The Tyranny of E-Mail Subject Lines

This blog post was cross-posted on as “Hey”:

That’s right, Hey. As my grandmother used to say, “Hay is for horses”.

A recent businessweek article titled “The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign Emails”, detailed how casual and even profanity-laced subject lines delivered crucial fundraising performance. In the article, Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s e-mail director, is quoted as saying “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people… ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.”

Butchering of the English language began well before Obama campaign email subject lines; our online proclivities for brevity and casualness have seeped into and contaminated virtually everything, watering down our thinking and making clarity a rarity indeed. I have long believed that power is directly derived from purpose. If you have clarity of purpose, you will have power. This is a crucial element in successful online strategy work: you must know your purpose, and pursue it with a focused intensity. The problem is that the casual nature of our online culture can dilute purpose to a drab subject line.

We’re guilty of it at EchoDitto; our email last week had the inspiring subject line “December newsletter”. We all get so much email — better to say something interesting, something valuable, something with purpose and focus. The Obama campaign could resort to casual email subject lines, posing as intimate friends, because of the larger narrative context of the campaign. Every day, every news outlet in the world was focused on the presidential campaign. Many of your friends on social media were focused on the presidential campaign. You were not receiving these “Hey” subject line emails in a vacuum; there was a larger cultural context provided by the presidential campaign.

So what do you do when your cause, your work, your purpose is not embodied in the culture, the way the overpowering, all-encompassing presidential campaign consumed the country and I daresay the world for the last six months? The great challenge of email, from an online strategy point of view, is the tension between test-driven messages designed to boost performance (See Micah White’s clicktivism critique) and the need to give your work a narrative arc, one that inspires and compels your audience to action (See Dave Karpf’s response to Micah) White’s clicktivism critique.

In general, I preach (and worry myself) that we simply don’t spend enough time writing our emails, and thinking about their relationship to each other. Two crucial lessons I learned from Joe Trippi during the Dean campaign:

First, use your email list to break news. It will help the list grow (because people will sign up to get the next round of breaking news you release to the list first) but also communicate to the list that you value the people there, that they are your primary constituency and your first loyalty.

Second, use your email list to tell a story over time. Build a narrative arc to your emails that leads your online community to a moment of action with building intensity and engagement. (“Thus my life draws fuel ineluctably from triumph.” writes the poet Jim Harrison in “27” from “Letters to Yesenin”). Too often the emails I read aren’t building towards anything; they have no “story of us” and are instead one-off emails, written without any larger context: no cultural context, no context even within the prior and future emails we’re sending to the list.

Yes, we have to do it all: write beautiful, compelling emails, in a sequence that builds towards engagement and action like installments in a Dickens novel, with incredible subject lines that bring the campaign to life — while also A/B testing and seeking to maximize performance, keeping the core purpose in mind. The environment of a presidential campaign is highly unusual, and incentives tactics that won’t succeed for most organizations.

P.S. Yesterday is the anniversary of my grandmother’s death a few years back, and her exquisite sense of language and grammar inspired this post.

One Response to “The Tyranny of E-Mail Subject Lines”

  1. leticiawilson40475 Says:

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