Wisdom Wednesdays: Keep it Short, But With Presence

by Jon Nelson

Are your subject lines short?  Make them shorter.

We all know that in this age of content overload it’s important to keep messages, articles and posts concise.  But what about your email blast subject lines?

Nelson-Jon-webI always knew that subject lines shouldn’t be novels, and that they should include good, strong verbs.  But some of the latest data shows even that may not be enough.

An aside: If you aren’t using mass email as a tool to connect with your constituents, I highly suggest it.  It’s a cost-effective way to reach current and potential supporters, and keep them up on latest developments.  Contact me if you have any questions about getting started with email marketing or improving what you’re doing.  Just make sure to follow the CAN-SPAM Act, or you could be dealing with fines up to $16,000 per offense.  It’s worth reading over this compliance guide.

Open rates are drastically affected by the length of subject lines, as is illustrated in, “Subject Lines Matter: 4 Rules of Thumb that Work,” a white paper by Dennis Litchfield, a statistical analyst, and Geoff Linton, Vice-President and Co-Founder of Inbox Marketer Inc.

Litchfield and Linton’s research shows that, “Subject lines that are 25-29 characters long receive the highest open rate (24%),” and, “The most popular subject line length (35 characters) falls short with an open rate of 22%.”

I have often tried to pack subject lines with all sorts of information about what is to be found inside the email.  But this clearly can be more than just wordy.  It can be detrimental when trying to reach people with important information.

We need to get away from thinking everything has to be in a subject line to get recipients to open a message.  We don’t need to include the whole message in the subject line.  That’s why we’re sending the message.

However, subject lines shouldn’t be too short.  Much of the reason for the effect of subject line length on open rates is attributed to what Litchfield and Linton call “message presence.”  They explain:

The longer the subject line, the more likely it is that keywords will be cut off.  This is a significant factor for why open rates tend to decline as subject line length increases.  Users may not grasp the potential benefits of opening the email because specific keywords have been truncated.
… But, subject lines that are too short may omit key words and may be less clear.  Inbox Marketer’s usability team examined inboxes in various email clients to examine the truncation and visibility impact.  The team observed that subject lines that are too long often become “buried” in the inbox, meaning they do not stand out among the vast amount of messages above and below them in the inbox.
Shorter subject lines have more white space after them, which provides contrast in the inbox, improves eye flow and makes the words appear more prominent.  However, subject lines that are too short lack both content and visibility due to their size and, therefore, have very low open rates.  Maximum presence seems to occur when subject lines are around the 25-29 character mark.

It’s important to include the right words – especially when subject lines are short.  Hence what Litchfield and Linton call “power words.”  “The sooner the power word appears in the subject line, the better.  The first word is the most important spot to place the power word.  It is also important to front-end load subject line copy,” they write.  Read their article for more on just what kind of words they mean, and the impact such words can produce.

Litchfield and Linton find that personalizing messages, and including your organization’s name in the subject, help open rates, too.  I tend to stay away from using people’s names in the greeting line.  Yes, technology makes it possible to do personalized greeting lines, but I avoid that due to potential difficulties.  No greeting line is better than the wrong first name or “Dear (Contact First Name).”

It definitely isn’t easy, but the graphs and numbers show the best way to get your message read is to use short, but powerful, subject lines.  Spend a few extra minutes on your lines, and the work will pay off!

Jon Nelson, of Beloit, Wis., works in Communication Services for ALDE. He is also Principal of Nelson Business Communications, LLC.


3 thoughts on “Wisdom Wednesdays: Keep it Short, But With Presence

  1. What do you do when writing subject lines? What has worked best for you? What hasn’t worked? Do you agree or disagree with the findings?

  2. Subject lines in a mass email are like headlines in a news story. You want to tease the reader into the body text. At the same time they need to have the jist of the content.

    • Agreed. I’m reading “UnMarketing,” by Scott Stratten, right now. He talks about people who use misleading or completely untrue subject lines just to increase open rates. The lines have little or nothing to do with the actual emails. I can’t believe people would do that! Sure, it might increase opens once, but people will unsubscribe as soon as they see it’s a setup.

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