envelopeEmail, as a healthcare marketing tool, has a lot going for it. It’s inexpensive. It’s fast. And it can be highly effective. Email also has a lot of things working against it. It’s easily ignored. It can be filtered as spam. And it just might not communicate at all.

Arguably, the most important part of any email message is the subject line. It can be a single email message or an opt-in, and vitally important message for many recipients. It can be business or it can be personal. The subject line often determines if it will be opened, ignored or deleted.

Unfortunately, the humble subject line—the golden key to an effective message—is often neglected…perhaps it’s written in haste, maybe it’s poorly constructed, or perhaps it’s forgotten entirely.

Although there’s no magic formula to writing the perfect healthcare email subject line—and frankly, it’s not easy—here are some useful guidelines to demand respect and attention (and not get tagged as spam):

  • The ultimate writing challenge is to get it right in (about) 50 characters. Email subject lines have the dual duty of (a) capturing attention and interest, and (b) communicating a meaningful and concise message in only a few words. It’s tough. About 50 characters or less is the general guideline, but the acid test is to effectively and efficiently communicate briefly.
  • The subject line is the first thing and the last thing to write. Writing the subject line first (at least a tentative one) can be an effective technique to crystallize the main idea before writing the email message itself. It helps the writer stay on point and focused. With the final draft completed, re-read the subject line. If the subject line and the content don’t say the same thing, re-write one or the other. (Maybe both.)
  • Tell, don’t sell in the subject space. An obvious red flag for most email recipients is the subject line that makes noise without substance (“Wow!!!” “Look at this!” “Don’t miss this sensational offer.”), or even a clue as to what the message holds. Use the subject line to identify…uh, the subject or topic. Provide the recipient with a preview or distilled idea of the content to follow. Noisy subject lines are not only bad form, but—if they get past the spam filters—they are quickly deleted.
  • Be relevant and important with a dash of urgent. This is where spending your 50-character allowance can be a shoot-out between “effective” and “efficient.” Using a carefully selected keyword in the subject line links the reader with “what’s-in-it-for-them.” One or two words can convince them that it is pertinent or appropriate. “Importance” means it is worth their time and prompt attention, especially when there is an element of urgency (or at least timeliness) in the subject line.
  • Personalize, customize or tailor. A corollary to the “relevant” tip is to individualize the subject line when possible. A reader’s attention is naturally drawn to seeing their own name in print, and that’s a useful technique for one-at-a-time messages. When sending essentially the same message to multiple recipients, consider variations in the subject line that has greater specificity, such as sub-groups within the global list. (They may all be “doctors,” but some are “physicians” and some are “surgeons.”)
  • Understand and avoid spam trigger words. At several checkpoints between your “send” and their “inbox,” machines and algorithms “read” email to detect and derail unwanted spam messages. But it’s not a perfect system and even legitimate messages—a single email or multiple emails—can hit a digital detour and become deliberately lost in cyber space.

Words such as “free,” “money,” “win,” “deal,” and may be obvious, but one nearly exhaustive list of spam trigger words is miles long. (For future reference, it’s posted here.) MailChimp, the curiously named professional email service also cautions that using three innocuous words — Help, Percent Off, and Reminder — may not trigger spam filers, but seriously cut down on email open rates and readership.

    • A one-word subject line never says anything. Yes, a single word would be brief, but there’s no compelling reason to open and read. What’s worse, with too little information (none), there’s a compelling reason for email recipients to suspect spam or a virus-laden message.

A few additional DO and DON’T reminders:

        • Do have a single subject (if at all possible), and stick to it.
        • Do send a sample to yourself (and selected others) first to see how it reads.
        • Do testing before rollout and tracking during rollout.
        • Don’t leave the subject line empty. (It will seldom be opened, and lost forever.)
        • Don’t use ALL CAPS or multiple exclamation points!!! (Or any exclamation points.)
        • Don’t use multiple and mismatched fonts and colors.

An outstanding subject line is a make-it-or-break-it element, and—in 50 characters or less—it’s a mighty tough assignment. As someone once observed, “If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought.”

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Stewart Gandolf

Stewart Gandolf

Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at Healthcare Success Strategies
Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is CEO of Healthcare Success, a medical marketing and health care advertising agency. He is also a frequent writer and speaker. Most importantly, he is happily married and a "rock-n-roll daddy" to two wonderful girls.
Stewart Gandolf
Stewart Gandolf


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