May 23, 2002, 12:00 AM

The Object of Subject Lines

With limited space, e-mail marketing subject lines must sing.

Force-communication is the technique of causing the recipient of a message to perform a positive act as the direct result of having seen or heard that message. This concept is the bane of young creative types who want every reader, viewer, or listener to respond by saying, “How clever that message sender is.”

One lesson professional e-marketers have learned, with ample creative scar-tissue, is that message recipients should be able to respond without the message getting in the way. The old rule has more value than ever: What you say is more important than how you say it.

But what you say has become an even greater challenge today because e-mail marketing has changed direct marketing. Today, a marketer has only the subject line and a very limited amount of space to entice recipients to open the message. By contrast, in direct mail, marketers can work with colors, return addresses, number and types of enclosures, size and shape of envelope, and other aspects. Given the crucial importance of the subject line, it’s surprising that so many marketers send out weak, non-motivational messages.

Here are five subject lines from recent e-mails that came to me. Which of these would have had you reading on? Which would you have clicked away from at warp speed?

Herschell, you’re not going to believe this but...

Increase The SPEED Of Your PC Today!

Save 75% on Ink for YOUR Printer

Accept Credit Cards! ! / Your Approved! (20@2)

Exclusive Deals on the Hottest Home Electronics !

The first-Herschell, you’re not going to believe this but...-did have me reading on. Putting the recipient’s name in the subject line usually increases response, and this teaser combined personalization with an appeal to curiosity.

The second subject line- Increase The SPEED Of Your PC Today! -didn’t work for me because over the past few months I’ve had a dozen or more such e-mails and I wasn’t in the mood to get pitched. So what might this subject line have been? Two suggestions:

Gotcha! Your PC is too slow.

I guess you’re willing to waste time and money. Too bad.

Too aggressive?

If you think these are too combative or too aggressive, you aren’t getting many e-mails. On the day I’m writing this, here are just a few of the aggressive subject lines I’ve received in my e-mail inbox:

You won’t believe your eyes!

I hope this reaches you in time.

Get 250 full-color business or personal cards FREE!

Blowout - 1 Penny S&H on All Featured Items!

Do you want to keep wasting money on your long distance calls?

Whether these are effective is another issues. But they certainly are attention-grabbing.

The third subject line-Save 75% on Ink for YOUR Printer! -fails because percentages are weaker than hard numbers. A possible replacement:

Dinner is on me ... and your printer.

The fourth subject line-Accept Credit Cards! ! / Your Approved! (20@2)-is, to be charitable, execrable. E-mailers have zero excuse for borderline illiteracy, and “your” instead of “you’re” is unacceptable. If you say, “Many won’t know the difference,” I hope you’re my competitor. And what is that “20@2” doing there? Oh, we know it’ s a code, but so what? If the techies couldn’t send that message without eliminating their admission that “this is a bulk message and you’re just one of the mob,” the solution is doubled: Get a literate writer and a capable techie.

A wet sponge

The fifth subject line-Exclusive Deals on the Hottest Home Electronics! -has all the impact of a wet sponge. What might the writer have said instead? Had that writer recognized a major rule of force-communication, specifics outpull generalizations, almost any subject line he or she might have come up with would have produced greater response. An easy example: Want a 27-inch TV for $175? I have one with your name on it.

Take a look at the subject lines again. Did you notice another difference between the first subject line and the other four? Maybe you missed it, because we’re all so used to being pitched, but the first one used a capital letter only for my name. All the others used initial caps, a dead giveaway that they’re advertising messages.

Some e-mailers are sending millions of messages to often unwary and unreceptive targets. With that kind of bulk, testing is mandatory because results can be more than a revelation; they can represent a surprising increase in response.

You may find this example hard to believe, but it absolutely exists. Which of these subject lines pulled better?

James, this is for you.

This is for you, James.

The two subject lines not only make the same statement, they have exactly the same number of characters. Before reading on, guess: Did one outpull the other, and if so, which one?

If you guessed This is for you, James, claim your prize. In the actual test, that subject line pulled 13% better.

As Monday morning quarterbacks, we rationalize that ending with the recipient’s name is a more potent lead-in to the actual message-maybe because the name stays in the recipient’s mind a nanosecond longer while he decides whether to open the message or maybe because it’s unexpected coming at the end of the message as it does-and that makes it fractionally more personal.

One of the fundamental rules of testing is: Never test when you know positively what the results will be. So structure tests in which you can’t begin to predict which version will bring the most response. But who would have thought that placing the recipient’s name at the end of the subject line would have had such an effect?

Four rules

To be effective e-mail marketers, that is, to drive consumers to a site where they will buy something, we have to grab attention. We have to make a promise. We have to make the recipient think the message has been prepared specifically for him or her. We can do that, if we observe just four simple rules:

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