Subject Lines that Click: The 2-2-2 Principle

2 Seconds, First 2 Words, Why Does It Matter Today?

This morning when you opened your email inbox, did you notice that some emails immediately jumped off the page at you, demanding your attention? Maybe there was a message from your boss, something from a coworker or a key customer that needed your assistance, or a newsletter from a store that you love.

Some emails get your immediate attention, while others are flagged for later or go relatively untouched. A compelling subject line can make all the difference.

Most of us just don’t have time to get to every email message. We all live in this reality. We all play the same game of managing our inboxes and flagging emails that we’ll “get to later” — I call this the battle of priorities. We all play it, and as a marketer, you can win that battle.

When someone first gets your email, you have on average three seconds to get them to open it. The first second is spent on the From line, recognizing who sent the message. From there, you have just two more seconds to compel them to open your message with your subject line. That is why I came up the 2-2-2 Principle:

  • You have 2 seconds.
  • The first 2 words matter the most.
  • Answer the question “Why does this matter today?”

How to Write 2-2-2 Subject Lines that Deliver Results

We’ve covered the fact that people spend about two seconds reading an email’s subject line. The other reality is that the first two or three words matter the most because sometimes that is all people read before deciding to open the message now or put it off until later. It’s important to front-load your subject line with the most compelling part of your message. (Note: most mobile devices, like Blackberries and iPhones, can only show 14 characters for the subject line.)

As an example, in my inbox today I received an email from a favorite charity — let’s call it Dallas Helps the Homeless. Their subject line was “March Newsletter.” I also had an email from my boss and one from a customer — those two won the battle of my priorities this morning. I care about the homeless organization very much, but the others compelled me with their subject lines while “March Newsletter” did not.

I might have been more apt to open DHH’s message immediately had their subject line said “Tomorrow: Need 3 Hammers — Can You Help?” The words “Tomorrow: Need” at the beginning of the message answers my question, “Why does this matter today?”

Applying 2-2-2 to Your Subject Lines

Here are four tips you can use to make your subject lines 2-2-2-friendly:

  • If you have multiple topics, highlight the most compelling or time sensitive one in the subject.
  • Use numbers to get attention. For example, “20 Seats Left for Friday,” “Top 10 Tax Tips,” “5 Green Things to Do Today,” “3 Reasons Your Jeans Don’t Fit,” etc. When used to support your content and call to action, numbers can add greatly to your open rate.
  • Create a sense of time sensitivity with terms such as “RSVP,” “Today,” “This Weekend Only,” and words like “few” and “limited” — but stay away from the word “free” in your subject line. (See sidebar)
  • If you’re using email marketing to stay in touch with your customer base but do not have a time sensitive message, try tying your subject to a current event to give your message a relevant angle. “Tax Time, the Stimulus Package, and You” or “Everyone Is Going Green — You Can Too” work better than “Joe’s Pet Store Newsletter,” for example.

2-2-2 in Action

I recently coached the Houston Arboretum on the 2-2-2 Principle, and saw the organization increase its event attendance by 35 percent by changing subject line from “Upcoming Adult Classes” to “Few Spaces Left for Eco-Friendly Wine Class.” The Arboretum enjoyed a similar boost in response rate by changing “Children’s Classes” to “Limited Spaces Available for Children’s Classes.” I also dramatically increased attendance at my own training program by changing my subject line from “Upcoming Classes in Dallas” to “12 Seats Left for Dallas Email Marketing Class.” The 2-2-2 Principle really works!

Remember, you don’t have to be pushing an event to use the 2-2-2 Principle. And you don’t need to use an urgent message every time you send an email. But you must give your audience a reason to put you at the top of their priority list today or other items in their inbox will instead take precedence. If you cannot answer why your email matters today, you should stop and find a way to make it matter.

We’re all busy — sometimes too busy to open and respond to hundreds of emails. If you can find a way to make your subject lines timely and relevant to your customers’ lives, then people will have more reason to open your emails. Keeping the 2-2-2 Principle in mind will help you win that battle of priorities and more people will open your emails.

Spam Filter Triggers to Avoid in Subject Lines

Deliverability is the first step to getting noticed. Find alternatives for the Subject Line No-Nos below to make sure your communications aren’t swept into spam filters.

  • Sale
  • Free
  • Advertisement
  • ££££
  • ALL CAPS
  • Excessive Punctuation

Reprinted with permission from Constant Contact 2009 (www.constantcontact.com)

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