How to write a perfectly awful subject line in 5 easy steps

How to write a perfectly awful subject line in 5 easy steps

There’s no shortage of blogs, whitepapers and advice about how to create an awesome subject line. You’ll find lists, top tips, bullet points and maybe even the odd chart or graph.

And yet, the majority of emails that I get in my inbox still have boring old subject lines. Here’s a few I’ve gotten recently:

“Our best theatre deals”

Oh great, thanks! Erm, so most other times you send out your worst deals?

“5 things we learnt about content marketing”

Proper conjugation of verbs is clearly not one of the learnt (sic) things.

“vw6378791vw, learn exactly how you can earn monthly revenue on autopilot”

I don’t know who this vw6378791vw chap is, but I like the cut of his jib.

Clearly, despite all the advice out there readily available to email marketers like you, not everyone is following it. So, I figured I’d do something a bit different: show you how to make an awful subject line in a few easy steps.

If you follow these steps, I can guarantee that your open rates will plummet, your customers will unsubscribe, and you’ll probably be out of a job by the end of the month.

1. Think of the subject line last

Many email marketers spend hours on their copy and design. Once it’s all beautiful and loaded up into their ESP of choice, they then think, “Oh, hey, I need a subject line.” The subject line is then an afterthought.

Every copywriter and designer knows that having laser-pointed focus helps you construct words and images that are more effective. However, the creative process becomes slow and difficult without said focus… and the end results are often underwhelming.

Writing a subject line first provides “nano-content.” It encapsulates the overall intention of the email, and makes your creative development, review and approval processes not only more efficient, but better quality to boot.

So if you want to produce a crappy email, spend loads of time on the insides, and no time at all on one of the main contributing factors to response.

2. Use the same thing all the time

There’s the odd email newsletter that has subject lines like “Daily news update” or “ Update.” Well, that’s not terribly useful.

The thing about subject lines is, from a UX standpoint, they are trending towards usability. So by saying nothing in the subject line, it’s not really delivering the user a great experience, although perhaps there are some branding bonus points.

But that’s not the main problem here. The problem is, it eliminates the subject line as a source of variability. Why does this matter?

The subject line is a strong signal for content quality. It’s not the only one of course, but it’s one of the stronger ones. If you send out the same subject line day in and day out, then you will find it awfully hard to isolate causal relationships between content and response.

Of course, you can still do this with clicks, but the sample size becomes very small, and you run a much higher risk of being led down the path by random variance.

So if your goal is to bore your audience and learn nothing about what engages them, send out your “Daily Newsletters for every day. But if you want to learn about your audience, start investigating the interdependence of words, phrases and sentiment by using subject lines as a proxy for customer interest.

3. Include, loads of, unnecessary… punctuation!!!!!

Because I’m super cool, I’ve spent the last few weeks looking for long run causal relationships between various subject line elements and end results. Individual words, as it turns out, don’t have a huge long run effect when taken out of context. But one thing holds true – loads of punctuation is bad.

Unless you’re a 12 year old girl, using superfluous exclamation points shows one of two things: 1) you’re bad at grammar; or 2) you smoke too much crystal meth.

Now, for all you meth heads out there, I’m not judging you. It’s cool, we all have our vices. But having looked at literally hundreds of thousands of subject lines, here’s what I found. There is an extremely strong linear relationship between lower results and superfluous punctuation. The biggest outlier was the evil fourth exclamation point. Pretty much across the board, subject lines that include four exclamation points experience noticeable response decay.

4. Merge in the wrong data

In general, personalising subject lines is good. It provides a better user experience, and gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling. “Wow, this brand really knows me, and boy oh boy, do they ever care about me!”

Let’s give each other massive bear hugs to celebrate!

But, this assumes that the data is correct. How many times have you gotten an email where your name isn’t capitalised, or it’s “Dear ”, or something like that? And guess what? That really grinds my gears.

So, bear in mind that personalisation works, but always, always, always eyeball your data first to make sure it makes sense. It’s not rocket science, it’s data, and not even big data. But save yourself embarrassment and do your homework first.

5. Bait n’ switch your customers

“Free beer!”

That, according to science, is the best subject line ever. But, unless you’re actually offering someone free beer, well, you’ll get a bunch of opens, and that’s about it.

This is the thing. Remember back in the 90s, where you’d get junk (snail) mail, and there would be things like, “You’ve just won $1,000,000!” or something like that. Sounds great right? And then it turns out it’s nothing more than a thinly veiled ruse to get your data.

In email, we see this all the time. People are so focused on short-run gains of open rates that they’ll try anything to gain 1% opens. But, they forget the value of trust in your digital brand.

It’s no secret that, even when your email isn’t opened, it still provides strong branding value. People learn to associate your brand with the subject lines you use. It’s great to be witty or useful, but downright fibbing to gain opens… well, people learn over time that you can’t be trusted.

Summing up…

Congratulations, dear reader, for you are now 100% qualified to write subject lines that officially suck.

Go forth with this new power and wield it with reckless abandon. Forget what you thought you knew, you are now officially a spamming b*st*rd.

No need to thank me.

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Comments 1

Guest - Skip ONeill (website) on Wednesday, 06 August 2014 17:35

As always very poignant!!! (note the 3 "bangs" not 4)

As always very poignant!!! (note the 3 "bangs" not 4)
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Thursday, 06 August 2020