July 25, 2008
How To

Start with Subject-Line Length to Improve Pitches: 8 Dos, 4 Don’ts

SUMMARY: Shorter subject lines get better results in email marketing campaigns. But what about story pitches to journalists, who are barraged with email?

Here is advice from a PR pro who experimented with subject lines to get editors’ attention. Includes tips for getting pitches past spam filters and read by journalists.
Contact Information
Patrick Rafter
President, Rafter Communications


Rafter is president and founder of his own firm, Rafter Communications, which focuses on technology and Internet companies. He started the firm in 2000 after holding executive posts in communications at companies, such as AutoCell, Bluesocket, Expound Inc., Toysmart.com, Schwartz Communications and Media 100, over 25 years.

Write Effective Subject Lines: 3 Tips

Rafter read a blog post about shrinking email subject lines in MarketingSherpa. So, he decided to experiment with subject lines on emails he sends to journalists. The test wasn’t scientific, but Rafter came to a few conclusions about what works and what doesn’t.

->Tip #1. Keep subject lines no longer than four words

Short, short subject lines yield little ROI when pitching to journalists who are generally suspicious of anything that looks too cryptic. They might think it’s spam, even if it’s not, Rafter says. Longer subject lines, on the other hand, don’t stand much of a chance, either; they blend in with the other long subject lines.

To catch a journalist’s attention, you need to “pick four words that tell your story and make it relevant to the person who is reading it,” Rafter says. Five words work too, but four is better because it’s long enough to get an idea across but short enough to stand out among longer subject lines.

->Tip #2. Say something not said often

Rafter had the most success with catchy subject lines, such as “Greener Way to Gather” for a virtual trade show event. But he also found success with subject lines, such as “Trade Shows are a Waste.”

Say something that’s not said very often. It piques journalists’ interests, he says.

->Tip #3. Try name dropping

Try name dropping in subject lines. For instance, “McCain and Obama agree” as a subject line for a pitch about an energy event with both of their energy advisors in attendance worked well.

So did “Dolly Parton Social Security” for a pitch about a Rafter client, RetirmentJobs.com.

NOTE: It was extremely difficult for Rafter to scientifically test, measure, and track the success of one subject line or format versus another because of his belief in customizing each pitch to each journalist. He says he wishes there were a way to quantify.

Get Past Spam Filters: 4 Don’ts

Attracting attention with shorter subject lines is key. But it’s useless if you can’t get into the inbox. Here are four mistakes that could get your pitch dumped into a junk-mail folder.

->Don’t #1: Sending out mass email press releases

Some spam filters send mass emails straight to the spam folder. But that’s not the only reason it isn’t a good idea, says Rafter. Mass emailing can fill journalists’ inboxes with irrelevant items and hurt a PR pro’s credibility. To get past spam filters, customize pitches and send them out one at a time.

->Don’t #2: Using funky symbols or all caps

Spam filters generally screen out emails with all caps or symbols, such as asterisks or exclamation points in subject lines. Those are the symbols and case choices typically employed by spammers.

->Don’t #3: Sending gif files or animated gifs

Really rich emails typically don’t make it past spam filters, Rafter says.

->Don’t #4: Attaching press releases

Attachments trigger some filters to mark emails as spam. Rafter suggests using hyperlinks in the body copy to guide journalists to press releases. Journalists will look at it if they’re interested, he says.

Get Read by Journalists: 5 Tips

OK, you’ve dodged the spam filter and caught the attention of a journalist with a shortish subject line. The next hurdle is getting them to read your pitch. Here are five things that work for Rafter.

->Tip #1: Get to the point

Briefly introduce yourself. Tell the editor you’ve noticed they’re writing a lot about x, y, or z. Or tell them you enjoyed one of their stories on a topic related to the pitch you’re sending. Then get right to the point of why you’re pitching. Briefly describe what you’re pitching – be it a source, story idea, or yourself as a reference.

->Tip #2. Make it relevant

Do advance research to find out if there are any unique facts or stats that make the story you’re pitching more relevant. Most PR professionals don’t realize that “you’re not just pitching it to the writer,” Rafter says. “You’re essentially enlisting the reporter who has to turn and sell it to their editor.”

Ask yourself these questions about what you’re pitching: Is it newsworthy? Current? Relevant to what a reporter covers? Interesting? Can you guarantee sources who talk on the record?

“If you don’t have that, don’t bother,” he says.

->Tip #3. Don't limit pitches to client promotion

PR pros should recognize that journalists don’t want to write only about a client. That’s why it’s important to link clients to trends and emerging developments. Rafter includes his clients’ competitors or other related companies in pitches to help make journalists’ jobs easier.

->Tip #4. Make sure you pitch to the right person

Rafter uses Cision – formerly Bacon’s Media Database – to find journalists who write on specific topics. The subscription service allows him to type in a topic. It then returns a list of journalists with contact information in spreadsheet format. After getting names and email addresses, Rafter goes to each publication’s website to research stories the journalists have written before pitching.

->Tip #5. Rely on good content, prior relationship

Testing subject lines provided Rafter with useful information. But the content of a pitch and a prior relationship with a journalist really ups the response rate he gets from the 20-plus pitches he sends per day.

Useful links related to this article

Cision, formerly Bacon’s Media Database:

PR Interview: 20 Secrets From ‘Perfecting the Pitch’ Author

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