For every email you send, the subject line is one of the first points of contact with your subscribers. If it doesn’t catch your subscribers’ attention, then the chances of them opening your campaign are slim.
With subject lines playing such a crucial role for the success of each email, it’s no surprise that email marketers put significant time and effort into crafting the perfect subject line. They are also the most routinely tested email element, according to our research. 79% of marketers say they regularly A/B test their subject lines.
But sometimes, marketers take it a step too far. Rather than earn their subscribers’ attention with a subject line that connects with their needs, emotions, or aspirations, too often, we see brands using deceptive subject lines to trick their subscribers into opening. This approach not only damages your subscribers’ trust and hurts your brand image, but also violates anti-spam laws.
Read on for real-world examples from our inboxes that sent shivers down our spines.
What’s a misleading subject line?
Joint research between Litmus and Fluent showed that the majority of consumers have felt cheated, tricked, or deceived into opening a promotional email by that email’s subject line.
If a subject line says the subscriber has won a prize that doesn’t exist or teases a sale that simply isn’t there, it’s easy to tell that this subject line is misleading.
In other cases, however, it might not be so easy. There is a fine line between creativity and deception, and it isn’t always easy to tell the two apart. Here are 4 ways that subject lines can be deceiving:
1. Deceptive about Who the Email Is From
Subject line and header information should give subscribers a clear idea of who is sending the email. If a subject line aims at hiding the sender’s identity or deliberately leads subscribers to believe that the message is coming from someone other than the actual sender, it’s a strong indicator for a deceptive subject line.
Let’s take this subject line, for example:
“Did I leave my jacket at your place?”
Who could have left their jacket at your place? This email must come from a friend or a relative who’s been to your house recently, one would think. However, this isn’t the case:
There’s no doubt: The sender deliberately pretends that the email is coming from a person you know, and takes advantage of the subscriber’s goodwill (who doesn’t want to help a friend who forgot something at your place?) to trick subscribers into opening the email.
There’s this example, too:
The sender has set their from-name for this email to literally “me, Jason (2)” in an attempt to trick the recipient into believing this is an ongoing conversation thread between you and this Jason person—and even sweetens the deal by using the subject line “an urgent request.” You’ll probably open this just in case it actually is important, but at what cost? This sender just wanted you to see whatever they had to offer, but instead you’re probably going to mark them as spam—or at the very least, unsubscribe.
2. Deceptive About Previous Email Exchanges
Another questionable tactic of implying a personal relationship is the use of FWD: and RE: in subject lines.
Making an email appear like it was being forwarded or part of an ongoing conversation thread hides the commercial nature of the message and makes an email look like it was coming from a trusted source—a colleague or a friend, for example.
Here’s an example from my inbox:
“RE: CURRENTLY IN OFFICE”
Doesn’t this look like it’s part of an ongoing email conversation? It even appears to be a work-related conversation, and since it’s written in caps, it also implies that something urgent is going on, which might require immediate attention.
Did I open it? I sure did, but only to find out it was an email from a clothing brand, promoting their newest line of business outfits.
Making subscribers believe a message is coming from someone you have already emailed will likely lead to higher open rates—driven by people like me, who think there’s an important message from a colleague in their inbox. If the brand only considers opens, they might call this campaign a success. But in reality, it might not be; at least if there are more subscribers like me: I was frustrated with this trick, hit unsubscribe, and forever banned this brand from my inbox.
The email community recently noticed a new trend of fake support ticket subject lines, as well. Not only might there be a fake ticket number listed in the subject line—making you think, “Did I open a support ticket with this business? I can’t remember for sure, let’s find out”—but this example is also combined with a RE: in the beginning, once again suggesting an ongoing conversation.
But when you open that email, there’s no support ticket, but a marketing email inside for a deal you probably weren’t asking for.
Really, really not cool.
3. Deceptive about Urgency of the Message
Another strong indicator of a misleading subject line is if it creates a false impression of urgency or emergency.
This email from a domain hosting company, for example, suggests that there’s something wrong with my account information.
“Urgent – Update your information”
Payment issues, authentication problems, or security concerns—in light of all the data breaches, one can think of many urgent situations that would require me to take action immediately. A subscriber would want to open the email immediately to see what issue is occurring.
The body of the email, however, makes it clear that none of these concerns were justified. The message only suggested me to connect my account to other platforms to improve my search engine ranking. While those activities might help improve my performance, there’s nothing urgent about it at all.
