length led to a decrease in both opening and click-through rates, though the correlation was much smaller than expected.

“The length of your subject line does have an impact,” says Stallings. “But it’s not the only thing to worry about.”

Since Sharon Houlihan was let go from her IT job last summer, she’s been using e-mail to contact prospective employers. For her, as for many others seeking work in a crippled economy, getting “e-noticed” has potentially life-altering implications.

“A place to live, food in my fridge and my car (are) all on the line,” says Houlihan, a Vancouver Island woman seeking Internet work. “At this point, no work means that all goes.”

Generally, Epsilon finds the best choice is to front-load a subject line by putting the most important information first — a strategy not lost on the top executive at Toronto-based Apex Public Relations.

“It’s important to be succinct and get to the point quickly,” says president Pat McNamara, who also favours the inclusion of “power words” such as change, move, surge, break, refuge and impact. “Something that reads like a catchy headline appeals.”

Carol Panasiuk, who as senior vice-president of brand marketing firm Cohn & Wolfe sends roughly 100 e-mails a day, is highly aware of subject-line techniques when crafting professional messages. With her personal correspondence, however, she admits to erring on the side of the dramatic.

“I sometimes put HELP! as my subject line when I need to get my husband’s attention,” says Panasiuk. “I don’t really like to mislead people with come-ons but if you can make it somewhat humorous, that’s great. My cousin sent me an e-mail with the subject line: ‘Recession is over.’ I opened it up to see pictures of him having fun on vacation in Arizona.”

Taking into account the ways in which people receive their e-mail is also important. Epsilon found that 57 per cent of e-mail recipients only see the first 38 to 47 characters of a subject line because of default settings by their e-mail domains and mobile devices.

“It has to work regardless of (which) e-mail tool I use,” says technology expert Cynthia Ross Pedersen, entrepreneur-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. “Worst case, a poorly chosen subject line won’t make it past the spam filters.”

But her real pet peeve is a subject line that’s disingenuous.

“Don’t send me one more insincere ‘Dear Cindy’ e-mail,” says Pedersen. “Personalization is more that putting my name on an e-mail — it’s delivering content that’s relevant to me.”

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