Mobile Email Marketing Rule No. 1: Short Subject Lines

OK people, it is 2014. Email marketing has been an important marketing tactic for a good 15 to 20 years. Email marketing for mobile devices is a newer variation of this tried-and-true channel, but it still isn’t rocket science. So why, I ask you, do so many marketers still refuse to learn the most basic tenet of email marketing? Namely, that the subject line is the most important part of the content — and the No. 1 rule is that it should fit on one line.

Why, as more and more email is being viewed exclusively on mobile devices — 30 percent of all email, according to industry statistics — are marketers still not optimizing their email for mobile devices?

Because they aren’t, according to a new study from Retention Science. After analyzing more than 260 million emails and 540 campaigns, Retention Science found subject lines with six to 10 words perform best, generating a 21 percent open rate, which is well above industry-standard.

Subject lines containing five or fewer words ranked second with a 16 percent open rate, and those with 11-15 words returned a minimal 14 percent open rate, Retention found.

With all due respect to Retention Science, similar findings have been gleaned from other surveys over the years. Email marketing is one of the most quantifiable forms of digital marketing, and researchers and vendors in this space for years have been studying what works and what doesn’t.

What is notable about Retention Science’s results is that they show marketers still are not paying attention to these basic rules.

The majority of emails sent (52 percent) had subject lines in the 11-15 word range, according to the report.

Same Story, Different Channel

The same story is now unfolding with mobile — and if anything, the stakes are even higher for marketers to get it right on this channel.

Retention Science’s study confirmed other industry research noting the growing level of mobile-only email. In fact, it found numbers to be slightly higher at 35 percent.

Given that most smartphones only display five or six words of a subject line, “being brief and concise is even more critical,” as Retention Science pointed out.

It’s Not Easy

Granted, this is not easy — but it also is not impossible. Consider an email-marketing message I received from Groupon. The subject line was “Get Active: Start by Look at This Email.”

I saw it first on my laptop, and to the headline writer’s credit, I was inspired to open it. As I expected, it was a series of fitness deals in the Washington, D.C., area. Plus, please note, it falls in Retention Science’s sweet spot of six to 10 words.

As mobile becomes the primary email channel for more and more consumers, brands are going to have to hone their subject-line writing capabilities even more sharply.

I checked the same email on my iPhone, which runs iOS 7. The subject line now read: “Get Active: Start by Looking at This E”

I understand it, but it doesn’t quite pack the same punch, does it?

And no, I don’t have Groupon’s app — and no, I don’t want to download it. Nothing against Groupon specifically — I just don’t follow the deals closely enough to give up precious real estate on my phone to yet another app.

Still, the subject line did get me to click and actually consider one of the deals. Yet the same could be said for “Get Active: Start by Reading This,” Or “Get Active: Start With These Deals,” and so on. In other words, a little tinkering could have rendered the subject line readable on my mobile device as well.

Erika Morphy has been writing about technology, finance and business issues for more than 20 years. She lives in Silver Spring, Md.

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