Try Not To Do This

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that if you’re selling a professional service, you’re going to be most convincing when you “walk the talk,” modeling the behavior you claim to teach.

If you’re a personal trainer, you should be in great shape.
If you’re a financial planner, you should balance your checkbook.
If you’re an E-Newsletter consultant, not only should you be good-looking, your E-Newsletter should stand as a prime example of what works best.

  Listen To This Post

Which is why you’ll be happy to learn that after reviewing my E-Newsletter System the other day – a product so filled with useful insights and good examples that when I was done rereading it, I insisted on writing a check to myself for $197.00 – I found that I pretty much follow my own advice.

Pretty much. Because I realized that there is one particular area in which I knowingly and willfully ignore my own suggestions: E-Newsletter Subject Lines.

As I’ll explain in a minute, when it comes to the subject line – the short phrase that is visible in the recipient’s in-box – there’s a best way to do these.

But I don’t follow this best way. Not because I don’t want the maximum number of people to open my newsletter, but because I can’t seem to stop myself from sacrificing effectiveness for the sake of coming up with a catchy title.

So I end up with things like Singing in the Rain,” or “What a Difference a Difference Makes,” or “Hairy Party to You.” Clever? Maybe. But cryptic and lacking any real indication of what’s to be found within.

As a practical matter, that’s a problem. Our newsletter subscribers get lots and lots of e-mail; they’re constantly deciding what to open, what to save for (maybe) later and what to delete.

So when your E-Newsletter arrives in someone’s in-box, not only do you want them to recognize that it’s from you, you want them to put it in the “open now” category.

A good subject line – like a good headline on the front page of a newspaper or the outside of a magazine – entices people to read further.

Consider the following four, sample subject lines:

Blue Penguin’s Newsletter
Tips for Improving Newsletters
5 Tips for Increasing Newsletter Open Rate
5 Mistakes That Will Kill Your Newsletter Open Rate

I think you’ll agree that the second is more compelling than the first, the third more than the second, and the fourth most of all (still with me?).

Three things that make it so (and that I recommend you use in crafting your own subject lines):

  1. Specificity. The first example doesn’t tell me anything other than who it’s from. Using this approach, the subject line of this issue, the next issue and every issue until the end of time will be exactly the same. Kind of like Stephen King calling his next book, My Next Book. Nothing here that makes you want to go further.
    The second example is a little more specific (better), but the third and fourth are even more so, making them both more compelling.
  1. Numbers. I don’t really know why this is (please share below if you do), but apparently it’s been well tested that numbers in headlines – odd numbers in particular – are very effective in drawing people in.
    Next time you’re in the supermarket check-out line, have a look at the magazines in the rack and note how many use numbers in the headlines on the outside cover. “7 Last Minute Lipstick Tips;” “5 Times U Shouldn’t Text Him;” “101 Things to Love About Middle-Aged Bald Men.” (Of course I just made that last one up; I can’t image there’s more than a few of dozen.)
  1. Negatives. If I say “Here are some things you should do regarding X,” you might pay attention. But if I say instead, “Here are some things you should never do regarding X,” you’re even more likely to listen – you want to make sure you’re not already doing any of those things.
    While I don’t suggest you do it every time, phrasing your subject line (or white paper or presentation, for that matter) as a warning, is again, more likely to grab attention.

Here’s the bottom line. When it comes to creating an effective newsletter, I put subject lines somewhere in the middle of the list: not the most important thing, but certainly worth paying attention to.

And whether you decide to follow in my playful footsteps or instead do something more deliberately strategic, it’s worth giving some thought to how you show up in your reader’s in-box.

22 thoughts on “Try Not To Do This

  1. Lacey

    Michael –
    I have been reading your newsletter for at least a year or two now, and this is the first time I’ve felt so compelled to add a comment. Mostly for selfish reasons; I am so proud that I have found this tip is something I actually already do.

    I am a communications person for a call center enviromnent, and have found the “trick” to getting everyone to read my newsletters is to title them either a) exactly as you have prescribed above or b) if it’s REALLY crucial, I title it so that folks think they are getting a peak at something that Shouldn’t have been sent to All. Sneaky and dishonest, yes. Works like a charm? Yes.

    5 Things that Should be on your Bulletin Board Right Now
    9 Questions You’ve Been Afraid to Ask Your Supervisor
    What I think about all this “risk management” yada yada…
    and the one that had the best open rate was simply …. Note to Self:

    Love your newsletter! You’ve made me a better communicator for it, and I often get caught laughing out loud to my computer like a crazy person.


