In 2011, the typical corporate email user received about 105 email messages a day (source: The Radicati Group), many of them on a handheld device. So if you’re trying to reach a busy person who’s likely checking email in between meetings, your best shot is to write a good subject line for your email message.
Think about what causes you to open an email message. As you scan your inbox, you probably check whose name is in the ‘From’ line and then you read the subject line. If you don’t know the sender, the subject line is all that will get you to open the message—or not. That makes the subject line the most important part of the email message. Depending on what you have to say, it can be the email message (“Today’s 10:30 am meeting moved to 2:30 pm”).
It’s a good idea to take the same care titling your email messages as you do naming document files—because that’s what they are. We’ve all had the experience of searching for a message that the sender insists we received—but we can’t find it. Why? Because we’re looking for a subject line that maybe doesn’t exist. Or maybe it relates to something else entirely, because it’s part of a long string and no one changed the subject line as the correspondence morphed from ‘Lunch tomorrow?’ to ‘What’s happening on the Jones deal?’ Or maybe it relates to one of the other topics in the email message—and there are several. Leaving the subject line blank is the worst: you have to open each one of the 25 messages you’ve received from that person to find what you’re looking for.
So going back to that typical corporate email user receiving over 100 email messages a day, the more you can achieve in the subject line the better. Think about what you want the recipient to do: attend a meeting? Ensure that date, time, and place are in the subject line: “Meeting re Jones deal my office 10:30 am Nov 5”. Even if the recipients just scan their inboxes—they get the message.
Maybe you’ve been told to keep your subject lines short. This is a good idea, especially because some email service providers limit subject lines to 50 characters. But succinct is more important: in the example above, if I had omitted “…re Jones deal…” and the recipient read only the subject line, it might take a further phone call to convey all of the information. That may not happen. And you can count the characters in the example: 46 with spaces—that’s comfortably under the 50-character limit.
Now, if you’re wondering what all this has to do with marketing legal services, think about the most common marketing activities in law firms: seminars and newsletters. Most law firms send invitations by email these days. Similarly, everyone’s converting their newsletters from print to digital. However, these same law firms are staggered to find that the email marketing industry considers email open rates between 15% and 30% to be average. So we’re back to that all-important subject line!
Because their business depends on open rates, the email marketing industry has done extensive research on subject lines. They recommend testing several subject lines when sending out a mass email. The results can be enlightening: I was once asked by a client why they were getting such a poor response to their emailed invitations. I advised sending a reminder, but this time I wrote the subject line. They had taken a folksy approach the first time: “An invitation to our friends at XYZ Widgets”. That’s 43 characters and it still doesn’t tell the recipients what, where, when, and why. My rewrite? “Bill ABC: 10 compliance tips, 8:00 am Wed Jan 4”. That’s only four more characters, but a world of difference in information. Many of the recipients who responded claimed they hadn’t received the first email. A more likely scenario is that they had received it but hadn’t opened it.
If you’re looking for inspiration, Aubrey Stork, an email marketing specialist, has a great suggestion. He suggests that you make your subject lines
- problem-based, (“Tackle low email open rates”), or
- question-based, (“How many people open your emails?”) or
- number-based (“Top 10 reason for low mail open rates”).
This is very similar to the advice given to journalists on writing headlines—because headlines are often the only part of a news article that is read.
So let’s say you email a tax bulletin to your clients monthly. The email marketing industry calls this type of email ‘ham’. It’s not spam, because the recipients have signed up for it. My inbox, I have to confess, is chock full of unopened ham—stuff I signed up to receive that I really should read, but not right now. Isn’t it OK to use the same subject line each time, just changing the date: “Smith & Jones Tax Bulletin Issue 5”? Not if you want the bulletin to be opened. It’s a subject line, after all: tell your readers the subject of the bulletin!
Finally, some best practices from the email marketing experts:
- Test, test, test! Try different subject lines on 20% of your mailing list.
- If you can’t summarize the content of your email in a subject line of 50 characters or fewer, you’ve got too many messages rolled up into one.
- Numbers count: include relevant dates and deadlines in the subject line.
- Localization helps: providing a city name can increase open rates.
- Keep it simple: research shows that straightforward subject lines increase open rates while clever or quirky ones can backfire.