Ask an expert: Threading the needle of a great email subject line

October 18, 2017 / by Tammi St. Angelo

iStock-466311079.jpgEmails are a part of every professional’s life, but Tammi St. Angelo thinks about them more than most. St. Angelo is the Manager of Global Marketing Automation and Email Strategy at Genesys, where she moved after being part of the in-house email marketing team at then-ExactTarget, which was bought out by Salesforce to become the email and marketing automation core of its Marketing Cloud. In her role shepherding literally billions of emails, St. Angelo has seen what it looks like when an email subject lines works magic… and how dangerous the word “spam” can be.

The key to email conversion, St. Angelo says, isn’t about flashy tricks. It’s about showing what you have to offer, as quickly as possible.

“Make sure that you are addressing your value proposition and your call to action. Your value prop (answers the question) why does your reader care? Because it will be valuable to them in their career or at a company? They’ll make more money? They’ll learn something?”

Demonstrating that value as soon as possible is important because you only have a small window.

“Especially on a mobile phone, you’re only going to see 35 characters. So, make sure first five words grab attention, show value, or display your call to action.

“You can make a subject line much longer than 35 characters, but consider that most readers won’t see the end of it. The only guaranteed words that will be read in your subject line are the first five.”

As for your call to action, or CTA, St. Angelo says that she sees her best conversions on active verbs. Words that have a very clear action (such as join, celebrate or download) convert extremely well, as do subject lines that lead with a number.

Though the most important facet of your subject line is practical, St. Angelo thinks that flashier tactics, like emojis, have their place.

 “I think (emojis) can work, especially if you have a large mobile audience, because they look awesome on mobile. There are applications that you can use such as Return Path, Litmus or Email on Acid to gauge what people are actually opening your emails on. If you have the budget for that kind of tool, it can provide you more insight on your audience. If it is a high-mobile audience, emoji’s will convert better for you.”

But there is a fine line between catching a prospect’s eye and veering into spam.

St. Angelo says that email systems watch out for certain words and signals that are popular with spammers. The same things that catch a prospects eye could get your grouped in with the Nigerian princes and fake-pharmaceutical set.

“Using all caps is something you want to avoid, using the word free. If you look in your junk email in Gmail or Yahoo, you’re going to see some of those patterns, because that’s what they’re looking for. Using too many exclamation points is (a spam factor) as well.”

It’s not just the opinion of the recipient that you have to worry about. If you use tactics that are often correlated with spam, you may be setting yourself up to disappear from inboxes entirely. Because they see countless emails a day, email systems have learned to assess senders, not just each individual email. St. Angelo says you need to be aware of how the system views you.

“Whether you send 100 emails or 100,000 emails, it’s important to know what your deliverability rate is. That’s how many of those emails are getting to the inbox. Sometimes, if you have a purchased list … you’re going to have a lower deliverability rate. Things like using spammy words are going to negatively affect that deliverability rate as well. 

Once you’ve landed in the spam folder, you want to act quickly to repair your digital reputation. Being proactive can help you stop the vicious cycle.

“Remove those people who have flagged you as spam. You aren’t delivered to their inbox if they aren’t opening, and if they aren’t clicking. Start removing that inactive audience from your list. Generally, sales people are going to want you to keep your lists large, and hit as many people as you can. But if those people aren’t opening your email because you’re in their spam folder, that’s not providing you anything valuable anyway, and its lowering your open and click rates. It looks like your conversions are lower. So it’s better to remove them from your audience.”  

Like all marketing, email subject lines are about balancing the value you offer with the flash it takes to catch your propspect’s eye. If you can thread that needle, you’ll set yourself up for success. 

Tammi St. Angelo is the Manager of Global Marketing Automation and Email Strategy at Genesys, a customer experience software company that supports 10,000 customers in 100 countries. She has been driving digital marketing strategies for companies in-house and as a consultant since 2007.  

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