How believable are these statements about sales email subject lines?

          - This cold email subject line earns a 34% open rate for a B2B software company: "[first name], quick call
             next Tuesday?"
          - This subject line earns a 42% open rate: "Time to meet?"

If you've sent any cold email lately, you're probably laughing, or rolling eyes. These are two of the worst performing subject lines these days. I say this based on my personal experience sending cold email... but also it's my wider experience coaching B2B sales reps and business owners.

Yet these claims are being made by a sales email automation software provider. In fact, these particular subject line claims come from a respected, growing software-as-a-service (SaaS) company who is publishing a guidebook of subject line advice.

So are these subject line claims fact or fiction?

Might there be a fox in the hen house? Might this advice be misguided? Yes and yes. Make sure you find it before all your chickens (AKA your cold email outreach efforts) are dead.

Whose sales email subject line advice are you taking?

Where do you/your reps turn for sales email subject line advice and best practices?

How are you educating sales reps (or how are they educating themselves) on email subject lines?

Who do you trust with the email writing portion of your sales prospecting strategy?

Googling templates to just copy and paste as an email can be dangerous. You won't find a better-than-average way to start email conversations via Google. Because Almighty G is everyone's top go-to source for subject line short-cuts.

Most demand generation, marketing, sales enablement pros and reps are turning to software vendors who claim to have a large amount of communication expertise. Yet 95% of folks I meet experience a complete lack of success when using these tips.

Here's why: The tips and advice are garbage. There's no other way to put it, and I won't single-out any one provider, but it is happening more and more frequently.

Yes, I admit, it seems logical ... turning to vendors who provide sales email automation tools. But most organizations fail to realize: trusting software vendors almost guarantees sellers going to market with sub-par email subject lines and messages.

In fact, it guarantees:

  • sending them to battle with messages competitors are using
  • encouraging reps to form self-defeating communication habits

You cannot afford to invest in this kind of advice. It's free, but it's not serving your best interest. It threatens you/your team.

The truth about your software vendor's subject lines

Software companies are not communication experts. Period.

Sales automation and engagement software providers aren't evil. I get that. Many of these tools are actually quite handy. But setting email strategy based on advice from software providers is dangerous and foolish.

Because they are not communication experts.

They are tool experts whose clients need communication expertise in order to be able to use the tools.

It's easy (for SaaS providers) to provide communication advice that won't hurt clients, but it won't help them either. Investing in quality communication expertise for software companies is not part of the SaaS business model. Even LinkedIn has invested in communication expertise to support its larger Sales Navigator clients, investing upwards of $200,000 annually.

Yet many of these sales teams end up knocking on my door, asking for help with communication technique. They often recognize LinkedIn's communication tips aren't on par and, in fact, are being handed out to competitors.

Relying on software vendors ensures zero competitive edge. Your tool is great. But your tactics are outdated.

Flawed logic and secret formulas

Here are just a few examples of what sales automation software providers are telling prospects and customers who use their tools. They go as far as claiming to have "secret formulas."

Catchy, compelling email subject lines will vastly increase your email open rates and engage prospects.

This is simply not true. Catchy fails terribly.

In practice, attempts to compel also fail miserably. Readers are numb to catchy and tend to see right through such attempts. They are also spotting anyone who tries to compel them into opening. Catchy and compelling just don't work. This kind of advice is clearly coming from a marketer, rather than a salesperson--even though they're selling the "solution" to salespeople.

But...they SHOULD have tension in them (provoking curiosity).

You need to spark curiosity without trying to be catchy and cute.

People reading their emails ignore anything that looks spammy or attempts at looking catchy and cute. They are more likely, however, to open emails that provoke tension and make them question:

  • what you want
  • how you can help them
  • how big their problem that you can solve actually is

Effective email subject lines are direct, straight to the point and crystal clear.

Wrong again. Cold email arrives without context.

Prospects have not opted-in to receive it. The more specific your subject is about the message contents (and your goal as a seller), the lower the open and response rates. From your target's perspective, they don't need to open when the subject indicates, "this is a cold email about a subject that 15 sellers per day email me about to sell to me."

