Why “crushing defeat” may be the key to email victory

email trophyIf you’re communicating with your members, supporters or the general public by email, you probably think at least a little about subject lines: which ones will get people to open your message, and which will consign it to unread oblivion?

And you’ve probably heard you want something short and eye-catching, and provocative enough to prompt a click (or, these days, a tap).

How short and provocative? Check out these subject lines from just a few days of email from Barack Obama and the U.S. Democratic Party:

Subject lines from Democratic Party emails

Short? Oh, yes: plenty of those subject lines have just two words (and a few just have one). And talk about provocative: “CRUSHING blow”, “devastating defeat”, “throw in the towel”… and the vaguely alarming “plummet”.

Democratic Party email in the Obama era has become famous for being relentless in frequency, experimentation and measurement. They’re using subject lines like these because they’re working: emails get opened and donation links get clicks.

Will they work for you? Maybe, maybe not; every organization is different, and so are audience members and the actions you want them to take. The point here isn’t to imitate the Democrats, but to learn from them:

  • Find out if your email provider offers features like split testing (sometimes called A/B testing), and try a few different subject lines.
  • Does your mailing list include more information than just an address? Then use it to dive a little deeper, and segment your audience. Maybe questions work better with members, while short sentences get more attention from non-member supporters. Or one type of subject line may do better with older recipients, and another with women.
  • Keep experimenting. What works now may not be so effective in a few months’ time; keep refining your approach, and never stop trying to get to know your audiences better.

Whatever online action you want to drive — whether it’s to have people sign a petition, tweet a message, register for a convention or join a townhall — it starts with getting them to open your message in the first place. Experimentation and measurement are keys to making that happen.

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