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Ken Magill

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Length Shmength: Just Write What Works


By Ken Magill

I can’t for the life of me think of a more useless debate than the one being had in email marketing circles about subject-line length.

A lot of people for whom I have a great deal of respect are taking part in it.

So why am I wasting time with it? Because as a professional copywriter with decades of experience behind me, I feel the pain of all the copywriters out there who have to endure such discussions with their non-writer peers and supervisors.

Side note: To all you non-writers who trivialize our painstakingly honed craft by telling us about some gimmick you read about that we should incorporate into our work, we’re not listening. We’re fantasizing about grabbing the nearest blunt object and hurling it at you.

First, I believe the old direct-marketing 40/40/20 rule—40 percent of a pitch’s success is determined by the offer, 40 percent by the list and 20 percent by the creative—still holds.

I had this concept indelibly seared into my brain in the early nineties as a copywriter for a four-title business-to-business cataloger.

My apologies to everyone who has heard this story before. I use it often.

I was arguing with the CEO about some copy point and he said: “Word Man?” He called me Word Man. “Have you ever heard of the 40/40/20 rule?”

I said I hadn’t, so he explained it to me.

“You know what that means Word Man?”

I said: “No.”

He said: “That means if I hit you with the right offer, I can present it to you written in crayon on toilet paper and I still have an 80 percent chance of getting you to bite. What do you think that says about your copy?”

I was eventually fired from that job. Go figure.

No matter what some studies seem to indicate, common sense says subject-line length has no bearing on an individual offer’s success. Subject line wording certainly does. But not length.

The subject line’s success is determined by whether or not the recipient sees value in the offer and how well the subject line communicates it.

An example of the perfect subject line—for me, at least—would be: “Free Beer”

See that? Simple. Elegant. To the point. Nine characters. And most important of all, valuable. To me, those are the two most powerful selling words in the English language. Want to add the other most powerful selling word in the English language? Okay. “Free Beer for You.”

And, yes, you could present that offer to me written in crayon on toilet paper and you’d have a 100 percent chance of getting me to bite.

The biggest problem with paying attention to subject-line length is it distracts from communicating the offer. It puts the writer’s brain somewhere it should not be.

“Ooh, that sounds good. Oh, but it’s too short.”

Studies purporting to draw a correlation between subject line length and opens and clicks fail to take into account the most important elements of the campaigns they’re studying.

Among the more troubling aspects of subject-line-length studies is there’s no control variable to test against. It’s one thing to test “half off” against “50 percent off” or “buy one, get one free” in a campaign all sent on the same day.

It’s quite another to aggregate a bunch of results that have no relation to one another other than that they are all subject lines. Even if we were to perform a perfectly controlled test on two subject lines of differing length, the different lengths would by definition mean they said different things.

It isn’t the length that sells. It’s the words.

A subject line should be just long enough to convey the proper amount of information to get the recipient curious enough to open the message.

Most importantly, though, an effective subject line requires a valuable offer as its foundation.

If the offer is solid, the subject line should practically write itself.

If the offer’s a pig, no amount of wordsmithing or character-count rejiggering on the subject line will make it a swan.

Author’s note: My apologies to any pigs who were offended. I know. I know. You’re the smartest animals in the barnyard and swans are really stupid—bird-brained, in fact.


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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Stephanie Miller
Date: 2012-10-10 11:45:19
Subject: Bravo

Well said, as usual, Ken. I hate it when the conversation gets away from the true point of marketing - connecting people with things they love. Words do matter when you are trying to communicate.
Posted by: Nancy Arter
Date: 2012-10-09 15:56:14
Subject: My Neighbor has a Tea Cup Pig Who is totally offended!

Great article as usual! You're right -- the subject line will write itself based upon the strength of the offer. And I'm glad that you no longer work for the short-sighted fellow who referred to you as "Word Man." I can think of a few choice titles for him, too. : )