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14 Email Subject Line Hacks

By Brian Massey, The Conversion Scientist, ClickZ columnist

The SXSW conference has always been known for the quirky session titles it inspires. The competition for panel slots is intense, with 3,000 panel submissions presented for 2012 alone. Part of the selection process involves voting by the public. So, an effective title gets attention when garnering votes for a panel.

We have the same problem with email.

We need subject lines that pull inbox scanners from their numbed slumber in which most emails are unceremoniously deleted. If our email is to be read, our subject lines must save our recipients from mindless autonomy.

What can we learn from SXSW panel authors? In a follow-up to my 2011 SXSW email subject line experiment, I offer this list of session titles-cum-subject line from the enigmatic conference. In general, folks seem to be less creative than in 2011, but the lessons are nonetheless destined to improve your emailing prospects.

  1. Things That Don't Fit Together: Non-Sequiturs

    Our brains are wired to discard the familiar faster than a bear can spell Constantinople. It is the unexpected that gets the attention of our conscious and prepares us for action. These titles demonstrate the use of twists to pull readers out of their inbox apathy.

    • A Penny Press for the Digital Age
    • Philanthropy Is Not the Future of Journalism
    • Cloudy with a Chance of Gaming
    • Multiple Personalities–Not a Disorder but the Norm
    • Does Your Product Have a Plot?
    • Meat is Might: Epic Meal Time Rules the Web
    • Social + Location + Mobile = The Perfect Beer
    • When Goliath Tries to Steal Your Lunch Money
    • Can Growing a Moustache Change the World?
    • Bootcamp for a UX Team of None
    • Explorations in Corporate Zoology
    • How to Be Strategically Unlikeable Online
    • Sunspots: The Promise and Pitfalls of Gov 2.0
    • Dreams of Your Life: A Darkly Playful Experience
    • Help, My Avatar Is Sick
    • Being Considered Obsolete Is Awesome
    • The Science of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea
    • Why Karl Keeps His Shades On: Style & Social Media
  2. Lists of Three

    There is something memorable, readable, and easy-to-count about lists of three. This method is especially successful when the third item is overly specific or doesn't fit. See "Things that Don't Fit Together" above.

    • Drugs, Milk & Money: Social & Regulated Industries
    • Credits Coins Cash: Social Currency & Finance 2.0
    • Free Coffee, Bad Apples & the Future of Currency
    • Clouds Here, Clouds There, Clouds Everywhere
  3. Shock and AweBoring subject lines make me want to poke needles into my eyes! Sometimes it makes sense to hit readers over the head with something that is just plain shocking. Sometimes.

    • How Not to Die: Using Tech in a Dictatorship
    • How Mexico's Drug Traffickers Harness Social Media
    • Language of Mutilation: Grammar for Ads & Life
    • Demographics Are Dead: Unlocking Flock Behavior
    • Everyone Is Gay: Social Media As Social Action
    • Media Measurement: Science, Art or a Load of Crap
    • Please Touch Me! Enterprise Delight via Multitouch
    • Your Social Media Job Is Dead: Now What?
    • Avoiding Bulls**t Personas: A Case Study
    • Eat, S**t, Sleep: Enlightenment Through Unemployment
  4. Rhymes and Alliteration

    Sensual subject lines supplement the bottom line. Alliteration is the repeated use of consonants. Rhymes grab your readers like a musical phrase. Don't be afraid to add a little poetry to your prose.

    • Social Music Marketing: Bands, Brands & Fans
    • An Unusual Arsenal: Tech Tools to Topple a Tyrant
    • Invention & Inspiration: Building a Better World
    • Contextual Communication: Crowds and Coordination
    • Check Yo-Self Before U Wreck Yo-Self, Startup Metrics of the Masters
    • The Creative Collaboration Conundrum
    • Binary B****es: Keeping Open Source Open to Women
    • Teaching Touch: Tapworthy Touchscreen Design
  5. Create a Common Enemy

    You may find your reader united behind you by identifying a common enemy - like the delete key.

    • When IT Says No: How to Create Fast Feature Flow
    • The Systematic Undoing of Copyright Trolls
    • Screw the Job Market: Young + Passionate ≠ Broke
    • Rise of the Social Spammers
    • Can Washington Make Your App Illegal?
    • Epic Battle: Creativity vs. Discipline in Social
    • Why Your 5-Year-Old Is More Digital Than Most CMOs
    • Has Twitter Made the Sports Reporter Obsolete?
  6. Insult Someone

    Don't be a wimp. When all else fails drop the political correctness and tell the reader what you really think.

    • Advise THIS! Matchmaking Startups & High Profile Advisors
    • Shut Up & Draw: A Non-Artist Way to Think Visually
    • Flash: F Bomb or Da Bomb?
    • Big Ol' Babies: Why Baby Boomers=Public Media FAIL
    • Your Marketing Sucks: Why You Need to Think Local
  7. Lead With a Number

    Four session titles that use numbers. When we offer the reader a specific number of things, they know they are going to get a manageable set of tips or tricks that is easy to scan and digest.

