Gmail’s introduction of email categories has undeniably proven problematic for marketers.  By dividing content into multiple ‘mini-inboxes’, customers can now choose how they want to interact with the emails they receive from brands, social networks, friends and colleagues. Consequently, the importance of producing email templates, which clearly resonate and influence customer behaviour, has inevitably increased.

So what do marketers need to do to respond? And respond effectively?

It all starts with the subject line.

The subject line is the single most influential part of your email, in fact, according to our research, it can influence open rates by as much as 70%. Yet many marketers spend little time developing them, which means they are missing a big trick. In view of the recent changes to Gmail, this is a major concern.

Getting the subject line right has never been more important.

As I said in my last column it’s no longer necessary for users to want to occasionally receive your newsletter, they now ‘need’ to receive it. However you have to give them a reason to “need” it. To do that, you need an incredibly powerful, inventive and distinctive proposition and ‘hero’ offer. One that champions the best your brand has to offer.

You also need a compelling subject line, which effectively conveys the content you want your recipients to engage with and incentivises them to click read, rather than the dreaded delete button.

Subject lines that announce a new update articulate the timeliness of the email and provoke an immediate need to open it, which essentially creates the ‘hot off the press’ imperative in your users to find out more. If recipients face the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) they are likely to be more inclined to open your email, far more quickly than if your email includes a simple generic offer.

So how do you go about putting this into practice?

Without question your subject line should attempt to invoke an emotional connection with the reader. Creating an emotional connection shouldn’t mean elaborate language though. Trigger words can be incredibly beneficial here, but it’s important to test which trigger words generate the greatest response.

Be specific. Be direct. Be succinct.

But avoid repeating the same format every week – readers will just get bored and will gaze over your email. If you’re too vague, it’s likely your recipients won’t trust what you say either. So why not use a news statement, ask a question or invoke a response by saying something provocative? But keep it real. If your offer sounds too good to be true, recipients won’t view it seriously and your open rates will undoubtedly fall. Exclusivity can help, but it is often difficult to avoid your offer sounding like a scam.

Avoiding typical spam keywords and characters, is a key part of this. However, that is easier said than done. Spammers know how to use influential language to evoke curiosity and marketers have the difficult job of trying to achieve the same effect without being seen in the same light. That means avoiding troublesome keywords, special characters and over-emphasising your point and any other typical spam markers. But in doing so make sure you don’t patronise your audience.

The subject line is the single most influential part of your email

Whilst personalised emails are becoming increasingly common, it’s important that when it comes to the subject line you don’t go too overboard. Don’t just personalise for the sake of it, users can see through that. Subject lines need to work in tandem with the ‘From’ address. The user shouldn’t struggle to understand what the email is about or who it’s from.  Instead why not personalise your subject line with information that means something to the user you are sending it to i.e. is there a specific product offer, or offer specific to their location, which they particularly care about? Or one that will influence them positively and accelerate them down the path to purchase?

If you email your customer base regularly, you should already have access to this information, both from your preference centre and the online behavioural data of your customers as they are browsing and interacting with you through your various communication channels.

So use it.

Why personalise the email content for different customer segments but not the email subject line? Why not test re-writing subject lines for specific audiences rather than specific parts of it? But avoid long subject lines. They rarely add value or help to convince recipients. Often long subject lines just blur the main point of the message. Very often less is more. Remember the point of the subject line is to provoke curiosity to open, not to cram the contents into a single line.

So how do you measure whether you’re being effective?

Your subject line performance should be measured not just in terms of open rates but also sales or end action. You might provoke people to open who have no intention of buying. However a subject line that appeals specifically to people looking to buy can actually generate more sales, even though it might not provoke the curiosity of the base.

Ultimately though, testing is everything. It takes little time to test subject lines but the impact can be huge. Ideally, aim to strike a 33/66 balance between subject line testing and content creation. But don’t forget about the short preview in Gmail, that’s just as important nowadays.

Users will skim-read content wherever possible and make use of the short preview to make an assessment on whether or not to open. If you can demonstrate compelling, relevant content in this manner, you’ll be able to make your email a destination email. Recipients will then actively seek you out, regardless of how they or Gmail choose to categorise you in their inbox.

Mark Ash

Mark Ash


Mark Ash is Managing Director Teradata Interactive International.