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Is Your Email Subject Line Creative... or Deceptive?

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"It is unlawful for any person to initiate the transmission to a protected computer of a commercial electronic mail message if such person has actual knowledge, or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances, that a subject heading of the message would be likely to mislead a recipient...regarding the contents or subject matter of the message..."

How's that for some legalese? That's the actual language from the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (PDF), the law that establishes the rules for commercial email in the United States.

I'm not an attorney, but the intent of that language seems quite clear to me. Put in non-Franken-speak, it can be boiled down to this: Don't send an email with a deceptive subject line.

However, like many laws, it's all about interpretation.

So where does the line get drawn between a creative, compelling email subject line and one that is deceptive (and possibly illegal)?


An interesting conversation has been going on among email marketing folks lately around this very topic. I've argued that there is power in a compelling subject line: If you want people to open your emails, your subject line has to stand out in their (likely crowded) inbox.

That's not to say a "boring" subject line can't also be effective. My colleague Chris Penn proves that point with his weekly newsletter, the subject line of which reads, "Almost Timely News from @cspenn for [date]." The only part of his subject lines that changes week to week is the date, and his open rates have been hovering around 13%.

But a creative, compelling subject line certainly can get your attention. Urban Outfitters is one of my favorite examples. YOLO OMG WTF Sale! was the subject line of a recent email it sent to its list. (Read about more "crazy" subject lines.).

Subject lines that stand out are not limited to B2C email. Even the President of the United States—well, his team—crafts some unique, catchy, subject lines. The Obama Campaign released some of the data behind its email marketing messages. Subject lines such as "Join me for dinner?" "It's officially over," "It doesn't have to be this way," and "Wow" were among the ones that the campaign used.

Extensive testing found that a casual tone was usually more effective. "The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people. 'Hey' was probably the best one we had over the duration," according to Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign's email director. So, were the Obama email subject lines creative or deceptive?

Copyblogger decided to test out "Hey" as the headline in a blog post—one it also repurposed as an email with the same subject line. (Be sure to read the comments in that post, too, as there are quite a few insightful nuggets there.) Suffice it to say, it's not always about the subject line. In many cases, the from name—literally who the email is from (the sender)—can be the difference between an open and an ignore/delete/mark as spam.

Back to email subject lines: Where is the line between deception and creativity?

Is an email that includes "FW" in the subject line, even though it wasn't actually forwarded, creative? Or, is it merely deceptive? What about if that email with "FW" in the subject line were actually forwarded—but from someone within the same company—and therefore made to look real? Is that a creative use of the subject line, or is it a deceptive gimmick?

A friend recently forwarded to me an email from Oxfam that had the following subject line: Did I leave my jacket at your place?

When you open the email (see below), the first line after the salutation reads, "It's Aziz Ansari. And of course I didn't leave a jacket at your place. I've never been to your home." It continues, "But I'm glad you opened this email, because I actually want to talk to you about something much more important."

Was that subject line creative, or was it deceptive?

A Few Tips on Creating Compelling Subject Lines

As you can see from those examples, the line between creative and deceptive can be a fine one. In many cases, it depends on who is reading your email. Much like the language around subject lines in the CAN-SPAM Act, "creative or deceptive" is up for interpretation.

However, you do have a few ways of ensuring that your subject lines fall closer to the creative side of the spectrum:

1. If the subject line is aligned with the contents of the email, it's probably closer to creative than deceptive. In the Urban Outfitters example (YOLO OMG WTF Sale!), the image and the copy of the email speak directly to a big (crazy!) sale. The Copyblogger subject line (Hey...), is a little bit less clear. Though the email does talk all about headlines and subject lines—and references "Hey... "—it is not really about the word "Hey." The Oxfam subject line (Did I leave my jacket at your place?) clearly had nothing to do with the contents of the message, as Aziz himself said!

2. If the subject line has you thinking (or shouting!), "I can't wait to open this email," it's probably closer to creative than deceptive. Again, look at the Urban Outfitters example. I don't know about you, but I could not wait to open an email that used not one, not two, but three popular acronyms followed by "Sale!" The contents of the email did not disappoint. On the other hand, I did not have the same reaction after reading "Hey" from the Copyblogger email... though I did open it.