The brand could have used the subject line to promote the benefits of connecting accounts or to point out that there are ways for me to boost my search engine performance. Instead, the subject line creates a false sense of urgency and builds on a feeling of discomfort to trick subscribers into the open.
4. Deceptive about Action Taken by the Subscriber
Transactional emails—and order confirmation emails in particular—have significantly higher open rates than bulk emails. So it’s no surprise that making a marketing message look like a transactional email is a strategy we, unfortunately, see quite often.
Here are three examples from our inboxes:
“Your Reservation Confirmation”
In contrast to what the subject line suggests, this wasn’t a transactional email, and there also was no reservation that required confirmation. It was a promotional email from a jewelry brand advertising their necklaces:
The next email was coming from an online clothing retailer:
“About your order”
What looks like an order confirmation in the subject line really was a cart abandonment email, reminding the subscriber about items that were added to the shopping cart, but haven’t been bought yet.
Put yourself into the subscribers’ shoes: What do your subscribers think if they receive a confirmation for a transaction that they haven’t initiated? They’ll likely think a mistake has happened, they’ve purchased something by accident or, even worse, someone might have gotten access to their customer account or credit card information. In any case, they aren’t opening the email because they’re interested in the brand’s marketing message—they’re opening because they are alarmed.
Let’s look at another example:
“Thanks for your order!”
Clearly, this subject line implies that a purchase has taken place, even though this wasn’t the case. It was part of a furniture retailer’s April Fools campaign—a campaign where the brand sent their subscribers a ‘receipt from the future,’ promoting a current sale. Here’s how the body of the email looked like:
What was thought to be a funny and creative campaign left many subscribers unamused, as we saw on twitter:
Did the brand’s subscribers find the email funny and entertaining? I’m pretty sure some people did. To other subscribers, however, the email caused anxiety and stress—all feelings you don’t want your subscribers to associate with your brand.
All these subject lines surely generated higher-than-average open rates. But they also surely generated higher-than-average unsubscribe rates and spam complaint rates from angry subscribers, in addition to damaging customer relationships with these brands.
Setting the Right Expectations
Brands that use deceptive subject lines to trick subscribers into an open often forget that a subject line is much more than just a tool that gets your message opened. An effective subject line also serves as a teaser, giving your subscribers a snapshot of what to expect when opening the message. It not only makes your subscribers open the email, but also helps to set the direction for your subscriber’s journey toward your call-to-action.
Building campaigns only around the goal of increasing open rates comes at the expense of other, much more important metrics: Will subscribers engage with a message if they feel cheated? Will they click through and buy from a brand that tricks them into the open? Most likely, they won’t.
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Tricking your subscribers into opening your email causes a mismatch of expectation and actual experience, and this won’t pay off in the long-term. Deceptive subject lines might help increase open rates, but they’ll also leave subscribers frustrated and disappointed. This, in turn, can cause higher unsubscribe rates, higher spam reporting, and lower click-through rates—and most importantly, might destroy subscribers’ trust in your brand.
Instead, earn the open—with respectful and relevant messages that are worthy of your subscribers’ time.
Misleading Subject Lines Are Against the Law
The prospect of disappointed and frustrated subscribers should already be reason enough for marketers to stay away from deceptive subject lines. But there’s more: In many countries, using misleading subject lines also violates the law.
In the US, for example, the CAN-SPAM Act explicitly prohibits the use of deceptive subject headings:
“It is unlawful for any person to initiate the transmission to a protected computer of a commercial electronic mail message if such person has actual knowledge, or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances, that a subject heading of the message would be likely to mislead a recipient, acting reasonably under the circumstances, about a material fact regarding the contents or subject matter of the message.”
Similar rules also exist in Germany (Telemedia Act) and Canada (CASL and Competition Act), among others. Avis and Budget Car learned this the hard way in 2015, when Canada’s Competition Bureau slapped the companies with a C$30 million fine for breaking Canadian anti-spam regulation. According to the Bureau, Avis and Budget Car had used misleading information on discounts in the subject line and body text of their promotional emails.
Creative or Misleading? Share Your Examples and Thoughts with the Community
Do you have more examples of subject lines that cross the line from creative to deceptive? Share them with the Community, chime in as we discuss examples, and help us and fellow email marketers to learn from each other.
Bettina Specht was the Senior Content & Lifecycle Campaigns Manager at Litmus