communications strategy

Are Your Subject Lines Punching Their Weight? 5 Tips for Tapping Psychological Triggers

Thinkshift | February 7, 2013

One of the most challenging aspects of an email campaign is getting recipients to open your email. Your subject line should provoke a no-hesitation click. But how?

Turns out that just about any magazine next to the cash register in your grocery store is a fount of compelling headlines (Yes, I will find out why I can’t afford to ignore changes in mortgage rates!). A recent Daily Egg blog that used the cover of Prevention to illustrate seven proven headline formulas inspired us to review our subject lines.

Our analysis of the Prevention examples differed from the Daily Egg blog’s in some cases, but a look at our own results bore out its thesis: “good headlines tap into psychological triggers.” We devised some tips for applying the formulas to email subject lines—and came up with a few caveats.

Tip 1: Make your message about the recipient, not about you. One of our test subject lines had twice the open rate of the other because it invited the recipient to be part of a brain trust rather than merely experience it in action.

Tip 2: A question is a great formula—unless readers might answer “no” to the question. Ask “Are you concerned about trash?” and many readers will just think “no” and (perhaps guiltily) hit delete. But ask “Is there cash in your trash?” and who can say “no” without taking a peek. A surefire way to avoid the “no” response: ask a question that simply can’t be answered “yes” or “no.” What, why, and who are your friends.

Tip 3: Sometimes a statement is more compelling than a question. Asking whether X will make your recipient do something is less effective than assuring your recipient that X will make her do that thing. “Will these five food substitutes have you changing your grocery list?” I don’t know—and frankly, I’ve got a lot of things to do today. But if I read “These five food substitutes will have you changing your grocery list,” I’m scrambling to find out what the substitutes are.

Tip 4: Describing content is good; making a promise is better. In one test of two subject lines, the edge went to the one that didn’t just identify a phenomenon but claimed to demystify it. Here’s the caveat: don’t use this formula if what you’ve got to offer is trite or implausible. Your content better live up to your subject line’s promise.

Tip 5: Make sure your subject line—or headline—reflects your brand voice.

No matter how compelling your copy, it’s not punching its weight if it doesn’t reflect your messaging, which is all about making your story compelling in a concise way.

One last tip: any headline with the phrase “shrink your fat zones” is apparently the most compelling headline in the universe.


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