Mastering The Art of Brevity: TipsTo Write Subject Lines For A Goldfish

  • Ishan Bhattacharya

So, as a good marketer, you have left no stones unturned to hire the perfect hands to ensure your business delivers great content for your clients.

Your content team’s passion for the English language and their willingness to “give up a pound of flesh” to write engaging stories, articles and blogs have further fueled your expectations.

But then all hell breaks once you translate those pieces of content, that you yourself loved, into numbers. When we say numbers we mean click rates.

Think of this: You send a newsletter consisting of two stories to an 800 strong database. But much to your surprise, you managed to secure only one or two readers. As a result, your faith in your content team goes out of the window and the content team is left devastated. And this is not just a day’s occurrence, it’s a vicious circle.

But this entire email marketing game is not as simple as it looks. The chances of your target audience reading a story greatly depend on a subject line. Yes, a subject line whose lifespan stretches no longer than ten to twelve words! And those little words are heavily burdened with the expectation of triggering an instant reaction in the guise of a click.    

Call it unfortunate or unlucky, but that’s the reality and we marketers have to deal with it. But the art of engaging readers with short content is not new. It’s been there for decades but thanks to technology and paucity of space it has only become tougher.

Remember Shakespeare? Not in person obviously! But as a legend who shaped the English language. A major reason behind scholars still studying his work is his sonnets, in other words, poems that concluded within fourteen lines (and also because of to whom he dedicated those sonnets to, but that’s a different story). And back in the 1600s, when most renowned poets were penning down pages after pages to convey their imagination, a crisp sonnet was groundbreaking creativity. Conveying emotions of love, helplessness and self-loathing in fourteen lines is no joke. And not only was it innovative but extremely successful as well.

Humans Are Worse Than A Goldfish

The question is why has been brevity selling for so long? Here’s one way to look at it. Joseph McCormack, in his book Brief says that by ensuring brevity, one will mostly get to the point right away and that’s crucial when it comes to grabbing the attention of readers or customers.

In today’s context there’s another (embarrassing) reason behind the popularity of short content. Our attention span is less than that of a goldfish! The average attention span of clueless goldfish is nine seconds, and according to a Microsoft research people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds. This also highlights the increasing effect of digitization in our lives.

Researchers in Canada surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (or about when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds. Going ahead, it will only shrink.

So, now that we have established the importance of brevity let’s dive into the two ways how we feel you can pen down a crisp yet impactful subject line.

Challenge Your Audience

Prometheus, a prominent Greek legend, had the courage to steal fire from mighty Zeus and give it to mankind, and we marketers are still shying away from challenging customers!  

It’s time we start challenging a C-level executives’ capability to bring change, take risks and to become savvier.

If you are selling a security solution using an email marketing campaign, do not use a subject line that says,”Five easy ways to secure your business,” the reader does not care. Instead try saying,”Five ways your security strategy is an inevitable failure.” Subject lines like this have ballooned our click rates to 12 percent.

Instill Fear

Does fear-based marketing work? Oh yes, it does! It’s lonely at the top–is perhaps one of those few phrases that resonate very well with C-level executives. And fear (we are not talking about possessed dolls and poltergeists) is a major component of loneliness.

According to a professor of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, Lea Dunn, people who experience some sort of loneliness, are uncannily attached to brands they interact with while afraid.

There’s more to this. Dunn explains that when people are afraid they seek human attention. And in absence of that, they are more likely to fall for brands. Hence, it’s a great opportunity for brands to connect with customers.

Think of this. Lee is a CIO of a reputed firm. But owing to uncertain financial conditions, his CEO has asked him to cut down IT expenses. Now, Lee knows that for the past few years his expenses on cloud computing has doubled. But Lee is helpless, as he has no clue about the number of clouds his firm has been using.

One morning, on opening his mail he finds a message with the following subject line–Your Cloud Expenses Will Eat Your Job? A CMP Can Save You.” It’s a nail in the coffin.

Sure, the timeliness here is exaggerated, but possible if you are targeting a large set of audience.

If you have come across more such subject lines, do share with us in the comment section.

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October 28, 2017


Brevity is important for sub-headings as well, as many people only read those.