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Man Bites Giraffe II: A Return Visit With Email Subject Lines From Real Companies

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A year after writing "Man Bites Giraffe: Some Awful (and Awesome) Email Subject Lines," yours truly is back with another look at subject lines and some suggestions you can use, based on emails I've recently received.

Here's a quick refresher about why subject lines are important: Like the headline of a newspaper article or the teasers you see on a magazine cover, subject lines are designed to pull you in and get you to take some desired course of action.

A subject line is a door that invites others into your email-marketing open house. If you have something to sell or a message you want to get across, that subject line better be good—or else your prospects might head to a different neighborhood.

And the Golden Rule hasn't changed: Tell what's inside, don't sell what's inside.

From: Hawk Mail
Subject: Hasselbeck to Houshmandzadeh

An email from the Seattle Seahawks, with a subject line intended to fuel fan interest in their new quarterback-to-wide-receiver combo. I like how they inspired the reader to come up with a visual, almost making you hear the crowd as the two players team up for touchdowns. Never underestimate your reader's imagination and being able to inspire a sale because of it.

From: eBay
Subject: jnason, zero bids!

Like kabillions of other people, I have an eBay account and regularly check out and bid on select items I don't really need but want (Lite-Brites or View-Masters, anybody?). However, I'm not a fan of how the company uses email marketing, at least in this fashion. I don't like how informally my username was inserted into the subject line and the cavalier tone of "zero bids!".

I can't imagine a scenario in which I would need to be reminded that I don't have any bids, so I'm not sure whether the intent is to alarm me or entice me to be more active. In either case, I'd rather see a line that says "What are you bidding on today?" or "You want that My Little Pony. You need that My Little Pony." Push nostalgia and make your prospects feel emotions. "Zero bids"? Zero buys.

From: Sharebuilder
Subject: Price changes taking effect in June

No one likes to have to pay more for a service, so what better way to get an instant reaction than to reference upcoming price changes? I don't even use this service anymore, but I at least checked it out. Got potentially bad news? Just say it and don't try to hide it. If the intent is to drive home a point for clarity, sugarcoating it won't help.

From: Beach Blast
Subject: Melissa Etheridge and more Hampton Beach

I found this subject line to be lazy and likely the result of improper testing. This is a push for the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom and a Melissa Etheridge concert, but that random "Hampton Beach" seems out of place, no? This is also a case of a group that is holding on too tightly to the naming convention of its newsletter sent-from name. Suggestion: "Melissa Etheridge tickets on sale this Friday" and a sent-from of Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom. Keep the message simple!

Subject: Two New Pearl Jam Tour Dates Added

As a best practice, I always like having a real sent-from/reply-to address in case... well... someone wants to reply! Email is meant to be a two-way communication device, even with groups that have large lists. If you fear a large amount of replies, I would ask you what you're scared of. Your customers want to reach out to you! Fantastic! Hire an intern to evaluate and sift through the emails if you get that much of an onslaught. It's worth it.

I love the subject line: a simple statement with a little bit of intrigue. I immediately opened this up, hoping the band was playing around Boston. Alas, I'll have to wait.

From: Green Day Fans Newsletter

There is intrigue and then there is... saying absolutely nothing. The band is massive right now and is embarking on a tour to support a new album; but are you feeling any excitement with the above subject line? Yeah, me neither. I also don't understand why some think that capitalizing every word is a good thing.

From: World Wrestling Entertainment
Subject: Today only: use code CINCO for 15% off and a FREE DVD.

I love the simplicity: an implied deadline ("Today only"), a specific requirement (promo code), and a clear understanding of the discount and a free item. For those looking to buy, this would likely push them to do so.

From: Ticketmaster
Subject: Tickets On Sale & Special Offers for the week


From: Staind
Subject: Stimulate This Tour

The subject line here is meant to push a tour called "Stimulate This," which is a play on the US stimulus package. However, I keep reading this as if it's asking the reader to stimulate the tour. Yes, it's wordplay, but it threw me off. There is nothing wrong with "Join us this summer on the Stimulate This tour," which gives you a time frame, tour name, and an invite. When you read over your subject line, how does it sound?

From: WEEI Special Offers
Subject: 10% Discount on Sox, Celtics and Bruins Tickets for Clubhouse Members

Way too long for a subject line, which actually got cut off in my email browser. A good rule of thumb: Don't go over 65 characters, including spaces. This one is around 80! I would have cut everything off after "Tickets," since the rest just reminds recipients of information they already know.

From: Best Buy Reward Zone
Subject: One Night Only. Exclusive Private Shopping Event.

Some intrigue here by the electronics retail giant as part of a ZIP code–targeted email campaign. The "One Night Only" is kind of a stretch, though, as I've been invited to a bunch of these in the past few years. How about "Your Invite to an Exclusive Private Shopping Experience"?

Subject: Patio seating: Save 15% on patio furniture when you spend $125, plus free shipping offers.

Another one that's way too long. How about "Summer seating savings: patio furniture discounts, free shipping offers"? By giving a defined criterion in the subject line ("$125"), you eliminate those who may not want to spend that much. Let prospects get inside the email and understand the discount offer rather than turning them off right away. Also, saying "patio seating" and "patio furniture" is redundant and a waste of real estate.

Subject: Manny Ramirez Suspended For Drug Use

This one did work on me, only because I had no idea why pop-culture outlet VH1 decided it should report on a pretty straightforward sports story. Reverse psychology works occasionally, but rebranding your approach too much without bringing your recipients along for the ride can hurt the trust you've built with your email recipients.

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Josh Nason is the inbound marketing manager at Dyn Inc., an infrastructure-as-a-service company that specializes in enterprise DNS and email services. Follow him at @joshnason, @dyninc, and @sendlabs.

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  • by Dillon Tue Jun 9, 2009 via web

    On the one posted

    From: World Wrestling Entertainment
    Subject: Today only: use code CINCO for 15% off and a FREE DVD.

    Wouldn't that be a bad subject line, using the word FREE would pick up the spa/junk filters and or may even "quarantine" the email and the consumer may not even see the email?

  • by Josh Nason Tue Jun 9, 2009 via web

    Hey Dillon - the use of the word 'free' is generally thought of as bad, but I've run across plenty of time when it's not - like here. There are a few other factors you have to take into account like who the sender is, reputation, etc.

    A power sender like WWE can get away with this easier than a smaller business using 'FREE!!!!!' which is never a good idea for obvious reasons.

  • by Blake Wed Jun 10, 2009 via web

    Great advice. I received an email today from MarketingProfs:

    From: MarketingProfs Update
    Subject: Meeting Invite

    In fact, it was not a meeting invite at all but an advertisement for Vocus soliciting me to request a sales demo.

    When considering subject lines, it's important to not just make sure it's intriguing and says something interesting, but also that it doesn't appear to be deceptive. The Vocus advertisement I think crosses that fine line which results in me not only not wanting to do business with them, but potentially has some CAN-SPAM repercussions.

  • by Josh Nason Tue Jun 16, 2009 via web

    Hey Blake - 100% agree. If you're sending on behalf of a 3rd party (and the recepient has said they want to get messages from that 3rd party), it has to be more explicit than the instance you state.

  • by Maureen Mon Jun 29, 2009 via web

    Hi Josh, I agree with you on most of these points however I am still hesitant to agree with using "Free" or even percentages in email subject lines - while it may indeed benefit some companies that are power senders, I still recommend my clients avoid these terms while sending to their permission-based lists as its a definite filter risk - it just looks spammy to me.

    I think the key you touch on here is writing a subject line that is indicative to the body of your newsletter.

    Thanks for the post!


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