January 20, 2014
Everyone remembers the class clown: The guy who happened to be just loud enough to be heard. The problem is, no one remembers his jokes. What they remember is how annoying he became when his jokes failed to land. In an odd way, e-mail follows the same trend. Powerful information has its place, but presenting it in an abrasive fashion is more likely to turn readers off than encourage future views. The secret lies in the mind of the reader and your responsibility in crafting headlines that baby their short attention spans.
The Tired Reader
In order to effectively address e-mail customers, it’s important to first understand their plight. There are a lot of businesses, people, applications, events, and products, all vying for customer attention every day. Between pop-up messages, brightly colored ads, Facebook notifications, text messages, tweets, and, yes, e-mails, it’s a wonder that consumers have any time to sleep. Users are tired, burned out, and jaded. This, however, does not mean that they aren’t paying attention.
What it does mean, is that users have their own way of processing all of the information. Instead of vetting each individual piece (as you hope they will), the focus is on quick judgments based on surface characteristics. For websites, this means ignoring unattractive designs. For companies, this means ignoring those with poor reviews. And for e-mail marketers, this means rapidly determining whether the information presented is informative, timely, and of trust-worthy origin.
Reaching customers is no longer a matter of having the biggest megaphone. Those who used to run TV ads now have to compete with equally visible local search results, and customers are getting smarter in sorting the signal from the noise.
The first thing to fall in this process of discernment is the cheap trick. Before e-mail communications were readily available and messages flooded consumer inboxes, marketers, scammers, and relatives could get away with all-caps subject lines adorned with lots of question marks. Cheap ploys for attention, such as purposely vague headlines and humorous e-mail addresses have taken a hit, and for good reason.
The underlying motive behind users’ quick identification methods is a search for use and trust. With e-mail phishing and Nigerian Prince-esque scams invading inboxes daily, humorous e-mail addresses look fishy and trigger alarm bells. Even if your registered address is clever and legitimate, the quick reaction of a viewer will be to hit the delete key. De-sensitized by fluorescent banner ads and over-the-top declarations have trained users to ignore these “too good to be true” offers and obnoxious practices.
Finally, as mentioned, users wish to sort the wheat from the chaff quickly, and headlines that intrigue, but require investigation, are likely to get the boot.
With poor practices falling in quick succession, what is left for a marketer to do? Obviously the task of grabbing a reader’s eye and communicating your message gets no less challenging each day, so something has to work. The key, as it turns out, lies in leveling with your subscribers, and relating your information effectively and honestly.
Leaning on Data
In order to determine best practices, we turn to a comprehensive study conducted by prolific e-mail service MailChimp. Their work, analyzing more than 200 million e-mails, ranging in open-rate (percentage of recipients that opened the message) from 93 percent to 0.5 percent, sheds light on some fascinating trends that can greatly benefit your e-mail marketing efforts.
Three trends from this study stick out in particular: the importance of subject length, the failure of solicitation, and the value of “telling over selling.” The subject length followed a rather coherent and consistent trend. Subject lines of more than 50 characters result in considerably lower open rates than those within this threshold. Again, the focus is on quick judgments, and offering a lengthy read in the first line of an e-mail is a great way to turn people off.
Next, asking for help or pandering sales is as unattractive as it is ineffective, and proven methods exist that will greatly improve reader satisfaction. Requests for donations, pleas for word of mouth, and the aforementioned vague ploy for attention, all reduce open rates to dismal levels. In their place, MailChimp suggests offering timely, relevant, information plainly and simply, with a little emotional appeal if appropriate. For subscribers to a clothier’s email marketing, for example, an appropriate subject line may be ‘Summer’s Hottest Looks Available Now.’
The line lets customers know what is inside, provides an emotional appeal, and establishes some immediacy that encourages a look.
Ultimately, the study reveals the importance of a tidy little axiom: “tell, don’t sell.” Readers are tired of the constant pull of desperate marketers and simply want information. That’s not to say that your e-mail design shouldn’t be attractive, but getting viewers into the message itself takes some focused delivery. Provide information, set reasonable expectations, and then fulfill those. Don’t promise what you can’t fulfill and never treat customers like they’re stupid.
Writing great subject lines is not only easy, it’s simple. Understanding the challenges facing tired consumers and the tendency to make snap decisions greatly simplifies the picture and guides your efforts. Avoid cheap attempts at attention and stay away from promotional offers or lengthy subject lines. Instead, deliver plain information honestly and effectively. It may be challenging at first, but you’ll save a boatload on your exclamation point budget.
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