    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Lacey! Thanks for sharing those examples. Glad to know it works well for you in practice (and especially glad you enjoy the newsletter too!).

  2. Judy Hanlin

    Didn’t think I’d see the day that I would disagree with you. I love your e-mails. They are always informative and at the same time amusing. That’s why I love reading them. They are neither boring nor vanilla. The subject line makes me curious. I love the quirkiness. I wiil of course bow to your expertise. Please keep in mind, some of us love the subject line.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Glad you like them, Judy! And don’t worry, I intend to keep doing it the same way (and I suppose that anyone who read today’s newsletter, by definition, thought the subject line was intriguing enough to open!).

  3. Phil Stewart

    Michael as usual you have delivered the essence of how the sausage is made without the noxious odors, trite commentary, and overstated filler verbiage which so often accompanies insights like this one delivered by others. Very useful, and one comment I might add, which I try to live by in all customer communications is WIIFT (Whats In It For Them). Love your work and appreciate the humor you so carefully wield. Merry Christmas and safe Holidays to you and yours. — Phil

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Phil! I was wondering what that odor was – just the aroma of E-Newsletter parts here on the floor. All the best to you and your family as well! Michael

  4. Lissa

    Funny. I’ll follow a numbered headline if leads to an article on HuffPost or CNN, etc. But a service/product provider uses this technique and 9 times out of 10 I hit delete. Color me jaded but the content rarely delivers what the headline promises – and it tends to be empty of one key thing: them.

    I gravitate toward headlines that are similar to the one-of-a-kind way my favourite writers & bloggers inhabit their lives and businesses. Sure, I’m looking for valuable content, but content absent their particular presence doesn’t do it for me (& never helps me gage if they’re both the expert I need AND the professional who’ll most suit me).

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I think you’re right (as usual), Lissa! More confirmation that “best practices” is better than worst practices, but you have to do things your own, unique way if you really want to stand out.

  5. Kim Carpenter

    I’m in the fortunate position to be able to test email subject lines (extensively) for my clients. What I’ve found is that the the advice you give is very safe — that is, they’re solid rules — but often (not always) the quirky subject lines out-pull the safe ones, *especially* for a client whose quirkiness is part of their brand personality. Your personality is part of why I read your newsletters from Word One to the Last Word … on the other hand, I scan those emails labeled “X Tips for Blah” and “X Mistakes That Will Blech” because I don’t want to miss anything important. The difference is that I look forward to your newsletters, whereas I can’t wait to fast-read the “X Reasons Why Yuk” so I can delete them from my inbox.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Great points Kim. And like Lissa’s comments above, you’re really making me think about how important it is to cultivate an audience that likes your approach in general, and not worry so much about the formula for success itself. Thanks for reading!

  6. Walter Blackburn

    I agree with Kim. I think you get away with your ‘quirky’ subject lines because your loyal readers know that they’ll get something of value and it won’t take long to read. Like Lacey I found myself laughing out loud at the 101 things joke. Good stuff. Thanks.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Walter. And I don’t mind admitting that knowing you LOL’d at something in the newsletter is the highest compliment I could receive!

  7. HAns-Werner

    what a day , I had just finished an email letter and thought the one who would send it to the 1000 recipients, would add what was missing, like subject and address and salutations.
    Well the mail went out the salutation wasn’t what it should have been and the subject was nothing …..guess what happend…Yes you are right , nothing maybe we’ll see in the future that our emailaddress is beeing added to the program recognizing Spam mails (Firewall ) ;-). And later the same day I was reminded by your Newsletter how stupid I was….not checking if all the important parts of the mail were where they should have been. This won’t happen again…

  8. Hans-Werner

    I forgot to say thank you Michael, you are doing an excellent job….and in case we won’t see us untill christmas which I think will happen because I’m in germany, merry christmas and time for yourself and family….

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Hans! Happy holidays to you and your family as well. Maybe this will be the year I make it to your country for a visit! Michael

  9. Ann Miller

    I agree with the above posters… my inbox is full of “10 things to avoid” messages on every possible subject. The tone is generic. I prefer the quirky headings that pique my curiosity and hint at something interesting within.

    You had me at “Try not to do this”

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Ann. I find it so funny (and refreshing!) to know that “quirky” is a pretty good marketing tactic here in the 21st century. I sometimes can’t believe that I put on a suit and tie and sat through long, boring meetings every day for 15 years (and added to much of the long boringness myself)!

      Here’s to Quirkiness in 2012!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks for that, Joyce. (And sorry for the delayed response – I took my own advice and unplugged for several days!)


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