3.2 - Headlines - Own Your Distortion

Copywriters love to praise David Ogilvy and his generational brilliance. Most of his work was published between the 1960s to 1980s and had titles like “Confessions of an Ad Man.” You don’t have to go very far in copywriting before someone hits you with this ol’ chestnut of his:  

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

He’s not wrong. We will always read more headlines, subject lines, menu options, book titles, and newspaper titles than we will the content under them. There is value to the headline - if it has enough of a hook, people invest time in the rest of the story. 

You will read more headlines, subject lines, book titles, and menu options than you will ever consume in a day. The focus is definitely worth the effort. Modern marketers obsess over the headline strategy, especially when it comes to their email strategy.

For example, an email headline follows the subject line and the preview text. Between the three items should be a consistent emphasis on why the reader should care about the contents of the email.  The context, the urgency, themes, tone, style - the headline establishes the point where your sales narrative starts with the energy the subject line created.

As for headlines, they should:
  • Be visible and above the fold - one of the first things a reader sees after opening your message.
  • Have a powerful emotional hook
  • Feed directly into the first line of your copy

The subject line gets them to open the email. The headline creates the clicking and buying mindset.

Average email campaign open rates hover around 20% (oh, hell, Oglivy was right…). This means one of three things:
  • 20% of the recipients read the subject line and opt to open it
  • 100% of the recipients read the subject line and only 20% act on it
  • Something between the first two options.

One-fifth of the people who read your subject line will open the message. Increasing this probability is wholly dependent on how well you know your audience. How familiar are you with your audience? Furthermore, how familiar is your audience with the thing that you do? 

The subject line needs to:
  • Offer an accurate-enough lede on what is in the email
  • Drive the recipient to open the message
  • Not cause the message to wind up in a weird folder or spam

Context is everything.

A majority of email inboxes feature the Sent From, Subject Line, and Preview Text as indexes in the email.  When the preview text is left blank, it will usually show the first text of your email - whatever it may be. 

Sent From Address: in practice, don’t mess with this. This is the reply-to address for the client. This is where the emails have to go when the recipient hit’s “reply.” Best leave it be.

Sent From Name: Ideally, and legally, this should be a name. By default, most will use their company name. 

Subject Line: Depending on the user, their email client, and if they open on desktop vs. mobile, this should be anywhere from 20-30 characters. 

Preview Text: Most email clients display this in a smaller, lighter font next to the subject line. Anywhere from 0-15 characters are typically visible.

If every subject line says, “Great deals inside, open now!” your audience will fatigue at your crying wolf. 

“Monthly Updates from….” is fine, but how is it begging to be opened?

Not every headline needs to be a psychological masterclass. If a customer expects their 10% coupon because they signed up for something, don’t overthink it and leave them guessing: “Here is your 10% coupon.” The preview text might want to say something like, “and BTW, it expires in 8 hours.” 

Other Strategies for Increasing Email Open Rates

The subject line determines if someone is going to open your email, and the “Sent From” name can amplify the power of the subject line. 

“dave@dtpennington.com” is standard and boring as hell. But “It’s Just Dave” can up the intrigue. “Daveapalooza” definitely grabs the eye. “From Dave’s Desk” seems a bit more professional - it will all depend on who I am sending the message to. 

Carrying the “sent from” name into the subject line (and the rest of your email) can dress up the personality. If I was running an email campaign for a retail brand running a clearance sale, I would probably do everything I could to avoid the word “clearance.” After all, “Clearance” implies the products are leftovers. It says “here is what no one else wanted to buy.” Clearance sales are overstocked items, last year’s fashions, returns, and seconds are all haphazardly thrown onto a rack for ravenous deal-savers to look for. 

The minimum goal of a clearance sale is to recover the cost of goods. Every customer wants something better than clearance. To juice up the interest, my email lines might look like this:

  • Sent from “Scott R. - Warehousing”
  • Subject: Re: Space for new inventory
  • Preview: Hey, so all of the fall products just showed up...

The strategy is to get the recipient the idea they might have accidentally received an interal communication from a company they have purchased from before. The body of the email might allude to “We’ve got new stuff coming in, help us decide where to send the old stuff” as a way to sell directly to the consumer. Sneaky? A bit. Your goal is to grab attention, and sometimes you have to be sneaky about it. 

Subject Line Safe Bets:

  • If you struggle with the subject line, or if something brilliant isn’t flying out of your head immediately, save the subject line until the end. After you have spent time composing the rest of the email, you will have a solid idea of the topic you want to cover or tease in the subject line
  • Short words for big ideas. The faster they can get the gist, the less time they’ll be wondering if your email is worth opening.
  • Urgency is a useful tool for when things are urgent. (Open quick! Time is running out! Today Only!) Even in the world of email marketing, it is possible to cry wolf too many times.
  • Some writers think emojis are a universal language. Your audience will let you know if they think otherwise. Never use more than one. 
  • The subject line must be relevant to something in the body of the email
  • Use merge tags sparingly. While they can personalize your message, using too many in an email has been known to boost unsubscribe rates. 
  • Clever is good. Jokes are great. Keep in mind: the average audience might not be as smart as you. This isn’t a comedy club, your audience can’t hear each other laugh. Your recipient will never think “I don’t get it.” They’re likely to assume you’ve made a mistake and will boot you to the spam folder.
  • Always learn as much as you can about your audience. Watch the metrics - what are they responding to? What falls flat? Copywriting is an ongoing experiment to see what you can do to get the audience to do a specific thing. liberal A/B testing will go a long way to providing the intel you need.