Insights
July 1, 2009

[Insert world’s best subject line here]

Big Duck

There’s no doubt about it — from fundraising appeals to advocacy alerts to newsletter updates, email is a necessary communications tool for nonprofits. There are many components to an effective email, but first things first: start with a good subject line. Next to the sender’s name, the subject line is the deciding factor in whether or not your supporters will open your message.

Everyone’s emailing these days — your favorite shoe store, your local farmer, your doctor, your school, even your parents. And as the 2009 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study by M+R Strategic Services and NTEN shows, it’s becoming harder and harder to get your audiences to pay attention as their inbox traffic increases. According to their research, open and click-through rates, which measure how many of your recipients open and/or engage with the content of your emails, both declined from 2007 to 2008.

So put those subject lines to work, and give your emails a chance to stand out from the crowd. Here are a few tips below to help you get more opens (and hopefully clicks).

  1. Keep it short. Shoot for 30-40 characters (5-8 words), and limit yourself to no more than 60 characters (10-12 words). Some email programs cut off longer subject lines, so your message may get lost.
  2. Focus on your audience. “We need your donations today!” may sound compelling to you, but what’s in it for your recipients? Put yourself in their shoes, and use your subject line to explain why opening this email will be worth their while. The Obama campaign did a great job with this, using subject lines like, “Will you join me on Election Night?” and “Our message of change.”
  3. Avoid vague/unnecessary phrases. Subject lines like “July 2009 Enewsletter Volume 12” make our heads spin. First, stating the month is redundant, since there’s a time stamp on every email. Second, and more important, your recipient has no hint as to what’s inside; no invitation to learn more or take action. If you find that your constituents prefer a clue that this is your newsletter, try using a short, consistent intro, like “eNews: Save the world with a click.”
  4. Get to the point quickly. Online audiences are experts at skimming, so if you don’t catch their eye in the first few words, you may miss your chance. Put important information — like “Last chance” or “Act now” — right up front.
  5. Identify yourself. If your recipients don’t recognize that the email is from your organization, you may lose the battle with the “delete” button. Here’s where the sender’s name can work in harmony with your subject line. Use your organization’s name (e.g. “Big Duck”) as the sender to save room in the subject line for more interesting content. But if you want to use an individual’s name as the sender for a more personal touch, make sure the individual is well-known in your community or include your organization’s name in the subject line.
  6. Test and test again. What works for one organization may not work for you. The only way to find out what works for your list is to test. Try different subject lines, and perhaps even senders, and see which ones get the most attention and prompt the greatest response.

Of course, there are many aspects of your email that work together to make your communications effective, including the deliverability of your messages, the content, the design, the calls-to-act or -donate, and more. But a good subject line is a good place to start. It’s like the “teaser” on the outside of a direct-mail envelope.

There’s no sure-fire formula for a perfect subject line. The bottom line: if you keep your audiences’ needs in mind and tell them what to expect, your emails will get the attention they deserve.

Have you seen a subject line lately that caught your attention? We’ve posted a few of our favorites on our brand-new blog. Share yours in the comments.

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