Note: Upon her indictment on federal money laundering charges and her arrest February 8, 2022, Inc. dismissed Heather Morgan as a contributing columnist. As is our practice, we do not unpublish editorial content, and rather have added this note for full transparency.
It's a common scenario: you spend a couple hours constructing a cold email, making sure to include some persuasive details and a call to action that's practically irresistible. But days go by and you're finally forced to conclude that your email isn't getting read.
Did you check your subject line?
A solid 33% of people open an email based on the subject line. But soon, another 66% mark it as spam after reading those few words alone. If your response rates look dismal, there's a high chance your subject lines are sabotaging the rest of your messages.
The great news is that bad subject lines, whether misleading, inappropriate, or just plain vague, are easy to spot if you're familiar with some common copywriting mistakes. Here are five subject-line blunders that could be affecting your open rates and killing your potential leads.
1. They're too long.
Concise subject lines are more than just a writing best practice. An increasing number of people now view their inboxes on mobile devices, and subject lines with too many characters risk being cut off. Just look at the iPhone 6, which leaves you a mere 41 characters to make your point when the device is held vertically. If you exceed that limit, your buyer never gets to see your complete your thought, making the entire email less appealing and worthy of their time.
2. They're deceptive.
Deception is never a good way to start your relationship with a prospective buyer. A classic example is using "Re:" to kick off a subject line when you've never actually interacted with the person, which actually tends to trip up spam filters. Take care to understand the difference between deception and intrigue. Lines like "your account status" or "the meeting you missed" aren't creative hooks. They're ways to exploit fear, which is going to annoy the reader once they open the email and see a message that merely asks for a 10-minute phone call.
3. They look spammy or robotic.
With physical mail, it's easy to tell the difference between, say, a credit card offer from a faceless bank and a birthday card from your grandmother. Your cold-email subject lines should be the same. The easiest way to accomplish this is by adjusting the capitalization in the subject line. Capitalizing the first letter of every word suggests you're one out of a few thousand people receiving a sales pitch or marketing newsletter. Our tests with more than 100,000 emails find that lowercase subject lines tend to have better open rates, probably because they feel more natural and therefore signal that an actual human is behind the words.
4. They abuse custom fields.
Using someone's name in conversation is a great way to build rapport. Unfortunately, email doesn't work like that. If you overuse someone's first name and their company (meaning more than one mention of each, or awkward wording or grammar, like "Email Advice For Jim At Dunder Mifflin!"), they're likely to think your message is part of a mass marketing campaign instead of the start of a personal relationship. Likewise, screwing up custom inserts with typos or bad data is one of the worst things you can do to sabotage your email. Although personalization can sometimes increase open rates, the safe way is to avoid them in the subject lines altogether if you can't be careful or thoughtful.
5. They contain slang or inappropriate humor.
This one might seem obvious, but I see a surprising number of emails that use risque or inappropriate language in the subject line to shock you into opening the message. It's a bold strategy that may sometimes work with the right audience, but, as with deceptive uses of "Re" or "Fwd," this approach is unlikely to result in higher response rates. Unless, of course, you count all the unhappy emails you're likely to get telling you that "fuq overpriced software" is not appropriate for attempting to start a business relationship.
Still, it can be difficult to notice some of these mistakes in your own writing. Before you hit the "send" button, check your subject line against this list. It might take extra time--especially at first--to scrutinize the subject line and make the necessary revisions. Resist the temptation to skip this step. The extra work will likely ensure you get a response, not a trip to the trash folder.