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B2B Email: Your subject line can kill your pitch (or, Hi, I want to talk to you about … uh, stuff)


By Robert Celaschi

mail mark junkSomething strange happens to people when they send marketing email. They’ll take a powerful, persuasive marketing message, and torpedo the whole thing by slapping a lousy subject line on it.

What makes it really strange is that the email might contain a press release or other message with a really great headline. The sender could have cut and pasted it. But no, instead they type a vague or garbled mess of words that makes me shrug and move on.

I’ll confess I’m sometimes guilty of sloppy subject lines. I’ve struggled and sweated to craft the right message. I’ve set the right tone. I’ve targeted the right people. I’m ready to press the “send” button and then — oh, yeah, gotta put some kind of subject line on this puppy. Zip-zip-zip, done. Instead, I should take even more care with those precious few words that may determine whether the email even gets opened.

Let’s look at a half-dozen real subject lines that real marketing people emailed to me in the past month.

Subj: New Dilemma For Small Business Car Leases After Unemployment

Huh? Let’s see: I gather that there’s a new dilemma of some sort. For whom? Small Business Car Leases After Unemployment. Uhhhhhhh, sorry, does not compute. This one would work better with a simple colon after “Business.” Not great, but better. The story is about businesses transferring the leases on company cars, because they’ve laid off so many of the workers who used to drive them.

Subj: Non-Profit

That’s it, just “Non-Profit.” There are a lot of nonprofits out there. They do a lot of different things. I had to dig way, way down to discover that this nonprofit is a foundation that helps children. They are holding a fund-raiser this month in Miami. If I hadn’t picked this as an example for the blog post, I wouldn’t have bothered to find out any of that.

Subj: Survey: A Quarter of Firms Scaling Back Training

A direct hit. Tells me everything I need to get started. Now I’ll open the email and find out the details. Whoops — turns out that while 26 percent are cutting back their training programs, 28 percent have expanded. But, hey, they got me to read it.

Subj: Boston – Social Media Capital?

I don’t like questions for subject lines. Why are you asking me? Don’t you already know? If not, go do some more research and get back to me.

Subj: Time for Change in Credit Card Game

Maybe it is indeed time for a change in the credit card game, but since I have no idea what this means, it’s hard to say. The easy fix here would have been to condense the first line of the enclosed press release: Consumers now can say “no” to credit card interest rate hikes.

Subj: July home sales increased 12 percent; median home price declined 19.6 percent

This one delivers. I feel like a double winner, because I learn about sales volume and about price. This is about the California housing market, by the way. Bad news if you are a seller with a fat mortgage.

Your turn!

OK, you get the idea. Now take a look at the email you’ve sent in the past month. If someone didn’t already know your message, would they get the right idea from the subject line?

Robert has been a business journalist for 22 years, both as a reporter and an editor. He joined Business Communications Group in 2005.

Robert has been a business journalist for 22 years, both as a reporter and an editor. He joined Business Communications Group in 2005.

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Thanks for the article Robert! I enjoyed your insight. This topic is very relevant to my work as Marketing Coordinator for SOS. We send a monthly e-newsletter out and I’ve found that duplicating the headline of an article that’s covering a popular topic out in the tech world seems to get more opens than any other fancy, fluffy, or attempted-witty subject line. :) I agree with you that getting straight to the point of your content seems to be the winning strategy. Because if they like what they read in the subject line… enough to open it… they should be able read more of exactly what they saw in the subject line. 
A great book I finished reading is called “The Cluetrain Manifesto”. It’s all about how the global conversation has emerged with the advent of the internet… and we as marketeers need to talk straight to our audience, vs. “fluffing up” our message too much with lots of catchy phrasing & confusing terms.
Posted @ Friday, November 06, 2009 7:13 PM by Michelle Wolting
These are great insights and I agree Michelle. When I am pitched in email or some other way and there’s some pun in the headline I cringe and think ‘oh, you soooo don’t know me your prospect!’ And occasionally I’ll write or reply to whomever sent the pitch to me to say ‘would you like some help?’ but I’ve never gotten a response when taking that approach…
Posted @ Friday, November 06, 2009 7:14 PM by Rebekah Donaldson
Wow! I’m shocked that no one responds to your email offer to help out. I would WELCOME that guidance or advice… especially from an expert in the field like you, RED. :)
Posted @ Friday, November 06, 2009 7:14 PM by Michelle Wolting
Thanks, Michelle. You prompted me to start skimming through “The Cluetrain Manifesto.” The first thing that struck me is how many of the observations first published in 1999 still apply with the advent of Twitter and other social media. New tools, old principals.
Posted @ Friday, November 06, 2009 7:15 PM by Robert Celaschi
The subject lines with ? examples you gave are five stars. I’m trying to click them as we speak. Enough said.
Posted @ Friday, November 06, 2009 7:16 PM by Rebekah Donaldson
You bring up a good point about how the message is displayed. It points up the importance of writing short and direct subject lines. Great idea to test some variations.
Posted @ Friday, November 06, 2009 7:16 PM by Robert Celaschi
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