If you depend on email to grab a prospect’s attention and nail down that elusive first appointment, you should spend as much time honing the subject line of that email as you spend fine-tuning the entire body of the message.
Your competition is doing exactly that. If you do a Google search on "email subject line research" you'll find that myriad studies and tests are being done each year. And make no mistake: The big-time emailers out there may not be trying to make an appointment to sit down with your prospect, but in the email Inbox, they’re your competition.
Some marketing gurus tell us that writing a good subject line is like—and as important as—writing a newspaper headline. Fact is, the email environment is much tougher, much bloodier. When your prospect sits down with the daily paper, he has usually committed himself to 20 minutes or more of reading, perhaps with a cup of Joe or a glass of wine readily at hand. Not so when he’s reviewing the latest avalanche of messages to arrive in his Inbox! On email, he’s in constant triage mode, ready to hit the delete button, allowing himself only 2.7 seconds to determine if there’s a good reason he shouldn’t.
So you need not only a good Valid Business Reason (VBR) to earn that appointment you seek. . . you need a powerful Don’t-Delete-Me Reason, or else your prospect will never even read your VBR. And while your VBR might be 50 words long, your Don’t-Delete-Me email subject line has only 50 characters to do its deed, and that includes spaces! Why only 50 characters? Because most email users won’t see a longer subject line—their email app, especially if it’s on a mobile device (and these days it usually is) just chops the rest.
Crafting a subject line in an environment as daunting as that just might make you want to run to the telephone or send snail mail. And in fact, those aren’t such bad ideas these days. But they’re not the topic of my message. You really can craft a superior subject line, and here are some principles to follow.
Keep it short.
You already know about the 50-character limit. You can write a little more if you like, but assume those words won’t be seen by your prospect until (or if) he or she opens the message. And even if you write only 50 characters, put the juiciest words up front.
Be specific and tailored.
Lots of junk mail is forced to use very generic subject lines. Because you’re sending a message to just this one prospect, hoping it will lead to an appointment, you can and should create a subject line that is pretty obviously intended for just this one prospect at this moment in time.
Don’t make it look like spam.
Another way to distinguish your message from the junk crowding the prospect’s Inbox is to avoid the hype, the drama, the feigned excitement that so often accompanies promotional offers and spam messages. Be serious and businesslike.
Key in on your Valid Business Reason.
Your message surely will state your VBR because it’s the most powerful thing you can say to the prospect to get her to say Yes to an appointment. So it makes sense that your subject line should be related to your VBR. What’s the most intriguing thing you can say there?
Use the best subject line on earth.
The most powerful way to stand out from all the others seeking an appointment—or seeking simply to have their message opened and read—is the personal recommendation, so long as it comes from a business colleague your prospect truly knows and respects. Thus, “Jane Henley suggested I contact you” is the line to use whenever possible. What can you do to get a personal recommendation?
If the first effort doesn’t succeed, revise the subject line.
Punching an email through to your prospect can be a hit-or-miss thing. He might delete it one day when he is moving especially fast, but might something might catch him on another day. So don’t be discouraged by a lack of response. Wait three business days and try again—with a new subject line.
If that second effort doesn’t spark a conversation, then it’s time to consider switching to the phone (and voicemail!) or an old-fashioned business letter powered by a postage stamp.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published on December 19, 2011 and has been updated.