June 12, 2007
How To

Exclusive: New Research Shows 53% of Email Subject Lines Broken + How to Fix Yours

SUMMARY: The question is so simple that it's scary to ask: are your subject lines broken? Even if you think they're OK, read on, especially if you're in the SMB category and do your own email blasts.

Our friends at Pivotal Veracity passed along an exclusive special report this morning with new data from tests they conducted on 18 ISPs and how subject lines get displayed. The results may surprise you. Plus, solutions to fix the problem.
We’ve all seen subject lines in our inboxes that don’t look right. They typically have bad spacing when it comes to quote marks, apostrophes and dashes. Or they have those little pseudo-glyphy empty squares, bars and funny symbols.

Nothing says spammer or spoofer faster than a suspect-looking subject line. An entire list receiving a mucked-up subject line bodes poorly for your brand reputation and can damage your ability to stay whitelisted with major ESPs.

The problem? A formatting error that’s way too easy to make if you are writing in Microsoft Word and then copying and pasting the subject line into your campaign. For instance, curly apostrophes (or smart quotes), ellipses, dashes and other characters from Word and copyright symbols from any program won’t render the way you want them to.

The issue became so big for Deirdre Baird, President & CEO, Pivotal Veracity LLC, and their clients that they launched an all-out investigation. The result: the special report ‘Speakin’ Mumbo-Jumbo: The Dangers of Copying & Pasting,’ a 17-page PDF that Baird is sharing exclusively with Sherpa readers (see link below).

The only system Baird knows that automatically encodes subject lines properly is when they are transferred from Word to an email sent by -- surprise -- Microsoft Outlook. The rest are essentially a crapshoot.

“Most American marketers do not think about encoding at all,” Baird says. “We put stuff in there, push ‘go’ and assume that all is well. But if your subject line is a garbled mess, the implications today are not that you just won’t get the sale. You can get reported as a spammer and have all your mail at that email provider blocked.”

Two quick takeaways:

- Most emailers still check their messages in only one email reader and, therefore, don’t know a problem exists. If you check your email in AOL, you know what your email looks like and what your customers’ experience will be in AOL, but you have no concept of how it renders in Hotmail, EarthLink, Yahoo!, etc.

- Baird and her team suspects, given the variable nature of email readers, that how the subject line renders may not always match how the body of the message looks. Because of the importance of the subject line in encouraging your customer to either open or discard, the topic of subject line rendering merits further investigation.

Brief Technical Overview
When you type “Dear Friend” into your computer, the computer converts each letter into a language it can understand. The translation between machine language and an alphabet that humans can read happens via ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). ASCII is the intermediary language between computer-based binary (ones and zeros) and Latin characters or glyphs. Computers assume you are using ASCII unless you tell them otherwise.

Why is this important to email marketers? In short, unless you specify an encoding, the receiving computer will assume that your subject line is in ASCII. If it’s not and no encoding has been provided, the computer will display it to the best of its ability, which can be flat-out disastrous (see link below for samples).

Key Stats for Rendering via Specific Receivers (AOL, Cablevision, Yahoo!)
In Pivotal Veracity’s monthlong study, which wrapped up yesterday, Baird and her team found that in a few isolated cases, the subject line rendered properly in the “list view” (what recipient see first in their inbox) but improperly in the “message view” (what they see after they open a specific email) and vice versa. These cases were found at Excite, Mail.com and Verizon.

Overall, the non-ASCII, non-encoded subject line rendered incorrectly in both the list view and message view at 44% of the top-tier ISPs. Some of the notable ones: AOL, Cablevision and EarthLink.

Furthermore, the non-ASCII, encoded version faired just as poorly -- showing up broken in the list view at 41% of the top-tier ISPs and in the message view at 53% of the ISPs.

What You Can Do
The most sure-fire way to avoid broken subject lines is to manually type the copy straight into whatever email deployment software you use, Baird advises. This means: don’t copy and paste! Whether you are using Word, WordPerfect or Lotus Notes, it’s not worth the risk.

However, when it comes to symbols (the copyright symbol ©) or a word in another language (the è in frère), you need to make sure that the IT expert in your marketing team knows exactly how to encode them.

Here are three more tips from Baird:

#1. If your copy is in English, or more specifically, contains only characters in the ASCII character set -- and/or you do not use encoding -- ensure the system you use to actually write your subject line is an ASCII editor.

#2. Keep in mind that the subject line might need to be encoded separately from the body text. If you need to encode your emails and don't see both a subject line and a body encoding option, ask your ESP or email software provider because their solution may have limitations that don’t allow encoding on one or both.

#3. Test, test, test -- in more than one email reader. Open up at least one account with each major email receiver to enable the testing you need.

Useful links related to this article

Pivotal Veracity’s special report Speakin’ Mumb-Jumbo:

Email Sender & Provider Coalition (ESPC) report on consumer behavior toward suspected fraud:

Pivotal Veracity LLC:

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