3. If the subject line has you thinking one thing, yet when you open the email you are disappointed... it's probably closer to deceptive than creative. The Oxfam subject line fits that description—for me. I really thought someone had left their jacket at my house. Then, again, my wife and I had had guests over the night before. I felt a bit deceived when I opened the email and learned what it was really about. However, considering I'm a huge fan of Aziz Ansari and Parks and Recreation, my feelings of deception soon dissipated.

* * *

Before you send your next email marketing campaign, consider the subject line you are using. Will it have your subscriber jumping out of their seats to open? If so, when they open it, will they still be equally as excited? If so, it's likely you have yourself a creative subject line.


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DJ Waldow is an email marketing consultant, writer, blogger, speaker, founder and CEO of Waldow Social, and co-author of The Rebel's Guide to Email Marketing.

Twitter: @djwaldow

LinkedIn: DJ Waldow

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  • by Randy Fri Apr 19, 2013 via iphone

    Better be creative! The only emailers that deceive are spammers. All e-communications are governed by laws. For a Canadian update, down load our free eGuide and learn about $1 million/day fines... http://kayakonlinemarketing.com/updated-10-step-email-marketing-guide

  • by Andrew Marino, BannerDirect Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    This was a really interesting article, DJ. I have a couple of questions:
    1. if the Oxfam subject line was deceptive, how likely is it that the company could face CAN-SPAM prosecution?
    2. Was the "deceptive" element nullified because Aziz "comes clean" about being deceptive right up front?
    3. It seems that there are degrees of deception that are allowable. How deceptive must a subject line be to be out of CAN SPAM Compliance?

  • by DJ Waldow Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    Andrew: Thanks for your kind words. To answer your questions ...

    1. I am not sure. Great question. That's one to ask an attorney. Ha! Sorry.
    2. Another great question. I don't think it takes away from the deception of the SUBJECT LINE, but it sure "softens" the blow, so to speak.
    3. Again, better question to ask an attorney. Sorry! I'll see if I can get some of my email compliance colleagues to weigh in here.

  • by Andrew Marino, BannerDirect Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    Thanks for getting back to me, DJ--would love to hear what the attorneys say!

    Here are a few other questions on Subject LInes--which you may rather explore in a different blog rather than attempt to answer here:

    - Is the word "Free" still a spam-flag?
    - What about the dollar symbol?
    - I've been seeing a lot of special characters (little airplanes and hearts and things)--which get my attention for a split second before I hit delete.

    What are your thoughts about those? Do they work? Are there any CAN-SPAM Compliance issues with them?

  • by DJ Waldow Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    Andrew: You are welcome! I've "put the word out" to my attorney friends. Fingers crossed.

    To answer your questions:

    1. No.
    2. No.
    3. Email me and I'll send you a few blog posts about special characters. Bronto wrote a great one. djwaldow at waldowsocial.com

  • by Cristina Sierra Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    Great article - I think if you get too close to the "deceptive" side you risk alienating your audience. There's nothing more annoying than opening an email based on what you think it contains only to be completely off base and feel as though someone is wasting your time. I wrote a subject line "Are You a Bad Aunt / Uncle?" as my site is geared towards uncles / aunts / busy people who don't have time to buy gifts for the kids in their life.

  • by DJ Waldow Tue Apr 23, 2013 via web

    Thanks for your kind words Cristina. Love that "Bad Aunt / Uncle" subject line!

  • by michelle Sat May 11, 2013 via web

    If you are talking deception, how is it that you are giving 20% off for new members? You said," the site is absolutely FREE". Please explain

  • by Vahe, MarketingProfs Sat May 11, 2013 via web

    Hi, Michelle.

    If I haven't misunderstood your comment, then I take it that you're referring to MarketingProfs membership.

    The MarketingProfs site is certainly free: You don't have to pay to access it, and a vast part of its contents is freely available to Basic members (people who've provided us their email address and have received login information).

    We also have a PRO membership level, which is paid membership that grants access to online seminars, video tutorials, guides and reports, and online tools. See here for additional information: http://www.marketingprofs.com/members/

    I hope that answers your question. Thanks for asking.

  • by Email Monks Thu Jun 13, 2013 via web

    Very nicely said DJ. There is a thin line of difference between the deceptive and creative subject lines. As mentioned by you, linking the subject line to the content in the email body will make it more appealing and a reader might trust you, the next time you send such email. Using most modern techniques like unicodes and symbols in the subject lines might itself make it creative rescuing the subject line from being deceptive. Email Monks has more to say about subject lines here: http://www.emailmonks.com/blog/email-marketing/10-divine-subject-line-secre...

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