They delete, without hesitation.

Add a little mystery in your subject lines.

Don't be too specific with your subject lines (Seriously, why would they open it if they already know what you want?), but also don't be too vague.

What does that even mean? Good question. You don't want subject lines to be catchy and vague (Ex. "Is your firm being trampled by hippos?"), because people see right through it--and also have zero reason to open that email. However, adding just a little bit of information with enough vagueness to provoke curiosity...that's the sweet spot. It's important to remember that subject lines must be tailored to the content of the email and cannot be cookie cutter...because that's how spam filters and spammy emails are detected. That's why it's important to know the science behind what makes a good subject line BEFORE you jump in and try to make them yourself.

Performing email subject lines are personal and directly reference the company or the prospect's name.

While this is true in a minority of cases it is a disingenuous statement.

Truth is, this is an old marketing ploy that also fails to work in most B2B contexts. As time progresses, this tactic is trending negative. Using a database merge from your list into the subject line is, actually, a tell-tale sign of spam for both humans and machines. Prospects and spam guard tools easily find and mark these subject lines as spam. Again, this doesn't happen in all cases, but it's happening increasingly across B2B.

Instead, just keep them short.

Subject lines should be about 2-3 words in length.

Seriously. That's it. A lot of salespeople try to cram as much information or as many catchy phrases into their subject lines as possible, thinking the more transparent they are with a prospect, the more likely that prospect will trust them. The problem is, you're not the only one thinking that. Plus, you want a prospect to be able to glance at your subject line and instantly be curious. After all, it's pointless if you have a bunch of information in your subject line but don't get them to open the email for your discussion provocation, right?

Sales and marketing subject lines are different

In most cases, marketing staff write B2B email messages for reps to apply. And/or reps turn to marketing materials, cut-and-paste them into emails and press send.

Bad idea!

Marketing is creeping into sales emails, and it's not helping. For example, calls to action. We are told:

Good sales email subject lines include a call to action.

Calls-to-action are inherently marketing-oriented. If you want your B2B sales prospecting email to get opened, and read, do not include a call to action. Using a call to action in the subject line of your sales email is a tired marketing concept, not appropriate for sales.

"RE:" and "FWD:" are powerful when used appropriately.

In other words, tricking your target prospect (into believing your cold email is, actually, part of an ongoing conversation) is good practice, "when used appropriately."

Is there ever a time to trick your prospect into believing your communication is part of something it is not? Only a marketing person could suggest this filthy tactic.

Do yourself a favor: Don't use this subject line technique. I know many people who do (and are successful at starting conversations through trickery) but be careful of the negative repercussions, including forming habits that will ultimately sabotage good communication habits. Use your precious time to start honest dialogues with prospects. Don't insult their intelligence.

"[first name], quick call next Tuesday?" is effective at earning opens because prospects like to see their name & appreciate yes/no emails.

Truth is, in a B2B context this stopped working for 90% of us about 10 years ago. Most B2B decision-makers receive dozens of pre-mature, cold meeting requests per day. Some receive over 100 per day. If you'd like to signal, "One of the steady stream of sales reps asking for your time to sell you something," feel free to use this subject line and subscribe to this outdated logic.

Remember: You won't find a superior (let alone effective) way to start conversations by copying everyone else, based on what you found on Google. Avoid turning to software vendors claiming communication expertise.

Otherwise, what has your experience been?

In 1999, I co-founded what became the Google Affiliate Network and Performics Inc. where I helped secure 2 rounds of funding and built the sales team. I've been selling for over 2 decades.

After this stint, I returned to what was then Molander & Associates Inc. In recent years we re-branded to Communications Edge Inc., a member-driven laboratory of sorts. We study, invent and test better ways to communicate -- specializing in serving sales and marketing professionals.

I'm a coach and creator of the Spark Selling™ communication methodology—a curiosity-driven way to start and advance conversations. When I'm not working you'll find me hiking, fishing, gardening and investing time in my family.

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