How’s that for a headline?
If you saw the news out of the Obama camp yesterday, “Hey” was the most successful email subject line of a very data-driven and oddly personal email campaign for fundraising. By all accounts (especially election results), Obama’s digital strategy was a wild success.
So, I decided to try that headline with this post. I’ll be able to easily see how it does based on email open rates and traffic levels, plus other metrics like social sharing and commenting.
I’ll be sure to let you know the results. But let’s add two points of perspective to this presidential headline approach.
Point One: You’re Not Barack Obama
The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw the news was that the “from line” advocates will soon be out in force. These are people who say that all that matters is who an email is from, not what it’s about.
To which I would say, “Of course. Especially if you’re the President of the United States. You know, the most powerful man in the free world.”
You, my friend, are a beautiful and unique snowflake. But you ain’t Barack Obama.
The whole idea of content marketing is to become the likable expert. To become someone who is known, liked, and trusted. You want to earn the right to attention based just on who you are.
The problem I have with those who say the “from line” is more important than the subject line is not necessarily that they’re wrong. It’s because they ignore the path to getting there in the first place.
Before you can rely on people paying attention to you because you are important, you have to become important to them. Unless you’re already well known, that means your headlines and subject lines have to be specifically focused on what’s topically important to your audience.
Here’s why today’s headline might work anyway.
Obama’s subject line was contextually weird. Let’s face it, the President of the United States sending you a message with the subject line “Hey” is unexpected and unique. It might even be a tad creepy, which only increases the inherent urgency to open it.
Likewise, receiving an email or post in your RSS feed from Copyblogger with the subject line “Hey” is also unexpected and unique within the context of what we usually do. It lacks specificity, yet manages to become urgent due to the contextual novelty.
If you really want to bake your noodle, factor in the effect of the article graphic on “click through cues” when readers look for it or see it first in certain digital reading environments. And what about the effect of the opening line in preview?
I’ll leave you to wrestle with those.
Overall, if this post does well, these factors will be why, combined with our own “from line” earned trust. But I still wouldn’t change our headline style, because the exception can only occur in this context because of the rule, not in spite of it.
But wait, there’s more.
Point Two: Specificity Wins Bigger Over Time
Here’s a rough approximation of a recent email exchange between our CFO, Sean Jackson, and me:
Sean: Hey, did you know Quantcast shows that we get more traffic than Seth Godin and Chris Brogan?
Sean: We should tell people!
Me: Sure, let’s alienate our mentor and friend by gloating about traffic.
Sean: Um, never mind.
I’m sharing this with you not to humble brag, but to illustrate a point. Seth and Brogan are consistently pointed to as people who have succeeded despite writing vague, non-specific titles.
Copyblogger.com alone gets more traffic than those two popular online marketing sites because we write intentionally engaging, specific titles to match intentionally engaging content (quality content is what all three sites do). This, despite the fact that we have the youngest website of the three.
Now, traffic in itself means very little if it isn’t driving your business goals forward. For us, maximizing our targeted traffic has allowed us to build an audience that built a software company with over 100,000 customers. This came essentially from nothing but content, and, importantly, the titles we chose for that content.
Well, that and a bunch of brilliant software developers. None of whom would speak to me if I hadn’t built an audience first. But I digress.
Simple A/B testing will show you the power of specificity when getting people to respond. A simpler method for us is to watch a piece of otherwise excellent content tank in open rates and social sharing simply because we missed the mark with the headline.
Plus, search engines need to know what your content is about in order to rank you, no matter how well loved you or the piece of content is. Titles remain a big part of that … not only for ranking, but also for click through rates by the people searching.
Seth is the consummate example of the power of the “from line.” People (including Sonia and me) will read anything Seth writes. He’s the online marketing equivalent of the President of the United States.
Would Seth get even more traffic and engagement if he wrote more specific headlines? Yes.
Chris Brogan and I discuss his headlines just about every time we chat. Best as I can tell, Chris knows he would do even better with better headlines, but it’s just not a priority for him. And Chris has certainly earned his “from line” credibility.
Would Chris get even more traffic and engagement if he wrote more specific headlines? Yes.
Seth and Chris succeed because people know, like, and trust them. Once you’ve gotten that, everything else is only a matter of desire, degree, and direction.
But keep in mind that in each of their own ways, Seth and Chris were early adopters and pioneers. You’re going to have to build your own trust within the context of the now for your particular business.
Does it Matter?
Here’s my ultimate take on the issue from back in 2010:
But if you do gain that initial trust, and more importantly, confirm and grow it, you can write pretty lame subject lines and people will still read your messages.
Maybe you don’t care about maximizing your ultimate reach forever. Maybe your business model doesn’t even require it.
But you’ve got to get off the ground.
The way to do that is to deliver great content that attracts as many of the people you’re after as possible. And headlines that specifically promise to deliver that great value are a great way to make it happen.
Say “hey” in the comments and let me know what you think.