Subjects Matter

January 15, 2009       Mark Hrywna      

A free Rolex. Bulk orders of male enhancement pills. A ridiculously low mortgage downpayment. You know what subject lines can end up in a spam filter, but what kinds of subject lines can actually get people to read your organization’s emails?

Just take a look at your own inbox. What was it that made you open that email from Obama for America? Short and simple doesn’t hurt, but you have to leave the reader wanting more, creating enough curiosity to click “open.” You also don’t want to make an outrageous promise you can’t deliver after the email is viewed. Instead of “Free credit card offer,” which probably would be ignored as SPAM, try something like, “Help save the whales with a free credit card.”

“Sometimes something as a basic as a subject line is the gatekeeper to that creative,” said Matthew Mielcarek, principal consultant at Convio in Austin, Texas. The key to email newsletters is communicating to recipients in a way that doesn’t look like SPAM, he said, but what that means is hard to say because it varies by organization.

Experts agree that emails and their subject lines should carry a degree of expectedness, to help dodge aggressive spam filters, with enough intrigue and curiosity left for readers to open the email. And, all that has to be done in less than 50 or so characters, not words, available in a subject line.

The most important part is the “from” line because if it’s not familiar to the reader they’re not likely to open it, said Nick Allen, chief strategy officer at San Francisco-based DonorDigital. Everyone takes cues from the most successful mailers, and at this point that’s the Obama campaign, said Allen. The president-elect’s campaign kept subject lines very short, almost mysterious, using one or two words yet peaking interest because it wasn’t clear exactly what the contact was about.

The difficulty with subject lines is that if you find one that works, you’re not likely to keep using it, Allen said, unlike the test lines of outer envelopes in direct mail that you might employ for years.

Do short subject lines work better than long? It depends. Allen said they learn from each client because what might work for one nonprofit might not for another, or what was successful for awhile might not be later for the same group. “It’s just something you’ve got to keep testing. It’s hard to generalize, but we’ve tried to make them as short as possible, as provocative as possible, to sound compelling and interesting,” he said.

Typically, subject lines are kept to 30 to 35 characters to make sure recipients understand what the subject line is, regardless of what email program or mobile device they’re viewing it on, according to Allen.

Including the publication’s or individual’s name in the “from” line frees the subject line to be a little more dynamic, Mielcarek said. He eschews using things like issue and volume numbers or “June newsletter” as part of the subject line because it uses up valuable characters with information that’s already on the email envelope. It also “doesn’t give any taste of what the context is; you want something compelling, and hope people are tantalized,” Allen said.

Every message can’t say “urgent” or “action required” because it ends up wasting attention and focus if an issue truly doesn’t merit, Mielcarek said. “Be judicious when using words like urgent, response needed, or act now,” he said, adding that if breakout words are used, reserve them for appeals or action alerts.

Even personalization should be used appropriately, Mielcarek said, advising to “go light” on personalization. “It’s good every now and then but don’t use it all the time,” he said.

With precious few characters available in the subject line, Mielcarek suggests considering all parts of the full “email envelope” when sending messages and crafting subject lines: who is the message sent from, what is the sender’s address, how does that work with the organization. A celebrity who’s involved with an email appeal might draw some more attention if they’re featured in the “from” or subject, he said.

Ben Jenkins, director of product management for Blackbaud’s Kintera division in San Diego, isn’t averse to including the name of the newsletter or nonprofit in the subject line. “It’s very much based on your audience of who you’re sending it to and what they expect to be receiving from you,” he said. “It can take up valuable real estate in the subject line but it’s a personal decision to a point,” Jenkins said, adding that nonprofits can test to determine open and click-through rates. “It goes back to relevancy and familiarity with content. Different organizations are going to have a different approach to what kind of marketing they’re doing,” he said.

Allen has found that he opens emails from businesses when they offer discounts or prices in short, succinct subject lines. “With nonprofits, it’s tough because…how can we duplicate that? Nonprofits are not selling anything,” he said, and don’t have discounts or deliver something that immediately improves recipients’ lives.

Jenkins still doesn’t see the consistency that’s necessary for subject lines. It’s not about saying the same thing, but making sure subscribers get familiar with the emails and know what’s coming into their inbox. “It’s something that’s common while also presenting specific subject of that content that month,” he said.

Testing can help nonprofits learn about their constituents, and every constituency is different. Learning about your consistency over time can impact response and open rates to try to understand which works best to each, Mielcarek said.

Targeting a state or city in the subject line can make it more relevant, he said. One national nonprofit sent a recent email reporting on fundraising efforts at a special event, comparing results specific to certain states but also sending a more nationally-focused email. Leading a subject line with how a constituents’ home state or city fared in a report can make it more meaningful, Mielcarek said, adding that competition makes it intriguing as people are curious how performance against others.

It also helps to understand profiles of your constituents. Do they have pets? If so, is it a cat, a dog, or both? “That really counts,” Mielcarek said, “because cat people are very different from dog people. It’s not always easy but it absolutely can impact whether they open the message,” he said. You’re essentially talking about meaningful information people want to hear about, even if the content is the same for all recipients.

Jenkins said the content must stay relevant, and one way to do that is list segmentation, to ensure you’re sending it to an audience that wants it. Changing the subject lines can do a lot of things to help relevancy, he said, so list management becomes important.

Nonprofits are getting savvier and doing more testing of subject lines, according to DonorDigital’s Allen. Testing is critical because almost everyone, whether it’s for-profits or nonprofits, are seeing declining open rates, he said. “It’s probably as obvious as it seems: people get so much email, even if they’re interested in you they can only open so much of it,” Allen said.

Testing can be difficult if you don’t have a reasonably large file, Allen said. If an organization has 200,000 names, it could do two or three tests of as many as 15,000 and roll out to the remainder of the file with whichever one works best, he said.

The biggest factor in open rates is the relative age of the names on file, according to Allen. Generally, the longer subscribers have been on the list, the less they open the email messages. “A lot of organizations, especially bigger ones, have quite a few people who joined two, three or four years ago, and are pretty much inactive,” he said.

There are some organizations that are customizing newsletters for people with mobile devices, but Allen said that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense for most nonprofits simply because they don’t have enough people reading on mobiles. “It’s good to think about, but hard to do,” he said.

If a recipient hasn’t opened an email in six months, Jenkins said it could be time for some follow-up messages indicating they’re still signed up, and verifying their information or that they still want to receive it. It allows organizations to reconnect in a different way while keeping your list clean. “You don’t want people hitting the SPAM button when they get tired of your email,” he said.

Some nonprofits go so far as to provide sample newsletters that provide a visual representation of what they can expect, Jenkins said. “When you do those things up front, it helps relevancy and open rates,” he said. NPT

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