Subject Line Gimmicks Won't Solve Your 'Open' Problem

I've been seeing stars in my inbox lately, along with arrows, hearts, airplanes, hashtags and asterisks, all in subject lines aimed at making these emails stand out from all the other messages.

A growing number of email marketers are using this new gimmick to get recipients to notice and open their emails, as well as the usual suspects: the fake "oops" or correction email and the phony forward-reply.

Little tactical changes like these might drive a short-term incremental lift in opens, but they aren't a long-term solution, because they don't address the fundamental reasons why subscribers engage with or ignore your emails.

Stars, Hearts, 'Fwds' and 'Oops'?

These are three of the most common types of subject-line gimmicks I see in my inbox:

1. Symbols/Special Characters: So, your competitor put a heart in its Valentine's Day subject line and increased the open rate for that email by 4 percentage points? Awesome!



But did those additional opens translate to increased conversions? Will the tactic work for you, too? Is your strategy now to add characters and symbols to the subject line of every email you send?

If everybody tries it, inboxes could start looking so sparkly that the resulting clutter negates the "Wow!" effect.

To be clear, I'm not against symbols in the subject line. But I believe their effectiveness will wane as it becomes a "me too" tactic. More importantly, this approach simply doesn't help to make your emails more personally relevant to each of your subscribers.

2. Fake "Oops" Emails: Experience has shown that legitimate correction or "oops" emails generate higher open rates and, sometimes, higher click and conversion rates than their regular counterparts.

Like people waiting for stock-car crashes, our morbid curiosity likes to see where the marketer messed up. 

Some marketers try to capitalize on this quirk of human nature by incorporating words like "oops" in their subject lines. These emails usually get higher opens, if only because people are curious to see what the mistake was.

Not only is this approach deceptive (I outline detailed objections in an earlier column), it's also an unsustainable model to drive opens and conversions.

And, what will happen when you really do have a legitimate correction?

3. "Re:" and "Fwd:" This now classic B2B approach often implies that the email is a personal forward from a salesperson or company executive for the recipient's eyes only.

So, you open it and it's just another mass email. Doesn't that make you feel special?

I saw this tactic used when analyzing GOP presidential campaign emails this year. A campaign sends out one broadcast email message and then follows it up with a fresh introduction, "Re:" or "Fwd" in the subject line, and a campaign employee or family member in the "from" line.

I'm a huge fan of sending follow-on emails, as I outlined in a recent column, but these "Re:" and "Fwd:" emails aren't actually forwarded. These border on deception, and you risk damaging recipient trust.

Why You Need a Better Approach

All of these tactics represent a "lemming" mentality toward email optimization. You're grafting something onto your email program because you saw someone else doing it, or it was an easy trick, not because you tested it to solve a specific problem.

Gimmicks might entice a few more people, or sometimes even many more, to open your emails once. But it's unsustainable. You must focus instead on the core value proposition that attracted your subscribers way back when.

The more permanent way to get attention and stand out in the inbox is to send email that reflects the ways each subscriber engages with your email.

Devote the majority of your energy to your fundamentals:

  • Build up trust in your brand.
  • Develop a good onboarding program that uses the data you have collected about your subscribers to tailor tracks and emails from the very beginning.
  • Shift to behavior-based, automated messages whose content resonates with individual recipients.

Upgrading your program is harder than putting a heart in a subject line, but the required extra effort will pay off better in the long run.

What do you think? Do these gimmicks work, or are they just bandages on a bigger problem? Tell me in the comments section.

Until next time, take it up a notch!

5 comments about "Subject Line Gimmicks Won't Solve Your 'Open' Problem".
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  1. gianfranco cuzziol from everywhere CRM, June 28, 2012 at 11:15 a.m.


    I totally agree, these gimmicks will soon become very annoying to the consumer - see my post on Symbols in Subject Lines
    I know it's a very well used term but you have to be relevant to get that engagement. Of course being relevant means getting context right. What does the consumer need and want at that moment on that device


  2. Loren McDonald from IBM Marketing Cloud, June 28, 2012 at 1:51 p.m.

    Great post Gianfranco - you beat me to the punch. I had planned a similar post and hadn't seen yours...but expanded mine to cover gimmicks more broadly. Yes, won't it be exciting a year from now when every other email we receive has a few symbols in the subject line?

  3. gianfranco cuzziol from everywhere CRM, June 28, 2012 at 5:17 p.m. raise a wider issue. In particular the re: and fwd:. These are so like real spam from bogus senders that reputation for 'authentic' brands is at risk as you say

  4. Loren McDonald from IBM Marketing Cloud, June 28, 2012 at 5:32 p.m.

    Yes, it is like the banks who send DM pieces that look like your account statements on the outside - then you open it and inside is a credit card offer. Ugh.

  5. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., June 28, 2012 at 5:33 p.m.

    E-mail marketers are becoming the equivalent of "The boy that cried 'Wolf.'" If you want real effectiveness, go back and learn from the masters of the short, benefit-laden headline, and offer some real benefits, rather than gimmicks! "Corns gone in 5 days or money back!"

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