Are you insulting readers? Subject line lessons from Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail
It’s hard to imagine there’s much new to say about subject lines, yet most of us fall into two traps once we’ve settled on a particular approach.
Our first mistake is to assume all that matters is how the subject line looks in the inbox.
Our second mistake is the tendency to assess each potential subject line in its entirety, irrespective of how long it is. Which can lead to some accidental embarassment…
Inboxes are not everything
The main purpose of your subject line is to get attention and encourage the reader to explore further…starting the chain of events that leads to (hopefully) some desired response, like a sale or download.
Its big chance is in the inbox, where people are reviewing subject lines to see what to delete, read now or read later. That’s what all that subject line advice focuses on.
But the subject line’s impact does not stop there.
Here’s my Yahoo inbox:
Just some 27 characters on display. Not a lot of point in sending Yahoo addresses nice, long subject lines. But wait…
See what comes up in the preview pane:
The subject line becomes a big font, bold headline for the email content, with about 104 characters on display.
So while the inbox impact remains paramount, shouldn’t we also think about how the subject line works as the headline to the email content itself?
Similar things happen at Windows Live Hotmail and Gmail. Here’s my Hotmail inbox when using a right-hand preview pane:
Again, not much subject line to play with. Here’s how it looks in the preview pane:
Boom! The subject line again becomes a big headline title for the email content. Gmail does the same when you open an email.
Subject line display length is a spectrum
Now let’s talk about length.
Here we fall into the trap of thinking in very broad terms…short and long…<50 characters, >50 characters…etc.
Truth is that mobile devices, desktop email clients and webmail services are showing subject lines across a whole spectrum of display lengths.
So shouldn’t we consider how our subject line looks when only the first few characters are displayed, when everything is displayed and at all display lengths in between.
Look at this Gmail inbox:
See how word length and word number affects how many characters are displayed. Three subject lines in the same inbox, but one shows the first 87 characters, one the first 80, and one the first 76…
Remember my Hotmail inbox with just 25 characters on display? If I turn off the preview pane function, the inbox looks like this…with some 80 characters on display:
All sorts of actions influence the displayed length. Yahoo users can manually adjust the size of the subject line field in their inbox. Gmail subscribers can set up filters to add labels automatically to incoming emails: if the labels are big enough, they shunt your subject line off the available space:
And we haven’t begun to talk about mobile and desktop email clients.
Now if we have a long subject line, you certainly can’t optimize for every available display space out there. But you can review the spectrum of possibilities and make changes if anything odd displays that might leave a bad impression on subscribers.
Here’s a simple Excel spreadsheet you can download that lets you enter your subject line once and it will show you how it looks at any length between 10 and 125 characters.
Let’s take some innocuous subject lines and run them through the tool:
1. “Get 20% off all Arsenal gear + lots of offers on summer leisure fashion”
20 characters: “Get 20% off all Arse”
44 characters: “Get 20% off all Arsenal gear + lots of offer”
We can’t do much about the first, but “lots of offer” looks like a typo to the casual reader. If we wrote “top offers” instead, then it would still work when the s in offers is truncated by the recipient’s client:
“Get 20% off all Arsenal gear + top offer”
2. “(Gardening News) Ten tips for a better fuchsia display”
35 characters: “(Gardening News) Ten tips for a bet”
42 characters: “(Gardening News) Ten tips for a better fuc”
The examples are extreme, but you see the point.
Now of course our copywriting emphasis is always going to be on the inbox and the power of words to drive interest and action.
But let’s reserve a corner of our email minds for the role of subject line as webmail title and the impacts of truncation on subject line design…
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