September 11, 20151 Comment

Spend a few minutes reading this post on the subject lines to the Obama 2012 re-election campaign.

Let’s assume with a $1.1bn budget, the campaign can hire the best e-mail marketers in the business.

After hundreds of tests, they determined the highest-converting subject line consisted of just one word.


You can do everything right. You can build relationships, develop activity, determine a great concept, yet still fail because you can’t get your messages read. If you can’t communicate with the people you’re trying to reach, you’re doomed.

Subject lines are very important here.

I’m subscribed to 50+ community newsletters and receive several dozen outreach messages per week. I’d estimate 75% of them use the benefit-laden approach advocated by direct response copywriters.

I associate these approaches with a company that wants my money and highlight the message as spam.

The best subject lines when approaching prospective (or current) members are entirely different from those used by direct-response marketers.

The best subject lines for community professionals are usually human, personal, and provoke the itch of curiosity. They’re from a real person, not a noreply e-mail address. They are structured similar to e-mails I get from real people. They reference something relevant to me. They aim to begin a discussion, not end a discussion.

In the six years of reaching out to prospective b2b community members, the highest converting subject line has been “{their company name} and community”.

It’s human, personal, and relevant in three words, but you can only use it once.

Three quotes from the Obama subject line article stand out:

“The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people,” 

“Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty ‘Donate’ buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, ‘How could we make things even less attractive?’ That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to.”

“Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest,”

These are useful principles for all of us. Use a subject line to begin a discussion. Keep it distinct from any direct marketing e-mails you see. Keep innovating and testing what does/doesn’t work. It’s probably not the benefit-laden subject from a noreply account.

If you want to learn more about the psychology of subject line and optimizing communications with every member, I hope you will come to SPRINT: San Francisco this November.

You can see the speaker line-up here: http://sprint.feverbee.com.


  1. Sarah Hawk says:

    I discovered this useful tool last week. It tracks emails through to different mail providers and reports back on how they deal with them (eg: does Gmail consider that spam/promotional?)

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