This phony best practice for subject lines has to go

by guest blogger George Crankovic

You’re creating an e-appeal, and you reach the north face of the 30,000-foot mountain you must climb. You have to write the subject line.

It has to stand out in the inbox, intrigue your donors, motivate them to act, and move them to click. Despite all this, many self-appointed experts add another requirement: it has to be short, short, short.

“Keep it under three words,” they say. “Under two? Even better!”

But according to a recent study (This Just In: Subject Line Length Means Absolutely Nothing) in which 12 billion — yes, billion — subject lines were analyzed, there’s no correlation between subject line length and open rates. Short subject line of, say, 12 characters, didn’t command people to click, but then again, longer subject lines of 150 characters didn’t repel people either. Subject-line length just didn’t matter.

So, how about this — let’s stop creating rules that are irrelevant to actual practice and restricting ourselves and hamstringing our appeals in the process.

We’re communicating with donors. So depending on a myriad of factors — everything from the offer to the nonprofit itself to donor psychology — there are times when a short subject line like “hey,” from the famous Obama email campaign, will work like gangbusters. And there are times when a long subject line like, “Fight killer diseases with your gift multiplying 50 times,” will get clicks like crazy. There is no empirically researched and optimized length for subject lines.

And that’s good. We should embrace the ambiguity and enjoy the process of connecting at a human level with donors. Because otherwise, fundraising would be all science and no art. And that would just be no fun.


Comments

2 responses to “This phony best practice for subject lines has to go”

  1. Way back in the day (2000) we had the same argument about email body copy: long emails v. short emails. Direct mail copywriters wanted to send their tried-and-true 4- or even 8-page letters. Some opted for telegram style. What worked?
    We learned that it’s not a difference between long and short, but between good and bad. Some emails have to be long to get the point across. Making a bad email longer, however won’t make it better. The speaker before Lincoln at Gettysburg was noted orator Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours – 13,000 words. Lincoln used just 270.
    Just because “hey” worked for the Obama campaign at its peak doesn’t mean the new standard is three letters. If the Obama campaign used Everett’s entire speech as a subject line then, it also would have worked.
    Let’s focus on GOOD subject lines, not short ones.
    @FundraisingRick

  2. Way back in the day (2000) we had the same argument about email body copy: long emails v. short emails. Direct mail copywriters wanted to send their tried-and-true 4- or even 8-page letters. Some opted for telegram style. What worked?
    We learned that it’s not a difference between long and short, but between good and bad. Some emails have to be long to get the point across. Making a bad email longer, however won’t make it better. The speaker before Lincoln at Gettysburg was noted orator Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours – 13,000 words. Lincoln used just 270.
    Just because “hey” worked for the Obama campaign at its peak doesn’t mean the new standard is three letters. If the Obama campaign used Everett’s entire speech as a subject line then, it also would have worked.
    Let’s focus on GOOD subject lines, not short ones.
    @FundraisingRick

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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