    • 11 Reasons QR Codes Are Not Engaging Consumers
    • 3 Secrets to a Killer Elevator Pitch
    • 100 Things Designers Need to Know About People
    • Enterprise Social Media: Five Emerging Trends
  8. Make Up Words

    If you find yourself with subjectlinitis, tossing a memebomb or two may be your best hope. New words can turn a deletophile into a reader.

    • Adprovising: Agile Marketing Made Easy
    • The Making of Twittamentary
    • Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas
    • Discover the New Frontier of the Glocal Internet
    • The Local Backbone of the SoLoMo Revolution
    • Coolhunting and Coolfarming with Social Media
    • Wireless Wellness: App-tastic or Just Fun & Games?
    • The Hyperlocal Hoax: Where's the Holy Grail?
  9. Pop Culture References

    If you know your audience, you slip them some "Funky Cold Medina" in the form of a pop-culture reference. For your geeks, "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" will do. For the younger generation, something from the "Harry Potter" series might make a connection. Music is usually a sure bet. Can you name the sources of the following references?

    • Star Trek and Social Media
    • Do Gamers Dream of HTML5 Sheep?
    • The Cloud as Skynet: Conquering Digital Overload
    • Get Smart! Hack Your Brain for Peak Performance
    • Wall-E or Terminator: Predicting the Rise of Al
    • Gimme Shelter from the Storm Clouds
    • Defense Against the Dark Arts: ESAPI
    • The Field of Dreams Manifesto
    • Is That Your Final Offer? Mobile Dynamic Pricing
    • Not Your Mommy's Blog: The Evolution of Dad Blogs
    • Why Doesn't Congress Grok The Internet?
    • LEAN STARTUP: Baby Got (Feed)Back - Putting the Lean in Learn
  10. Metaphors and Similes

    Similes are like can openers for the mind. Metaphors are the batteries in the flashlight of your email. The technical term for this style of messaging is "transubstantiation," using the characteristics of one thing to add meaning to another in the eyes of the reader.

    • Rev Up Your Product Design, the "Concept Car" Way
    • Online Personality Disorder: Resumes & Profiles
    • Knitting a Long Tail in Niche Publishing
    • Snackable Content: Working in a Bite-Sized Future
    • Hunt or Be Hunted: Get the Design Job You Want
    • Keeping Kids off the Street: Wall St. vs. Startups
    • Death of Digital Downloads: MP3s the New 8-track?
  11. Target an Audience

    Right-handed marketers, take note! Targeting your audience can significantly increase the relevance to two groups of people: those to whom you are speaking, and those who feel left out by the fact that you aren't speaking to them (you left-handers felt a twinge of anger at being left out, didn't you?). This approach takes guts, as you are consciously ignoring part of your audience in the hope of truly engaging another.

    • Why Women Fail to Rule the Social Networks
    • Greek to Geek: Classical Rhetoric & the Modern Web
    • Blogging: Why So Many Women Are Doing It
    • Digital Divas: How Girls Rule the Digital Universe
    • Monetizing Mommy
  12. Sex Sells

    Even the "oldest profession in the world" required some persuasive messaging. Your reader may see sex as the most base or most exalted activity humans can engage in. This is the risk and the reward for bawdy banter in your email subject lines.

    • Brands That Believe in Sex After Marriage
    • Sex, Lies and Cookies: Web Privacy EXPOSED!
    • Sex in the Digital Age
    • Big Brands and You: Make the Love Connection
    • Social Media Comes of Age Without the Help of Porn
    • Nudity and Online Journalism
    • Sex Nets: Pickup Artists vs. Feminists
    • Sex on the Web - The Sabotage of Relationships?
  13. Big Promises

    If you've got the goods, big promises will make you rich in as little as three days. Big promises make the reader ask, "So, how can you do that?" even if they are skeptical. Of course, if you can't deliver on the promise with sufficient proof in your email, all is lost - including your credibility.

    • Expanding Our Intelligence Without Limit
    • How to Live Forever
    • We Are Legion: Digital (R)Evolution
    • Change the Course of History with Greasemonkey
    • UCB Comedy presents: The Best Damn Stand-up
  14. New This Year: Add an "i"

    Turn your subject line into an iLine! All it takes is one little vowel.

    • iVision Africa: New Media's Role in Reframing Africa
    • iPlant: Advanced Computing to Feed the World

There you have it. Over 100 titles to tantalize and titillate your email mind like a jolt of electricity from an unlicensed nuclear reactor, guaranteed to help you get lucky and make your ex jealous - if you're not a total iDiot. Did I miss anything?


This article originally appeared on ClickZ and is used with permission


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