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'From' hell

November 11, 2012
We get a lot of junk email, don't we? Most of us just ignore it or trash it and get on with our lives. But when something arrives from a big media company -- especially a big media company with many digital divisions -- and proves comically inept at getting attention, I can't help but pay attention.

Consider this one, which showed up Sunday:


What's the most prominent element in this iPhone screenshot?

If you said "'From' field," good job. Isn't that the primary determinant of whether you open an email? If it's from a relative, a close friend or a coworker, aren't you more likely to open it than if it comes from someone you don't know? If it comes from a person or company you don't know, aren't you more likely to ignore it or trash it?

I've written before about the importance of a strong subject line, but a crappy "From" field can defuse even the most effective subject line.*

With the understanding that all this unfolds unconsciously in less than a second for most consumers, let's take a close look at that "From" field:

Word No. 1: Name of corporate entity (obscured here as a courtesy, so grateful am I to have this specimen for analysis). OK so far. The name carries brand equity; it's recognizable as an organization with which subscribers probably have some affinity.

Word No. 2: "Local." Not bad, but far from compelling. Don't we expect most of the email we receive to be "local" -- relevant when and where we receive it? "Local" is a waste of precious space in your "From" field -- the most prominent and determinative element in your email. Imagine a "From" field that said "Email relevant to you."

Word No. 3. "Circulars." Here's where it goes off the rails. This is an old word, dating to the 19th Century, hardly used today and widely unrecognizable to the smartphone generation. My quick survey of graduate students in journalism finds the vast majority have no idea what it means. It's almost as Onion-parody bad as a "From" field like "Your Electronic Rotogravure."

You can be sure that, within a second, the overwhelming majority of recipients have already decided to skip this or send it to the trash, either because they know what "circulars" means or because they don't. But let's give it the benefit of the doubt and assume "circulars" is mysterious enough to nudge someone's eyeballs to the subject line.


"Check out": Long way of saying "open," or "get." But, like "local," this is a "duh" phrase. If you give me a reason to open my email, you don't have to waste precious characters telling me to open it. And note that, especially on a smartphone screen, you're running out of characters quickly.

"This week's": Would you send me LAST week's? Or, since you're trafficking in "circulars," maybe you'd share something from the 19th Century? And those characters left dwindle to a precious few.

"Unbeatable": The final E is missing -- we're out of space -- but the meaning is clear. Finally, a subject-line word that carries great promise, that indicates this could be the email I've been awaiting all my life. Something invincible, unconquerable -- something unexcelled and unsurpassable.

What could it be?

The ellipsis draws me in. I tap to learn how I'll finally achieve the triumph my miserable existence has so long denied me.


Oh.

Discounts.

Now the meaning of that antiquated word "circular" becomes clear: Newspaper ads.


And what are these "unbeatable" discounts? The're the same ads I plowed through in the morning newspaper. The same ads I found mostly irrelevant and not at all "unbeatable," because in fact a quick check of one circular's top item -- a monitor at CompUSA -- finds it available at newegg.com for the same price, with free shipping but minus the local sales tax.

So, there. I beat an "unbeatable discount." My dreams of invincibility have been exploded like that monitor in the 1984 Apple ad.

Pretty much like the odds I'll ever open another email like this.

What have we learned?

1. Don't waste your "From" field. Especially not on words few people understand.
2. Make your subject line count. Get the most interesting words first, before the ellipsis cuts them off.
3. Don't make promises you don't fulfill. When you offer but fail to deliver the "unbeatable," for instance, you increase the odds your next email will beat a path directly into the Trash folder.

How would you have improved this email's "From" field and subject line? How would you make this service relevant to a time-pressed audience inclined to find reasons not to open email? Comment below.

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* My friend and former colleague Paul Muth once speculated the most clickable headline in the world would be "Someone You Know Has Died." I've come over the years to believe that'd be trumped by "Someone You Know Has Died While Having Sex."