Email has to be responsible for 99% of the world’s writer’s block. How often have you sat in front of Outlook or Gmail and attempted to win a staring contest with that white box?
The pressure is even greater when it comes to messages going out from retailers or suppliers to customers and clients. First, you have to get the subject line just right. Otherwise, your carefully crafted message is going straight to the trash. And if they do open the email, you’ve only got a few sentences to make an impression. In this article, we will take a look at the anatomy of the perfect email piece by piece.
It might be easier to write a subject line if you think about it not as a subject line but as an action line. The actual subject of an email might be static and factual. Think instead about the action you want readers to take. This can take the form of an imperative (“Join Us,” “Buy Now”), but it doesn’t have to. “Last Chance to Save!” is as much a call to action as “Sale Ending Soon! Buy Now!” as it outlines the implications of not taking action without being too pushy about it. And as both of those examples show, Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a great motivator.
Alternatively, your subject can focus on what this email can do for the reader. While you want to give readers something to do, you also want to show them how doing it will benefit them.
Many businesses go for humor in their subject lines, like this one from Groupon: “The Deals That Make Us Proud (Unlike Our Nephew, Steve).” But be careful with humor, as not everyone finds the same things funny. You’ve got to know your audience.
Another way to inject some fun into your subject line is with emojis. Future Social’s Marketing Brew email always has a cup of coffee emoji at the beginning of the subject line. When you see the coffee, you know it’s from them without even having to look at the sender. If nothing else, an emoji in an inbox packed with text will catch the eye.
While a clever or funny subject line might get your email opened, the lack of a clear call to action, or a subject that does not clearly align with the contents of the email, may ultimately harm click-through rates. To illustrate this, marketing software developer Hubspot AB tested (ABCDE tested, even) five subject lines for the same email:
A: Marketing Slide Show In-a-Box [Ready to use/share]
B: 54 New Data Slides for Your Marketing Decks
C: 65 New Charts for Your Presentations
D: Get Key Marketing Trends from the Marketing Data Box
E: 65 New Marketing Charts for Your Presentations
Every subject line had fairly similar open rates, but the best subject line had an incredible 26% click-through rate (the average click-through rate hovers around 3%.).
The best-performing subject line was “54 New Data Slides for Your Marketing Decks,” with a 26% click-through rate. The worst, "Get Key Marketing Trends From the Marketing Data Box," had a still-respectable but clearly worse 10.4% click-through rate. What makes the former so much better than the latter? The latter has a clear call to action, but what it is actually offering seems a little vague. “Marketing trends” could mean a lot of things, and what the “Marketing Data Box” is might not exactly be clear to everyone. The higher-performing subject line offers something very clear that has an immediate and obvious value to anyone in marketing. But why do you think “54” seems more appealing than “65”? We’d love to hear your thoughts on that one.
The teaser, called a “snippet” on Gmail and “message preview” on Outlook, is that extra bit of text that appears after or below the subject line. Some mailing list clients allow you to add preview text and preview how much of it will appear after the subject, but typically it is pulled from the first few words of the email body.
This bit of text is as important to open rates as the subject itself. Construct the teaser and the subject to play off of each other, like a call and response or question and answer. If you have a long subject line, go with short preview text, and vice versa. If your subject announces a sale, your preview text should explain which merchandise is on sale.
With all of the templates and design options available today, it’s easy to overlook the most important part of the body of the email: the message itself. A good subject line and teaser will get your email opened, but if the writing doesn’t grab the reader’s attention immediately, they might not make it down to your call to action.
It is also important to align the body of your email with the subject line. Be wary of a bait-and-switch. If you’re offering something for FREE in the subject line, it had better be free, not asterisk-free or free-with-purchase-free. If you’ve got good open rates but poor click-through rates, a misalignment of subject line and body may be to blame.
As for the writing itself: don’t overcomplicate things. Avoid cliches, jargon, and anything that sounds too much like a sales pitch, and write in a voice that is authentic to your brand. No one likes self-promotion or being advertised to, even in a promotional email. A customer might follow you on twitter or sign up for your newsletter for the promotions and new product announcements, but accounts that only self-promote don’t see much engagement. Your brand must have a personality on your mailing list as well as on social media. It doesn’t have to be that wry, quirky, conversational persona you see in so many retailer emails, but you should aim to do three things in the body: establish a connection with the reader, offer them something that benefits them, and tell them how to get it.
But you don’t want to take too long to get to the point. 25-75 words will suffice (this paragraph, meanwhile, is 150 words long). Any longer and your reader might begin to lose patience. You want to hook the reader with a subject line and teaser, give them what they need to know in the body, end with a call to action and a link to click on. But be careful to avoid “friction words” in your call to action. Friction words suggest to the reader that they’ll have to do something they might not want to do: apply, subscribe, sign up, download, and the like (that is, anything that seems like it has strings attached). Good calls to action are 2-4 words in length: “Shop Now,” “Find the Perfect Gift,” etc. They are impossible to misunderstand, they get to the point, and they fit inside the big button at the bottom of the email linking to your website.
The separate parts are fairly simple, and there are tried-and-true formulas for the subject, the teaser, and the body of the email. But the same can be said about a pop song: three minutes, four chords, verse-chorus-verse structure. Knowing the formula is the easy part; executing it to perfection, while putting a personal spin on it, takes a bit of practice. Subscribe to the mailing lists of the leaders in your sector, whether B2C or B2B, and analyze their approach. And as in the Hubspot example above, test out different subject lines and different body text for the same message and compare the results.